The Originals: How Great Thou Art

by David Bruce Murray | May 28, 2015 8:00 AM

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, along with a list of their albums that include “How Great Thou Art.”

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