My Country, 'Tis of Thee

Hymn of the Month

The Hymn The Composer

The Author

On the fourth day of July every year since 1776, people across the United States of America have celebrated their independence as a nation. Since 1870 the day has been a federal holiday, and since 1941 federal employees have enjoyed a paid day off. Leisure activities have come to dominate this extra time but the holiday is a reminder to ask ourselves what our country means to us, and wht value we place on freedom.

My Country 'Tis of Thee is a very personal patriotic hymn and the author's expressions of appreciation tell us what America meant to him.

His frequent mention of freedom and liberty shows that he valued these highly. His acknowledgement of, and supplication to God is evidence of his personal religious convictions.

The author’s use of the first person, “my,” enables each reader or singer to make the hymn their own. This is of key importance to the hymn’s lasting popularity and influence.

The author’s reference to the land where his fathers died can be seen differently by the viewpoint of the reader. In the literal sense, the biological father of the author, Samuel Smith, did indeed die in this land. In the figurative sense, which can apply to first generation citizens, the founding fathers of the country gave their lives in establishing this “sweet land of liberty.”

The text refers to the early history of the country with mention of the Pilgrims. These first European settlers in New England set an important precedent for the future government of the country with their foundational document, the Mayflower Compact.

When the text was written in 1831, Andrew Jackson was the President of the United States and there were twenty-four states in the union, the newest being Missouri. The country known to the author was quite a bit different than at the present time. However, the feelings expressed in the hymn transcend place and time, and include the “noble free” who came to the defense of the country in later generations.

The author lived his life in New England, and the woods, mountainsides, rocks, rills (small streams and/or their channels), and the templed hills he mentions in the text are particularly descriptive of that region. Whether he meant that the hills had temple-like buildings or institutions of learning on them or that he considered them sacred places is left up to the reader to determine.

Though the physical description of America in the text matches a particular region, the individual elements apply to many regions, and even the plains have streams. The author seems to assert that the physical beauty of the country can cause the heart to thrill with rapture, or overwhelming emotion, and that this emotion is also felt by God.

That the author considered nature to have a spiritual element and a connection with music and freedom is suggested by the text of the third verse.

His desire for the entire world to have the joy of freedom is eloquently expressed in “Let all that breathe partake…”

In the final verse, his use of “Our fathers’ God…” rather than “my…” implies a reference to the Christian faith of the founding fathers of the country rather than his own literal ancestors. His acknowledgement of God as the author of liberty may refer to the Judeo-Christian principles and values the Constitution of the United States was originally built upon. It may also refer to a complementary belief that true liberty comes when people live in the way God has instructed in the scriptures, loving God and others as much as themselves.

The closing lines of the hymn acknowledge that freedom is a holy principle and plead for God’s continued protection. Significantly, the hymn ends with a pledge that we will have no other king but God.

It may seem remarkable to today’s parents that this reverent and profound hymn text was written by a young man in his early twenties.

It is said that Samuel F. Smith was a student at the time at a theological seminary with an interest in languages. He was apparently acquainted with Lowell Mason, noted Boston musician and hymn writer, composer of the hymn tune for Nearer, My God to Thee.

Lowell Mason, in turn was acquainted with William C. Woodbridge, a geographer and educational reformer who spent time traveling and studying in Europe. When William returned to New England in 1829 from his second European tour, it is said that he brought back some German music books along with some music teaching methods he passed on to Lowell Mason and encouraged their use in his work at the Boston Academy of Music.

It is reported that Lowell Mason requested Samuel Smith’s help in translating the German music books and in the process, Samuel came across a piece with the AMERICA hymn tune, set to a text whose title is believed to translate as “God Bless Our Native Land.”

It is said that the German hymn inspired Samuel to write a patriotic hymn of his own country, set to that tune, and in about thirty minutes he had written the text we sing today on a piece of scrap paper.

Samuel may or may not have been aware that the hymn tune had been used in other countries besides Germany. It is reported to have been used for the Danish national anthem in 1790, by Britain in 1745, by Prussia and several other countries. It is said that a number of other texts had previously been set to the melody in America also, including a text sung to George Washington on his arrival in New York City in 1789.

