Wednesday, July 4, 2012

God Mend Thine Every Flaw

The debate over the use of patriotic songs in church (and then calling them "hymns") has probably been going on for a very long time, as part of a larger tension between the desires of and allegiances to the church and those of and to the state.  Even Jesus was sometimes seen in opposition to Caesar, and the Old Testament recounts various events where God and earthly rulers were not, shall we say, on the same page.

Whether or not you sang the following on Sunday, in recognition of Independence Day here in the US, there was likely some discussion about it, either among those planning the service, or later, among those who attended.  Maybe both,  I sometimes fear that this is becoming an American equivalent to the UK's Jerusalem, something used in a vaguely patriotic way without any deeper examination.  And yet, a closer reading of the full text (rarely sung outside of churches, where everyone has the words in their hymnals) suggests that it's really a sort of prayer -- not a blindly patriotic and jingoistic song.  The text really looks to the future, where things will, with God's help, be better than they are today.

So, I guess I am just running it up the flagpole to see who salutes.

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 impassion'd 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 every 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.

Katharine Lee Bates, 1904
Tune: MATERNA (C.M.D.)
Samuel A. Ward, 1882

Katharine Lee Bates wrote the original version of this text in 1893, inspired by an excursion to the top of Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs.  Originally titled America: A Poem for July 4, it was quite different from the text we know today.  She revised it extensively in 1904 and it soon began appearing in hymnals., coupled with a number of different tunes no one sings any more.  In 1910 it was first matched with the now-familiar MATERNA by Samuel Augustus Ward.  Ward's tune was originally written for the hymn O mother dear, Jerusalem, which is where the tune gets its name.

In 1880 Katharine Bates graduated from Wellesley College, then as now a college for women.  She returned to Wellesley as an instructor, then full professor, and then head of the English department.  She also had a long career as a writer of poetry, travel books and stories for children.  Bates lived for twenty-five years with Katharine Coman, who also taught at Wellesley (the first woman professor of statistics), and was later the dean.  Coman died of breast cancer in 1915, and Bates said of their relationship: So much of me died with Katharine Coman that I'm sometimes not quite sure whether I'm alive or not.  Seven years later she published Yellow Clover, a book of poetry "to or about my Friend."  

Bates is still remembered at Wellesley, as you can see from the college's homepage. Apparently they still sing America the beautiful at graduation, but with the line "and crown thy good with sisterhood."

Four Years Ago: God of creation, whose almighty hand

Two Years Ago: Many and great, O God

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The choir that I direct fills in for other church choirs during their summer break. A couple of years ago, I wrote an arrangement of "America" for us to sing on the Sunday nearest July 4th. It is a mash-up (so to speak) of the traditional tune (Materna) with the tune known as Kingsfold, which has the same metrical index as Materna. The arrangement has verse 1 sung by the entire choir in unison to Materna, verse two sung in women unison followed by male unison singing Kingsfold, verse three using Ralph Vaughan Williams's 4-part setting of Kingsfold, and then a return to Materna for verse 4. We sang this as the postlude for our service on July 1st this year.

Hugh McDevitt
San Jose, California