Home History of Hymns: "My Country, 'Tis of Thee"

History of Hymns: "My Country, 'Tis of Thee"

"My Country, 'Tis of Thee"
Samuel Smith
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 697

Samuel Smith

My country, 'tis of thee,
sweet land of liberty,
of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died,
land of the pilgrim's pride,
from every mountainside
let freedom ring!

When Martin Luther King Jr. made his famous "I have a dream" speech on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to over 200,000 civil rights supporters, the refrain -- "Let freedom ring!" -- that climaxed this famous speech came from Samuel Smith's patriotic hymn.

Samuel Smith (1808-1895) wrote the hymn in 1831 and Martin Luther King's speech took place 132 years later -- a testimony to the power of a song to shape and maintain an idea.

Smith was born in Boston and educated at Harvard and Andover Theological Seminary. Though inspired by Adoniram Judson to mission service, poor health forced him to give up that dream.

Smith was a friend of Lowell Mason, the famous Boston music educator and hymn tune writer. According to hymnologist Leonard Ellinwood, "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" was one of a group of German poem adaptations Smith wrote for Mason.

Carlton Young, UM Hymnal editor, indicates that the hymn, appearing in five stanzas in its original form, was performed at the Park Congregational Church in Boston on July 8, 1831, by a children's chorus. Mason included it in his Choir, or Union Collection of Church Music, in 1832. Only four stanzas were included. The original third stanza celebrating a land free from tyrants did not survive past the original performance:

No more shall tyrants here
with haughty steps appear,
and solder bands;
no more shall tyrants tread
above the patriot dead --
no more our blood be shed
by alien hands.

It is not until the final stanza that God and country are linked. The author offers a prayer of petition to God to maintain "freedom's holy light" in our land and to "protect us by thy might."

Infinitely more singable than the National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," "My Country, 'Tis of Thee" earned Smith a certain level of popularity. The famous 19th-century Chicago evangelistic singer, Ira Sankey, cites one example:

"Dr. Smith visited the Board of Trade in Chicago in May of 1887. While sitting in the gallery he was pointed out to some of the members. Soon he became the center of considerable notice. All at once the trading on the floor ceased, and from the wheat-pit came the familiar words, 'My country 'tis of thee.' After two stanzas had been sung, Dr. Smith arose and bowed. A rousing cheer was given by the men on the floor, to which Dr. Smith was now escorted by the secretary of the Board. The members flocked around Dr. Smith and grasped his hand. Then they opened a passage through the crowd and led him to the wheat-pit, where they took off their hats and sang the rest of the hymn."
It is doubtful that many United States citizens could sing the entire hymn by memory today, but, thanks to Martin Luther King Jr., the power of the first stanza continues to resonate in ways probably not imagined by the author. King transformed Smith's ante-bellum poem into a civil rights refrain in one of the most famous speeches ever given in the history of the United States.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.