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“How Great Thou Art!”: An Athanasian Masterpiece

Note to readers in the NYC area: Our friend and colleague Fr. Gerald Murray will be receiving the Defensor Fidei Award from Scott Hahn and the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, at a dinner in Manhattan Thursday, December 12. Information on tickets available here. The full Papal Posse – Raymond Arroyo and myself – will also be present to honor Fr. Murray and to comment on the current state of the Church. – Robert Royal

Yesterday, on this page, Anthony Esolen criticized the vandals who destroy great hymns.  Today, I want to discuss one of the hymns he mentions, “How Great Thou Art.”  The vandals have left this one alone so far, as well they should, because it is a masterpiece.

Catholics do not know this hymn very well.  But in polls among Protestant Christians, it is typically second in popularity, behind “Amazing Grace.”  Billy Graham featured it in his crusades, sung by the great Bev Shea in his sonorous voice.  Its melody is easily adaptable to a Protestant “gospel” context.  But Catholics do not sing it often, perhaps because it is not obviously assignable to any particular season in the Liturgical Year.  In common with spirituals, it fits in with neither the high music of the tradition, nor up-tempo pseudo-pop.

The hymn is a masterpiece because it is so deeply Athanasian.  By that I mean, like St. Athanasius in his treatise on the Incarnation, it praises the Savior of the world as, at the same time, the Word through whom the world came to be.  Thus, it unifies Creation and Redemption, Christian discipleship and love of nature – so crucially important in a society in which a widespread loss of faith corresponds to a loss of the meaning of nature.

The hymn’s lyrics derive from an 1885 poem by a lay minister, Carl Boberg, inspired by what he saw walking home from a worship service, along the beach at Mönsterås, Sweden.  The land there is low-lying, the water dotted with many islands, not unlike the coast of Maine.  Boberg was astounded simply by the majesty of clouds and light after a thunderstorm.  His poem began:

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of Thine,
And how Thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life in love benign,
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!

Boberg’s son later said that his father’s poem was a meditation on Psalm 8, “What is man that thou are mindful of him?”

Some hymns are written all at once and have a definitive form in their original languages, such as Stille Nacht (“Silent Night”).  Two hundred years later, we still use the melody of Franz Xaver Gruber, along with a close translation of the original lyrics of Father Joseph Mohr.  But “How Great Thou Art” today is not like this, and that is part of its appeal.  It has been tinkered with and adjusted many times, and in many lands, the common work of diverse Christians, all united in their admiration of God as Creator and Redeemer.

Musicians will find it curious that the poem was originally set to music in a disconcerting triple time!  (You may see it here.)  Strange that those who first knew the poem misjudged its proper musical setting so badly.  But within a decade, the familiar 4/4 version of the tune had supplanted it.  In that version, the intervals in the refrain (“How great thou art!  How great thou art!”) make it seem as if the singer is sighing with love.  (Rubato is recommended.)

*

Stuart K. Hine’s 1949 English version of the lyrics has become widely accepted throughout the world, through a kind of sensus fidelium.  It has the clear structure of, first, two verses which express wonderment at God as Creator, and then two expressing even greater wonder at God as Savior.  Here it is in full:

O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

Refrain:

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee:
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

When through the woods and forest glades I wander
And hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees;
When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze:
(Refrain.)

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin:
(Refrain.)

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home, what joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow in humble adoration,
And there proclaim, my God, how great Thou art!
(Refrain.)

But only Hine’s first two verses derive from Boberg.   The second two were composed by Hine himself.  Hine was a missionary in Ukraine, where he witnessed Ukrainian devotional practice, at the time, involving acts of public repentance.  His transcriptions of this material provided the basis for his third verse.

Hine was compelled to leave Ukraine because of Stalin’s artificial famine in 1932-33.  Thus, his third verse is, in effect, a memorial to those 10 million murdered Christians. Next time you listen to it, imagine the voice of a sturdy Ukrainian peasant.

Hine’s last verse is a testament to refugees in the Second World War.  Its basis was apparently the plight of a man he knew, an atheist, who was separated at the beginning of the war from his wife, a Christian.  When they were separated, the man converted to Christianity.  He spent the rest of the war seeking out his wife, to share with her his joy in their now common faith – to no avail.  The verse, then, expresses this man’s hope of an eternal union after death.

Anthony Esolen likes to observe how works from the tradition contain a genuine diversity not possessed by those uniform texts proffered on grounds of “diversity.”  Likewise, in this hymn which some might pin on middle-class fly-over country, we can find a Swedish poet walking on the shore in humility; a Ukrainian peasant, on his knees, in poverty; and a refugee, yearning for reunion with his beloved.

*Image: Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh, 1899 [Museum of Modern Art, NYC, NY]

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book, on the Gospel of Mark, The Memoirs of St Peter, is now available from Regnery Gateway. He is currently at work on a new book on Mary’s voice in the gospel of John.



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