“America the Beautiful” by Katherine Lee Bates
Each stanza of this hymn combines appreciation of America's beauty with prayers to God for His blessings on and aid for the nation. In petitioning God to “mend [America's] every flaw,” we acknowledge our imperfection as a country. In praying for the unity of brotherhood “from sea to shining sea,” we acknowledge that the disunity that exists is undesirable.
In 1893 Katharine Lee Bates, an English professor from Massachusetts, took a trip west. Her destination was Colorado Springs, where she was going to teach a summer class, but she stopped along the way at the Columbian World Exposition in Chicago, where the “White City” exhibition made a deep impression on her. The train took her through the vast Kansas wheat fields, which were a new sight to her New England eyes, accustomed as they were to hills and close horizons. At the end of the summer class, Bates and some Eastern colleagues rode to the top of Pikes Peak, where, as she later wrote, “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind” (as quoted in Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Carlton R. Young, p. 209). Before she boarded the train east, she had written the four stanzas of this hymn, incorporating the images of America that had made an impression on her during her trip. Two years later, the text was published in The Congregationalist. Bates revised her text substantially over the years, and its final form appeared in her history of the hymn for the Boston Athenaeum library in 1918.