Katharine Lee Bates: America, the Beautiful

A Prayer for Our Nation in 2020

Katharine Lee Bates

Independence Day, like everything else in 2020, is going to be very different. Most obviously, due to the pandemic, there will be no fireworks shows attended by thousands of people. (Although in my neighborhood, people seem to be making up for it by setting off their own fireworks in greater quantities and louder explosions than I remember from previous years). We will still have barbeques in our back yards, but most of us are going to limit them to a smaller group and practice social distancing.

Even more importantly, this spring has seen a growing awareness of continuing racial injustice. The senseless death of George Floyd has mobilized many (especially the young, but also older folks like me) to recognize that Black Lives Matter. In this moment, we have an opportunity to make changes which will help us “form a more perfect Union, establish Justice and insure domestic Tranquility.” (Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America)

In this moment of time we need a prayer to strengthen and guide us into a better future. I think that a revision to the song, America the Beautiful may be just the prayer we need.

Several years ago I did some research into the song and its author, Katharine Lee Bates. I discovered that Bates was a very strong and progressive woman. She was a poet in her own right, and professor of English Literature at Wellesley College, where she mentored many young poets, including Robert Frost. She helped to establish American literature as a field of academic study by writing a textbook and creating an early course on the genre.

She also was was a social activist interested in the struggles of women, workers, people of color, tenement residents, immigrants, and poor people.  She helped organize the Denison House, a college women’s settlement house and was an active supporter of the League of Nations. Some late 20th-century scholars have asserted that Bates was a lesbian who lived for 25 years with long-time friend and companion Katharine Coman.

In short, Katharine Lee Bates was a woman ahead of her time who would have been right at home in our generation.

Although you couldn’t tell it by the version that we now sing, her poem, “America, the Beautiful,” gives testimony to her interest in social justice. Melinda M. Ponder, author of the biography Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea, says, “Bates had personally experienced sexist prejudice and discrimination, had witnessed the ravages of the industrial revolution in both America and Britain, had seen first hand urban poverty and keenly wished for equality. It was this desire for an all-inclusive egalitarian American community that inspired the poem, which was written during the severe economic depression of 1893” (quoted in Wikipedia, “Katharine Lee Bates”). You can see this concern for the working poor in the original poem published in 1893. In stanza 3 where we now sing “Till all success be nobleness/ and every gain divine,” Bates originally wrote, “Till selfish gain no longer stain / the banner of the free,” a clear allusion to the robber barons of the Gilded Age.

This poem celebrates all that is good about America while at the same aspiring to something better. In my mind that is true patriotism.

After researching Bates and the song, I felt that it would be very appropriate to write an updated version. To do this I combined lyrics from her original 1893 poem with her 1911 revision (the version we sing today) and added some lines of my own. Pay particular attention to verses 3 and 4.

This song expresses my prayer for our nation on the 244th anniversary of our nation’s birth. May God guide us into a “more perfect union.”

America, the Beautiful

Katharine Lee Bates, 1893 and 1911
Revised by Michael A. Weber 2013 and 2019

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for leaders proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

O beautiful for prophets true,
Who spoke in faithfulness;
Who stood for righteousness and truth
In times of dire distress.
America! America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!

O beautiful for vision clear
That sees beyond our fears
To days of hope and nights of joy,
Undimmed by human tears.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev’ry gain divine.

Notes: Explanation of the changes made to the original poem

Verse 2. Instead of celebrating only the pilgrims and settlers who shaped our country this honors all of our past leaders of every race and gender. It also calls for new leaders who will seek not their own self-interests but the interests of their country. It affirms that liberty is ultimately founded in the rule of law.
Verse 3 honors those prophets in our history who have challenged our nation’s conscience and spoken the truth in the struggle for abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights, justice and peace.  It calls for a time of self-sacrifice for the greater good of all, especially relevant in this time of pandemic and the growing awareness of racial injustice.
The lines, “Till selfish gain no longer stain, / The banner of the free,” are from the original 1893 version of the poem. Though we no longer sing them, they are fitting for our day, and remind us of the task before us.  
Verse 4 presents a vision of hope where fear is vanquished, injustice is corrected and all share equally in the opportunities and freedom of our country. May God give us clear eyes to see this vision, generous hearts toward all and willing hands to work for the greater good.

Credits: With the exception of the opening two paragraphs, the final three paragraphs, and the poem, this post has been redacted and edited from two entries in Wikipedia.

“Katharine Lee Bates,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katharine_Lee_Bates#cite_note-:0-1 and

“America the Beautiful,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/America_the_Beautiful.

For more information you may want to consult, Melinda M. Ponder, Katharine Lee Bates: From Sea to Shining Sea.]

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