The Fourth of July is a good time for some stirring patriotic songs.
But more than stirring emotions, such songs reflect the religious roots of our country.
America, America the Beautiful, God Bless America and others are often sung as the recessional after Mass on patriotic holidays like Independence Day.
The first to come along was America. It was sung for the first time on July 4, 1832.
Also known as My Country ’Tis of Thee, this hymn was penned by Samuel Francis Smith in Massachusetts in 1831. While studying to be a Baptist minister, he wrote all five stanzas in just 30 minutes.
Smith set the song to a melody he enjoyed — the music for the British national anthem, God Save the King or God Save the Queen, depending who occupies the throne.
When used as a hymn at Mass after the final blessing, the fourth stanza should be included:
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.
A little over a half century later, the heart-stirring America the Beautiful made its debut as a published poem on July 4, 1895.
It was during a train trip on July 4, 1893, that Katherine Lee Bates first started thinking of the song.
An English professor at an Eastern college, Bates was traveling to teach in Colorado Springs, Colo., for the summer when she spotted the “amber waves of grain” in the Kansas wheat fields.
That summer, she took a trip to the top of Pikes Peak, and she was overwhelmed by the “purple mountains majesty above the fruited plains”; afterward, she started composing the poem.
It took several tries with different musical settings before Bates discovered a hymn called Materna (first named O Mother, Dear Jerusalem), written by Newark, N.J., organist and composer Samuel A. Ward.
That was in 1904 — and America the Beautiful 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 …
God mend thine ev’ry flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!
Then came along the song that almost became our new national anthem — God Bless America.
The song, written by composer Irving Berlin, had quite a history before it came to be used as a church hymn on patriotic holidays.
In 1938, Kate Smith, the country’s most popular female vocalist at the time, wanted to sing a new patriotic song on her radio show to observe the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day — today called Veterans Day.
According to sources, including the archivist of the Kate Smith Commemorative Society, Berlin had written the song for a World War I show 20 years earlier, but it was never used in the show and remained unheard for the next two decades.
He pulled it from his file, tweaked the lyrics a bit, and gave it to Smith. She sang it for the first time on Nov. 10, 1938, and the song immediately struck a chord with Americans.
The stirring lyrics — asking God to Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above — came at a time when World War II was on the horizon, and these lyrics remain needed today.
In fact, the song’s opening verse, which, unfortunately, is often omitted, identifies that 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.
Father John Trigilio Jr., author, co-host of EWTN’s Web of Faith 2.0, and pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Marysville, Pa., uses God Bless America for Masses on the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
“Everybody knows it by heart,” he says. He likes the other two hymns and may use them also, but many people don’t know the verses from memory as well as they do for God Bless America.
“Not only is God Bless America easy to sing,” he says, “its theology is on the same page as our Catholic faith.”
Father Trigilio says that using such hymns is “not blind patriotism — my country right or wrong — but it’s a well-reasoned patriotism.”
The priest finds “no problem with patriotic hymns in church, as long as their theology is accurate. I have more problems with Amazing Grace than with using patriotic hymns in church because of the theological problems caused. The central theme of Amazing Grace says we’re a wretch (and) amazing grace covers it over. Catholic theology says different: We are not wretches; we are wounded, and grace heals us.”
What he also finds good about the hymns is that they can “build up unity … as God-fearing Americans.”
In a past conversation with the Register, Linda Schafer, editor of the St. Michael Hymnal, which is used by many parishes throughout the country, pointed out that another good patriotic hymn is God of Our Fathers. Although it appears in the hymnal along with the others, except for God Bless America, it is sung more by Protestants.
It was written by Daniel Roberts, an Episcopalian rector, in 1876, to be sung for the Fourth of July Centennial Celebration — the centennial of the Declaration of Independence — in Brandon, Vt.
The hymn was used as the introductory hymn for the closing Mass for the “Fortnight for Freedom” on July 4, 2012, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. America the Beautiful was the recessional at that Mass.
“We have patriotic music at that Mass,” says Peter Latona, director of music at the basilica. “The text of God of Our Fathers is really God-centered, which is why I like this hymn. It is really addressed to God, as opposed to America the Beautiful.”
The text asks God:
Be thou our Ruler, Guardian, Guide and Stay,
Thy word our law,
Thy paths our chosen way.
From war’s alarms, from deadly pestilence,
Be thy strong arm, our ever sure defense;
Thy true religion in our hearts increase,
Thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace. …
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
And glory, laud and praise be ever thine.
Latona believes “it’s powerful to combine the patriotic with the religious, particularly in a place like the national shrine [that is] in the nation’s capital. In some ways, the national shrine is referred to as ‘America’s Catholic Church.’ It is the shrine to Our Lady, patroness of the United States and patroness of the Americas.”
Father James Kane, pastor of St. Patrick Church in Ravena, N.Y., and at one time the liturgy director for the Ogdensburg, N.Y., Diocese, believes there needs to be a balance between patriotic hymns and other hymns.
He notes that America the Beautiful certainly has a religious theme, as does the Battle Hymn of the Republic, in which there are “all kinds of references to the Book of Revelation.”
Julia Ward Howe, whose great-grandfather was a delegate to the Continental Congress, wrote Battle Hymn.
About God Bless America, Father Kane explains, “Certainly, in this day and age, we want God to bless our nation. It’s not to downplay other nations. A Godless nation is certainly not a good thing. It’s not good for the nation itself to never bring religion into the public forum. And it’s not a good thing for the local Church to pretend we don’t belong [to the nation].”
Father Kane also offers a pertinent lesson about pairing patriotism and religion in song.
Years ago, when he was stationed at St. Agnes Church in Lake Placid, N.Y., he knew Kate Smith well, as the singer had a summer home in that town and was a parishioner at St. Agnes.
He remembers how she sang her signature hymn for some premieres at the local movie theater.
“They had an organ in the theater, and she would go and sing God Bless America,” he recalls. She would do the same occasionally at St. Agnes on Independence Day and Labor Day. These dual singing sessions show how one can be both patriotic and religious, he notes.
Smith was a convert: After attending Catholic churches for more than two decades, in 1965, she entered the Church and was received into the faith at St. Agnes.
Says Father Kane, “She was very patriotic and religious — both.”
Joseph Pronechen is Register’s staff writer.