In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Saturday, July 3, 2010

Sweet Freedom's Song

Last Sunday our church service was devoted to "Love of Country," with the upcoming Independence Day observance in mind. One of the patriotic songs we sang was My Country 'Tis of Thee (or America, as it was originally titled). This has always been one of my favorites, even more so than The Star Spangled Banner. The lyrics are simple yet powerful, as is the music--even children can sing it easily. When a large group of people really put their voices to it, the hymn (for that's what it is) rings out like a chorus of bells!

You might think you know this song by heart, but probably only the first verse. That's a shame, because its real character and power show forth as the song progresses. Here are the complete lyrics (although verses other than the original have been put to the song from time to time), composed in 1831 by Baptist minister and hymn writer Samuel Francis Smith (1808–1895):

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!

My native country, thee,
Land of the noble free,
Thy name I love;
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.

Let music swell the breeze,
And ring from all the trees
Sweet freedom's song;
Let mortal tongues awake;
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break,
The sound prolong.

Our fathers' God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom's holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.

As moving as the entire composition is, the last stanza is the one that really takes my breath away--recognizing God as the true author and protector of our liberty, and as our "Great King." Would that this could be felt universally in America once again!

There's an interesting story behind how My Country 'Tis of Thee came to be written (as related on the Cyberhymnal web site):
These words were born because [Samuel] Smith’s friend, Lowell Mason, could not read German. Mason had received several German hymnals, and sent them to Smith, who he knew understood German. In one of them, Smith ran across the tune now used for My Country ’Tis of Thee. Noting that the German words were patriotic in nature: "I instantly felt the impulse to write a patriotic hymn of my own, adapted to the tune. Picking up a scrap of waste paper which lay near me, I wrote at once, probably within half an hour, the hymn "America" as it is now known everywhere. The whole hymn stands today as it stood on the bit of waste paper."
The hymn was first sung at an Independence Day celebration by the Boston Sabbath School Union on July 4, 1831, and was first published in a collection of church music by the famous hymnist Lowell Mason, Smith's friend, in 1832. The song served as a de facto national anthem of the United States before adoption of The Star-Spangled Banner as the official anthem in 1931, exactly 100 years after its first performance.

I mentioned above that My Country ’Tis of Thee is easily sung by children (we sang it regularly in public school when I was a child--is that still happening?). Fittingly, one of the most beautiful renditions I've found is sung by a children's choir below, set to a stream of inspiring images that will make your heart beat faster this Independence Day:

Here's another stirring rendition by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (sadly, without a real video presentation):

Brothers and sisters, on this 234th anniversary of our nation's birth, let us reflect thankfully on what a matchless blessing it is to be Americans, and pray fervently that we will ever remain, truly, the "Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave."


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