Henry Carrigan: How Great Thou Art -- A Spiritual That Can Change Your Life (Excerpt)
Excerpt from Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life
by Henry Carrigan
"How Great Thou Art"
My father wasn’t an especially religious man. When I was in kindergarten and elementary school, he would drop my mother, my sister, and me off at church and pick us up after the service was finished. I have no idea how he spent those two or so hours every Sunday morning, and I surely didn’t wonder why he wasn’t coming in with us, for it wasn’t all that unusual to see other fathers doing the same with their families.
When I was a teenager, I joined a youth group at the local Presbyterian church—because many of my friends were in the group, of course, and not because I recall being especially religious myself then—and I attended church there every Sunday morning. My mother and sister often attended the Baptist church across the street, but my father never attended either. I know he grew up attending church, for his parents were devout Methodists—at least his mother was—in a small South Carolina town. I also learned as I grew older that he had been very active in the ministry—he was a deacon and served on the finance committee—of the First Baptist Church in West Palm Beach, Florida. Still, it wasn’t until I went to college, during which time my father lost his job, that I watched my father become more involved in our local Baptist church in Atlanta. Even then—he was deacon and an usher and a secretary in his Sunday school class—I couldn’t tell how deep his faith went, for we never talked much about it, and he didn’t seem to be very much changed by his religious experiences. Several years later, there was conflict in the church, and the church split; my father followed the beloved pastor he had come to admire to another church, but he eventually stopped going to church again—largely, I think, because of his health and the distance from our house to the church.
Even though my father had this ambivalent relationship with the church, he loved religious music, and it moved him so much that he would watch over and over videotapes of Bill Gaither concerts. (Gaither and his wife, Gloria, and other members of their family, were legendary gospel and contemporary Christian musicians.) Every Sunday morning, my dad would set the radios in the house to WPCH and listen to their programs of hymns and sacred music as he ate breakfast and then got ready to head off to Sunday school. He would continue to listen to the same station in the car on his way to the church. Many of the songs on that program were schmaltzy—at least in my opinion at the time—instrumental versions of familiar hymns, such as “O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” “Come, Thou Almighty King,” “Softly and Tenderly (Jesus Is Calling),” and “Amazing Grace,” among many others, but also choirs singing “Rock of Ages,” or “For the Beauty of the Earth,” or “How Great Thou Art.”
“How Great Thou Art” was very likely my father’s favorite hymn. He first heard the song performed, as did many hundreds of others, by George Beverly Shea in the late 1950s during a televised performance of one of evangelist Billy Graham’s crusades. Like others, my father—and my grandmother, who also loved both Graham and Shea, and who would sing along with Shea when she watched the revivals on television—was moved by Shea’s powerful bass-baritone vocals. Before Billy Graham invited him to join the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in 1950, Shea had already released at least one album of inspirational songs—including, among others, “If You Know the Lord” and “Tenderly He Watches”—at RCA, but once he joined Graham’s organization, his career blossomed on the strength of singing the one song for which he became famous: “How Great Thou Art.” Shea discovered the song almost by accident; on a trip to London to perform at a crusade, a publisher gave him the sheet music for the song after they happened to meet by chance on a London street. After his return home, Shea discovered the sheets, sang the song to himself, and liked it. He performed it first in Toronto, at a crusade in 1955, and the song became synonymous with Shea for decades.
“How Great Thou Art” originated in Sweden, where the Reverend Carl Boberg wrote a poem about the tempestuousness of a sudden storm over a local lake and the just as sudden return of peaceful calm after the storm passed. The thunder, wind, and lightning, according to Boberg’s story, whipped up waves on the lake, but once the storm subsided, a rainbow appeared. Boberg wrote “O Store Gud” (O Great God) in response to his experience. Boberg’s song passed through numerous translations—first into German, then into Russian, and then into English. A missionary couple to Russia, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart K. Hine, translated three verses and later added a fourth, and that is the form in which Shea received it and thus popularized it. It is also the song that is found in many hymnals today.
