The “America the Beautiful” You’ve Never Heard

by | Jul 4, 2017 | Special Day

Happy 4th of July, everyone! Today’s the day we celebrate our independence by cooking on the grill, shooting off fireworks (and maybe guns), and spending time with family and friends. Since its birth as a nation in 1776, the United States has been a safe haven for religious freedom. Whether you are a Christian, atheist, or from any multitude of religions, in America, you can find an environment where you are free to live your life in the way you see fit, and that’s the freedom we celebrate today.

Throughout the years, "America the Beautiful" has been a popular song used to celebrate Independence Day. Since its creation, its popularity has soared to the point that there are those who would argue that "America the Beautiful" should replace the country’s National Anthem as the official theme song of America. But what few people know is that the lyrics we sing today aren’t the original lyrics written by Katharine Lee Bates in 1893. So today, we’ll take a trip back to 1893’s Colorado Springs to take a hike up to the top of Pike’s Peak with Katharine and her fellow Wellesley College Professors. But first, let’s get a bit of background on Katharine Lee Bates.

Katharine was born into a Christian family. Her father, William Bates, pastored a Congregationalist church in Falmouth, Massachusetts. Sadly, however, a month after Katharine was born, her father passed away from a spinal tumor, leaving her mother to care for her and her three siblings. Her mother did her best raising Katharine on her own, ensuring Katharine was taught Christian morals and values. Eventually, Katharine graduated from Wellesley College, where she became a professor of English.

Now that we have some background on Katharine’s life, let’s catch back up with her and her friends at Pike’s Peak. At the top of the peak, we can see miles of America’s beautiful landscape. There are expansive fields of grain, majestic mountains, and beautiful skies as far as the eyes can see. The beauty of God’s creation is in full view, and it is this sight that inspires Katharine to pen down the opening words to "America the Beautiful." So without further ado, let’s see what she wrote and how it’s changed since.

1893 Original1911 Revision
O beautiful for halcyon skies,O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majestiesFor purple mountain majesties
Above the enameled plain!Above the fruited plain!
America! America!America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,God shed His grace on thee
Till souls wax fair as earth and airAnd crown thy good with brotherhood
And music-hearted sea!From sea to shining sea!

So, let’s look at what changed in the first verse. In the original, the last two lines had to do with spiritual growth. In the original version, Bates is desiring for God’s grace to be given to America so that American believers grow to be as beautiful spiritually as creation is physically. The new line, rather than emphasizing this spiritual growth, emphasizes national fellowship through the brotherhood of being an American.

1893 Original1911 Revision
O beautiful for pilgrim feetO beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stressWhose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beatA thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!Across the wilderness!
America! America!America! America!
God shed His grace on theeGod mend thine every flaw,
Till paths be wrought through wilds of thoughtConfirm thy soul in self-control,
By pilgrim foot and knee!Thy liberty in law!

Though God is still in the last three lines of the second verse, it removes the emphasis on prayer to God for direction in life and instead chooses to emphasize self-control and law as the source of direction. The new lines maintain the historical accuracy of the nation’s founding but veers away from the charge for continued dependence on God. The original reflects the idea of Proverbs 3:5-6 which says:

Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.

1893 Original1911 Revision
O beautiful for glory-taleO beautiful for heroes proved
Of liberating strife,In liberating strife,
When once or twice, for man’s avail,Who more than self their country loved
Men lavished precious life!And mercy more than life!
America! America!America! America!
God shed His grace on theeMay God thy gold refine,
Till selfish gain no longer stain,Till all success be nobleness,
The banner of the free!And every gain divine!

Bates’ original lines of the third verse do not emphasize the heroic acts of war but rather the vanity of war. The "glory-tale of liberating strife" is emphasized by words like avail and lavished, meaning that "For man’s own gain, Men wasted precious life." War was not heroic to Bates; she recognizes most wars were fought over money and that "the love of money is the root of all evil." She worried that greed had stained the reputation of America and that blood would be spilled over material wealth (which has happened). She shows a desire for God to show mankind that the love of money is not worth the loss of human life. Instead of these passionate words of prayer to God, the new version teaches the opposite. War is honorable and heroic; she instead emphasized the greatest form of love, "that a man lay down his life for his friends," which is true, and we ought to appreciate the sacrifices made for our freedom, but she veered from her position of discouraging selfish gain. Instead, praying for God to refine America’s wealth and bless America with riches. This directly contradicts the attitude God desires us to have. In Matt 6:19, Jesus says, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:" why does Jesus say this? "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." We ought to pray for God to give us opportunities to lay up spiritual treasures rather than earthly ones.

1893 Original1911 Revision
O beautiful for patriot dreamO beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the yearsThat sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleamThine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!America! America!
God shed His grace on theeGod shed His grace on thee
Till nobler men keep once againAnd crown thy good with brotherhood
Thy whiter jubilee!From sea to shining sea

The last change to "America the Beautiful" is its last two lines. The original emphasized looking forward to God’s "whiter jubilee," a jubilee in a nation greater than America: the Kingdom of God. Instead of using the song to say, "America is great, but God’s kingdom is greater" and concluding by bringing the glory back to God, the lyrics were changed to ensure that the glory of America remained with America. Its mention of "nobler men" also reminds the reader that fallen mankind will experience a restoration to this nobler, holy state in God’s kingdom, once again emphasizing the superiority of God’s kingdom over America. The original passage reminds me of Hebrews 11:16:

But now they desire a better country, that is, heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.

The reason God was not ashamed to be called Abraham’s God was because Abraham looked forward to God’s country. The changes to "America the Beautiful" removed that idea altogether.

So, why did it change?

Sadly, it was Katharine Bates herself who changed the words to the song. When the song was originally published, it appeared in The Congregationalist, the official magazine of the Congregationalist denomination. Given its readership, one would expect the original to have clear Scriptural ties. However, when Katharine republished the song in 1904 and 1911, she revised it for broader appeal, removing some of her more "controversial" ideas, such as not emphasizing monetary pursuit. As Katharine aged, she seemed to drift from God and the church, stating that she could never find a church aligned with her beliefs. From what we know, she also adopted lifestyle choices inconsistent with Scripture. Thus, the changes in "America the Beautiful" mirror Katharine’s own shift away from God and her evolving worldview.

Regardless, I love the original version of "America the Beautiful." The final two lines take all the praise of America and redirect it to glorify God, giving the song a deeper resonance. Instead of merely acknowledging our country’s religious origins, it expresses a hope that we evolve into a nation even more reliant on God than before. Personally, I prefer the original "America the Beautiful!" This 4th of July, may God bless America not with material wealth but with the riches of understanding His grace.

Happy 4th of July!

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