The Hymns of Samuel Francis Smith

Article excerpt

The year 2008 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Francis Smith (1808-1895), one of the most important hymnwriters in the United States during the nineteenth century. Smith's significance stems from many factors: he wrote the words of one of America's favorite national hymns, co-compiled the most popular Baptist hymnal of the mid-nineteenth century, published several collections of verse, was widely anthologized in American hymn collections, was prolific in his output, and was frequently the choice of churches and organizations who sought to commission new hymns.

However, surprisingly little attention has been paid to Smith's contributions to congregational song. The chief areas of investigation into his work have been his authorship of "My country, 'tis of thee," the story of which is included in most United States hymnal companions and in a penetrating article by David Hein, and his work on the hymnal The Psalmist, the subject of a dissertation by Rchard Wayne Rose.1 A collected edition of poems by Smith was published in the late nineteenth century,2 but it has several drawbacks for the researcher, and apparently no comprehensive list of Smith's hymns has been attempted. It seems timely in this anniversary year to describe certain specific aspects of Smith's work and provide a provisional list of his hymns in the hope of stimulating more attention to this and other neglected American hymnwriters of the nineteenth century.

Samuel F. Smith: His Life

Samuel F. Smith was born in Boston on October 21, 1808. After attending the city's Eliot School and Latin School, he enrolled at Harvard University, from which he graduated in 1829. He pursued a degree in theology at Andover Theological Seminary (now Andover-Newton Theological School), completing his work in 1832. After graduation from Andover, Smith served for a year as editor of the American Baptist Magazine, and shortly thereafter accepted the pastorate of the Baptist church in Waterville, Maine, where he was ordained in 1834.3 At the same time, he served as Professor of Modern Languages at Waterville College (now Colby College).

Smith continued as pastor and teacher in Waterville until 1842, when he settled in Newton Centre, Massachusetts, as pastor of the First Baptist Church and editor of the Christian Review. He continued to edit the magazine until 1848, and to serve as pastor until 1854. In the latter year, he was appointed editorial secretary of the Baptist Missionary Union, a position he retained for fifteen years.

In his later years, Smith and his wife traveled extensively, spending a year in Europe and two years touring mission points in Europe and Southeast Asia. The poet lived to the age of eighty-seven, dying on November 16, 1895.4

Smith was acquainted or associated with some of the most significant American literary figures of his day, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes (a classmate at Harvard), James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier.5 Among Smith's published prose works were biographies, local histories, sermons, and works on missions. He also issued several collections of poetry, including Lyric Gems (1844), Rock of Ages. Original and Selected Poems ([187O]), and Poems of Home and Country (1895).6 With Baron Stow, pastor of the Baldwin Place Baptist Church of Boston, he edited two hymnals, The Psalmist (1843) and The Social Psalmist (1848).

Sources for Hymns by Smith

The fullest single source for lyrics by Samuel Francis Smith is his Poems of Home and Country, published some seven months before the author's death. According to the preface by editor Henry B. Carrington, the purpose of the collection was to present "nearly three hundred and fifty odes and poems" by Smith "in durable form, as a legacy to his countrymen and the Christian world" ([v], vi). An "autobiography of the author of 'America'" that Smith contributed to the volume gives some idea of the scope of his hymn writing: "not far from one hundred and fifty of my hymns have, in various ways, been contributed to our Psalmody" (xvi). …