Tomorrow is July 4th, a day associated with fireworks, homemade ice cream, food on the grill, and, if you grew up Baptist, singing patriotic songs in a church service. In the church of my childhood, patriotism and Christian worship went hand in hand. At a young age, I memorized all the words to The Star Spangled Banner — both first and second verses — by reading the lyrics, which were printed in the back of a Gideon New Testament. I clearly remember a patriotic service wherein a man sang the song “I’m proud to be an American,” and I’m pretty sure (although the combination of thick Texas accents and a fuzzy childhood memory could prove me wrong) that instead of singing, “I won’t forget the men who died and gave that right to me,” he actually sang, “I won’t forget the man who died…” That’s right: singular, capital-M-man — as in Jesus — whose death, according to this fervent patriot, was intended to secure our American Right to Freedom.
When I got older and we moved churches, the patriotic fervor cooled. Oh sure, in VBS we started the day by reciting the pledge of allegiance to the American flag, but we always also pledged allegiance to a Christian flag and to the Bible, and while patriotic tunes occasionally came into the services, the older I got the less frequently these songs appeared. It was as though I was witnessing the dying of a trend. By the time I was leading worship services of my own, I didn’t think the topic of patriotic hymns would ever arise for me as a serious issue again — they had simply fallen out of fashion. I figured that patriotism and Christian worship resided in different realms, and that my days of singing patriotic tunes in church services would be limited to those few weeks post-9/11, when “God Bless America” could be heard in every public gathering and, especially, blaring from every radio station through the powerful (Canadian) pipes of Celine Dion.
But the question of whether or not to include patriotic songs in worship services has resurfaced in my current church situation and I’ve found myself asking, “What role, if any, do patriotic songs play in a Christian worship service?” If you have the answer to that question, by all means, type it in the comments section, because I don’t have a certain answer. But in my quest for the answers I found some interesting patriotic songs that have appeared in various church hymnals through the years. Just type in “patriotism” on hymnary.org, and you’ll see many of these same results. So without further ado, I present
5 patriotic hymns you probably won’t sing this Sunday:
1. “We will vote it dry” by J.B. Herbert: This song, from 1914, appears under the hymn heading “Temperance/Patriotism.” While it is found in the expected collections like Abstinence Songs and The Anti-Saloon League Songbook, it also appears in the 1916 hymnal, Praiseworthy for the Church and Sunday School. The first line reads “All the brewers tell us lager-beer’s a food.” I can’t find any other lyrics on the world wide web, probably because the song hasn’t had much staying power. This isn’t the only Temperance song from Herbert; he also penned such classics as “Where there’s drink, there’s danger,” and “The Walls of Jericho Fell Down,” which sounds like a normal hymn, until you get to the chorus: “Old Whiskey’s walls have got to go/Just like the walls of Jericho/Those rummies won’t know where they’re at/ Their walls must tumble down, down flat.” Frankly, I’m glad this style of songwriting lost popularity in evangelical churches, otherwise we might have songs like “We will vote it fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-political-platform. (I like my job, so I don’t dare fill in that blank on a public blog :))
2. “Oh Columbia, The Gem of the Ocean“ by David Shaw: This patriotic tune was once widely anthologized in church hymnals from a variety of denominations, but it fell out of popularity around 1927. Maybe that’s because the line between American pride and American idolatry gets a little fuzzy when it calls America “The shrine of each patriot’s devotion,” and says, “A world offers homage to thee.” I should hope, in a Christian worship service that all devotion and homage are going to God. According to Wikipedia, this song once vied with the Star-Spangled banner for National Anthem status.
3. “Somebody Voted to Ruin my Boy” (Was that somebody you?) by Civilla D. Martin: This one also appears under the dual category of Patriotic and Temperance, but it stands out because its author, Civilla Martin, also penned the beloved hymn “His eye is on the sparrow.”
4. Death Bells Tolling, Tolling, Tolling (To the Rescue) by Priscilla Owens: Okay, okay, I know I should stop posting temperance songs, but they’re too good not to write about, especially one with a title as uplifting at that! Owens also wrote the popular hymn “Jesus Saves! (We have heard the joyful sound),” alongside many other hymns of a happier tone, and, to her credit, the “Death bells” in this hymn are replaced with “joy-bells ringing” as temperance workers appear with “voices cheering, life-boats steering…” What makes this song more than just a political plea? The line in the chorus that says, “Sign our pledge, now sign, And strength divine shall yet be thine.” Basically, this song is “Love lifted Me,” but it’s about prohibition.
5. O Canada! This song actually appears in the 2008 edition of The Baptist Hymnal, so I have to wonder, when Baptists ask to sing Patriotic hymns, would they include this one? I mean, its second verse is actually more appropriate for a worship service than some of the more popular American hymns:
Almighty Love, by Thy mysterious power,
In wisdom guide, with faith and freedom dower;
Be ours a nation evermore
that no oppression blights,
Where justice rules from shore to shore,
from lakes to northern lights.
May love alone for wrong atone;
Lord of the lands, make Canada Thine own!
Lord of the lands, make Canada Thine own!
Wow. “May love alone for wrong atone” is a prayer I could say for any nation on any day of the year. Maybe this July 4th weekend we should look above for our song inspiration. And by above, I mean North, to Canada.
Seriously, though, it is God we should seek in figuring out how large a role patriotism should play in a corporate worship service — not tradition, not political affiliation, not what we think Christians should vote for (because that turned out so well in the case of those temperance songs), but God. After all, it is His glory, not a nation’s glory, that we desire when we gather to worship Him.
(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)