Home Worship Planning History of Hymns History of Hymns: “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”

History of Hymns: “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”

Katherine Lee Bates

Katherine Lee Bates

By C. Michael Hawn

O Beautiful for Spacious Skies
by Katharine Lee Bates
The United Methodist Hymnal, 696.

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.

Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929) offers iconic images in “America the Beautiful” that capture the variety of landscapes found throughout the continental United States. Her hymn has inspired many singers to nationalistic devotion and gratitude to God for this land.

Cornelia Bates, Katharine’s mother, was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary, a school for young women in Massachusetts. As a graduate, along with the famous poet Emily Dickenson, of one of the most demanding academic institutions for women, Cornelia provided a model for her daughter, who entered Wellesley College, graduating in 1880 with a B.A., and serving as president of the institution’s second graduating class.

According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Katharine Bates taught at her alma mater from 1880-1925, furthering her study at Oxford. In addition to collections of poetry, she published books on the religious themes in Shakespearean and pre-Shakespearean drama. Besides her teaching and literary activities, Bates was known for her advocacy of labor reform, manifest through her involvement in The College Settlements Association, formed in 1890 as an organization “to bring all college women within the scope of a common purpose and a common work.” Katharine Bates never married, but lived for twenty-five years with Katharine Coman.

In an article published in Boston Athenaeum (1918), the poet provides details of the hymn’s composition. Bates began composing this hymn in Colorado Springs, Colorado, while traveling west in 1893 with a group of teachers from New England. After a long ride to the summit by horse- and finally mule-drawn wagon, a brief view of Pike’s Peak provided a panoramic spectacle that was the inspiration for “purple mountain majesties.” A visit to a lagoon at Chicago’s Columbian World Exposition in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus inspired the image of “alabaster cities” in the final stanza. The white neoclassical designed exhibition buildings at the Exposition became known popularly as “The White City.” A vision of Kansas wheat fields observed by train on July 16 stimulated the memorable phrase “amber waves of grain.”

Making sketches in four stanzas on sight, her work as a professor of English at Wellesley absorbed her attention, and the hymn was not published until July 4, 1895, in The Congregationalist with the incipit “O beautiful for halcyon skies”:

O beautiful for halcyon skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

A revision appeared in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 19, 1904. The only pay that the author ever received for her poem was a small check for its appearance in this periodical. Bates continued to make changes until it was published in its final form in 1911.

The first four lines of the original second stanza have been omitted from The United Methodist Hymnal because, according to Carlton Young, it has suggested to some the notion of “white manifest destiny” (Young, 1993, 210):

O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

Treatment of Native Americans by European immigrants and their descendants reminds us that the “thoroughfare for freedom” came at a high cost for the earlier inhabitants of our land.

In addition to omitting the original second stanza, The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) maintains the first four lines of the original final stanza – “O beautiful for patriot dream . . .” – and concluded the hymn with the final four lines of the original second stanza:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,

Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

There is a subtle irony in the text for the twenty-first-century singer: stanzas one and four (of the original four-stanza text) include: “and crown thy good with brotherhood” only a little more than two decades after the conclusion of the Civil War and during the Reconstruction period, a time characterized by many atrocities against African Americans. However, perhaps the realities of this national injustice underlay the petition at the end of the original stanza two: “God mend thy every flaw . . . Thy liberty in law.”

The search for a tune for this text was not easy. Fellow New Englander and composer Silas G. Pratt (1846-1914) published the first tune in a collection in 1904. The text was also sung to a variety of folk songs, including the pentatonic Scots melody “Auld Lang Syne.” In her 1918 account, Bates noted that more than sixty tunes had been written for her text. In 1926, the National Federation of Music Clubs held a contest for a tune, but none of the approximately six hundred entries were deemed suitable.

Today “America the Beautiful” is almost exclusively sung to Samuel A. Ward’s Materna. Ward (1847-1903) was a New Jersey-born musician who served as organist at Grace Episcopal Cathedral in Newark beginning in 1880. He formed a male glee club that evolved into the Newark Orpheus Club.

A movement in 1926 to adopt the hymn as the national anthem lost out to the older and more established “Star-Spangled Banner,” which won official status when President Herbert Hoover signed a bill on March 3, 1931, proclaiming it the national anthem. For decades since that time, advocates of the hymn push for official anthem status.

Ward wrote Materna in 1888 for the words “O Mother Dear Jerusalem” by a sixteenth-century poet known only as “F.B.P.” This proved to be a moderately popular hymn and tune in hymnals published between 1860-1950. It is no wonder that Materna would eventually become the preferred tune for “America the Beautiful” for at least two reasons: First, it is a Common Meter Double (C.M.D.) tune, and these are not as plentiful. Second, the rising C Major melody in the second half captures the energy of the quasi-refrain beginning with “America! America!”

It appears that Ward neither met Bates nor heard the hymn in its completed form with his tune (1912) before his death in 1903. The pairing of his tune with Bates’ text eventually placed him in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Note of his induction appears at https://www.songhall.org/profile/Samuel_A_Ward.

The role of patriotic songs in hymnals and in Christian worship, though common, is not without controversy. “The Star-Spangled Banner” does not appear in The United Methodist Hymnal, while “America the Beautiful” does. Most stanzas of “The Star-Spangled Banner” chronicle a historical event in a romantic poetic narrative and barely address God, although the final stanza, virtually never sung, does make a fleeting reference to deity:

Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserv’d us as a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust”...

“America the Beautiful,” by contrast, has a much more pervasive sacred tone with petitions (imperative verbs) to God at the conclusion of every stanza in the 1911 publication:

“1. God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood . . .

“2. God mend thy every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self control . . .

“3. May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness. . .

“4. God shed his grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood . . .”

The amended final stanza as printed in The United Methodist Hymnal suggests a more humble patriotic posture following the United States’ role in two world wars and major conflicts in Korea and Viet Nam in the intervening years between the hymn’s composition and the conclusion of the twentieth century. It was with this perspective that Carlton Young defends the change of the final four lines as a corrective for the country’s “nationalistic warring instincts” (Young, 1993, 210). These four lines implore God to “mend thine [America’s] every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law” – a prayer even more valid in the twenty-first century.

For further reading:

Young, Carlton R. Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.

Songwriters Hall of Fame, “Katharine Lee Bates”

Songwriters Hall of Fame: “Samuel A. Ward”

C. Michael Hawn is University Distinguished Professor of Church Music, Perkins School of Theology, SMU.