“How Great Thou Art”
“How Great Thou Art” offers a glorious meditation in song on the wonders of the natural world and God’s glorious acts of creation, as well as a reflection on the overwhelming immensity of God’s work in every area of our lives. The song also alludes to Psalm 8, a creation psalm, and the language of the song is very similar to the language of the psalm.
The familiar chorus begins, “Then sings my soul, / my Savior God, to thee,” and the psalm begins, “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1) “How Great Thou Art” issues an acclamation to the glory of God, the glory of creation, and the role of humankind within the natural created order. Humankind’s smallness in the face of the enormity of God and God’s recognition of humankind is a theme that flows through the song, and in Psalm 8, the poet also feels his own smallness: “What is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?” (Ps. 8:4)
Theologically, the structure of the song rehearses the history of human salvation. God creates. God provides and sustains. Humankind corrupts God’s good creation, but in God’s infinite wisdom and love, God sends his Son, “not sparing . . . him to die.” The final verse of the song sings of the new creation that brings the salvation history full circle, from creation to restoration and new beginnings.
“How Great Thou Art” builds musically out from the chorus that sings praises to the greatness of God and God’s creating and redeeming acts, and then the verses build layer by layer as they reach the climax of God’s glorious new creation. Each verse—or stanza, since “How Great Thou Art” was originally a poem—has an ABAB rhyme scheme so that the endings of the first and third lines rhyme, and the endings of the second and fourth lines rhyme. The beauty of the rhyme lies in its inexactitude; some of the lines do rhyme naturally, but others are eye-rhymes—such as wander and grandeur in the second and fourth lines of the second verse.
The first verse of the song sets up the rest of the song. The speaker narrates this song from the perspective of wonder and awe at the way God’s mighty power is displayed throughout the universe. In fact, the first two verses depict a natural theology in which God reveals God’s self to the writer through nature. In the first verse, the writer recognizes the power of God by looking at the stars and hearing the rolling thunder; as in many biblical accounts, humans encounter God through sight and sound, and thunderstorms are often depicted as especially epiphanic moments in the Bible. Notice also in the first verse that God makes the world like a potter makes a pot, with his hands; “God’s hands” make the “worlds” the writer sees around him. For us, hearing the song today, the word worlds has a far different meaning than it might have when the writer composed this poem, for the word now reminds us that God created the worlds that intersect with our human world, not only those we can see in the sky, but all of the ecological webs in which we find ourselves woven. Thus, the first verse not only jubilantly celebrates the displays of God’s creative power, but it also contemplates breathlessly the awesome majesty of God’s power, staring almost speechlessly at the stars and listening intently to the thunder.
The second verse of the song intensifies the first verse, listing all the wonders of nature that the writer sees or hears or feels. This is the verse that the Hines added to the song, and it underscores God’s revelatory activity within the natural world. When God discloses God’s self to us in nature, God is preparing us for a fuller revelation of God in Jesus. Even so, when God’s revelations come through nature, we know and see the beauty of the world around us, our relation to others in it, and the awesome majesty of the created order. In this second verse, the writer “wanders” through “woods and forest glades”; he hears the birds “sing sweetly in the trees”; he looks “down from lofty mountain grandeur”; and he hears “the brook, and feel[s] the gentle breeze.” The gentle images of the living beauty, the purity, and grandness of the world lead his soul to sing to his Savior God: “How great thou art! How great thou art!”
The third verse of “How Great Thou Art” moves from God’s activity in the natural world to God’s activity in the human world. The third verse moves from natural theology in which we respond faithfully to God’s revelation of God’s self in nature, to an incarnational theology in which we respond faithfully to God’s revealing God’s self to us in Jesus. Moreover, God sends his Son, Jesus, who dies on the Cross for our sins, according to the song and to the traditional theological view of God’s sacrifice for humanity. The verse shifts from images involving the senses—smelling, seeing, feeling—to an image involving reason and reflection: “when I think.” Having been led into God’s presence by the majesty and wonder of nature, the writer is now led into the mysterious transaction that involves God redeeming us by the sacrifice of God’s Son. The writer—and we by extension—can “scarce take it in,” so wondrous is God’s activity on our behalf. Just as the forests and the birds’ songs lead us to sing God’s praises, so God’s redemptive activity leads us to sing: “How great thou art!”
