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Nearly a century has now elapsed since our national hymn, “America,” was written, and, despite all efforts to displace it by other anthems, it seems to retain its hold on the hearts of the people. Samuel Francis Smith will always be gratefully remembered as the author of this hymn, but we should not lose sight of the fact that the New England pastor who gave his country such an inspiring patriotic song has also given to the Christian Church some of the choicest gems in her hymnody.

Associated with “My country, ’tis of thee” will be the stirring missionary hymn, “The morning light is breaking,” the two being regarded as the foremost of Dr. Smith’s poetical works. Both were written in the winter of 1832, when he was only twenty-four years old. He was a student at Andover Theological Seminary at the time.

Altogether Dr. Smith contributed nearly 150 hymns to American hymnody, many of them on missionary themes. They were written in an era that witnessed a remarkable revival of interest in foreign missions. The famous “Haystack Meeting” at Williams College, which marked the beginning of the modern missionary movement in America, was held in 1806, just two years before Smith was born. Smith himself, while a theological student at Andover, caught the spirit of the times and felt constrained to become a missionary.

At this time reports came from Adoniram Judson in Burmah that, after years of painful disappointment and failure, 390 the light was breaking, and multitudes were turning to Christ. Smith was fired with hopeful enthusiasm, and it was in this spirit of glad exultation that he sat down to write his immortal missionary hymn:

The morning light is breaking,

The darkness disappears;

The sons of earth are waking

To penitential tears.

Many other missionary hymns came from the gifted writer in succeeding years, and immediately after his graduation from Andover he became editor of a missionary magazine, through which he wielded a great influence. When the “Lone Star” mission in India was in danger of being abandoned because of lack of funds, Smith did much to save it by writing a poem with the title, “Lone Star.” Another missionary hymn by him begins with the line, “Onward speed thy conquering flight.” However, it does not attain to the poetic heights of “The morning light is breaking,” which has been compared to Heber’s “From Greenland’s icy mountains” in spiritual fervor and literary merit.

Another interesting hymn written by Smith during his student days is called “The Missionary’s Farewell.” The first stanza reads:

Yes, my native land, I love thee;

All thy scenes, I love them well;

Friends, connections, happy country,

Can I bid you all farewell?

Can I leave you,

Far in heathen lands to dwell?


Although Dr. Smith never carried out his earlier resolve to become a missionary, he visited many foreign fields and had the satisfaction of hearing his own hymns sung in many tongues. Referring to “The morning light is breaking,” he once wrote:

“It has been a great favorite at missionary gatherings, and I have myself heard it sung in five or six different languages in Europe and Asia. It is a favorite with the Burmans, Karens and Telugus in Asia, from whose lips I have heard it repeatedly.”

A son of the distinguished hymn-writer became a missionary to the Burmans.

Dr. Smith filled many important pulpits in New England during his long and illustrious career. At one time he was a professor in modern languages. He was an unusual linguist, being familiar with fifteen tongues. In 1894, a year before his death, he was still vigorous in mind and body, writing and preaching, although he was eighty-six years old. It was in this year that he was found looking around for a textbook that would enable him to begin the study of Russian. It was in this year, too, that he wrote one of his finest hymns, for a church dedication.

Founded on Thee, our only Lord,

On Thee, the everlasting Rock,

Thy Church shall stand as stands Thy Word,

Nor fear the storm, nor dread the shock.

For Thee our waiting spirits yearn,

For Thee this house of praise we rear;

To Thee with longing hearts we turn;

Come, fix Thy glorious presence here.


Come, with Thy Spirit and Thy power,

The Conqueror, once the Crucified;

Our God, our Strength, our King, our Tower,

Here plant Thy throne, and here abide.

Accept the work our hands have wrought;

Accept, O God, this earthly shrine;

Be Thou our Rock, our Life, our Thought,

And we, as living temples, Thine.

The celebrated hymnist happily has left a personal account of how he wrote “America.” Lowell Mason, the composer, had given him a collection of German books containing songs for children with the request that Smith should examine them and translate anything of merit.

“One dismal day in February, 1832,” he wrote long afterward, “about half an hour before sunset, I was turning over the leaves of one of the music books when my eye rested on the tune which is now known as ‘America.’ I liked the spirited movement of it, not knowing it at that time to be ‘God save the King.’ I glanced at the German words and saw that they were patriotic, and instantly felt the impulse to write a patriotic hymn of my own, adapted to the tune. Picking up a scrap of waste paper which lay near me, I wrote at once, probably within half an hour, the hymn ’America’ as it is now known everywhere. The whole hymn stands today as it stood on the bit of waste paper, five or six inches long and two and a half wide.”

Dr. Smith was a member of the celebrated Harvard class of 1829, to which Oliver Wendell Holmes also belonged. The latter wrote a poem for one of the class reunions, in which he referred to the distinguished hymn-writer in the following lines:


And there’s a nice youngster of excellent pith—

Fate tried to conceal him by naming him Smith;

But he shouted a song for the brave and the free—

Just read on his medal, ‘My country,’ ‘of thee.’

On November 19, 1895, the venerable pastor and poet was called suddenly to his eternal home. He died as he was taking a train from Boston to preach in a neighboring town.

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