In a magazine article, written several years ago, Mr. Herbert Heywood gave an interesting account of an interview with Dr. Smith, who told him the story of the writing of the hymn himself.
“‘I wrote “America,"’ he said, ’when I was a theological student at Andover, during my last year there. In February, 1832, I was poring over a German book of patriotic songs which Lowell Mason, of Boston, had sent me to translate, when I came upon one with a tune of great majesty. I hummed it over, and was struck with the ease with which the accompanying German words fell into the music. I saw it was a patriotic song, and while I was thinking of translating it, I felt an impulse to write an American patriotic hymn. I reached my hand for a bit of waste paper, and, taking my quill pen, wrote the four verses in half an hour. I sent it with some translations of the German songs to Lowell Mason, and the next thing I knew of it I was told it had been sung by the Sunday-school children at Park Street Church, Boston, at the following Fourth of July celebration. The house where I was living at the time was on the Andover turnpike, a little north of the seminary building. I have been in the house since I left it in September, 1832, but never went into my old room.’” This room is now visited by patriotic Americans from every part of the country.
Two years after “America” was written, Dr. Smith became pastor of the First Baptist Church in Waterville, Maine, and also professor of modern languages in Waterville College, which is now known as Colby University. His great industry and zeal, both as a clergyman and student and teacher of languages, enabled him to perform the duties of both positions successfully. He was a noted linguist, and could read books in fifteen different languages. He could converse in most of the modern European tongues, and at eighty-six was engaged in studying Russian.
In 1842 Dr. Smith was made pastor of the First Baptist Church, Newton Center, Massachusetts, where he made his home for the rest of his life.
“When he died, in November, 1895,” says Mr. Heywood, “he was living in the old brown frame-house at Newton Center, Massachusetts, which had been his home for over fifty years. It stood back from the street, on the brow of a hill sloping gently to a valley on the north. Pine trees were in the front and rear, and the sun, from his rising to his setting, smiled upon that abode of simple greatness. The house was faded and worn by wind and weather, and was in perfect harmony with its surroundings— the brown grass sod that peeped from under the snow, the dull-colored, leafless elms, and the gray, worn stone steps leading up from the street.
“An air of gentle refinement pervaded the interior, and every room spoke of its inmate. But perhaps the library was best loved of all by Dr. Smith, for here it was that his work went on. Here, beside a sunny bay window, stood his work table, and his high-backed, old-fashioned chair, with black, rounded arms. All about the room were ranged his bookcases, and an old, tall clock marked the flight of time that was so kind to the old man. His figure was short, his shoulders slightly bowed, and around his full, ruddy face, that beamed with kindness, was a fringe of white hair and beard.”