Vista from Pikes Peak inspired ‘America’

Published 2:46 am Saturday, June 30, 2018

Katharine Lee Bates grew up in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She was the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, who died the month after she was born in 1859.

Her mother, a teacher, made sure her daughter got the best education despite their meager income. Katharine began writing stories when she was nine years old. During her life, she wrote travel books, a textbook on the history of American literature, children’s books, and numerous poems.

Following graduation from Wellesley College, she taught five years in public and private high schools before returning to Wellesley where she taught English literature for 40 years.

She was first inspired to write patriotic verse in 1892, when our country marked the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America.

The next year Katharine accepted a summer teaching position in Colorado. During her travels out west, she visited the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, celebrating Columbus’ arrival in 1492. To her, the magnificent buildings constructed for this World Fair, many of them white, looked like alabaster – a mineral that’s usually a pure white color.

After completing her summer teaching in Colorado, she and some other teachers trekked up to the top of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. Katharine described the view, penciling it in her notebook, “It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind.”

She penned four verses, each stanza concluding with an earnest prayer. In this hymn and her other writings, Katharine would stress, “We must match the greatness of our country with the goodness of personal godly living.” Her statement reminds me of Proverbs 14:34, “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”

The writer and teacher often spoke of the two stones that played such important roles in our nation’s history – the tablets containing the Ten Commandments and Plymouth Rock. She said, “If only we could couple the daring of the Pilgrims with the moral teachings of Moses, we would have something in this country that no one could ever take from us.”

The poem Katharine Bates wrote after her trip to Pike’s Peak stayed in her notebook for several years until she came across it again in 1899. She sent it to a publisher in Boston. It was first printed in the Boston Evening Transcript on November 19, 1904.

After slight revisions in the text over the next 14 years, the poem was set to music composed by Samuel A. Ward, a New Jersey music businessman. The hymn received widespread popularity during the difficult days of World War I. Some suggested that Bates’ song should be selected as our national anthem.

Katharine Bates had penned these familiar words we still sing today, “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountains majesties above the fruited plain! America! America! God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!”


Jan White is a national award-winning religion columnist. She can be reached at