I am the song leader in my church. I am not very proficient as a musician or a choral director. I pray that, someday soon, God will send someone more capable, to take this ministry from me. But for the time being it is my responsibility to select the music and lead the congregation in the singing every week.

I take that responsibility seriously. The hymns and songs that I select must be doctrinally sound, they must be appropriate for worship with a God-centered worldview, and, withing those parameters, I try to select music that will reinforce and, support the text and subject of my pastor’s messages.

Some of us have been singing the hymns for years; the words roll off our lips but the messages often don't engage our minds or penetrate our hearts. With the apostle Paul, I want the congregation to "sing with understanding."

So for the past couple years, it has been my practice to select one hymn each week, research it, and then highlight it with a short introductory commentary so that the congregation will be more informed regarding the origin, the author's testimony, or the doctrinal significance of the hymns we sing.

It is my intention here with this blog, to archive these hymn commentaries for my reference and to make them freely available to other church song leaders. For ease of reference, all the hymn commentaries in this blog will be titled IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Other posts (which will be music ministry related opinion pieces) will be printed in lower case letters.

I know that some of the comments contain traces of my unique style, but please feel free to adapt them and use the content any way you can for the edification of your congregation and to the glory of God.

All I ask is that you leave a little comment should you find something helpful.

Ralph M. Petersen

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Wednesday, August 10, 2016


Whenever I have sung or led the congregation in singing, HOW GREAT THOU ART, I have usually omitted verse two.  I often wondered how such a great hymn could have, what I presumed to be, an inane and irrelevant verse about meadows, brooks and singing birds right in the middle of some of the greatest hymn lyrics ever written. 

But when I researched the events that inspired the writer, I found that verse two suddenly has relevance.

Carl Gustaf Boberg, a Swedish pastor, editor, and member of the Swedish parliament, was out walking one day when a severe wind began to blow and suddenly, a fierce, crashing thunderstorm came out of nowhere.

Apparently, most people, today, have a hard time agreeing with God about their wretchedness.  Amazing Grace is the secular world’s favorite hymn; it can be safely sung without any acknowledgment of sin or any reference to a specific deity.  And besides, it sounds good when played on the bagpipes at funerals. But all of this is digression; HOW GREAT THOU ART should be number one, in my humble opinion.

After the storm passed, he gazed out over the beauty of the landscape and the calm, clear bay.   Then he heard a church bell in the distance and the chirping of the birds around him.  He must have sensed the power of God in that storm much the way the writer of Psalm 29 did when he wrote: "The God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. The voice of the Lord strikes with flashes of lightning.”

And with the sudden calmness and peace at the end of the storm, the words to a poem began to form in his mind.
In 1886, Carl Boberg published his original, nine-verse poem, titled, “O Store Gud” (O Great God) in a weekly newspaper that he edited.  Then he sold the rights to the Mission Covenant Church in Sweden but it never got much public attention. 

A few years later, when he visited a church in Varmland, he heard the congregation singing the words, of his poem, to a traditional Swedish folk melody.  In 1891, Carl quickly published his poem again in his own newspaper, this time, with the musical notations added.

It was later translated into German and then in 1927, it was published in a Russian version of the German text.

But it was a man named Stuart Hine, who has been credited for the text of the song as we know it today.

It was in the 1930’s when Stuart Hine first heard the song (in Russian) while in Poland.  He translated it into English, tweaked the musical arrangement, and some of the lyrics.  He added verse three and then took it home to sing it in an evangelistic meeting in England During World War I.

A few years later, Hine, who was also an editor, published the first three verses (in both English and Russian) in his Russian evangelistic paper, Grace, and Peace.  

At the beginning of World War II, the Hine family was forced to move back to London, where they continued to evangelize among war refugees who were terrorized by the German blitz. The scriptural promise of deliverance at Christ's Second Coming inspired Hine to write the fourth and final verse.  About that verse, Stuart Hine said: “When we reach that heavenly home, we will fully understand the greatness of God, and will bow in humble adoration, saying to Him, O Lord my God, how great thou art.”

But that’s not the end of the story; In the 1940’s, Dr. J. Edwin Orr (you might remember; he was the man who brought us the Polynesian melody for his hymn, Cleanse Me), heard this new version of the song being sung by native tribal people in India, and he brought the song back to the United States.

And yet, the hymn remained relatively unknown.  One of the world’s greatest hymns had a very long and difficult beginning until it was copyrighted and published by Dr. Cyrus Nelson of Gospel Light Publications, and sung, by George Beverly Shea, at Billy Graham’s London Crusade of 1954.  George sang it over 100 times during Billy Graham’s 1957 crusade meetings in New York.  

In 1959 it became Bev Shea’s signature song and the theme song for Billy Graham’s weekly radio broadcast.  Finally, “How Great Thou Art” achieved international recognition and has been popularized by many other notable performers including Elvis Presley, Carrie Underwood, and The Statler Brothers.

In nearly every listing of the greatest hymns ever written, the number one hymn is almost always Amazing Grace.   But, HOW GREAT THOU ART, is consistently ranked as number two probably because, sadly, number one has, in many publications, become so adulterated by politically correct language that is not offensive to the egocentric sensitivities of the unregenerate masses.  For example, the phrase, “…that saved a wretch like me,” has been changed to, “…that saved and set me free.”  

That is not the case with HOW GREAT THOU ART, which is truly one of the world’s most magnificent Hymns of praise to the awesome power of our great God, and our hope in His soon return.  And right between those two themes, is the incredible Gospel message of verse three: “And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in, that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin.” 

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