Home History of Hymns: "Many and Great"

History of Hymns: "Many and Great"

"Many and Great"
Joseph R. Renville
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 148

Many and great, O God, are thy things,
Maker of earth and sky.
Thy hands have set the heavens with stars;
thy fingers spread the mountains and plains.
Lo, at thy word the waters were formed;
deep seas obey thy voice.


"Many and Great" is perhaps the only Native American hymn to be sung broadly in North America beyond its original Dakota culture.

The author and composer of the text and tune, Joseph Renville (1779-1846), was an Indian guide and fur trader of French-Dakota lineage. He received a Roman Catholic education in the French language.

In addition to serving as a guide, he also became a British captain in the War of 1812. Having founded the Columbia Fur Company in 1822, he sold it to the larger American Fur Company in 1827.

The tune name LAC QUI PARLE (lake that speaks) comes from a long, narrow lake running northwest to southeast near the present border of Minnesota and South Dakota. From a settlement at the southeast foot of the lake, Renville made annual treks to Fort Snelling at Mendota at the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, near what is now Minneapolis and St. Paul.

In 1835 Maj. Taliaherro, an agent at the fort, persuaded Renville to permit a missionary presence at Lac qui Parle, perhaps as a way to deal with the ongoing conflicts between the Ojibway and Dakota in the region.

These missionaries, according to scholar Monte Mason, organist and musical director at the Episcopal St. Martin's by the Lake, Minnetonka Beach, Minn., "took part in an experiment in cross-culturalism the likes of which the prairies had not seen."

According to Mr. Mason, the results of the encounter between the missionaries included a Dakota/English dictionary, Dakota translations of the Bible, a Dakota grammar, a Dakota translation of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, a Dakota newspaper and school curriculum, and most important for our purposes, a Dakota hymnal, Dakota Odowan (Dakota Song), produced by the missionaries -- minister Stephen Riggs, physician John Williamson and composer James Murray.

Dakota Odowan is still used today. It contains primarily 19th-century English hymnody in translation, hymns that the Presbyterian missionaries would have known.

A words-only edition appeared in 1841, and a music edition appeared sometime after 1854. A more recent printing in 1969 confirms the hymnal's continued use and includes photographs of the Dakota community.

Mr. Mason notes that "six of the 108 hymns are of Dakota derivation and the missionary journals proclaim they were written by Joseph Renville himself." Additional research indicates that these six hymns may have been arranged from pre-existing Dakota sources by Renville.

Raymond Glover, editor of The Hymnal 1982 Companion (Episcopal), suggests that the melody is a funeral song to be sung in procession, existing before the text was written. What is beyond dispute is that Joseph Renville was a significant political and economic presence in this community, a bridge-builder between cultures, and a partner with Protestant missionaries in the expansion of Christianity in the region.

Carlton Young, editor of The United Methodist Hymnal, notes that the original hymn had seven stanzas and is a paraphrase of the creation hymn in Jeremiah 10:12-13: "He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion. When he uttereth his voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens, and he causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; he maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasures." (KJV)

The original text, beginning with "Wakantanka taku nitawu," was paraphrased in 1929 by Philip Frazer (1892-1964) for a national YWCA meeting in 1930. Correspondence from Mr. Frazier's wife, Suzie, with United Methodist hymnologist Fred Gaely, indicates that Mr. Frazier prepared the paraphrase "because for years this hymn had appeared in camp songbooks and young people had been singing the Indian words, not knowing what they meant, but they loved to sing it for the lovely native tune."

Richard Proulx, arranger of the music for The UM Hymnal, has provided a simple accompaniment primarily in unison octaves with a sustained pitch, and a suggested drum pattern. This is in contrast to earlier Western harmonizations that set the tune in traditional four-part hymn style.

The more recent, simple setting gives prominence to the majestic melody and allows the singer to focus on the power and majesty of God through this text.

This truly "American" hymn should be in every congregation's repertoire.

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