Legendary composer Irving Berlin wrote his iconic God Bless America for a musical revue while in the Army during World War I, but he shelved it.
One hundred years later, it turns out his patriotic hymn petitioning the Almighty for his blessings and peace on the United States has achieved a far wider exposure and impact, as it is sung at every professional baseball game and at countless other events, religious and civic.
As the United States prepares to celebrate its 242nd birthday, God Bless America, The Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, America (My Country ’Tis of Thee), the Battle Hymn of the Republic and others will be sung from coast to coast with great gusto.
However, some of these anthems do much more than stir patriotic emotions; they reflect the religious roots of the country and her inhabitants’ dependence on and gratitude to God for all of America’s blessings.
“Especially on the Fourth of July, we sing several patriotic hymns, such as The National Hymn, God Bless America and My Country Tis of Thee,” said retired Navy chaplain Father Aidan Logan, who served 20 years in the military and currently serves as vocations director for the Archdiocese for the Military Services (MilArch.org).
“They all invoke God.”
The military chaplain explained that, through these songs, true patriotism and worship can join together.
Said Father Logan, “Patriotism is a natural virtue that we are expected to exercise as good Christians. We have a natural bond to the place of our home, or adopted home, and with our fellow countrymen.”
The stories of these patriotic hymns are part of both Americana and faith.
God Bless America
God Bless America, celebrating its centenary, was written by Berlin (1888-1989), a Russian-Jewish immigrant while he was in the U.S. Army. Considered by many the quintessential American songwriter of most of the 20th century, he is the author of countless standards, including Easter Parade, Blue Skies and White Christmas.
At the time, Kate Smith, America’s No. 1 female singer, asked Berlin for a new patriotic song for her weekly radio show, The Kate Smith Hour, to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day, today known as Veteran’s Day.
According to sources, including the Library of Congress and Richard Hayes, the late co-founder of the Kate Smith Commemorative Society, Berlin turned to God Bless America. He had written it for an Army camp show where he was stationed during World War I, but decided not to use it then. No one ever heard that version. He pulled the song out of his trunk, where it had gathered dust for 20 years, rewrote some lyrics and gave it to Smith.
The lyrics asking God to Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above came when World War II was on the horizon.
The opening verse identifies the song is meant to be a prayer: While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,/ Let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free;/ Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,/As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
“I wanted it to be a song of peace,” Berlin would later tell a newspaper editor.
Introducing the song at the end of her weekly show as millions across America listened, Smith announced quite prophetically, “And now it’s going to be my very great privilege to sing for you a song that’s never been sung before by anybody. … It’s something more than a song. I feel it’s one of the most beautiful compositions ever written, a song that will never die.”
The response of the U.S. public was immediate: Phone calls flooded in, proving Smith and Berlin right. Smith sang this song-prayer on practically every show of hers though 1940; it became her signature song.
The outpouring for God Bless America was tremendous. According to Hayes, “The lyrics were inserted into the Congressional Record, and there was a movement to make the song our national anthem.”
In the 1943 movie This Is the Army, at the insistence of Berlin, Smith appeared to recreate her radio premiere of the song-anthem-hymn, including the rarely heard opening “prayer” verse.
At the same time, there began a remarkable offshoot to this story. Smith began worshipping at Catholic churches, and, 25 years later, in 1965, she converted to the Catholic faith at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, New York.
“She was an active parishioner and came to Mass every Sunday,” Father James Kane told the Register in 2010, when the U.S. Postal Service issued a first-class stamp picturing Smith singing God Bless America.
“She was very patriotic and religious — both,” the priest recounted.
God Bless America was the last song Smith sang for her final professional appearance for a July 4 bicentennial special. Following a long illness, she died in 1986 and was buried at St. Agnes.
America the Beautiful
America the Beautiful first saw the light as a poem published July 4, 1895. Two years earlier on Independence Day, Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), an English professor at Wellesley College, was traveling to teach in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the summer when, from her train window, she spotted the Kansas wheat fields’ “amber waves of grain.”
During a Colorado excursion to the top of the 14,000-foot Pikes Peak, she was overwhelmed by “purple mountain majesties above the fruited plains.” She was thus inspired to pen the words so familiar to millions of Americans.
Popular from the start, the poem America the Beautiful became lyrics for the song in 1904, when Bates discovered a hym called Materna (first named O Mother, Dear Jerusalem), written by Newark, New Jersey, organist and composer Samuel Ward (1847-1903).
The song was an instant hit and has been popular ever since, especially the refrain, with its patriotic prayer that changes slightly with repetition:
America! America! God shed his grace on thee,/ And crown thy good with brotherhood,/ From sea to shining sea!
The second stanza continues the prayer with a humble plea to God for help: America! America! God mend thine every flaw,/ Confirm thy soul in self-control,/ Thy liberty in law.
And hope continues in the third stanza:
May God thy gold refine,/ Till all success be nobleness,/ And every gain divine!
The hymn was considered the unofficial national anthem until an act of Congress in 1931 officially chose The Star-Spangled Banner.
A century before this act, in Massachusetts in 1831, Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895) penned America, popularly known as My Country ’Tis of Thee. This hymn was sung for the first time July 4, 1832, at a children’s Independence Day service at the Park Street Church in Boston, across from Boston Common and next to the cemetery where patriot Samuel Adams is buried.
According to the Library of Congress record, while studying to be a Baptist minister, Smith wrote all five stanzas in a half-hour while helping a well-known organist translate foreign texts to be set to melodies. Smith set his own lyrics to music he came across and liked — not realizing it was also the tune for the British anthem, God Save the King/God Save the Queen.
To remind Americans of spiritual need, the hymn’s fourth stanza goes: 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.
America became the unofficial national anthem until America the Beautiful came along.
Patriotic Songs at Mass
God Bless America, America the Beautiful and America are among the suggested recessional hymns for Mass each July 4 and other patriotic holidays.
“These are all good pieces of music. They have been tested by time and have endured,” said Tom Porter, professor of music and chair of the music department at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Porter says respect for the order and prayers of the liturgy should be the foundation at patriotic-themed Masses. With a text that is “somewhat sacred but not necessarily liturgical,” the most obvious place for such “music that has patriotic sentiments and still focused on God” is the recessional, or concluding, hymn at Mass. If the priest includes the concept of Independence Day in the homily, that makes “a stronger case.”
At the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, also called America’s Catholic Church, director of music Peter Latona said using patriotic hymns or songs at Mass depends on the occasion and context. For the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, he said liturgies at the shrine usually will close with a patriotic hymn. Generally speaking, on those days, he said, “We would use God of our Fathers and would perhaps include America the Beautiful — obviously, hymns that sound like a prayer, invoke God and ask God’s blessings as a prayer.”
For the special Memorial Day Mass held for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, Latona explained that The Star-Spangled Banner is sung at the beginning as the flag and colors are posted because “that is a very special occasion.” Eternal Father, Strong to Save (The Navy Hymn, which mentions all branches of the service) is also sung.
He cautioned against compositions and performances in any Masses that would distract the congregation from prayer.
“Sometimes there’s much which takes us elsewhere,” said Latona.
“For the purpose of the Mass, you want to keep hearts and minds focused on what’s going on in praise of God. That’s the primary thing.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.
READ about more patriotic songs.
ALSO LISTEN TO REGISTER RADIO episode on patriotic hymns