How Great Thou Art is NOT an Old Hymn

Zac HicksHistory of Worship and Church Music, Worship Theology & ThoughtLeave a Comment

I’m currently reading T. David Gordon’s, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Phillipsburg, P&R, 2010).  A full review will be coming, Lord-willing, in which I disagree with the premise and many of the arguments.  But there are still important insights he’s making, and perhaps I’ll share them along the way.  This particular diatribe sounded strikingly similar to a post of my own (“The Same Old List: Evangelicals and Our So-Called ‘Old Hymns'”), only it was written with more brevity and clarity:

My students…occassionally refer to “traditional” hymns, and when I ask them to mention one, they often choose one that is, in fact, quite new, almost contemporary.  In a “mixed” musical service, for instance, they once selected “How Great Thou Art” as the traditional hymn–supposing, I guess, that the thou suggested an Elizabethan origin.  But the hymn is quite new, written in Sweden in 1885 (by Carl Gustav Boberg), and not translated into English until 1953 (by Stuart Hine).  In English, it is only one year older than I am.  We live in a remarkable moment indeed when a hymn that is merely a century old, and in our own language only a half-century old, is regarded as traditional.  Most of the Christian tradition never heard or sang this hymn.  Indeed, most even of the English Christian tradition never heard this hymn; yet it is regarded as traditional.  (p. 41)

Gordon later says,

A young person reared in anything like a typical evangelical church knows only two things: nineteenth-century, sentimentalist revivalist hymns, and contemporary praise choruses.  (p. 42)

I can vouch for that.  Not only was that my personal experience growing up in a low church evangelical worship context, I’ve heard “old hymn” equated with such “sentimentalist revivalist hymns” by others more times than I care to recount.  Church music history sure is at a premium these days.

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