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HYMN 166 O Wonderful Words of the Gospel

Text: Fanny Crosby (1820-1915). Tune: Swedish folk tune Til Österland vill jag fara

1. O wonderful words of the Gospel:

A message of blessing they bring,

Proclaiming a finished redemption

Through Jesus our Savior and King.

2. He came from the throne of his glory,

And left the bright mansions above,

The world to redeem from its bondage;

So great his compassion and love.

3. O come to this wonderful Savior,

Come weary and sorrow oppressed;

Behold on the cross how he suffered;

That you in his kingdom might rest.

4. There’s no other refuge but Jesus,

No shelter where lost ones may fly:

And now, while he’s tenderly calling:

“O turn ye, for why will ye die?”


The Swe-Danes/Asmussen, Babs, Neumann

When I came home from Norway in 1966, after a year there, my suitcase held a few records one could not get in the US: some by the Swe-Danes—a trio including Alice Babs, Svend Asmussen--a peerless violinist, and Ulrik Neumann. A second cousin of mine had introduced them to me and, on reflection, I would say, he changed the direction of my life. I spent that summer playing Alice Babs records. I hadn’t been able to listen to them in Norway—no record player, remember those?—but now it was 24/7. One day, my mother, who had grown weary of Babs high soprano voice, asked, “How does she know ‘O Wonderful Words of the Gospel?’” It was the tune in The Concordia for a Fanny Crosby text.

Jenny Lind

I have spent the rest of my life answering that question. The editors of The Concordia, our hymnal, made every effort to include Scandinavian tunes and set the Fanny Crosby text to one of the oldest Swedish folk tunes, “Til Österland vill jag fara./To Eastern lands I will journey.”

It has a lovely text from medieval times, about a person leaving for the east to find a beloved, maybe in the Baltic countries or Finland. One could maybe think Paradise and that this is bride of Christ language, but that is a stretch. What the hymn editors did is an old practice. Luther used folk hymns for several of his hymns like “From Heaven above."

It tends to raise the quality of a hymn. The tune written for the Crosby hymn is pedestrian and forgettable. This, hundreds of years old, is not.

Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, a devout Christian, met Fanny Crosby on her 1850 tour of America and sang for her pupils in the school for the blind where Crosby taught. Crosby would never forget the gracious Lind who let the blind students touch her face as they talked with her. She sang folk songs for them, almost certainly this one. Crosby, who had not yet begun to write hymns, but was actively writing poetry, realized how powerful hymns could be, and immediately turned her efforts to hymn texts, writing thousands through the rest of her life.

Valborg Hovind Stub

Lind frequently sang spiritual songs, many to the Swedish folk tunes that Lina Sandell had used for her texts. In 1895 Mrs. Valborg Hovind Stub (1860-1901), a gifted singer herself, whom Franz Liszt had accompanied once in Weimar where she was studying, and second wife of H. G. Stub, President of Luther Seminary, published a book of Scandinavian art songs Songs from the North. She dedicated it to the memory of Jenny Lind. (Since I discovered her I have devoted my free time to her biography, an interest almost as tiresome to my siblings as my Alice Babs obsession.) The opening song in her collection is a Swedish folk tune, with a text by Lina Sandell. Every Sunday evening my father played that tune by heart on the piano. He had learned it from his foster mother. He didn't know it was published; his mother knew it from Mrs. Stub’s book. It became his. And now mine.

Hearing the Crosby hymn with this melody takes me back into memories that go deeper than any thought can. They call that the palimpsest effect—you hear the other text (and experiences) along with the one you are singing, like an ancient parchment with older words erased but still visible beneath it. It connects me to memories of a lovely past, and longings for Paradise. In Alice Babs’ rendition, I drink the crystal, clear mountain streams rushing down the snow packed mountains of Norway that spring as I left, reminded again of the wonderful words of the Gospel, the only refuge there is.

HYMN INFO The tune can be found in any collection of Swedish folk tunes. It was associated with the Crosby tune in 1932 in The Concordia, put together by Norwegian Americans like F. Melius Christiansen, the music editor, and others, like T. O. Burntvedt, President of the Lutheran Free Church. It became the hymnal used in the St. Olaf Chapel for many years. And most LFC congregations.

LINKS—these are all for the Swedish text

Alice Babs

Another Babs version

The World Youth Choir

Alfred Fredrik Girl’s Choir

Jens Lysdal—instrumental with vocal

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