My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, the completed work by Samuel F. Smith with the AMERICA hymn tune, is reported to have been debuted by Lowell Mason at a children’s service on July 4, 1831 at the Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts.

It is said that a year later, it was included in a collection of church music published by Lowell Mason.

Since that time the hymn with music in ¾ time is reported to have been published in over sixteen hundred hymnals, and was considered by some to be a national anthem until the official adoption of The Star-Spangled Banner in 1931. It was included in the 1948 (1950) edition of Hymns, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Hymnal). The current 1985 edition of the LDS Hymnal includes the hymn in the key of C with no revision from the earlier version.

The hymn’s plea that the land long be bright with the light of freedom is a call to action for each new generation, and the hymn continues to provide inspiration to that end.

The tune name associated with My Country, ‘Tis of Thee is known as AMERICA, although the composer of the hymn tune is unknown and the tune appears to have evolved over many years through various uses. It is believed to have first been published anonymously between 1740 and 1744 in two London, England collections titled, respectively, Harmonia Angelicana, and Thesaurus Musicus. The Latin title, “Thesaurus Musicus” can be translated “Musical Treasury,” and is therefore somewhat generic. A number of publications apparently had this title in various editions.

Some sources attribute the composition of the AMERICA tune to Henry Carey, a popular English songwriter born about 1689, due to a report of his singing it with the text of “God Save the King” in 1739, and he is listed as the composer in the 1948 (1950) LDS Hymnal. However, the later 1985 LDS Hymnal edition lists only Thesaurus Musicus. Research on the origins of the hymn uncovered a lack of proof to the claim of Carey being the originator.

The Text

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!

The text author, Samuel Francis Smith, was born in October of 1808 to Deacon Samuel and Sarah Bryant Smith at or near Boston, Massachusetts.

The younger Samuel graduated from Harvard University in 1829, and proceeded to the Andover-Newton Theological Seminary at Andover, Massachusetts, about twenty miles north of Boston. It was during his time here, around the age of twenty-three, that he wrote the text for My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, which work he titled America. He completed his studies at the seminary in 1832 and entered the Baptist ministry.

He married Mary White in 1834 and they lived in Waterville, Maine, about twenty miles north of Augusta, where Samuel worked as a Professor of Modern Languages at what is known today as Colby College.

The college was chartered in 1813 as The Maine Literary and Theological Institution. During the time Samuel served there it was known as Waterville College and was an undergraduate liberal arts college.

It is also believed that he served as a Baptist Minister during his years in Waterville.

In 1842 Samuel and Mary came back to Massachusetts and he became the Pastor of the First Baptist Church at Newton Centre, about nine miles west of Boston. This was to be their home for the rest of their lives, although he is said to have traveled to visit many of the Baptist missions in later years.

Reverend Smith is said to have been active through much of his career in the Baptist ministry as an editor and an author. His editorial works included a Baptist missionary magazine, a widely used and influential Baptist hymnal which included a number of his works, The Psalmist, co-published in 1843, and a number of other collections and publications. His personal authorship included many hymns and poems.

While at Harvard, Samuel is said to have been a classmate of the poet/doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. In recognition of the lasting influence of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” Mr. Holmes wrote the following on the event of Samuel’s 80th birthday:

Full many a poet’s labored lines

A century’s creeping waves shall hide-

The verse a people’s love enshrines

Stands like a rock that breasts the tide.

Time wrecks the proudest piles we raise,

The towers, the domes, the temples fall.

The fortress crumbles and decays-

One breath of song outlasts them all.

It is said that Samuel remained involved in the ministry until he passed away in November of 1895 at Newton, Massachusetts at the age of eighty-seven. His “breath of song” has indeed lasted and he was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 1970.

Information in this article came from:

Hymns of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1985, #339)

Karen Lynn Davidson, Our Latter-day Hymns, pp. 326-327, 439, 447. (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1988)

J. Spencer Cornwall, Stories of our Mormon Hymns, p. 121,122. (Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1963)

Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, (G & C Merriam Company, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1975)