Samuel Francis Smith was born October 21, 1808.
Smith wrote the lyrics to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” while a student at the Andover Theological Seminary in Andover, Massachusetts.
His friend Lowell Mason had asked him to translate the lyrics in some German school songbooks or to write new lyrics.
The melody from the national anthem of the UK, “God Save the Queen” and Muzio Clementi’s Symphony No. 3 caught his attention.
Rather than translating the lyrics from German, Smith wrote his own American patriotic hymn to the melody, completing the lyrics in thirty minutes.
Smith gave Mason the patriotic lyrics he had written and the song was first performed in public on July 4, 1831, at a children’s Independence Day celebration at Park Street Church in Boston.
In 1832, the lyrics were first published under the title of “America” by Lowell Mason in the publication “The Choir.”
Smith’s song soon became the de facto national anthems of the United States (along with songs like “Hail, Columbia”) before the adoption of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the official anthem in 1931.
After graduating from Andover Theological in 1834, Samuel Smith worked in Boston editing the Baptist Missionary Magazine before going to Maine.
His ordination as a Baptist minister was on February 12, 1834, in Waterville, Maine, where in addition to his ministry, he served as Professor of Modern Languages at Waterville College.
In 1842, he left Waterville to go to Newton, Massachusetts.
In Newton, Smith became editor of the Christian Review and other publications of the Baptist Missionary Union (BMU).
He continued his ministry as well, becoming pastor of the First Baptist Church in Newton in the village of Newton Centre.
In Newton, Smith bought a house at 1181 Centre Street which had been built in 1836 and added on to in 1842.
Smith did not stop writing. In addition to “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, Smith wrote over 150 other hymns and in 1843 teamed with Baron Stow to compile a Baptist hymnal, The Psalmist.
After twelve years as pastor of the Newton Centre church, he became editorial secretary of the BMU and served there for fifteen years. During the years 1875–1880, Smith made many trips to Europe, Turkey, the Indian Empire as well as Ceylon and Burma to visit missionary outposts.
He also wrote a history of his adoptive home, entitled History of Newton, Massachusetts, which was published in 1880.
Samuel Smith later wrote an additional stanza for “My Country,‘Tis of Thee” for the April 30, 1889 Washington Centennial Celebration.
There is a handwritten note by Smith in the Louise Arner Boyd Collection archived by the Marin History Museum featuring all the original verses to the song with the additional stanza on the reverse of the notepaper. It is dated May, 16, 1889 and signed, “S.F. Smith”.
Professor and author Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. recommended Samuel Smith as a potential candidate for an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Harvard University in 1893. Harvard president Charles William Eliot declined, noting that My Country ‘Tis of Thee was better known for its tune, which Smith did not write, rather than its lyrics. Holmes disagreed, noting that “his song will be sung centuries from now, when most of us and our pipings are forgotten.”
Samuel Francis Smith died suddenly on November 16, 1895, while on his way by train to preach in the Boston neighborhood of Readville and was buried in Newton Cemetery in Newton.
“My Country,‘Tis of Thee” was among the pieces sung at his funeral. He was survived by his wife and five children.
Smith was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.
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