Sightings in Christian Music

by Glen Wiberg

In pursuing a favorite pastime of reading through hymnals, I have often wondered why so few of our Swedish heritage hymns have made it into American hymnals. The two hymns that have made it are "Children of the Heavenly Father" and "How Great Thou Art."

While the Lutheran Book of Worship has several Swedish chorales, the only representation of the pietistic heritage are the two hymns mentioned above and the hymn "With God as Our Friend" by Carl O. Rosenius and Oscar Ahnfelt. For many former Augustana Lutherans the omission of Swedish pietistic hymns from LBW has been a source of great unhappiness if not the shedding of tears. The supplement song book, With One Voice, has included two additional heritage hymns by Lina Sandell: a new translation of "Day by Day" and "Thy Holy Wings" translated by my good friend and teacher at Luther Seminary, Gracia Grindal, who makes an interesting adaptation for the baptism of a newborn in her family: "Oh, wash me in the waters of Noah's cleansing flood."

This raises the issue of not simply tinkering around the edges of a hymn (which I suppose every hymnal commission or hymnologist has done over the centuries) but of a full scale reconstruction of an old hymn and its translation. Case in point: The New Century Hymnal (1995) which is the new hymnal and worshipbook of the United Church of Christ. Surprisingly, the two most popular hymns mentioned above are included with a total reconstruction of "Children of the Heavenly Father" and a re-translated version of "How Great Thou Art," newly titled "O Mighty God." Does that title have a familiar ring to people who remember the red hymnal of 1973?

Readers of Pietisten, I assume, will have some interest in what has happened to two hymns so firmly entrenched in our memory banks and singing tradition. I will share my findings and reflections in the present "Sightings" on "Children of the Heavenly Father," and in the following issue on "How Great Thou Art" or "O Mighty God."

In the index of The New Century Hymnal one finds in italics "Children of the Heavenly Father" signaling a change in title to "Surely No One Can be Safer."

The New Century Hymnal

Surely no one can be safer
than God's children held in favor,
Not the stars so brightly burning,
not the birds to nests returning.

With the flock God is abiding,
heaven's plenty all providing,
Rich in mercy, never sparing,
like a father, gently caring.

None shall ever meet rejection,
be denied God's own protection;
Has there been a friend who better
knows our hopes, our fears that fetter?

(Verse 4 has been eliminated)



Whether taking, whether giving
God alone remains forgiving,
And with one true purpose holy
to preserve our welfare solely.

The Covenant Hymnal

Children of the heavenly Father
safely in his bosom gather;
nestling bird nor star in heaven
such a refuge e'er was given.

God his own doth tend and nourish,
in his holy courts they flourish;
from all evil things he spares them,
in his mighty arms he bears them.

Neither life nor death shall ever
from the Lord his children sever;
unto them his grace he showeth,
and their sorrows all he knoweth.

Praise the Lord in joyful numbers,
your Protector never slumbers;
at the will of your Defender
ev'ry foeman must surrender.

Though he giveth or he taketh
God his children ne'er forsaketh;
his the lovely purpose solely
to preserve them pure and holy

One must give the translator and The New Century Hymnal high marks for taking Lina Sandell's hymn seriously. There is even a biographical statement beneath the hymn: Lina Sandell endured many hardships in her early years, including illness, the death of a child, and the drowning of her father who was a Swedish Lutheran pastor. She maintained a deep piety and strong commitment to mission, and wrote more than 650 hymns and poems.

Singing the new translation among Covenanters would, no doubt, receive a cold reception if not a hot protest: What have you done with the hymn we have sung at baptisms, weddings, funerals and numerous other occasions? Beyond the sentiment attached to the hymn or having the first verse of the Swedish text beneath it, what might make this new translation unacceptable to a Covenanter?

While in some ways, the new NCH translation is closer to the original, it seems more distant, lacking in warmth. The emphasis of the hymn as we sing it is on God's embrace and nurture more than safety. (It is placed in our new hymnal under the category of "God the Nurturer.") The lovely image of "safely in his bosom gather"' becomes "held in his favor."

Further, "Neither life nor death shall ever from the Lord his children sever" gives way to abstract doctrine "None shall ever meet rejection, be denied God's own protection." In the same verse "their sorrows all he knoweth" becomes a question: "Has there been a friend who better knows our hopes, our fears that fetter?" It seems to me that the evocative imagery of the God who knows all our sorrows has greater power to comfort especially when standing at the edge of the grave than simply a question about one who knows our hopes and fears.

When the late Erik Routley lectured on hymnody at North Park Seminary in the 70s, I asked what his evaluation of the hymn "Children of the Heavenly Father" might be. He quickly responded: "I think it might be sung too often among your people." The value of a new translation, even if it cannot replace the old, is to make us more aware of what we may be singing too often and thoughtlessly. In using a new translation of this hymn, however, we lose some of the emotional weight that the traditional English translation carries— emotional weight which is closer to the power of what Lina Sandell wrote while seated on the branch of a large ash tree in the backyard of the parsonage at Fröderyd. What moved her to write is still what moves us—knowing God as a loving father, embracing, shielding, and carrying his children in his arms.

Glen Wiberg (d. 2017), was a Covenant pastor and writer. He was Chairperson of the Covenant Hymnal Commission.

See all articles by Glen Wiberg