“Of thee I sing”: A Brief History of Patriotism in American Hymnals (part 1)

Which patriotic hymns are most popular? Have they changed over time?

Logo of The Hymn SocietyResearching an Independence Day post in which I didn’t exactly gush with enthusiasm at the inclusion of patriotic songs in American hymnals, I discovered Hymnary.org, “a comprehensive index of hymns and hymnals” supported by the Hymn Society, Calvin College’s Institute of Christian Worship, and the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. It indexes over 5,000 hymnals and over 21,000 hymns, searchable by text, tune, author, Scriptural references, topics, denomination, etc.

So, according to the vast-but-admittedly incomplete holdings of the Hymnary, which patriotic hymns are most popular? (And right away I should acknowledge that it’s hard sometimes to judge whether to count a hymn “patriotic.” Though it’s associated with the U.S. Navy, for example, I didn’t include “Eternal Father! Strong to Save,” both because it’s linked to many other navies and because the text itself isn’t directly about a nation. It was written by an Anglican minister after surviving a storm in the Mediterranean. Whereas Julia Ward Howe’s famous “battle hymn” is so closely tied to the Union cause in the Civil War that it’s hard not to include here, though I suppose it’s also possible to sing it for non-patriotic reasons in total ignorance of that context.)

Strikingly, six stood out as having been included in hymnals far, far more often than any others:

Number of Hymnals (all time)

% of Hymnals (2013)

America(Samuel Francis Smith, 1832)

1651

27%

God Bless Our Native Land(Siegfried A. Mahlmann, 1815)

584

18% (2006)

The Battle Hymn of the Republic(Julia Ward Howe, 1862)

430

22%

America the Beautiful” (Katharine Lee Bates, 1893)

416

26%

The Star-Spangled Banner” (Francis Scott Key, 1814)

364

26% (2010)

God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand(Daniel C. Roberts, 1876)

346

37%

"God of Our Fathers" in a 1918 hymnal
In 1918, the last year of World War I, Roberts’ “God of Our Fathers” was only in 9% of hymnals, including that year’s “Hymns and Sacred Songs” – Hymnary.org

The least common hymn here, Robert’s centennial tribute “God of Our Fathers,” occurs almost twice as often as the next most popular such text: coincidentally, a hymn with the same title from Rudyard Kipling (“God of our fathers, known of old, / Lord of our far-flung battle line”), it appearing 187 times — but not since 1960. (There’s another “God of Our Fathers” from John H. Hopkins; it’s only appeared in nine hymnals but is still in print, within the 2009 edition of the Founders Hymnal of the American Guild of Organists.)

After the two Gods of Our Fathers, we round out the top ten with three hymns that are fairly obscure (to non-Lutherans, at least):

  • The Red, White and Blue(77 hymnals, David T. Shaw): first appeared in 1848 and remained in a few hymnals as late as 1927.
  • To Thee, our God, we fly(71 hymnals, William Walsham How): written in 1871 and still found in several Anglican hymnals in Great Britain, but only one current American hymnal: Christian Worship, from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.
  • Before the Lord We Bow(63 hymnals, Francis Scott Key): there’s not a lot unifying the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with its more conservative cousins, the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods, but it appears that those three denominations’ hymnals are the only ones in print that have this much less popular song from the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
"Before the Lord We Bow" in 1874 Presbyterian hymnal
Francis Scott Key’s “Before the Lord We Bow” in the 1874 “Presbyterian Hymnal” – Hymnary.org

Now, the “% of hymnals” column is a bit murky. It comes from a promising timeline feature that shows how often a hymn showed up year by year. I presume the percent figure indicates the share of hymnals in print in that year that included the hymn in question. But it might be hymnals published in that year. (See postscript below.) In any case, I can’t find an explanation on the site, so we’ll proceed cautiously and examine how popularity has changed over time for the six most popular patriotic hymns. You’ll notice a pattern for most of them: they entered the 20th century as fairly rare entries in hymnals, spiked in popularity coming out of World War I, plummeted from the Great Depression through the 1950s and 1960s, then experienced a resurgence in the 1970s that peaked in the early-to-mid Nineties before diminishing in more recent years.

