History of Hymns: “Great is the Lord” and “How Majestic Is Your Name”
By C. Michael Hawn
“Great is the Lord,” by Michael W. Smith and Deborah D. Smith;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2022
“How Majestic Is Your Name,” by Michael W. Smith;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2023
“Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; and his greatness is
Psalm 145:3 (KJV)
“O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”
Psalm 8:1a, 9 (RSV)
The Psalms have always been a fertile source of inspiration for musicians. From monastic psalm chants and the metrical versions of the psalms by John Calvin’s followers, to the more liberal paraphrases of Isaac Watts, singing the psalms in some form has been important throughout Christianity. It is no wonder that contemporary Christian artists such as Michael W. Smith (b. 1957) should turn to the psalms as a source for texts and musical inspiration.
Mr. Smith is often considered a "crossover artist" — attaining recognition in both sacred and secular venues. In the early 1990s, this West Virginia native achieved the reputation of being the male counterpart to Amy Grant (b. 1960). His crossover song and music video “Place in This World” (1990) peaked at number 6 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and “I Will Be Here for You” (1992), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JN-vgjs__gk, reached number 1 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart.
The road to such recognition was not easy, however. Moving to Nashville in 1978, Mr. Smith struggled with drugs and low self-esteem before making a faith commitment to Christ. In 1981, he began working with the Christian band “Higher Ground” and writing songs for Meadowgreen Music, a leading publisher of contemporary Christian music. “How Majestic Is Your Name” achieved hit status when Sandi Patty (b. 1956) recorded it. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K85vE3CxH2c.)
Mr. Smith received another boost in his career in 1982 when he was asked to play keyboards in a band backing up Amy Grant. He also was composing his own songs. According to his website:
Amy’s managers, Mike Blanton and Dan Harrell, could not find a Christian record label that would sign Michael or a young New Yorker named Kathy Troccoli. Believing so much in these two young talents, they started Reunion Records. Michael made his very first record in 1983 and it was called “Michael W. Smith Project.” Michael wrote all the music and wife Debbie wrote the lyrics. . . Michael continued to tour with Amy, now as her opening act. (“Michael W. Smith: Then and Now,” http://www.ccmclassic.com/artists/michael-w-smith.html)
“Great Is the Lord” was included on this, his first album.
With the name, Rocketown, derived from a youth ministry Smith founded in 1994—Rocketown— as a “place for teens to gather in a safe, loving environment,” he started Rocketown Records with Reunion Records’ executive Don Donahue. Author Rob Redman noted that this was an example of a smaller label being developed under one of the largest secular recording companies, EMI, within its Christian Music Division. Such arrangements were common in the contemporary Christian music industry because they assured the quality of the recording as well as the best distribution, especially in the time before mp3 files and other online music distribution outlets (Redman, 2002, 59). Unlike larger labels, the “dream [was] to be part of a label where great songs were the focus, where artists, not acts, were developed” (“Michael W. Smith: Then and Now”).
Closely related to this was the nomenclature that evolved. Was the music produced contemporary Christian music (CCM) or contemporary worship music (CWM)? Robb Redman, author of The Great Worship Awakening, weighs in on this discussion:
In the early 1990s, the CCM scene was rocked by corporate buyouts of the Christian labels Word and Sparrow. As a result, some began to wonder about the mission of CCM and the spiritual integrity of the artists. Was CCM about ministry or making money? In its first years, many agreed that the mission of CCM was music for witness and evangelism. Later, people began to wonder whether artists were serving Christ or their careers (Redman, 2002, 60).
Redman notes that the “line between message music [music directed to Christians and non-believers] and worship music [songs addressed to God] was never clear to begin with.” He continues to note that Michael W. Smith and Twila Paris (b. 1958) “begin concerts with worship that typically includes new worship music and hymn arrangements, prayer, and a brief meditation on a passage of scripture” (Redman, 2002, 60). More recently, Monique Ingalls includes both categories under the larger heading of CPM (Christian popular music). In her discussion of praise and worship music, she notes that many in the industry distinguish “between music designed for testimony and concerned with the art of professional performance [CCM] on the one hand, and music created for participatory, congregational song [CWM] on the other.” (Ingalls, Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology). By either definition, the two songs under consideration seem to fall primarily into contemporary worship music (CWM).
