Darren Lippe helps facilitate Journey 101 “Loving God” classes, guides a 7th-grade Sunday school class, is a member of a small group & a men’s group, and serves on the Curriculum team.
Our Small Group is in the midst of a study of hymns this summer, to see if the additional context of the lyrics & composer’s background might enhance our worship experience. We’re reviewing the Doxology, Blessed Assurance, and in preparation for the 4th of July – America the Beautiful.
America the Beautiful’s inclusion in the Hymnal is not without some controversy; some contend it muddies the line between church & state & others complain that we shouldn’t be singing praises to our nation. However, there are over 600 verses in the Bible discussing the relations (or lack thereof) between God & nations & today’s passage symbolically depicts the nation of Israel as the vineyard. So, God is clearly interested in the organizing structure nations offer His children & their subsequent role in developing His Kingdom. Let’s take a brief look at our hymn.
In 1893, Katharine Bates, an English teacher at Wellesley College in Falmouth, MA, took a train trip to Colorado Springs to teach a summer course at Colorado College. She visited the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, traveled across wheat fields of Kansas, & was inspired to write her poem looking at the magnificent vista of the Great Plains from high atop Pike’s Peak. (There was the teacher who asked her student who first explored Pike’s Peak. I don’t know. Trying to help him along, she asked who is buried in Grant’s tomb? Grant? Right. And then who explored Pike’s Peak? Grant?)
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plains!
The first 4 verses state a fact. She was in awe of God’s creation. (I always like the comic depicting Columbus as he arrives to the New World saying, “Look, gentlemen! Purple mountains! Spacious skies! Fruited plains! Is someone writing this down?”)
America the Beautiful!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea.
There is some debate on the 2nd line of the 2nd stanza. Is she proclaiming that God has shed His grace on thee? This causes heartburn for some, as though we are proclaiming we are God’s favorite nation. These critics contend it echoes the arrogance of John Winthrop, Puritan Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1600’s, when he famously wrote, “We shall be a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people upon it.”
But I would submit that Miss Bates is expressing a hope here – not a fact. She is making a request that may “God shed His grace on thee.” Which falls into line with the doozy of a qualifier Mr. Winthrop writes following the above quote that, “if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story & a byword throughout the world.”
She then expresses the hope that this amazing God-given natural bounty of our land be used to develop a community of mutual respect & brotherhood.
Our hymn goes on to request that God mend our every flaw, that we should be grateful for the sacrifices of those who loved their country more than life, that every material gain we make be divinely inspired, and may our hopes be undimmed by human tears.
So, this 4th of July weekend we should stop & marvel at God’s awesome creation, we should prayerfully thank those before us who made such great sacrifices for our freedoms, and we should exercise our unique liberty to worship & praise God as we please. And if we start waxing poetic about America, let’s just hope someone is writing it down.
For your enjoyment, here is my favorite rendition of America the Beautiful – well, at least until I find a Resurrection choir recording:
Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful”
Return to the GPS Guide to read today’s scripture and reflection questions.