A cathedral isn’t typically a place for patriotic displays, not even on a Fourth of July weekend. But this past Sunday at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Austin, Texas, it was—if only for a moment. The Mass concluded with a rousing chorus of “America the Beautiful,” and then the congregation did something they never do: break out in applause.
And no wonder. There’s nothing like singing those last lines at the top of your lungs with hundreds of other voices, backed up by a strong choir and a booming organ: “America! America! God shed his grace on thee / And crown thy good with brotherhood / From sea to shining sea!”
It’s one of America’s great patriotic Christian hymns. But like so many famous hymns, most Americans are only familiar with the first iconic lines. The less-familiar verses are what make the hymn special—and what should speak directly to us today, during a time when America often seems something less than beautiful.
This Hymn Is a Prayer of Hope For America
The hymn itself was first published in 1895 as a Fourth of July poem under the title “America,” for a church periodical called The Congregationalist. Written by 33-year-old Katharine Lee Bates, the poem was set to music composed in 1882 by Samuel A. Ward and first published as “American the Beautiful” in 1910.
The first verse famously speaks of America’s great beauty—the lines we all know: spacious skies, amber waves of grains, purple mountain majesties, the fruited plain. All these testify to God’s grace and give glory to the creator.
But if you sing (or read) all four verses, what jumps out is the plea that God redeem and refine America, to make her worthy of the gifts God has bestowed. This isn’t propaganda that pretends God somehow favors the United States over all other nations or that Americans are themselves uniquely righteous. No, this song is a prayer, best captured in the second and third verses:
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every 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!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!
The language here is aspirational, a song of hope that God would mend “every flaw” and “refine” the country he has blessed with so much. It is even more than that: a prayer that the self-sacrificing spirit and love of freedom that animated the pilgrims and the heroes of the Revolution would carry down the ages and “Confirm thy soul in self-control / Thy liberty in law.”
We’re Squandering Our Promise
Surveying the landscape of American politics and culture today, these lines seem alien. Self-control is especially absent from our national life today, with President Trump tweeting out rank insults and WrestleMania GIFs, a Democratic activist attempting to assassinate Republican lawmakers, and the mainstream media descending into spasms of hypocritical moral outrage every day.
We’re a long way from the promise of “America the Beautiful,” having squandered it for the cheap thrills of tribalism and the politics of grievance. If there’s a way out of this morass, it’s hard to see from where we now sit.
So this Fourth of July, amid backyard cookouts and fireworks with family and friends, pause to do something simple: sing this old hymn together, all four verses. Then pray—if you’re inclined to pray—that God would teach us self-control, mend our every flaw, and crown his good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.