He's Great, But Is The Song? I'm Not Sure
Hymn #86 — “How Great Thou Art”
Text: Stuart K. Hine (b. 1899)
Music: Swedish melody; arranged by Stuart K. Hine
Tune name: O STORE GUD
The fact that our hymnal has some selections which should be classified as a “Song” not a “Hymn” is fine with me.
Well, let me add a caveat
…As long as they are good.
And of course, good to one can be very different than good to another.
Teach Me To Walk In The Light, I Am A Child Of God, Because I Have Been Given Much, Love One Another, Families Can Be Together Forever.
These are all “Songs,” not “Hymns.” But for me, each is either good or great.
“How Great Thou Art” is probably my least favorite “Song” in our hymnbook.
The sentiment is beautiful. As is the prayerful and reverent feeling. There’s something about it that just doesn’t seem like “Church” to me.
It feels more like an old “Spiritual” selection a choir might choose to sing on a concert alongside favorites… like “Wade In The Water,” or “Amazing Grace,” or “Shenandoah.” I love each of those songs.
Stand this hymn alongside How Firm A Foundation, or All Creatures of Our God and King, or Rejoice, the Lord Is King. There’s a noticeable difference.
I’m sure my friend Sam, who is in my ward, would be really sad to hear me say all this. He loves “How Great Thou Art” to bits. Every so often he asks me to play it as prelude in Sacrament meeting.
So, I don’t want to be crass or harsh about it, especially as it comforts and helps a lot of people feel closer to God. And I’m almost certain it will remain in the hymnal, which is fine. It’s just not my favorite. It doesn’t inspire me the way other hymns do. But maybe that says more about me than about the Song?
This song was often selected for Sacrament meeting on my mission. The Chileans would get started pretty alright. Usually there would be a decided bi-tonality going on in the congregation. Generally speaking they are not the best singers, even when the piano is playing along.
But then they’d get tot he chorus. “How great thou…” and on “art,” nobody could agree on the right low note. It was all over the map. Even when I pounded it on the piano, I’d get people coming up to me after the meeting telling me I was playing it incorrectly. “Um, nope, see the notes here… they tell me exactly what to play… and that’s what I played…”
The one time this hymn really moved me was during the funeral of our dear friend Melinda Workman. She joined the church in our ward in Cincinnati. I had been involved over a period of 6-8 months in her “on again, off again” relationship with the missionaries. I had the privilege of baptizing her. 6 days later, we had a ward temple trip and I had the joy of taking her into the font again, this time to be baptized for her deceased younger sister. We became great friends.
We stayed in touch when I left for Poland and then we moved right back into the same ward a year later. It was a sweet reunion. Sadly, she died only a few weeks later. Her health had been poor for a long time. She had only 1 lung and had emphysema in it. We were heart broken.
Her family had pretty much disowned her when she joined the church. I should mention that she was African American. After she passed, the ward provided a funeral service for her. We invited her family, but we weren’t sure if they would show. Luckily, they did. The chapel of the stake center was nearly full of her large extended family and friends. And then there were 3 or 4 white boys on the stand. It was quite a beautiful site.
During the service, one of Melinda’s cousins stood in her place in the congregation and sang a powerful, sorrowful, heart wrenching, Aretha Franklin style “How Great Thou Art.” It was extremely powerful!
So, don’t take my comments to harshly. I see both sides with this hymn. It’s not my favorite, but it is the favorite of many. And if it brings them closer to God, well, who can argue with that?
That’s all for today.
Have a good one!
Commentary from “The Bench Warmer”
by Jason Gunnell, Organist
This hymn was popularized by Billy Graham, as he used it heavily during his tours of Britain and North America in the 1950s. It was hailed in 1974 by Christian Herald as “the most popular hymn in America. The tune and text were written by a Swedish minister in 1886, and went through several translations, from German, to Russian, before English missionaries preaching in Russia came across it and wrote an English version of what they could remember from the Russian setting they had heard, adapting it to reflect the beautiful scenery they had experienced on their travels.
Interestingly, this hymn makes its first appearance in a Latter-day Saint hymnal in this 1985 hymnal. It was likely added in response to it being a frequent request of President Ezra Taft Benson’s at meetings over which he presided.
I must admit that I have no fondness for this hymn. This probably goes back to my bias for objective hymns over subjective ones, and this hymn is about the perfect definition of what a subjective hymn is. I find that its popularity, especially in gospel music and popular music circles also lessens its appeal and impact for me, as it is much more of a song, rather than a hymn. Having said this, I do think there are a few good arrangements for organ of this song, specifically a very nice arrangement by Dale Wood that I recommend highly. (I recommend all of Dale Woods arrangements highly. They are masterfully crafted and most quite exquisite!)
To this point, I don’t think there is a hymn in our book that is in danger of or far too often played at a dreadfully slow tempo as this one. With the length of the tune and the phrases of the tune, and the four verses, if this song is played slowly, it becomes an interminable drudgery to sing and thus loses any appeal or impact it could potentially have. I think a tempo that allows the tune to move along is somewhere in the vicinity of quarter note equal to 68-72. I wouldn’t take it much slower than that, so the upper range of the suggested tempo in the hymnal is a good marking. I would choose a registration employing many foundation stops to try and achieve a warm tone, adding soft chorus reeds and a 2’ stop for the final verse.
Registration Starting Point:
Great: Principal 8’, Flute 8’, 4’
Swell: Principal 8’, 4’, Flute 8’, String 8’
Pedal: Principal 16’, 8’’, Bourdon 16’, Flute 8’
Possible Final Verse Additions:
Great: maybe a Bourdon 16’ if it works well, Principal 4’
Swell: Flute 2’ (or a Principal 2’?), Hautbois 8’
Pedal: 32’ Flue, Bassoon 16’