Patriotic feelings run high on the Fourth of July. So does the urge to thank God for our country — in song.
As well we should. Three perennial favorites, in particular, are as at home closing the liturgy as they are leading the parade. “America the Beautiful” and “America” (also known as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) are included in the St. Michael Hymnal. Along with “God Bless America,” they are often used as the recessional hymn on or near patriotic holidays.
Hearing the opening lyrics of “America the Beautiful” puts a lump in many an American throat. The only thing that should top the patriotic feeling is the refrain that changes its patriotic prayer slightly with each repetition: America! America! God shed His grace on thee / And crowned 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!Originally a Poem
The lines of “America the Beautiful” were originally published as a poem on July 4, 1895. No wonder this hymn saw its share of 20th-century movements to make it our national anthem, or at least co-anthem.
Two Independence Days earlier, its writer, Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929), was riding on a train passing through Kansas wheat fields. The sight would soon become “amber waves of grain.”
But the hymn had to wait for one more site to inspire Bates. As an English professor at Wellesley College headed to Colorado Springs to teach a summer session at a college there, she went by wagon, mule and foot to the top of 14,000-foot tall Pike’s Peak. The majestic view overwhelmed her. Story has it she starting writing the poem in her head at once.
The poem was immediately popular and set to many different existing pieces of music. Bates polished the hymn in 1904 and herself picked the music we now sing it to: organist and composer Samuel A. Ward’s hymn titled “Materna.”
A native of Newark, N.J., Ward (1847-1903) wrote it in 1888 with the title “O Mother Dear Jerusalem.” Unlike poet Bates, who lived to see the hymn become a patriotic-religious icon, the tunesmith died in 1903, never knowing how loved and recognizable his music would become.
“America,” which is probably better known as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee,” doesn’t have as colorful a start. But to remind us of our country’s need to honor God, it includes a stanza — its fourth, too often omitted in public presentations — that makes no bones about mixing faith with love of country. Our father’s 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.
Rev. Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895) of Boston’s Park Street Church wrote the lyrics in 1831. At the time studying to be a Baptist minister at Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Mass., he was translating a German poem for an acquaintance.
Smith set it to a tune he liked, which happened to be the British anthem “God Save the King” (or “God Save the Queen,” sung when the reigning monarch happened to be a woman). First sung on July 4 in Boston, then published in 1832, “America” became the country’s unofficial national anthem for much of the 19th century.
Slightly more than a century later, “God Bless America” had supporters wanting to make it our national anthem right from its earliest performances, the first in November 1938. America’s top female singer at the time, Kate Smith, asked composer Irving Berlin (1888-1989) for a patriotic song for her weekly radio show. She wanted to mark the 20th anniversary of Armistice Day.
According to Richard Hayes, archivist of the Kate Smith Commemorative Society, Berlin pulled the song out of his trunk, where it had been gathering dust for 20 years. He had written it for an Army-camp show where he was stationed in World War I, but the producers snubbed it. After the radio show, phones rang off the hook and Smith then sang the new “unofficial anthem” on nearly every show through the end of 1940.
With clouds of World War II on the horizon, how appropriate the lyrics, Stand beside her, and guide her / Through the night with a light from above. How appropriate to sing those words today, as new kinds of clouds hover overhead.
“I love my country and I believe in what America stands for,” says Father James Farfaglia, pastor of St. Helena of the True Cross of Jesus Catholic Church in Corpus Christi, Texas, “but I am very concerned about what’s happening in the country. We’re in a terrible cultural crisis, and we parish priests need to support young families and encourage them to be always faithful.”Freedom Brings Duty
In Kingsport, Tenn., Janel Lange finds singing “God Bless America” or the other patriotic hymns at the end of Mass in St. Dominic Catholic Church “always moving.” She and her husband, Deacon Bob Lange, a retired 25-year Naval officer, are authors of The Treasure of Staying Connected for Military Couples (Serviampublishing.com).
“It’s so moving when we think about our country and the freedom we have to live our faith, yet we take that freedom for granted,” says Janel. These hymns always remind her of our freedom to worship, something not all countries have.
Linda Schafer, editor of the St. Michael Hymnal used throughout the country, uses “America the Beautiful” and “America” at St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church in Lafayette, Ind., where she’s music director.
“I think these are appropriate for the Fourth of July,” she says. “Even though America as nation has strayed far from its Christian principles, we should sing these songs as prayers for God’s guidance for our nation.” She adds that we need to pray for God’s mercy on our nation because right now “it seems to promote a culture of death across the board.”
“The songs should be sung with the understanding that there is a tension between what is and what should be,” adds Schafer, “and as a prayer that God will deliver us and guide us.”
She suggests two other very fitting hymns more in keeping with our patriotic celebration and its spiritual dimension: “This Is My Song” and “God of Our Fathers,” she points out, are “patriotic without being jingoistic.”
Ultimately, the traditional patriotic hymns at the end of Mass should inspire us to actively put our faith and country together. Deacon Lange notes that “Mass” comes from the Latin meaning “sent.”
“We’re being sent to take the gift of our faith throughout the country, and using one of those patriotic hymns at that point ties it together beautifully,” he says. “Ite Missa est. That’s our charter, what we’re challenged to do — take the gift of our faith into society.”
The Fourth of July: a celebration to sing about. Even in church.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.