STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS

Lewis Benson

MY COUNTRY, ’TIS OF THEE

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1 My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
   Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From every mountain side
   Let freedom ring.
2 My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
   Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills
   Like that above.
3 Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
   Sweet freedom’s song:
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
   The sound prolong.
4 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.

Rev. Samuel Francis Smith, 1832

NOTE– This is the text of the hymn as originally written, and which Dr. Smith expressed himself as feeling unauthorized to alter in any particular.

THE STORY OF THE HYMN

At a reunion of the famous Class of 1829, of Harvard College, one of its members referred to a classmate in this way: –

    “And there’s a nice youngster of excellent pith,–
    Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith;
    But he shouted a song for the brave and the free,
    Just read on his medal, ‘My country,’ ‘of thee!’”

It was Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes who read the poem, and it was his friend and classmate, Samuel Francis Smith, who wrote “My Country, ’tis of Thee.”

He was a Boston boy, born under the sound of the Old North Church chimes on October 21st, 1808. After being graduated at Harvard he began to study for the ministry; and it was while at Andover Theological Seminary, in February, 1832, that he wrote the hymn.

In 1831 or thereabouts Mr. Willam C. Woodbridge, a distinguished educator, had visited Germany for the purpose of studying the system of German common schools. Among their peculiarities he noted that much attention was given to children’s music, and he brought home with him a large number of music books, especially such as were used in the German schools. In Boston just then Mr. Lowell Mason was interesting himself in the music of the churches, and was engaged in training the Sunday-school children to sing, with a view of fitting them to take their places in the choirs. There was quite a scarcity of songs and tunes suitable for children’s use, and Mr. Woodbridge placed the entire collection which he had brought from Germany in Mr. Mason’s hands. But in all these books the music was set to German words, and of that language Mr. Mason had no knowledge.

And this fact was the occasion which led to the writing of the hymn “America.” Dr. Smith during his lifetime furnished many accounts of the circumstances, which, of course, he alone knew. While all of these accounts are in substantial agreement, much the best of them was that written for The Outlook, and printed in the number for November 23rd, 1895:

“At that time,” says Dr. Smith, “I was a student in the Theological Seminary at Andover. One day [Mr. Mason] brought me the whole mass of his books, some bound and some in pamphlet form, and said, in his simple and childlike way, ‘There, Mr. Woodbridge has brought me these books. I don’t know what is in them. I can’t read German, but you can. I wish you would look over them as you find time, and if you fall in with anything I can use, any hymns or songs for the children, I wish you would translate them into English poetry; or, if you prefer, compose hymns or songs of your own, of the same meter and accent with the German, so that I can use them.’

“I accepted the trust not unwillingly, as an agreeable recreation from graver studies, and from time to time gave him the results of my efforts. Thus he was furnished with several hymns for the Spiritual Songs, which he was issuing in numbers; also for the Juvenile Lyre, the first book of children’s music ever published in this country, in which most of the songs were my own translations from Naegeli and other German composers.

“One dismal day in February, 1832, about half an hour before sunset, I was turning over the leaves of one of the music books, when my eye rested on the tune which is now known as ‘America.’ I liked the spirited movement of it, not knowing it, at that time, to be ‘God Save the King.’ I glanced at the German words and saw that they were patriotic, and instantly felt the impulse to write a patriotic hymn of my own, adapted to the tune. Picking up a scrap of waste paper which lay near me, I wrote at once, probably within half an hour, the hymn ‘America,’ as it is now known everywhere. The whole hymn stands today as it stood on the bit of waste paper, five or six inches long and two and a half wide.”

Mr. Smith had no suspicion that he had in that short half hour made his name imperishable. He gave the song soon afterward to Mr. Mason, with some others, and thought no more about it. On the Fourth of July of that same year Mr. Mason brought it out at a children’s celebration in the Park Street Church, Boston. From there it soon found its way into the public schools of that city, and then of other places, and into picnics and patriotic celebrations everywhere; and finally into the hymn books of the various denominations. The whole history of the hymn and its present position are summed up in a remark once made by the author himself: “The people took it into their hearts.” Today it is called the national hymn, but it is not made so by any formal decree of adoption. It is the national hymn simply because the people that compose the nation love it, and on any occasion when their hearts are fired by patriotic feelings, use this hymn spontaneously to express those feelings.

Autograph of the Hymn
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THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN

Samuel F. Smith was graduated from Andover Seminary the same year in which he wrote the hymn. For a year and a half after graduation he was the editor of the Baptist Missionary Magazine. In February, 1834, he was ordained, and became pastor of the Baptist Church in Waterville, Maine. He continued as pastor there for eight years, serving also as Professor of Modern Languages in Waterville College, now Colby University: for among Dr. Smith’s other gifts was that of acquiring languages. During his life he became familiar with no less than fifteen, and a visitor to him in his eighty-sixth year found him on the lookout for a suitable text-book with which he might begin the study of the Russian language.

In 1842 Dr. Smith became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Newton, Massachusetts, when he removed to Newton Centre. There for more than half a century he lived in a simple way with his family in the wide, brown frame dwelling of two stories, which has been the goal of so many sightseers. He was pastor there for twelve years and a half, and then Secretary of the Missionary Union for fifteen, spending two of them abroad visiting missionary stations.

