America the Beautiful - Katherine Lee Bates

One summer day in 1893, a small group of professors from Eastern colleges stood at the top of Pike’s Peak. They had endured a long, strenuous mule-drawn wagon ride to the summit. One of them was Katherine Lee Bates, a renowned English professor and author from New England, who had journeyed across the country to teach a summer course in Colorado Springs. As she looked out over that breathtaking panorama, the opening words of “America the Beautiful” began to take shape in her mind.

She quickly wrote her thoughts in her notebook to remember her experience. The majestic mountains and the golden wheat fields she had seen in Kansas on the trip were impressive, but she also thought of the Pilgrims who first came to America and the settlers who trekked across the country seeking a new life. She was reminded of those who loved freedom and mercy more than life during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

After returning to her hotel, Katherine Bates began putting her thoughts on paper and recalled her visit to the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The fair was a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America and featured an “alabaster city” made of classic Pentelic marble that showed future American cities. She was inspired by America’s natural beauty as well as the courage of those past, and the nation’s potential greatness to come. 

Katherine’s thoughts were expressed in her poem called “America the Beautiful,” which was first published in the July 4th issue of “The Congregationalist” in 1895.  She made extensive revisions, and it was published again in 1904. In 1918, she made some final changes. Each stanza ends with a prayer that God would continue to bless America as He had from the beginning. 

Several tunes were composed for “America the Beautiful,” but the one that seemed perfectly suited had been written for another hymn, by Samuel A. Ward, more than ten years before Katherine had written the poem. Ward owned a music store in New Jersey, and was an organist and choir director. He died before his tune was used with her poem; unfortunately, he never knew that it would inspire a whole nation. Katherine Bates had no thought that her poem would even be worthy of publishing. However, she lived until 1929, and saw it become one of the nation’s most beloved patriotic hymns, with its popularity increasing during World War I. She didn’t make any claim for song royalties, and Ward’s family hadn’t asked for any payment for the use of the tune. The families believed the Lord wanted this hymn to be God’s gift to America.

 O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America! God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
 O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine!
 O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!


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