Sermon Illustrations


An eerie quiet fell over the battlefield near the French city of Verdun. It was Nov. 11, 1918, and the guns were abruptly silent. Some of the soldiers sank to the ground; others stared into space. Some began to shake. The Great War was finished, but the men could not take it in.

On a little rise a group of American soldiers began singing softly. Hearing the song, the others seemed to come alive again. They sprang to their feet and joined in the song, with tears running down their cheeks.

What they sang was a jubilant hymn that begins, "O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain . . . ." It had been sung in its present form for only a dozen years or so, yet already almost all Americans knew at least the first verse. It was a song that spoke to a people and of a people--and it still does, so immediately that few of us can remember having learned it.

Where did it come from? Who wrote it? The words were written over 100 years ago by Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College, a school for women near Boston. Of all the stories told about "America the Beautiful," the one concerning the soldiers at Verdun was Bates’ favorite.

Besieged by questions when the poem appeared in print in 1895, Bates, a reticent New England Victorian, finally published a leaflet recounting the bare facts. In July 1893 bates went with several other professors to teach a three-week summer session at Colorado College in Colorado Springs.

It took a day and a half just to get to Chicago, where the party stopped to visit the World’s Fair that opened that year. The fair was called "The White City" because of its gleaming alabaster buildings, which held exhibits depicting a vision of America’s future.

Still marveling at the displays, Bates and the other proceeded to Colorado. To Katharine Bates’ New England eyes, the Rockies were a staggering sight. More than a sight, a felt presence--purple, brown, green, midnight blue under the moon, gold in the rising sun. In addition, the vastness of the prairies full of ripening grain, the intellectual excitement of the great fair, and the sense of calling she brought to her teaching--all combined into an almost explosive understanding of the American idea.

At the end of their stay, the professors went to the top of Pikes Peak in a wagon drawn by horses and, on the steepest part, by mules. There, 14,000 feet into the sky--and yet, characteristically, with her feet still firmly on earth--Bates conceived the poem that became known as "America the Beautiful."

At the hotel that evening, she wrote it down. Two years passed before she came across the penciled lines in her Colorado notebook. She sent the poem to "The Congregationalist" magazine, which published it, fittingly, on July 4, 1895. It attracted immediate attention.

Requests to use the words with various melodies poured in. In Canada the refrain was sung, "O Canada, O Canada!" To the south it became "Mi Mejico!" After the first and second revisions were made, the poem was set to music Samuel A. Ward had written for the ancient hymn "Materna."

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