History of Hymns: “Children of the Heavenly Father”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Children of the Heavenly Father"
Caroline V. Sandell-Berg; trans. by Ernst W. Olson
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 141

Caroline V. Sandell-Berg

Children of the heavenly Father
Safely in his bosom gather;
Nestling bird nor star in heaven
Such a refuge e’er was given.

Scandinavian Christians have a rich heritage of congregational song and folk music. This heritage comes together in the beautiful hymn “Children of the Heavenly Father,” by one of the most beloved Swedish hymn writers, Caroline [Karolina] Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg (1832-1903). 

Karolina Sandell was born in Fröderyd, Småland, Sweden, the daughter of a Lutheran minister who was influenced by 17th and 18th century pietism and the Moravians. She found her voice in the poetry of hymns, writing as many as 2000 hymns, 650 of which were published in three collections. 

Per Harling, Swedish Lutheran minister and Sandell’s most recent biographer, notes that at “the age of 21 her first collection of poems was published (1853), followed by one more two years later. The collections had no author’s name though. She did not want to pride herself upon her writing.... Lina Sandell became Sweden’s first successful female head of a publishing house. She would never have called herself the head of it though, but rather what others called her: ‘Stiftelsens lilla piga,’ which means ‘The little maid of the Association.’” 

Many commentaries on this hymn state that Sandell-Berg wrote the original Swedish hymn “Tryggare kan ingen vara” in 1858 as a result of her father’s tragic death by drowning. Mr. Harling, drawing upon research by Swedish hymnologist Oscar Lövgren, suggests that Sandell wrote the hymn much earlier, around 1850 when she was only 17 or 18 years of age: 

“By the end of the 1840s and the beginning of the 50s Europe was… chang[ing]…. In France the February revolution riots in Paris in 1848 had spread to other European cities, including Stockholm. Sweden had in 1850 sent troops to help Denmark, which combated a rebellion in Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. The conservative ideas of King Karl IV were superseded by strong liberal forces, who wanted to completely change Swedish society. In 1848 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their revolutionary thoughts in The Communist Manifest. Industrialism [was replacing] agricultural [life in] Sweden. 

“In the midst of these revolutionary and turbulent … times a small and sick Lina Sandell sat in her favourite ash tree in the garden of the vicarage and wrote about the safety of the faithful crowd. Her first [version of the] text said nothing about children, only about the faithful crowd of Christians throughout history. The first verse started: ‘No one can be safer than the faithful little crowd.’ Probably she thought of the martyrs of the Christian story. Later an editor changed her text and put in the image of children. Thus it became a song about and for children.” 

The English-language translator of our hymn, Ernst William Olson (1870-1958), was born in Sweden but came to the United States at an early age with his family. Olson made his translation in 1925 for this hymnal and, based on the mistaken notion of the hymn’s origins as a response to her father’s death, entitled it “A Hymn Born of a Broken Heart.” At least of one of the omitted stanzas can be read in light of the political situation described by Mr. Harling above:

Praise the Lord in joyful numbers:
Your Protector never slumbers.
At the will of your Defender
Every foeman must surrender.

Mr. Harling puts “Children of the Heavenly Father” in the context of contemporary Swedish life: “Today it is the baptism hymn in Sweden. Almost no baptism can take place without singing this hymn. At the same time it is quite astonishing that this hymn has become a baptism hymn, since it does not say anything about baptism. And the Swedish text is full of pictures and metaphors derived from the Biblical story, which almost nobody... knows anymore in the very secular [culture of] Sweden. But still it is sung and loved.”

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns