Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen V. Wiberg

Kit Swanson, a Peace Corps volunteer, has been teaching in a university in Buea, Cameroon, West Africa, and one of her courses is Old English Literature. In a letter to her parents, Dave and Ann Swanson of the Bethlehem Covenant Church, Kit describes her class of 200-plus students and "a sightings in Christian music" that is quite remarkable. She said:

While we were waiting for the department head to help us out, I wrote Caedmon’s Hymn on the chalkboard. (Caedmon’s Hymn is one of the oldest of English poems, written between 658 and 680) All 200-plus dutiful and obedient young Cameroonians automatically copied it into their notebooks. No one had asked them to do that… I gave the class about five minutes on the history of England around 500 AD. Then I asked if the students knew "How Great Thou Art." They did and they began to sing. First a timid voice or two, then a strong one. Within a few seconds there were 200-plus voices singing perfect four-part harmony. It was truly awesome. They were cheers and loud applause at the end. I told them to read Caedmon’s Hymn, remembering how they had felt when they sang, and to consider the possibility that these people of 1500 years ago felt many of the same emotions we do. The lead instructor said: "I can see this is going to be an experience."

Dave Swanson was curious about this ancient hymn and asked for help from a most knowledgeable source, Flora Sedgwick, a retired teacher of English Literature from Minnehaha Academy and an active member of the Bethlehem Church. Not only did she know of Caedmon’s Hymn but also numerous literary sources on the Anglo Saxon period, including the story told by Venerable Bede of how Caedmon composed the hymn. The literal translation is as follows:

Now we must praise heaven-kingdom’s Guardian,
the Creator’s might and his mind plans,
the work of the Glory-Father,
when he of wonders of every one,
eternal Lord, the beginning established.
He first created for men’s sons
heaven as a roof, holy Creator:
then middle-earth, mankind’s Guardian
eternal Lord, afterwards made
-for men earth, Master almighty.

The Venerable Bede, the great cleric of Old English times, tells the story of its composition in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731). Shy of singing in public, Caedmon always found an excuse to avoid taking the harp and singing. One night when he left the feast table, he feel asleep in the stable where he had gone to tend the animals. In his sleep he had a dream that someone came to him and said: "Caedmon, sing me something." He sought, as always, to excuse himself, but the other insisted that he sing and told him to celebrate the beginning of created things. Caedmon at once sang the Hymn and upon waking remembered the verses. Bede then goes on to report that from that dream on Caedmon became a monk and devoted his life to Christian verse and hymnody.

While it is wonderful to think of those 200-plus African students singing a hymn from our heritage, it is also awesome to think of the connections Kit Swanson drew between Caedmon’s Hymn and Carl Boberg’s "O Store Gud" (O mighty God) spanning 1500 years and two continents. Boberg’s hymn was inspired not by a dream. Rather, upon returning home from a Sunday service, he was enraptured watching a summer afternoon’s thunderstorm sweep the horizon with flashes of lightning and loud crashes of thunder. Then in the Sabbath stillness that followed—a rainbow. One wonders what this Mission Friend preacher would think about the world-wide popularity of his hymn. Perhaps he would feel many of the same emotions Caedmon felt or the 200-plus African students felt or how countless numbers of people in our times still feel when singing his hymn so similar to the themes of the hymn in Old English:

O mighty God, when I behold the wonder
Of nature’s beauty, wrought by words of thine,
And how thou leadest all from realms up yonder,
Sustaining earthly life with love benign,
With rapture filled, my soul thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!
——Translation by E. Gustav Johnson, The Covenant Hymnal, 1973

Glen Wiberg, veteran Covenant pastor and writer, lives in New Brighton, Minnesota. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen V. Wiberg