Dr. Smith led a very busy, active life, preaching, editing, writing, studying. From 1842 to 1848 he was editor of The Christian Review. He was one of the editors of The Psalmist (1843), a most successful Baptist hymn book, and compiled several collections of verse, of which Rock of Ages is the best known. He was also the author of The Life of Joseph Grafton (1848), Missionary Sketches (1879), The History of Newton, Massachusetts, (1884), and of Missionary Sketches (1884), which embodied an account of a later tour among foreign fields.

His verse writing was a recreation rather than his occupation, and he made no claim to be counted among the poets. Certainly the large volume of his verse gathered at the close of his life under the editorship of his friend General Carrington would yield no sure support for such a claim. He wrote, however, many successful hymns, of which “The Morning Light Is Breaking” (The Hymnal, No. 386) is especially familiar. But, no matter what he accomplished or where he went, it was always as the author of “My Country, ’tis of Thee” that he was recognized and welcomed, and was honored as such at a public celebration in Music Hall, Boston, during the last year of his life. Dr. Smith lived to be eighty-seven years old, active and busy until the evening of Saturday, Nov. 16th, 1895. On that evening he took the train for Readville, near Boston, where he was to preach the next day. Just as he entered the car, turning to speak with a friend, he gasped for breath, threw his hands into the air, and fell backward in death.

Rev. Samuel F. Smith
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SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) Is it to be regretted that these words should be sung to the National Anthem of Great Britain rather than to a distinctive American air? Perhaps, in any event, the connection is now indissoluble, though it hardly justifies us in renaming the tune “America.” It would be interesting to know the origin of the National Anthem, and who composed it. Much time and pains have been spent in investigating the matter, but these questions still remain unanswered. All that can be said upon the subject (by the man most competent to say it) may be found in a recent book, The Origin and History of the Music and Words of the National Anthem, by Wm. H. Cummings, published by Novello & Co., London and New York. At the annual meeting of the Rhode Island State Society of the Cincinnati, on July 4th, 1901, a committee was appointed to ascertain whether a suitable national tune cannot be found for this hymn.

(2) Nothing could have been farther from their author’s thoughts than the use of his verses as a hymn. What are the qualities in verses so personal, so closely related to individual experience and circumstances, that make them suitable to be sung by a whole congregation? The Rev. George Huntington has given us (in his Random Recollections) the modest explanation of Cardinal Newman himself: “I had been paying Cardinal Newman a visit.... I happened to mention his well-known hymn ‘Lead, kindly Light,’ which he said he wrote when a very young man.... I ventured to say, ‘It must be a great pleasure to you to know that you have written a Hymn treasured wherever English-speaking Christians are to be found; and where are they not to be found?’ He was silent for some moments and then said with emotion, ‘Yes, deeply thankful, and more than thankful’; then, after another pause, ‘But you see it is not the Hymn, but the Tune, that has gained the popularity! The Tune is Dykes’s, and Dr. Dykes was a great Master.’”

(2) Once, in referring to criticisms of the hymn from a literary standpoint, Dr. Holmes called attention to the strength of the first line, and said, “He wrote ‘My country.’ If he had said ‘Our country,’ the hymn would not have been immortal, but that ‘my’ was a master- stroke.” Just what was the gain of the “my” over “our” in that place?

(3) Is this really a national or only a sectional (New England) hymn? A correspondent of The Churchman (1895) argued for the latter, claiming that the line “Land of the pilgrims’ pride” referred to the Pilgrim Fathers of New England. The same interpretation of this line was made in an editorial in The Independent (January 14th, 1896). If Dr. Smith intended to refer to the Pilgrim Fathers, that of course is the end of the matter. But as yet no one produces such an interpretation of the line coming from him. Apart from such an authoritative statement, is it not the natural interpretation that “pilgrims” are in contrast with those whose fathers died here; those coming to our shores and adopting our country? If Dr. Smith intended to refer to the Pilgrim Fathers, would he not have used the capital in “pilgrims”? But he did not in such autograph copies as the writer has seen; and the word is not so printed in his collected Poems. Again, is “pride” a word with which one would describe the feelings of the Pilgrim Fathers toward their new home? It does, on the other hand, describe what is plainly the fundamental feeling of many “pilgrims” toward the home of their adoption.

(4) Of this hymn there was but one text, in universal use, until in 1892 the Protestant Episcopal Convention adopted the new hymnal containing as Hymn No. 196 a mongrel made up of the fourth verse of “My Country, ’tis of Thee,” followed by the two verses of “God Bless our Native Land” (altered). The editorial in The Independent, already referred to, explains this by the unwillingness of the Episcopal Church to sing the praises of the Pilgrim Fathers. Whatever we may think of the convention’s course in mutilating the hymn, is it not more likely that they were aiming at a hymn more distinctly religious than Dr. Smith’s verses?

(5) How can it be explained that while Americans really love this hymn, so very few know the words well enough to sing them when called upon? Is this fact creditable to the people?