Dr Noel Preston continues his series on hymns – this time he was asked to write a few words about a Creation hymn…
My immediate thoughts went back to school assembly, when we regularly sang the imaginative poetry of Joseph Addison’s The spacious firmament on high. (I can still recite the whole of it from memory!)
These words have inspired the composers of two good tunes. The more resplendent is ‘London’ (or Addison’s) by John Sheeles 1688-1716, favoured in Anglican hymn-books. Repetition of the last line gives extra emphasis to the words “The hand that made us is divine.”
A more contemplative tune ‘Firmament’ by Henry Walford Davies 1869-1941 has been preferred in the Methodist Hymn-book and other Free Church collections.
Magnificent though these words may be, however, they relate only to the wonder of the heavens. The canticle Benedicite provides a much fuller coverage of creation – things inanimate, botanical, zoological, and a wide range that is anthropocentric.
For a hymn with a broader recognition of the wealth of God’s design, one can hardly do better than turn to Carl Gustaf Boberg 1859-1940 and an English translation by the Methodist missionary Stuart Wesley Keene Hine 1899-1989:
O Lord my God! when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works thy hand hath made…
After recounting many of the marvels of God’s work, the author finally leads us in humility to foresee our ultimate goal, so that this hymn is a popular choice at funerals:
When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And take me home – what joy shall fill my heart!
Then shall I bow in humble adoration
And then proclaim, my God, how great thou art!
With this hymn, I have never been told that I had played the wrong tune! There is, however, confusion in various books over the origin of the tune HOW GREAT THOU ART: is it a Russian hymn tune or a Swedish folk melody? Whichever, it is a splendid tune , and would hold its place among the finest of Russian compositions.