Some Patriotic Hymns: Their Makeup and Messages

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 6, 2014

Leviticus 25:10a; 1 Timothy 2:1-2 CEB

Americans—in general—love patriotic songs.  And we have several to choose from.  I have my favorite, and perhaps you have a favorite patriotic song or hymn as well.  There are some interesting stories behind many of America’s patriotic hymns, stories which can serve to enrich these hymns as we sing them, when we know a bit of the history behind them.  And so today, I thought I would give a sermon of a different order, looking at a few of the most popular patriotic hymns and the messages they convey, and then draw a few conclusions.

For instance, consider the patriotic hymn “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”  A young man of only twenty-three or twenty-four (sources vary) by the name of Samuel Francis Smith was a seminary student at Andover Theological Seminary, near Boston, Massachusetts.  Samuel was studying to become a Baptist minister.  On a gloomy February day in 1831 or 1832 (again, sources vary), Samuel was looking through a collection of German hymn tunes that had been given to him by a friend and choir director by the name of Lowell Mason.  One source says that as a seminary student, Smith was very poor and took on the translation work to help make ends meet.  Mason had asked Smith to translate the German lyrics into English.

Well, Smith ran across one German tune in particular that he really liked, which happened to be the tune for a German patriotic hymn, “God Bless Our Native Land.”  Feeling that the tune itself was patriotic in spirit, Smith decided to write American patriotic words to accompany the German tune.  The interesting thing is for some 100 years, the same piece of music had also served as the tune for the English patriotic song “God Save the Queen,” which Smith later said he had never heard.  Smith picked up a scrap of paper, and in about 30 minutes he had written the words to the beloved patriotic song, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” The new patriotic American hymn was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, or 1832 (still yet, sources vary), at a children’s Independence Day celebration at the Park Street Church in Boston.  Originally “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” had five stanzas.  But the fifth had a negative tone toward Great Britain, so it was later dropped from the hymn.

Samuel Francis Smith went on to become one of the outstanding Baptist preachers of the 19th century.  He later wrote other hymns, about 150 in all, but he is best remembered for his great gift to America, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”  And to think that Smith wrote the hymn in 30 short minutes!  So there was no particular incident or historical event that inspired “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as with some other patriotic hymns that Americans hold dear.

When we consider the hymn “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory,” perhaps better known as “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” many southerners do not realize that it was written as a northern Civil War hymn.  In November 1861, just a few months after the start of the Civil War, American writer Julia Ward Howe was touring Union army camps near Washington, D.C. with the Reverend James Freeman Clark and her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, who was a member of President Lincoln’s Military Sanitary Commission.  Dr. Howe was a well-known scholar in the education of the blind.  The Howes were Unitarians, fervent abolitionists, and supporters of the Union.  During the course of their visit, they heard the troops sing some of the popular war songs, including “John Brown’s Body.”  The story goes that Reverend Clarke suggested to Mrs. Howe that she should write some new lyrics to the popular tune.  She replied that she had thought about doing just that.

Early the following morning, as Mrs. Howe later described it, she “awoke . . . in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain.  I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, ‘I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately.’”  As history has it, Mrs. Howe wrote the lines of the hymn on a scrap of Sanitary Commission paper.  Just three months later, February 1862, the hymn was published in The Atlantic Monthly. 

As with many beloved hymns, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” presents some theological challenges to progressive-minded Christians.  Many of the lyrics are biblically based, drawn from a number of books of the Bible.  Phrases like “the coming of the Lord,” “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” “sifting out the hearts of men,” “his judgment seat,” and so on all bespeak of divine judgment.  The hymn links the biblical idea of the judgment of the wicked at the end of time with the American Civil War.  In other words, the hymn more or less equates the judgment day of the Lord with the destruction of Southern armies by the Union Army of the North.  And it portrays God as a vengeful God of wrath, which is interesting considering Howe’s Unitarian (and possibly Universalist) leanings.  Although she wrote much, Julia Ward Howe is best remembered for “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.”

Softer in tone is the hymn “God of Our Fathers.”  It was written by 35-year-old Daniel C. Roberts, rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Brandon, Vermont.  The story has it that Roberts wanted a new hymn for his congregation to sing to celebrate the American Centennial in 1876.  And so, he wrote “God of Our Fathers” and his congregation sang it to the tune of a Russian hymn.

Some years later, in 1892, Roberts anonymously sent the hymn to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church to be considered by the commission that had been formed to revise the Episcopal hymnal.  If they accepted the hymn, he would then send them his name.  They did.  The editor of the new hymnal and George W. Warren, an organist in New York City, were commissioned to choose a hymn for the celebration of the centennial of the United States Constitution.  They chose Roberts’ text, but Warren wrote a new tune for it and called it “National Hymn.” The hymn was first published in 1892 in the new hymnal.

Many people think that another patriotic hymn, “America the Beautiful,” should have become our national anthem.  Congregationalist Katharine Lee Bates was an English professor at Wellesley College.  In 1893, she took a train trip to Colorado Springs where she was to teach a short summer session at Colorado College.  Several of the sights along the way inspired her.  One day she traveled with a group to the top of Pike’s Peak.  There, she later related, was where the words to the hymn began to come to her.  As she later wrote, “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of the fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”  When she returned to her hotel room, she commenced to put the words down on paper.  The poem, which originally she titled “Pike’s Peak,” was first published in the July 4th edition of the weekly newspaper, The Congregationalist, in 1895.  At that time the poem was given the title “America.”  For some time, the poem was sung to a number of popular tunes, including “Auld Lang Syne.”  But in 1910, Bates’ poem was set to the tune “Materna” that had been written by composer Samuel A Ward in 1882.

As I said, some would prefer that “America the Beautiful” be our national anthem instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in part because of the war imagery in the latter.   “America the Beautiful” has been called “an expression of patriotism at its finest,” since it voices appreciation and wonder for our nation’s physical beauty and abundance without any reference to war or triumphalism.

And so, we have considered four popular American patriotic hymns.  Two were written by women, and two by men.  Denominationally, there was a Baptist, Unitarian, Episcopalian, and a Congregationalist.  Two include belief in God’s direct action in national affairs, and two celebrate the beauties and blessings of America and American freedom.  But all of the hymns were written because the composers were moved, inspired, as they contemplated American history or considered the beauty and blessings of our land.

And whether we have a taste for patriotic hymns or not, we can relate to being inspired and moved and grateful when we consider the awesome and complex beauty and blessings of this great land we live in.  Amen.




About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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