The choir and Mr. Shea now sing for you “How Great Thou Art.”
Cliff Barrow’s announcement at Billy Graham’s New York Crusade at Madison Square Garden on June 16, 1957, preceded the televised performance that helped cement the hymn’s position as a fixture in American Protestant repertoire.
The choir of hundreds began the performance with the last line of the chorus: “How great thou art, how great thou art.” Then George Beverly Shea’s famous baritone introduced the hymn to millions of viewers—an estimated 96 million by the end of Graham’s New York Crusade.
As Shea sang the second verse, taking expressive liberties with the tempo, the text at the bottom of the broadcast invited viewers to call the phone line “to begin a relationship with Jesus Christ.”
2024 marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of “How Great Thou Art,” and to celebrate the hymn’s legacy, songwriters Matt Redman and Mitch Wong contributed new text for a collaborative recording, featuring an array of popular performers like Chris Tomlin, Matt Maher, Kari Jobe, Cody Carnes, and Naomi Raine.
“This is a hymn that everyone knows and loves,” Redman said in an interview with CT. “It felt quite daunting to come in and make changes.”
Redman and Wong’s version of the hymn, “How Great Thou Art! (Until That Day),” preserves the original English text and nods to the song’s international origins and history. Their recording debuted Friday.
The timeless song captures the tension of the Christian life, having to live with eyes open to both the temporary and the eternal. “We’ve got these two realities: the here and now, and the beautiful reality of God’s forever reign and ultimate plan,” Redman said.
Few hymns and sacred songs have achieved a position in the American national imagination as powerfully as “How Great Thou Art.” It was even the title track of Elvis Presley’s 1967 album, How Great Thou Art, which won the artist his first Grammy.
More recently, singers like Alan Jackson and Carrie Underwood have performed the hymn; Underwood’s rendition with Vince Gill at the Grand Ole Opry in 2011 was so well received that the country star made it a regular feature on her set lists, including during her Las Vegas residencies.
The evolution of the 19th-century Swedish poem “O Store Gud” (“O Mighty God” or “O Great God”) into the current standard “How Great Thou Art” is part of a centuries-old practice of borrowing and imitation in sacred music. It allows hymn writers to trade out one tune for another, relying on metrical patterns to create new easily singable songs.
“Songs like ‘How Great Thou Art,’ they’re great the way they are,” said singer-songwriter Matt Maher. “But this is part of a long tradition; composers have always taken lyrics and melodies and creatively adapted them.”
The original poem, written in 1885 by Carl Boberg, was set to a traditional folk tune and published in the Swedish Missionary Alliance hymnbook as well as a US Swedish hymnbook called Sionsharpen. Subsequent translations preserve Boberg’s focus on God’s power displayed in creation and human wonder.
The song was translated into Russian by I. S. Prokhanoff in 1908 and into German by Manfred von Glehn in 1912, making its way to the United States again by way of the Russian translation in a collection of hymns published by the American Bible Society in 1922.
The first English translation—“O Mighty God, When I Behold the Wonder”—came a few years later by E. Gustav Johnson, a relatively literal reflection of the original Swedish.
The version we know and sing now came from British missionary Stuart Hine, who learned the Russian version while ministering in western Ukraine in the 1930s and eventually created his own translation in English. He wrote the fourth verse (“When Christ shall come …”) in 1948, moved by his encounters with some of the Ukrainian refugees flooding into England in the aftermath of World War II.
Hine’s English version was featured alongside the Russian in the missionary magazine Grace and Peace, circulating the hymn to over 15 countries and eventually reaching George Beverly Shea and Billy Graham.
After the performances of “How Great Thou Art” during Graham’s New York Crusade in 1957, the hymn became a favorite among the crowds that gathered to hear the famous evangelist and among American congregations who now associated the song with the powerful revivalism witnessed at his events.
“We sang it about a hundred times at the insistence of the New York audiences,” Shea told CT in 2009. “And from then on, it became a standard at most of the crusades.”
One could argue that Hine’s decision to copyright the text and tune of “How Great Thou Art” halted the process that allowed the hymn to move and adapt so freely between 1885 and his publication in 1949.
But it also allowed him to try to harness the song’s popularity and success for God’s kingdom, with royalties benefiting the Stuart Hine Trust. The UK-based organization funds Christian outreach and relief organizations around the world, supporting Bible translation efforts and evangelism.
“When Carrie Underwood sings ‘How Great Thou Art’ in Vegas, that helps the song,” said Phil Loose, a volunteer trustee. “When people sing it, more royalties come in.”
If and when churches use Redman and Wong’s new version, the songwriting royalties that typically flow to the cowriters will also go to the trust. It’s a striking example of how “music and mission collide,” said Loose.
Redman and Wong’s addition to “How Great Thou Art” comes after the fourth verse; it follows the structure of the verses but alters the traditional melody, carrying on the forward-looking tone of Hine’s final verse:
Until that day
When heaven bids us welcome,
And as we walk this broken warring world,
Your kingdom come,
Deliver us from evil,
And we’ll proclaim our God how great You are!
Redman and Wong wanted to acknowledge the connection between Stuart’s work in Ukraine and with Ukrainian refugees and the current conflict in the region.
“I wanted the word ‘war’ in there,” said Redman. “It’s kind of a gritty word. But we have to sing about both the everyday and the eternal.”
For Redman, “How Great Thou Art” is an example of a hymn that teaches and invites a response of praise—like inhaling and exhaling.
“I love old hymns, but as rich and robust as they are, sometimes they can offer a lot of information and doctrine without inviting the singer to exhale, to respond in praise,” said Redman. “During the verses, I inhale. Then during the chorus, I get to exhale. The best hymns are both a chapel and a classroom.”
Maher finds that “How Great Thou Art” offers a wonderfully compelling invitation to respond to encounters with God’s power in creation.
“‘Then sings my soul’ is something you can grab with both hands,” said Maher. “It’s a response. It’s your invitation to respond.”
For Maher and Redman, the hymn offers doctrine and transcendence, it is a classroom and a chapel. “How Great Thou Art” remains popular and resonant because of what it teaches and because of the response it invites.
It is an invitation to sing, to praise, to approach God. Perhaps this is what made it such an ideal fit for Billy Graham’s Crusades, featured in arenas and on screens alongside an invitation to salvation.
“It packs quite a theological punch,” said Redman. “There’s reenactment, realization, and anticipation. The song does a tremendous job of encompassing all three.”