Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Thou Land of the Free

Perhaps we can avoid the debate over using patriotic hymns in worship since Independence Day falls on a Wednesday this year and not on a Sunday. Some churches sang one or more of these on Sunday, some did not. 

The choice of which to sing (if any at all) has narrowed considerably over the last century.  I would venture a guess that America the beautiful may be the most-often sung, though a few others certainly appear as well: My country 'tis of thee by Samuel Francis Smith, Mine eyes have seen the glory by Julia Ward Howe, and of course, the national anthem, written by Francis Scott Key, who among his many accomplishments was also a member of the committee that produced the Episcopal hymnal of 1826 (and wrote a few other hymns as well). One other possibility, which was written to mark the 1876 centennial, might not even be recognized as a patriotic hymn as it is probably sung at other times of the year.

Like Christmas songs and hymns, there were many other patriotic hymns written that are included in the hymnals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including several specifically for children. Also like those written for Christmas, relatively few have survived to the present day.

Not surprisingly, among her thousands of song texts, Fanny Crosby also contributed a patriotic song of her own (and this is probably not the only one).

Our country, our beautiful country,
Thy rock-girded mountains sublime
Look over the wide spreading forests
That stand like the pillars of time.
Thy rivers majestic roll onward
To meet the glad waves of the sea;
Columbia, the home of our forebears,
God bless thee, thou land of the free.

Thy valleys are smiling with verdure,
Thy hilltops with plenty are crowned,
And sweetly the songs of thy children
From ocean to ocean resound;
God grant that our nation forever
United and happy may be,
And Peace, with its white-crested pinions,
Abide in the land of the free.

Fanny Crosby, 1873; alt.
Tune: DOWNEY (
Daniel B. Towner, 1899
Fanny's text appeared in Songs of the Bible for the Sunday School (1873) with a different tune by Alonzo J. Abbey, one of the editors of the collection who was a prolific composer of Sunday School music (only a fraction is listed at his Cyber Hymnal entry - and not the original tune for this text). Since there is no sound file for the original, I have matched it to a later tune by Daniel B. Towner. The original included one more stanza (even more unlikely to be sung today than the rest), as well as the following refrain:

Our country, our country, our beautiful country,
The fairest and dearest of earth,
God keep the old flag of the Union,
And prosper the land of our birth.

Of course, the Civil War was less than a decade before Crosby wrote this.

The reference to "Columbia" as a name for the United States is also rather obscure today. Columbia also referred to a female personification of the country (as in the picture above) until the early twentieth century when she came to be replaced by the Statue of Liberty.

P.S. The picture above is from the cover of The Theatre magazine for January 1917 (during World War I), depicting actress Hazel Dawn as Columbia with doves of peace.