Michael W. Smith has a long list of awards and recognitions: he is a three-time Grammy winner, including the best gospel performance (1984), and he has forty GMA Dove Awards, including songwriter of the year (1986). When he set his sights on moving toward a mainstream audience, it did not prove difficult for him. Mr. Smith won the coveted Male Vocalist of the Year at the Dove Awards in 2003. He has sold more than 13 million albums, including those achieving gold (14) and platinum (5) status (“Michael W. Smith: Then and Now”).
As was the case with Amy Grant, who has often toured with Smith, becoming a crossover artist can bring out some critics in the Christian community. But after 22 albums, Mr. Smith is still going strong. As recently as 2015, Smith received a Dove Award for Christmas Album of the Year.
“Great Is the Lord” (1982) by Smith and his wife Debbie, a Wheaton College alumna and writer, and “How Majestic Is Your Name” (1981) by Smith were written at the time the Smiths were active at Belmont Church (rooted in the Churches of Christ tradition) on Music Row in Nashville.
“Great is the Lord draws upon Psalm 145:3, with allusions to various attributes of God: God’s justice (Psalm 98:9), God’s omnipotence (Psalm 33:9), God’s faithfulness (Psalm 36:5), God’s truth (Isaiah 65:16), and God’s love (John 3:16). The stanzas end with the imperative command, “Lift up your voice!” (Isaiah 58:1).
“How Majestic Is Your Name” draws heavily from Psalm 8:1a, 9 as translated in the Revised Standard Version. The syncopated rhythms and abbreviated singing range draw congregational singers into the energy of the text. Allusions to Isaiah 9:6 in the second half of the song — “Prince of Peace, mighty God” — fill out the song.
Recalling the composition of “Great Is the Lord,” Lindsay Terry set the context in a discussion with Deborah D. Smith:
[Debbie] and Michael used to write praise and worship choruses together during the evening hours. Michael seemed to do his best work at night, and sometimes the couple used a candle for light. Before writing a song, they would read the Bible, and God would inspire their hearts with a particular passage of Scripture . . .
During one of these late evening writing sessions, in 1982, God led Michael and Debbie to a particular passage of Scripture that they both thought would be a good song. Debbie wrote a few lines of the lyrics as Michael worked on the music. The words and the musical writing of “Great Is the Lord” came together at the same time . . . Michael thought it was something that he would like to share with others, especially people at their church, Belmont Church in Nashville (Terry, 2002, 25).
CCLI (Christian Copyright Licensing International) lists over 200 songs attributed to Michael W. Smith as composer or contributor. After 35 years, the two songs discussed here have become Christian classics in this genre. They may no longer appear in the CCLI Top 100, but they continue to bear witness.
For further reading:
Ingalls, Monique M., Andrew Mall, and Anne E. Nekola. "Christian Popular Music, USA." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed November 13, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/c/christian-popular-music,-usa.
Price, Deborah Evans. “Michael W. Smith, Christian Music Icon, Leaving Provident for Capitol Christian,” Billboardbiz (July 18, 2013), http://www.billboard.com/biz/articles/news/2709311/michael-w-smith-christian-music-icon-leaving-provident-for-capitol.
Redman, Robb. The Great Worship Awakening: Singing a New Song in the Postmodern Church. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.
“Michael W. Smith: Then & Now,” ccmclassic.com, http://www.ccmclassic.com/artists/michael-w-smith.html.
Terry, Lindsay. The Sacrifice of Praise: Stories Behind the Greatest Praise and Worship Songs of All Time. Nashville: Integrity Publishers, 2002.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor and Director for the Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University