America the Beautiful

Text:

In 1893 Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor from Massachusetts, took a trip west. Her destination was Colorado Springs, where she was going to teach a summer class, but she stopped along the way at the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago, where the “White City” exhibition made a deep impression on her. The train took her through the vast Kansas wheat fields, which were a new sight to her New England eyes, accustomed as they were to hills and close horizons. At the end of the summer class, Bates and some Eastern colleagues rode to the top of Pikes Peak, where, as she later wrote, “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind” (as quoted in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Carlton R. Young, p. 209). Before she boarded the train east, she had written the four stanzas of this hymn, incorporating the images of America that had made an impression on her during her trip. Two years later, the text was published in The Congregationalist. Bates revised her text substantially over the years, and its final form appeared in her history of the hymn for the Boston Athenaeum library in 1918.

The first half of each stanza expounds on the beauty of some aspect of America, while the second half of each stanza is a prayer for God’s blessing on the country. Bates’s original four stanzas are usually printed intact, but the first half of the second (“O beautiful for pilgrim feet”) is omitted in some hymnals because it seems to celebrate the way the white European settlers treated the Native Americans as they took over the American continent. However, the second half is always used, replacing the second half of the third or fourth stanzas; it is a beautiful prayer.

Tune:

MATERNA, composed by Samuel Ward, is Latin for “motherly” It derives its name from the hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem,” for which it was originally written. Accounts vary on whether he wrote it on his shirt cuff while crossing New York Harbor in 1882, or whether he wrote it in memory of his daughter in 1885. Whichever is the case, it was not published until 1888 in The Parish Choir. It was paired with Bates’s text in 1912. This pairing became very popular during World War I, and has remained well-known ever since.

When/Why/How:

This patriotic hymn is best suited for Memorial Day or Independence Day. Its use can vary from an emphasis on country, as in the handbell medley “Freedom Rings” (which includes MATERNA, AMERICA, and BATTLE HYMN) or an emphasis on God, as in a “Litany for America,” in which the hymn is interspersed with readings and prayers. Alternatively, the hymn can be used alone for a prelude or special music in a textless instrumental setting such as is found in “Let Freedom Ring” for piano.

Tiffany Shomsky, Hymnary.org

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