Posted by: rcottrill | April 14, 2014

America (My Country, ‘Tis of Thee)

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Words: Samuel Francis Smith (b. Oct. 21, 1808; d. Nov. 16, 1895)
Music: America (composer unknown; the first appearance of the tune in Thesaurus Musicus, 1745)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: This stirring and beautiful hymn is sometimes called simply America. The stories of how it came to be written in 1831 have varied. A likely version is told in the Wordwise Hymns link. The tune, of course, was already being used in Britain for God Save the King (or Queen). Though its origin is uncertain, it has been claimed that the English composer was Henry Carey (1685-1743). But its British use apparently wasn’t realized by Smith at the time he saw it. Greatly impressed by the melody, he says:

“I instantly felt the impulse to write a patriotic hymn of my own, adapted to the tune. Picking up a scrap of waste paper which lay near me, I wrote at once, probably within half an hour, the hymn America as it is now known everywhere.”

CH-1) My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From every mountainside,
Let freedom ring!

T he song has been criticized because it does not represent in its imagery the full sweep of the continent. Samuel Smith was born and died in Boston. He might be enraptured by the “rocks and rills [brooks],” and the “woods and templed hills” of New England (CH-2), but America is much more than that. Missing are the towering western mountains and the endless vistas of open prairie, “the oceans white with foam” of God Bless America. And the “spacious skies” and “amber waves of grain” of America the Beautiful.

But what has kept Smith’s hymn in use for nearly two centuries is its burning passion for freedom. America is a “sweet land of liberty,” so “let freedom ring.” The latter phrase was used with telling effect by Martin Luther King, in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. Freedom is mentioned in four of the hymn’s five stanzas, and strongly implied in CH-3 (now omitted) which says:

CH-3) No more shall tyrants here
With haughty steps appear,
And soldier bands;
No more shall tyrants tread
Above the patriot dead–
No more our blood be shed
By alien hands.

The sentiment of the hymn reflects the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” of the nation’s Declaration of Independence, and the throbbing passion of the lines by Emma Lazarus, found on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Though the song was born nearly a century before Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech in 1941, the theme is echoed there as well, with it’s call for freedom of speech, and of worship, and freedom from want, and from fear itself.

It’s a desire for freedom from political and religious tyranny that has driven many to the shores of the “New World,” and that is so ingrained in the nation’s psyche that it remains and the forefront of political discourse and debate. The question remains, however, as to how well America has fulfilled this self-proclaimed mandate. For Martin Luther King, in the 60’s, with a large percentage of the population disenfranchised and disadvantaged, it was still an unrealized “dream.”

Being a Canadian, I speak with some caution, of our good neighbours to the south. Our path to independence has been different, but the ideal of personal liberty is found here too, as is our struggle to sustain it. And given the nature of this blog, I also want to speak as a Christian. What of the believer’s freedom in Christ?

The Bible too talks of liberty. Christian liberty from sin and Satan’s tyranny (Col. 1:13), but also liberty in a deeper sense. The believer is reborn into the family of God, when he puts his faith in the merits of Christ’s sacrifice. In this way he is freed from the struggle to gain God’s acceptance by his own efforts. Saved by the grace of God, good works become a loving response to salvation, not a way to earn it (Eph. 2:8-10).

We have the further responsibility not to abuse this liberty. To “stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (Gal. 5:1), and “not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh [the selfish sin nature], but through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). We are to “beware lest somehow this liberty of [ours] become a stumbling block to those who are weak” (I Cor. 8:9).

Freedom for the Christian in society involves the ability to worship and serve God without governmental restraint, or the oppression and persecution those who disagree. To preserve this right, the Bible exhorts us to pray for our national leaders (I Tim. 2:1-4).

CH-5) Our fathers’ God, to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing;
Long may our land be bright
With freedom’s holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God, our King.

1) Do you feel that religious freedom in your country is greater or less today than it was a generation ago?

2) What things can individual Christians and local churches do to strengthen national freedom?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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