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“From sea to shining sea!”

The words of “America the Beautiful” point to moral and spiritual truths

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“From sea to shining sea!”
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O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties ...

When we sing the words of this poem that has come down to us as “America the Beautiful,” what comes to mind is the geographic portrait of the American landscape: the endless blue skies above the prairies of golden wheat and the purple-hued Rocky Mountains where the poem was originally written. But this July Fourth, let’s look at the author’s portrait of—and prayer for—American virtue.

Katharine Lee Bates famously visited Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1893 and was so inspired by the juxtaposition of the majestic mountains, such as Pikes Peak, and the plains to the east that she penned the poem. Over the years, Bates updated the lyrics in subsequent versions and made them freely available for all Americans. We know that the poem was originally published on July 4, 1895, in The Congregationalist to commemorate America’s Independence Day and amended by her at least twice over the next two decades.

The key to the true meaning of “America the Beautiful” is found at the end of the original chorus:

America, America!
God shed His grace on thee,
Till souls wax fair as earth and air
And music-hearted sea!

What do these words mean? They are the key to unlocking the rest of this beautiful poem. It’s not simply a poem romanticizing natural grandeur. The mountains and sky and boundless prairies are symbols of the nation’s soul, what William Barclay Allen calls the “national character.” Bates wanted the character (soul) of Americans—the hearts and moral convictions—to be “as fair” as the landscape, heavens, and sea.

We see this emphasis on moral character in the second half of the verses that have come down to us over the years. For instance, the original 1893 version looked forward to a day when “selfish gain no longer stains / The banner of the free!” Although that line was dropped in later versions, she did keep an emphasis on moral character in other lyrics, such as:

America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

Bates wanted the character (soul) of Americans—the hearts and moral convictions—to be “as fair” as the landscape, heavens, and sea.

Bates was a patriot who loved her country but recognized that whether in 1893—or 2024—we are a flawed people. We need a self-controlled citizenry, a society characterized by ordered liberty, or Bates’ “liberty in law,” not licentiousness. She gave us an example of courage and daring, the pilgrims and pioneers:

Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!

And patriotic exemplars of self-sacrifice:

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!

Note that it is not just about bravery and self-sacrifice but the restrained and merciful character of such heroes. In another stanza, she continues:

May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

We often sing these words thoughtlessly. It may sound as if America deserves divine favor, but that is not at all what Bates is saying. The only way for our “success be nobleness,” the only way for society to mature in virtue, is for our national character, like gold, to be refined. The refining process takes incredible heat to melt down the metal and remove impurities. Thus, Bates calls for a better America, one that is more noble after a process of refining the national character. And so, she concludes so famously:

America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

This is not a proclamation. This is a prayer: May “God shed His grace” on our country! This should be our prayer, too. On this Independence Day, let us pray that our citizens will seek that which is true, good, and beautiful. Let’s humbly pray that God will mend our flaws and restrain us with law and self-control. And let us pray that we will have the moral and physical courage to meet the challenges of our generation. Just as the natural vistas of our country are broad and magnificent, we should desire and work toward a national character that is courageous, humble, and virtuous. May God bless America.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president and CEO of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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