Posted by: rcottrill | August 19, 2015

America the Beautiful

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Words: Katharine Lee Bates (b. Aug. 12, 1859; d. Mar. 28, 1929)
Music: Materna, by Samuel Augustus Ward (b. Dec. 28, 1847; d. Sept. 28, 1903)

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Note: The father and grandfather of Katharine Lee Bates were both Congregational clergyman. After graduating from Wellesley College, she taught high school for six years, then returned to Wellesley as a teacher, eventually becoming head of the English department. She served as either the author or editor of some twenty books.

The song has always had four stanzas, even back to the original 1893 poem, though these have undergone some revision, especially in the first couple of decades. The Cyber Hymnal uses only three stanzas, but I have included the second stanza as it’s found in the 1913 version.

Many nations have their national songs, and their official anthems. What exactly are they for? Some express best wishes for a leader or sovereign (as does God Save the Queen); some honour a significant event (as does The Star-Spangled Banner, which celebrates the American’s successful defense of Fort McHenry against the British).

National anthems can also take the form of prayers and aspirations for the nation. The last stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner does that. So does the little-used final stanza of O Canada. And we do need to pray for our nation and its leaders, “that we lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Tim. 2:1-4).

Notice how this Scripture deals with both physical safety and freedom of religion, both our personal well-being, and our right to honour our spiritual convictions. Though democratic governments strive to be tolerant in the area of religion, they are basically secular and irreligious. Yet it is still true that “righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people” (Prov. 14:34). And “in every nation whoever fears [God] and works righteousness is accepted by Him” (Acts 10:35).

The call for divine aid in fulfilment of a people’s righteous vision, is expressed with great insight in stirring lines of verse, in America the Beautiful. If it be argued by my fellow citizens that we are Canadians, and this song belongs south of the border, it should be noted, first, that much of what it says applies to any nation. Second, do we not need to pray for the United States and its leaders? If so, then this song provides thoughtful direction for those prayers.

America has received a great deal of criticism over the years. Yes, some of it is justified. But it also seems the fashion to pick on whoever’s on top of the heap. As the saying goes, to take them down a peg or two. Surely balance is needed. America has given vital aid to many struggling people around the world. And if they have fallen short of Emma Lazarus’s moving words on the Statue of Liberty, it is still true that tens of thousands of “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” have found a new life there.

Which brings us to our hymn. One summer in 1893, Bates and a group of friends scaled the top of Pike’s Peak in the American Rockies. A New Englander, this was her first trip to the West. In her diary, she wrote: “Gazed in wordless rapture over the expanse of mountain ranges and sea-like sweep of the plains.” The grandeur of the scene, spreading out more than four kilometers below, inspired her to write her national song.

CH-1) O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain;
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.

2) O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

The words provide a worthy prayer that the citizens of Miss Bates’s country need to ponder carefully, and principles that should be addressed by our own nation of Canada too. She perceptively defines a nation’s true heroes:

CH-2) O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine.

Amen! And we all need God’s grace to do that (I Cor. 15:10; Heb. 4:14-16). The concluding stanza envisions “alabaster cities…undimmed by human tears.” Though this suits well the coming millennial reign of Christ, it will not be achieved before. However, having said that, these things are worthy of pursuit, even if they remain beyond reach. Liberty bounded by law, and gains that are pleasing to God. Noble aims indeed!

CH-3) O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam,
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control,
Thy liberty in law.

1) What are the factors that keep a nation from achieving such great goals?

2) What can we do, as Christians, to have a positive influence on our nation?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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