‘O beautiful for spacious skies’

Published 7:30 am Saturday, April 30, 2022

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“O beautiful for spacious skies” are the words that came to Katharine Lee Bates in 1893 as she stood with some of her Colorado College students gazing at the summit of Pike’s Peak.

The words became the opening of a hymn that paints images in our minds of fields of grain ruffling in the breeze, mountains of unbelievable heights, a bright blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds and waves tumbling on shores throughout the country. She found herself singing within her head and heart, just like we experience as our voices blend in church with those words.

As for me, my heart sings the song within me along with my voice. The name, Katharine Lee Bates, might not be a familiar one to most of us, but if you search your hymnals, you will find that name as the person who wrote the lyrics of “America the Beautiful.”  Those words have thrilled and inspired her countrymen for years.

In 1926, there was even an unsuccessful drive to replace it with the “Star-Spangled Banner” as the National Anthem.

One Sunday morning when I was among a congregation, singing the beautiful song, I wondered about her inspiration to capture her feelings on paper. I had read that on the day she was inspired, she and some others on an excursion had engaged a prairie wagon to take them to the summit. They left the wagon near the top and finished the trip on mules. Although by then she was tired, she was awed by the view before her. She wrote that all of fertile country spreading away so far under ample skies the wonder of America was displayed there, out over the sea-like expanse spreading away so far under those ample skies. Before she left the state, she jotted four stanzas in a notebook. Referral to the alabaster cities in the fourth stanza was inspired by the White City at the World’s Exposition in Chicago, which she had visited earlier.

The original poem was printed in a weekly journal on July 4, 1895, two years after she composed it. Twice she revised it, once in 1904, again in 1913. People sang it to various tunes that the lyrics fit, even “Auld Ang Syne.” It was subsequently published with the tune “Materna.” This is the music for “America the Beautiful” by Samuel A. Ward in the 1880s that we know today. His music was originally written for the hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem.”

Katharine Bates was born in Falmouth, Mass. She was the daughter of a Congregational minister. He died when she was only a month old. Even though he was dying and paralyzed, he baptized Katharine six days before his death. She was 33 when she wrote the original “America the Beautiful” poem. She composed several poems about Falmouth. She authored numerous books, some scholarly and a few for children.

Many of us feel in our hearts what we cannot express in words. “America the Beautiful” stirs me with love of country and thankfulness to God for our great land. Each time we raise our voices in “America the Beautiful” we have Katharine Bates to thank for expressing that strong conviction so well.