Each article in The Originals series highlights the first recorded version of a popular Southern Gospel song.
The song “How Great Thou Art” that we know today has an elaborate history. The song’s roots date to a 1885 Swedish poem by Carl Gustav Boberg title “O Store Gud.” The origin of the melody is also Swedish. The first English translation was made by a professor at North Park College in Illinois named E. Gustav Johnson. Johnson’s version was published in the Covenant Hymnal under the title “O Mighty God” in 1925.
Johnson’s version is not the same as the song we know and love today, however. That version came to us by a different route. The Swedish lyrics were translated into German around 1907. The German version was then translated into Russian around 1912. Then, in 1931, British missionary Stuart K. Hine heard the Russian version while on a mission trip to Ukraine. Hine subsequently translated it into English, adding two fresh verses.
Hine’s “final” version (though not really final) was published in 1949 in the Russian gospel magazine he published called Grace and Peace. In 1953, Hine’s added two more alternate verses that generally aren’t included in modern hymnals. Manna Music, owned by former Sons Of The Pioneers singer Tim Spencer, secured the publishing rights. The company tweaked a couple of words; “works” became “worlds” and “mighty” became “rolling.” That’s the version most people are familiar with today.
It’s possible someone recorded Hine’s “How Great Thou Art” earlier, but we do know that the first recording after Manna Music became the publisher and made those final tweaks to the lyric was by a singer named Bill Carle. His version is an extended piece with scripture quotations between the verses of the songs.
You can hear Carle’s first verse and chorus in the following audio clip:
As you can hear, Bill Carle’s delivery style is similar to that of George Beverly Shea who would sing the song around the world starting a few years later.
Like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Amazing Grace,” the number of artists who have recorded Hine’s “How Great Thou Art” is astounding. The song’s exposure via the Billy Graham crusades and a popular recording by Elvis Presley made it part of the fabric of Christian life around the world.
Even if you limit the recordings to Southern Gospel artists, the list is extensive. Below are links to groups on MusicScribe’s sister website, SGHistory.com along with a list of their albums that include “How Great Thou Art.”
Blackwood Brothers (1960 The Blackwood Brothers In Concert; 1964 The Best Of The Blackwood Brothers Quartet; 1973 How Great Thou Art; 1973 On Stage; 1975 Hymns Of Gold; 1979 Live! At The National Quartet Convention; 1982 How Great Thou Art; 1990 USA Tour, Vol. 1; 1998 Learning To Lean On Jesus; 1999 Elvis Favorites: Blackwood Brothers Quartet Sing Songs Elvis Sang; 2007 Live In Cape Coral; 2011 Live From Florida)
Florida Boys (1958 11th Anniversary Album, 1967 Singing Through Life; 1973 Better Than Ever; 1977 In Concert…Live; 1991 Live; 1993 Greatest Hits; 1995 Gospel Gold; 1996 Together; 1998 The Florida Boys Collection; 2000 I’m Forgiven; 2007 The Ultimate Collection; ???? Golden Favorites)
Isaacs (1993 Mountain Praise Live; 2003 Songs Of The Faith)
Ivan Parker (1998 A Collection Of 20 Favorites; 2008 Inseparable)
Jake Hess (1968 The Incomparable Jake Hess; 1974 The Best Of Jake Hess; 1984 Gospel Classics Sung By Jake Hess – Volume One)
J D Sumner And The Stamps (1964 What A Day That Will Be; 1971 Goin’ Home; 1971 Live In Nashville; 1976 Green Green Grass Of Home; 1977 Elvis’ Favorite Gospel Songs; 1977 Memories Of Our Friend, Elvis; 1977 16 Greats; 1989 Live From The Alabama State Coliseum; 1992 Old Favorites; 1992Masters Of Gospel; 1994 Elvis’ Gospel Favorites; 1997 Pure Gospel: 16 Vintage Gospel Standards; 1999 Gospel Music Hall Of Fame)
Kingdom Heirs (1984 Special Edition; 1987 Favorites; 1992 Telling The World; 1996 Feelin’ At Home; 1999 Southern Gospel Quartets; 2001 The Classic Collection; 2005 Series One; 2009 From The Redbook Volume Two)