HYMN 59 My God, How Wonderful Thou Art
Text: Frederick William Faber (1814-1863) Tune: Dundee
1. My God, how wonderful thou art,
Thy majesty how bright.
How beautiful thy mercy seat
In depths of burning light.
2. Wondrous are thine eternal years, O everlasting Lord, By holy angels day and night Unceasingly adored!
3. O how I fear thee, living God, With deepest, tend'rest fears, And worship thee with trembling hope And penitential tears!
4. Yet I may love thee too, O Lord, Almighty as thou art, For thou hast stooped to ask of me The love of my poor heart.
5. No earthly father loves like thee, No mother half so mild Bears and forbears, as thou hast done With me, thy sinful child.
6. How wonderful, how beautiful, The sight of thee will be, Thine endless wisdom, boundless pow'r, And awesome purity!
7. Father of Jesus, Love divine, What rapture it will be, Prostrate before thy throne to lie, And gaze and gaze on thee!
A concert always includes a variety of numbers that work on our emotions in certain ways. The church college choir concert would usually begin with classical numbers by Bach or Mendelssohn, etc. the best of the lot. Then toward the end the numbers would be crowd pleasers. A familiar hymn or anthem with a thrilling solo voice featured in it would bring down the house. F. Melius Christiansen was a master at writing that kind of anthem. "My God How Wonderful Thou Art" was among his more popular works.
I first sang it when I was in the Augsburg Cantorians, a choir of underclasswomen who had not yet made it into the choir. Mayo Savold, our conductor, loved the piece and it was our crowd pleaser. Memorizing the text gave me language I still use for my faith.
Christiansen was part of a group of Lutheran college musicians in this country who shrewdly understood that they had to teach the next generation the music of faith that they were heir to. Some feared that by insisting on Lutheran chorale music, they were singing their children out of the Lutheran Church. What was Lutheran music and what should our children learn was a question that raged among them.
The pastors and musicians came up with a brilliant solution: a Choral Union. The roots of it began in 1892 or 1893 when Theodore Reimestad at Augsburg Seminary where Christiansen taught at the time, began organizing choral extravaganzas for young people. Reimestad and other pastors who loved music would announce through the church papers in the early spring the songs they were going to sing. The young people would order the music from the publisher and practice it, and then in the summer appear in a selected city for a few days of singing. They learned much: their heritage, their faith, while meeting other young people.
As this developed Christiansen and the president of St. Olaf, John N. Kildahl, (1857-1920) began to arrange singing and preaching events. Kildahl, a silver tongued orator, would preach and Christiansen would lead the singing. Their repertoire included German and Scandinavian Lutheran chorales like “Wake, Awake for Night is Flying,” Scandinavian folk hymns like “I Saw Him in Childhood,” and English hymns like “My God How Wonderful Thou Art”.
It grew and grew and became an active organization called the Choral Union. The young people gathered by the thousands, some report 2,000 to 3,000 young people would come to be directed by the college choir directors. From these experiences they learned to cherish their heritage and be challenged to live for Jesus. The former Bishop Mark Hanson’s father, Oscar C. Hanson along with Oscar Overby from St. Olaf continued these events through the 1950s and gave young people experiences they would never forget—and keep them in the Lutheran church. The tradition lasted until 1961—Paul Christiansen’s Una Sancta was the last event. It was presented at the service that began the American Lutheran Church.
This simple hymn became a favorite, especially its beautiful arrangements. Hyperboles are the poetry of faith. Once again, the images point beyond what we can say about the presence of God--"the depths of burning light", "no earthly father loves like thee." "No mother e'er so mild." "What rapture it will be." These simple phrases, memorized for an anthem, still run through my mind when I want to find words for praise. It is what these choir directors and pastors hoped would happen to all their singers. A moment of holiness that could change a life forever.
HYMN INFO Frederick Faber was a member of the Oxford Movement, a disciple of John Henry Cardinal Newman. Faber followed Newman out of the Anglican church to the Roman Catholic Church in 1845. A gifted man who thought Catholics should sing hymns like those of Wesley and Cowper, Faber successfully wrote several classics in their simple fervent style. Among his many hymns was “Faith of our Fathers, living still.”
The tune comes from the Scottish Psalter, first printed in 1615. It has given the world some of its most beautiful and simple hymn tunes.
(Unfortunately I can't find the F. Melius' setting, but this is a version of it)
The Concordia Chapel Choir singing Oscar Overby’s setting. Overby led the Choral Union along with F. Melius and afterwards
The Merrill Staton Choir