History of Hymns: “Thy Holy Wings, O Savior”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Thy Holy Wings, O Savior"
Caroline V. Sandell-Berg; trans. by Gracia Grindal
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 502

Caroline V. Sandell-Berg

Thy holy wings, O Savior,
spread gently over me,
and let me rest securely
through good and ill in thee.
O be my strength and portion,
my rock and hiding place,
and let my every moment
be lived within thy grace.
*

Caroline [Karolina] Wilhelmina Sandell-Berg (1832-1903) wrote one of the most beloved Swedish hymns, "Children of the Heavenly Father," a hymn that demonstrates the rich heritage of congregational song and folk music that Scandinavian Christians have given the world.

Karolina Sandell was born in Fröderyd, Småland, Sweden, the daughter of a Lutheran minister who was influenced by seventeenth- and eighteenth-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.'"

Like "Children of the Heavenly Father," "Thy holy wings, O Savior" also is sung to a Swedish folk song, in this case, BRED DINA VIDA VINGAR. The relationship between this text and tune extends back to 1889 in a hymnal compiled in part by Sandell-Berg, Sionstoner (Melodies of Zion).

The text was first included in Korsblomman (Cross Flower) in 1866 as "Children’s Evening Prayer." The text draws upon a number of biblical images. Psalm 91:4 inspires the opening two lines: "He shall cover you with His feathers, and under His wings you shall take refuge." (NKJV)

In correspondence with the author, Per Harling notes that the most important biblical image to the hymn comes from Luke 13:34, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing." As the Rev. Harling observes, "It is all about Jesus being a HEN!"

Harling continues that Sandell "probably was quite influenced by the great seventeenth-century German hymn writer Paul Gerhardt [1607-1676] and his hymn 'Nun ruhen alle Wälder' ['Now all the forests rest']." Sandell quotes a line almost directly from stanza seven of Gerhardt’s hymn as the opening lines of this hymn. The original German was translated to Swedish. A literal English translation from the Swedish is: "Spread out your wide wings, O Jesus, over me and let your little chicken hide in you."

The fifth and sixth lines of stanza one, "O be my strength and portion,my rock and hiding place," echoes Psalm 119:114: "You are my hiding place and my shield" (NKJV).

Stanza two was influenced by Psalm 51:10: "Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me" (KJV). The final lines of stanza two are a beautiful children’s bedtime prayer:
   And take into thy keeping
   thy children great and small,
   and while we sweetly slumber,
   enfold us one and all.

 

The translator, Gracia Grindal (b. 1943), was born in North Dakota, where she lived until age twelve. She and her parents then moved to Salem, Oregon, where she finished high school. In 1965, Ms. Grindal graduated from Augsburg College and then spent a year in Oslo, Norway. She continued her education at the University of Arkansas where she received an M.F.A. in 1969.

During the summers of 1967 and 1969, Ms. Grindal worked for Augsburg Publishing House as an editorial assistant. She was a member of the English department and poet-in-residence from 1968-1984 at Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. She also earned a master’s degree from Luther Seminary in 1983 and joined the faculty in 1984 as a professor of pastoral theology, a position she continues to hold.

Ms. Grindal was a member of the hymn text committee of the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). She has written articles on topics that include the history of Scandinavian-American Lutheran hymnody, the women of the Norwegian-American Lutheran churches, and how to write hymns. Some of her books include We Are One in Christ, Sketches Against the Dark, Pulpit Rock, Lessons in Hymnwriting and A Treasury of Faith.

Ms. Grindal wrote and translated many hymns that appear in mainline hymnals including Episcopalian, Lutheran, Mennonite, Methodist, and Presbyterian, including hymns to accompany the Scriptures for Years A, B, and C in the Common Lectionary.

 

* © 1983 by Gracia Grindal

Dr. Hawn is distinguished professor of church music at Perkins School of Theology. He is also director of the seminary's sacred music program.

Categories: History of Hymns

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