This well-loved, world famous Christian hymn began in Sweden, moved to Germany and Russia, and thence to England and the USA, where it became world famous as the signature song of George Beverly Shea in the great Billy Graham Crusades.
In about 1887 Carl Boberg was a young lay-pastor in Sweden, walking home from church near Kronoback, Sweden, and listening to the church bells. Suddenly a violent storm blew up, with lightning and thunder and wind – and just as quickly it departed. In the calm following the storm, a rainbow appeared, and all nature was at peace. Boberg was inspired to write a poem, ‘O Store Gud’, on the greatness of God in Nature. He set it to an old Swedish folk tune, and it was first sung in Varmland in 1888.
‘O Store Gud’ became popular, and it began to spread. By 1907 it had been taken to Germany by a wealthy Baltic Baptist nobleman. From there it moved to Russia in 1912, where it was called Velikiy Bog – or ‘Great God’. By 1925 it had been translated into English ‘O Mighty God’ by a professor at North Park College in Illinois. But this gave way in 1949 to a different English translation, done by a British missionary to the Ukraine, Stuart K Hine, who called it How Great Thou Art, and rewrote some verses.
It was Hine’s version which went on to gain wide popularity in the USA. It was first recorded by a Bill Carle in 1958, and then the Manna Music version of the song was popularised in the 1950s at the Billy Graham Crusades. It was sung in the 1955 Toronto campaign, and then it really took off in 1957 in Madison Square Garden, New York, where Shea sang it 100 times during the campaign.
George Beverly Shea’s recording of the hymn has been ranked number 204 on the top recordings of the 20th century. Billy Graham once said: “The reason I like ‘How Great Thou Art’ is because it glorifies God. It turns Christian’s eyes toward God, rather than upon themselves. I use it as often as possible because it is such a God-honouring song.’
How Great Thou Art was voted the United Kingdom’s favourite hymn by BBC’s Songs of Praise programme, and it was second on the list of the ‘favourite hymns of all time’ in a 2001 survey by Christianity Today magazine.