Share in 1900

Post-WWI Peak

Post-WWII Valley

1990s Peak

Most Current Figure

*“America”

41%

53% (1927)

26% (1963)

42% (1994)

27%

“God Bless Our Native Land”

14%

18% (1931)

5% (1960)

17% (1996)

18%

“Battle Hymn of the Republic”

4%

31% (1926)

10% (1951-1959)

51% (1992-1993)

22%

*”America the Beautiful”

3%

35% (1930-1931)

14% (1953-1955)

39% (1994)

26%

“The Star-Spangled Banner”

4%

25% (1927-1928)

7% (1962-1964)

33% (1994)

26%

*”God of Our Fathers, Whose Almighty Hand”

4%

22% (1931)

13% (1956-1957)

48% (1991)

37% (2013)

*”America,” “America the Beautiful,” and “God of Our Fathers” also experienced sudden spikes in popularity in 1976-1977 similar to what happened in the first half of the Nineties.

A healthy number of American churchgoers have been singing “My country ’tis of Thee” since Samuel Francis Smith wrote those words in 1832. First published a year later in the second edition of Lowell Mason’s The Choir (interestingly, it isn’t in a separate “Nation” section — it follows the benediction “Once More Before We Part” and precedes James Allen’s “Glory to God on High!”), it had 30% share by the end of the Civil War. Then from 1894 to 1904 (a time when the other hymns on this list plateaued in single digit popularity), it rose from 28% to 48% before following the peak-valley-peak-valley path trod by the other favorites.

"America" in "The Choir" (1833)
“America” (#267) as it appeared in the 1833 edition of “The Choir” – Hymnary.org

Without having time to dig any more deeply, I can but assume that the first peak in popularity was sparked by America’s entry in World War I and carried along by the postwar resurgence in nativism that ran through the 1920s. It does seem surprising that most of these hymns declined in popularity during both the Second World War and the early years of the Cold War — a time when American civil religion reached an apogee (or nadir, depending on your perspective). Tentatively, I’d speculate that the decline is related to mainline denominations participating in the global ecumenical movement. But that’s just a guess.

Then the second peak in the last quarter of the 20th century? The sudden, dramatic revival of most of these songs in 1976 must be bicentennial-related, right? But the revival didn’t fall off much over the next 5-10 years, and was back at 1976-77 levels by the early Nineties… Response to war seems a likely explanation: did the Gulf War prompt an upswing in American Christian patriotism ca. 1991, perhaps building on the spirit of the Reagan Era and the “End of History” triumphalism that greeted the end of the Cold War?

But what’s really striking is that — with the exception of “America” in the 1920s and “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the 1990s — these wildly popular patriotic hymns are apparently left out of the majority of hymnals.

This post has already rambled past a thousand words, so I’ll stop. But look for a follow-up asking how it is that so many hymnals don’t have these songs, and sharing some of the forgotten hymns in the genre that just never took off in popularity.

Postscript: Percent of Hymnals

Here’s why I find the timeline feature confusing: If you click on its “Instances” entries and look for publication date, you’ll find that “America the Beautiful,” for example, earned a spot in 114 hymnals published in the 1920s — by far its best decade — which fits its appearing in over a third of hymnals by 1930. But it appears in 52 hymnals from the Fifties (when its share dropped below 20%) and 32 from the Sixties — and only 34 from 1970 to the present (when it neared 40% share).

Again, all this makes me think that the “percent of hymnals” figure represents only the share of hymnals published in a given year. So perhaps the 1976-1994 upswing has to do with sample size more than anything.


4 thoughts on ““Of thee I sing”: A Brief History of Patriotism in American Hymnals (part 1)

  1. Thanks for this interesting look at patriotic hymns. If I was putting together a hymnal, I am not sure how many patriotic hymns I would include. Definitely God of our Fathers would be in there, but I am not sure how many more. I would rather include hymns that focus on God rather than Country.

  2. What an interesting article! Glad you did a follow up to the one on the 4th.
    About the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”: It is my understanding that Julia Ward Howe wrote it during the Civil War desiring some more wholesome lyrics to “John Brown’s Body.” The words draw heavily on a couple Revelation texts, particularly Rev. 14. As the person who chooses the hymns sung in our church each week, I intend to use this hymn in two weeks when our pastor preachs on Rev. 14 (as part of a series on the entire book).

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