Samuel Francis Smith was too young and inexperienced to write a hymn. How coud he, at twenty-four, be expected to write anything that would be accepted by his countrymen and Church, much less a poem that would be more popular a hundred years after his death than during his life? Yet in 1832, he did it not only once, but three times.

This Boston-born youth, a graduate of Harvard in 1829, entered Andover Theological Seminary to prepare himself for the Baptist ministry. He had already begun to distinguish himself as a master of German, and was trying his hand successfully at translating poems from that language into his own. One afternoon in February, 1832, his twenty-fourth year, he had a visitor in his room at Andover, forty-year-old Lowell Mason, musician, composer, teacher and hymnologist. The young student was curious to know the reason for the visit and Dr. Mason hastened to explain. “As you doubtless know,” he began, “I have been working on a plan to introduce the study of music in the public schools of Massachusetts.” The young man nodded and Dr. Mason continued. “After several years of planning, I realized that many people were somewhat skeptical about including the study of music in the high school curricula. So I altered my tactics and approached the problem from another angle.”

“How was that, Dr. Mason?”

“A group of us finally succeeded in securing funds from the Legislature to enable us to send a commission to study public school music in England and on the continent of Europe. William C. Woodbridge was chosen to head this commission.”

“The well-known geographer?”

“Yes. Under his direction studies were made in several countries, principally Germany. In his travels, Mr. Woodbridge collected a tremendous amount of material, papers, manuscripts, booklets, pamphlets, songs, tunes and nearly everything imaginable.”

“Where do I fit into the picture?” young Smith asked.

“Well, the men returned home a few weeks ago. I’ve been looking through some of their papers, but, since I am not a student of German, much of what they brought is just so much Greek to me. I carried some of the documents with me today, hoping you would agree to look through them at your leisure and advise us what to keep and what to discard.”

“That’s quite a responsibility, Doctor; but I’ll do what I can.”

“We have faith not only in your ability, Mr. Smith, but also in your good judgement.”

“I’ll be careful,” young Smith promised, and Dr. Mason went on his way.

A few days later Smith began browsing through the papers and found little of unusual merit until he came across a patriotic poem in German which began:

God bless our native land; Firm may she ever stand, In storm and night.

He noticed that the poem was written in the rather unusual 6.6.4.6.6.6.4. meter. (The numerals indicate the number of syllables in each line of the poem. This one has seven lines with six and four syllables in that order.) He was not surprised to find a melody shortly thereafter to which the song could be sung. The music as well as the peculiar meter of the poem impressed him, and he suddenly decided to try his hand at a patriotic poem in his own tongue to be sung to the same tune. Hurriedly he jotted down four stanzas, the first of which read:
My country, ‘tis of thee, Sweet land of liberty; Of thee I sing.
Land where my father died; Land of the pilgrim’s pride;
From every mountain-side, Let freedom ring.

Five months later, Dr. Mason had his Junior Choir introduce the new patriotic hymn at a special Fourth of July service in Park Street Church, Boston, where he was organist and choir director. It was received with acclaim and enthusiasm and its immediate popularity made Samuel F. Smith famous almost overnight. The fact that the tune was the one to which the British sang their national anthem, “God Save the King,” seemed but a closer tie between the mother country and her daughter.

The author served as pastor of several Baptist churches in Maine and Massachusetts, following which he devoted himself exclusively to the secretarial and editorial work of the American Baptist Missionary Union, serving in that capacity from 1854 until his death in 1895. Although he wrote over a hundred hymns, including the other two he penned that same year, 1832 (the Sunday evening hymn “Softly Fades the Twilight Ray” and the missionary hymn “The Morning Light is Breaking”), none attained the wide use and popularity of “America.” For its easy grace, its directness and simplicity, its zealous patriotism, its fervent piety and its insistent note of liberty, it has become the favorite national hymn.

Excerpted from Living Stories of Famous Hymns. Click here to purchase book at CBD.