Great God, Our King

A century before “The Star Spangled Banner became our National anthem, America sang a different tune. The song was, “America,” written by seminarian, Samuel Francis Smith, for Independence Day, 1831. This was the de facto national anthem until congress replaced it with Francis Scott Key’s anthem in 1931.

Smith had deliberately repurposed the 1745 British anthem, “God Save the King,” with a distinctly American message. The ode to King George used the word “king” four times in one short verse. By contrast, in “America,” each of its four stanza extolls true liberty that frees us from dehumanizing bondage.

The first stanza honors the role that our fathers and mothers had in securing the gift of freedom. It did not come cheap. Through peril and back-breaking toil the pilgrims built communities in the wilderness. In selfless sacrifice our fathers died to defend the nascent republic against invaders and tyrants. We should shout out their virtues from the highest mountains.

My country, 'tis of thee, 
Sweet land of liberty, 
Of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, 
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From ev'ry mountainside 
Let freedom ring!

The second stanza turns attention to people who use their God-given freedom nobly—“as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16 KJV). It also calls attention to the rightful affection that those who are born here (natives) have for the land itself. Objectively, America’s soil is no better or worse than any on earth. But it is unique. And by God’s grace, it is ours. For this reason, it is comparable to heaven. And God is pleased with our gratitude for its rocks and rivulets, forests and hills.

My native country, thee, 
Land of the noble free, 
Thy name I love.
I love thy rocks and rills, 
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills, 
Like that above.

The third stanza is all about the song of freedom. It is a full-throated chorus from every human inhabitant of the land. Even the rocks are invited to sing! Smith has in mind the saying of Jesus as He rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. When the Pharisees rebuked Him for allowing the children to sing his praises, He replied, “If these should hold their peace, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40).

Let music swell the breeze, 
And ring from all the trees 
Sweet freedom's song;
Let mortal tongues awake; 
Let all that breathe partake;
Let rocks their silence break, 
The sound prolong.

The Messianic associations of the previous stanza may seem to go too far. Christians should not put their faith in any nation or state, but in Jesus Christ, alone. For this reason, stanza four immediately clarifies the intent of three. If the “rocks their silence break,” it is only because Jesus Himself, the “Author of liberty,” is to be praised.

Our fathers' God to Thee, 
Author of liberty, 
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright, 
With freedom's holy light,
Protect us by Thy might, 
Great God, our King!

While “God Save the King” repeatedly extolled an earthly king, Smith’s rewrite uses the word, King, only once, as the very last word. There is no mistaking his intent. The America’s liberty is possible only because, and only to the extent that, Jesus Christ Himself is King.

This hymn should be known in every home and sung in every school across our land. Not only does it have a great history, it also has a vital message for America today.

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