By far the most popular American patriotic hymn is Samuel Francis Smith’s “America,” appearing in over 1600 of the hymnals indexed at Hymnary.org — nearly four times as many as Katharine Lee Bates’ “America the Beautiful” and Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” five times more than Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner.” And yet according to the Hymnary timeline feature, “America” has never been in more than 53% of hymnals — a mark it reached over 85 years ago. The only other patriotic hymn to appear in even a bare majority of hymnals is Howe’s “Battle Hymn” — 51% in 1992-1993, though it’s now dropped off dramatically, to 22%. “America the Beautiful” topped out at 39% in 1994; the country’s national anthem has never been in more than one-third of hymnals (also in 1994).
Why aren’t such hymns more popular?
(And no, I’m not complaining. Just curious.)
Well, first, the non-interesting explanations that have to do with the nature and limitations of Hymnary.org:
- Not all hymnals listed are indexed, or only partially indexed, and it’s not clear it they’re included in the timeline calculation.
- Non-American hymnals (mostly from Canada, some from further afield) are indexed; also not clear if they’re part of the calculation.
- “Hymnals” includes collections of songs specific to seasons like Christmas and Easter.
So while “America” shows up in only two of nineteen indexed hymnals to have been published in 1963 — the year it sank to an all-time 20th century low of 26% share — the other seventeen include two Canadian hymnals, one from Burma, two books of Christmas carols, one for Easter, and at least two that are only partially indexed. It’s also omitted from specialized collections like Zondervan’s Western Style Songs, Vol. 3 (no, not in vols. 1 or 2 either), three books devoted to “junior” audiences, and two for children (e.g., the Lutheran Church in America’s Songs and Hymns for Primary Children) — though we’ll see that other children/youth hymnals at other times took a different tack. That leaves three general hymnals from the year of John Kennedy’s death that don’t include “America.” Two are simply very short: L.P. Lehman’s Bit of Heaven Song Book (23 hymns) and John T. Benson’s Special Songs for Special Singers, No. 4 (40 hymns) — and that latter publisher was responsible for the two 1963 hymnals that did include “America” (Blessed Assurance and New Songs of Inspiration, Book 5).
That leaves only one hymnal, but it’s an interesting case: Christian Hymns (118 of them), published by Cleveland’s World Publishing Company on behalf of the country’s major ecumenical Protestant group, the National Council of Churches (NCC). I can’t find a complete list of that group’s hymnals, but it is interesting that just eight years earlier the NCC put out the Fellowship Hymnal — in which “America” is #89 of its 151 hymns.
Meanwhile, in 1927, the year of its greatest popularity (among hymnal editors, at least), “America” appeared in at least half of the year’s thirty-eight new American hymnals, including five meant for children and youth. Methodists, Presbyterians, Northern Baptists, and Danish Lutherans published hymnals that year with “My country ’tis of thee.” So too did Homer Rodeheaver (in Praise and Worship Hymns, though not in his slender set of Gospel Choir Choruses, published that same year) and other revivalists.
More interestingly, “America” appeared in 1927’s Latter-Day Saint Hymns, as it had in Mormon hymnals since 1872’s The Mountain Warbler. But if that’s just another example of how the Saints had rather dramatically entered the mainstream in the 20th century after spending several decades experiencing a tense relationship with their non-Mormon neighbors and the federal government, it’s also striking that “America” — written a year after Joseph Smith founded his first Zion in Kirtland, Ohio — had not been part of the first forty years of LDS hymnody. (Again, as indexed by Hymnary — corrections are certainly welcome!) Just one year earlier, in 1871, it was not to be found in the 14th edition of the LDS church’s Sacred Hymns and Spiritual Songs. Instead, that collection included songs like Joel H. Johnson’s “High on the Mountain Top,” which expressed love for a different kind of country (it was still there in 1927 as well):
High on the mountain top
A banner is unfurled,
Ye nations now look up,
It waves to all the world
In Deseret’s sweet, peaceful land —
On Zion’s mount behold it stand!
But most interesting of all the occurrences and non-occurrences of “America” in 1927 hymnals is this pair: it did not appear in the first edition of the Church Hymnal, Mennonite (published by the Mennonite Church), but did in the Mennonite Hymn Book (from the General Conference Mennonite Church). About thirty years later, in his article on “Hymnology of the North American Mennonites” for The Mennonite Encyclopedia, Harold Bender noted — probably with some pleasure, given his views on the nature of Christian citizenship — that the former had (by 1956) sold 120,000 copies of its thirteen editions, while the latter “never became popular, less than 5,000 copies being sold of the three editions.”
The Mennonite Church’s 1927 hymnal is much more typical of the hymnbooks produced by American Mennonites and other members of the “Peace Churches,” which have historically kept nationalistic themes at arm’s length. Consider, for example, this statement in the Mennonite Church’s pre-World War II “Statement on Peace, War, and Military Service“:
We confess that our supreme allegiance is to God, and that we cannot violate this allegiance by any lesser loyalty, but rather must follow Christ in all things, no matter what it cost. We love and honor our country and desire to work constructively for its highest welfare as loyal and obedient citizens; at the same time we are constrained by the love of Christ to love the people of all lands and races and to do them good as opportunity affords rather than evil, and we believe that this duty is not abrogated by war. We realize that to take this position may mean misunderstanding and even contempt from our fellow men, as well as possible suffering, but we hope by the grace of God that we may be able to assume, as our forefathers did, the sacrifices and suffering which may attend the sincere practice of this way of life, without malice or ill will toward those who may differ with us.
Digging through Hymnary, I found eighty-six hymnals printed by Mennonite, Amish, Brethren, and Quaker publishers since “America” was written. Keeping in mind that not all are fully indexed… Only ten besides the 1927 Mennonite Hymn Book include “America”:
- 1953’s Singing Revival, by the Virginia-based revivalist Lawrence Brunk. Also a rare Mennonite fan of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” it seems…
- Four by the Friends General Conference and other Quaker groups: The Friends’ Hymnal (1905); Hymns and Songs I (1919); and A Hymnal for Friends (1942 and 1955 editions).
- And three from publishers associated with the Church of the Brethren: The Brethren Hymnody (1883); Kingdom Songs, No. 2 (1918 — two years after No. 1 didn’t include it… WWI?); and Hymnal, Church of the Brethren (1925).
Of course, most Mennonite, Amish, and Brethren hymnals from the 19th century were in German, not English. But a dozen or so German hymnals in the same period from other traditions (plus others in Swedish, Hungarian, Dutch, and Welsh) did make room for “America.”
For the record, seven of the Peace Church hymnals had “America the Beautiful”; not one (that was indexed) included “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” When the Mennonite Church and General Conference (merged in 1995) collaborated on The Mennonite Hymnal in 1969, the editors not only left out all those popular songs, but dispensed with any “Patriotic” or “Nation” section (unlike most Protestant hymnals). They did, however, incorporate a “Peace and Nonresistance” subtopic.