In the fourth verse, we experience God’s final revelation: we see God face-to-face and “bow in humble adoration.” With natural revelation, we see God’s power in nature, and God prepares our hearts to receive his presence. If we have only natural revelation, however, we can never know God fully, so we only know God in a limited way. When God reveals God’s self to us in Christ, we are prepared through natural revelation to receive this new and more complete knowledge. We begin to see God more fully and can sing God’s praises even louder since we now see more facets of God. We know God most fully when we meet God face-to-face; this is the final revelation, and the final verse of “How Great Thou Art” celebrates the power and wonder of this revelation. “Christ [comes] with shouts of acclamation” and takes us “home.” Joy fills our hearts when this happens, and our response is to “bow in humble adoration” before God. Once again, but this time more loudly, we proclaim, “My God, how great thou art!”
In November 2016, country artists Vince Gill and Carrie Underwood delivered a stunning performance of “How Great Thou Art” at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. In her soaring vocals, Underwood captured the song’s praise and adoration of the world’s beauty as it reflects God’s majesty. Underwood wiped away tears as she finished her performance, a sign of how deeply the song embedded itself in her heart and soul.
Hearing and singing this song affects many people the same way. This is another tune whose musical setting is so majestic that it moves us, even without our hearing the lyrics. Since “How Great Thou Art” was one of my father’s favorite songs, we asked Glen Sloan, the extraordinary pianist at John’s Creek Baptist Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, to play the hymn as part of his prelude music for my father’s memorial service. Even though we were not singing the words, the music touched us deeply.
“How Great Thou Art” often appears in hymnals in sections titled “Glory to the Triune God,” and such a description captures the major theme of the song. During our worship services, we sing the song to glorify God’s greatness, to recall God’s role as Creator and sustainer of us and our world, and to praise the beauty of the world around us. In those moments when we are singing “How Great Thus Art,” we are ascending higher and higher in our knowledge and in our adoration of God, just as we are embracing the worlds that surround us in that moment and in our lives outside of worship.
When we enter our communities singing “How Great Thou Art,” we acknowledge that God is worthy of our adoration and that we can approach our God humbly and on bended knee. Singing the song is an act of worship—the worship of the natural created order, the worship of God’s love and providence, and the worship of the God who is working with us to restore a more just and loving order. We can worship the God who reveals God’s self through nature, Christ, and a restored creation by giving ourselves over to the music and allowing the swelling sounds to wash over us as we allow the lyrics to echo through our souls. In that moment, “How Great Thou Art” transforms us—even as it can transform communities—and it transports us out of ourselves into a restored relationship with our Creator.
There are close to two thousand recorded versions of “How Great Thou Art,” ranging from Shea’s, Underwood’s, and Elvis Presley’s to those by country singers Alan Jackson and Dolly Parton, as well as those by Christian artists Amy Grant and the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. Listen to any version of “How Great Thou Art,” and reflect on the greatness of God, on the loving activity of God as Creator, on and the beauty of our world. Think about how God works in the world today. Reflect on the meaning of the words “bow in humble adoration”; what do we adore today? Does anyone—do even religious people—value and practice humility these days? Are we prepared to bow before God in humility to adore him? How do our worship services lead us to practice “humble adoration”? What worship practices lead us to practice acts of adoration during the worship service? In what measure can singing “How Great Thou Art” transport us beyond ourselves toward a different, or new, relationship with God? How can singing “How Great Thou Art” help us reshape our relationship to nature? “How Great Thou Art” changes us and redirects our vision about our world and God.
An Excerpt from
Fifteen Spirituals That Will Change Your Life
Copyright © 2019 Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
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Published by Paraclete Press