Katherine Lee Bates, this hymn’s author, began writing the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” from the top of Pikes Peak, near Colorado Springs, CO. She was on a train trip across the country, and incorporated many of the sights she’d seen into her poem. She saw “amber waves of grain” as she crossed the Great Plains, “alabaster cities” in Chicago, and “spacious skies,” well, everywhere. But it was standing atop Pikes Peak, looking down at central Colorado from 14,115 feet up, that she was stuck with inspiration.
You’re free to believe what you like about America, but it’s difficult to argue that it is beautiful. We see the “purple mountain majesties” as in the photo above, which was taken not far from where I lived growing up. I’ve looked up at Pikes Peak from the plains, and I’ve looked down at the plains from atop the summit, and there’s not a better word to describe either view than “beautiful.” When I moved to Nashville a few months ago from Oregon, I drove across much of the country, and while there were certainly places I traveled through that I wouldn’t care to live in given the choice (looking at you, Nebraska), I didn’t find anywhere that I passed through that didn’t contain at least some beauty.
This is not, of course, to say that America has any special claim on being beautiful that other nations don’t. There’s beauty everywhere. This is a wonderful world we live in, and despite the horrible things going on in it, there’s still an awful lot of beauty scattered in it, too. Were it not for the perfect fit of the meter for the lyrics “America! America!”, we could just as easily be singing about Japan, Germany, Togo, or anywhere else.
That beauty is a gift given to us from God. He created the world and all things therein, and He did it for our benefit. We are here to be tested and to prove our worth to Him, but that doesn’t mean we have to do that in a bland, featureless world. He created rivers, mountains, forests, oceans, and everything in between. We can find beauty in the grand features of the world, and we can see it in the small things, like the little creek that trickles through my backyard.
So yes, we recognize the worth and beauty of America, and we sing its praises. But we also sing the praises and invoke the blessings of its Creator in this hymn. While singing about those fruited plains, we ask that “God shed his grace” on them. When we sing about the wonderful blessing of freedom in America, we also ask that “God mend [our] ev’ry flaw, [and] confirm [our] soul in self-control.” And when we sing about the alabaster cities “undimmed by human tears,” we also ask God to “crown [their] good with brotherhood.”
It’s a song about how terrific America is, yes, but it’s not a song that lends itself to be followed with chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” as much as you might think. It’s a song about humility and awe for the creator of the nation. It’s a song that pleads for self-improvement and the ability to feel gratitude for all the blessings we’ve been given as citizens of that nation. And so that’s why we sing it in our sacrament meetings, not so much to express our love for our nation (although I’m sure we do love it!) as to express our love for He who made such a nation, and indeed, such a world, possible.
It’s a wonderful world, if we care to look at it, filled with beauty from sea to shining sea.