“God Bless America” in the New York Times (1885–1930)
The phrase “God Bless America” appears in the New York Times for the first time in 1885, uttered by English actor Henry Irving at a speech marking the conclusion of his first tour of the United States: “The last words I say to you, and those words will ever be uttered by me and mine are, God bless America! And with these words I respectfully and, if I may say so, affectionately, bid you good-bye. God bless America!”i Sir Irving’s early use of the phrase at the end of a speech might be an omen of what would later become a convention within American politics, but it also is an example of one of the principal use of the phrase before the song became popular: an offering of thanks to the United States within an international context, spoken or written by representatives from Spain, France, Serbia, Russia, Belgium, and Czechoslavakia.ii
Perhaps predictably, the phrase was also spoken within religious contexts during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century. General William Booth, the English founder of the Salvation Army, shouted it at a Pennsylvania rally in 1886 after his earlier exhortation (“God Bless England!”) was received tepidly.iii Cardinal O’Connell used the phrase in a 1929 speech, and the Pope was said to have uttered the phrase in a meeting with Cardinal Hayes in 1930.iv These benedictions seem perfectly at home within the language of the clergy, who, after all, routinely and publicly ask for God’s blessing in speeches and sermons.
Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” is not the first song with that title to make its appearance in the New York Times. A July 1900 article describes a German musical festival in Brooklyn in which a chorus of public school children performed patriotic songs like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” alongside the German anthem, “Die Wacht am Rein.”v This performance was likely that of an earlier national hymn entitled “God Bless America!” composed in 1834 by Robert M. Bird.vi It is interesting that Bird’s hymn was put to work as a symbol of immigrant assimilation and loyalty to the United States in 1900, just as Berlin’s would later be, as the article proclaimed that the German schoolchildren “showed yesterday in a very convincing manner that, although they have Teutonic blood in their veins they are devoted in sentiment to the land of their adoption.”vii In contrast to Berlin’s expression of gratitude from an immigrant himself, Bird’s lyrics reference America as birthplace (as well as expressing an abolitionist message relevant to its time):
i “The Amusement Season,” NYT, 5 April 1885.
ii These include a letter from Spain commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ journey ([no title], letter to the US president from Spain], NYT, 4 August 1892), and a speech by the Russian ambassador during World War I: “I say, God bless America, our new ally; long life to her soldiers; God help them to tear down German autocracy and bring the war to a successful close!” (“Russia to Stand Firm,” NYT, 10 July 1917).
iii “Noisy Religious Work,” NYT, 15 November 1886.
iv Cardinal O’Connor said, “God bless America, whose history thus far has been that of respect for religion and profound reverence for the things that are highest and best in the spiritual life” (“Only 9 to See Pact Signed in Rome Today,” NYT, 11 February 1929). Here, O’Connell’s use of the phrase is an interesting predecessor to the song’s later indexing of religious plurality (“respect for religion” spoken by a Catholic Cardinal could certainly be interpreted this way). The reference to the Pope uttering the phrase is found in “Cardinal Hayes Tells of Visit to the Pope,” NYT, 2 February 1930.
v “Brooklyn’s Children Sing,” NYT, 4 July 1900.
vi Robert M. Bird, “God Bless America,” Philadelphia: Fiot, Meignen and Co., 1834, available from the Library of Congress American Memory Collection, Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1820–1860: http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.music/sm1834.361020. It is difficult to know if Irving Berlin was familiar with this song when he wrote his own “God Bless America.” No articles about Berlin’s song mention Bird’s as a predecessor, though there is an article about Bird’s version in Berlin’s scrapbooks (‘God Bless America’ Anthem Composed by Delawarean,” Wilmington News, 18 Oct 1940, in IBC Scrapbook 548). Certainly, the wide range and virtuosic leaps of Bird’s version share little to no musical content with Berlin’s, and may help explain why its popularity as an alternate anthem did not endure.
vii “Brooklyn’s Children Sing,” NYT, 4 July 1900.
viii Robert M. Bird, “God Bless America.