Irving Berlin's Great Patriotic Prayer Song

by Lindsay Terry

"If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14).

During an Armistice Day celebration in 1939, Kate Smith first sang Irving Berlin's song, launching it on its flight across the United States. It is reported that she hesitated at first to include the song in her program, fearing that she might be called a flag waver. However she did decide to include it and as a result became famous. The song became one of the most beloved in America.

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline in Eastern Russia on May 11, 1888. Young Israel was exposed to music early in life: his father, Moses Baline, was a cantor in the synagogue. The family moved to New York in 1893 to escape the pogroms in Russia.

By 1907 he had published his first song and, in 1911 wrote his first big international hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band." This success followed Irving's days as a singing waiter in a China Town cafe in New York City. During the next fifty years he wrote hundreds of songs, many of which swept across America—songs such as "White Christmas" and "Always." But all of these pale into insignificance when we consider his song of thanksgiving and homage to his beloved country: "God Bless America." Particularly, since the events of September 11, 2001, in every corner and on countless occasions we hear it.

We are so blessed to live, laugh, and love in freedom—freedom to enjoy all that our hearts hold dear. This "solemn prayer" for America has already been answered in countless ways and in millions of lives. Just as Berlin did, we recognize that God has singularly blessed our nation.

From the peaceful Atlantic that bathes our eastern shores to the restless Pacific in the west, from the massive Great Lakes in the north to the winding Rio Grande that borders us to the south: The unique cities and towns that dot our land, the rolling hills, the spacious plains, the majestic mountains, and the colorful deserts all make up what we lovingly call America.

More than any nation on earth, we are a diverse population, gathered from the four corners of the world, working together to make America a unique and unparalleled nation in which to live, move, and have our being.

If you have ever had the privilege of approaching the United States through New York Harbor, "Lady Liberty" came into your view. It was a welcoming sight enjoyed by the Berlin family. This grand statue was erected just seven years before Irving Berlin's family reached these shores as immigrants.

There is no message on any plaque in America that is more often quoted and which has a more solemn and significant intent: "…Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me..." In this message America offers to share her blessings with people of every hue, nationality, and ethnic origin, and invites all to live in this great land of opportunity.

Irving was not a shallow patriot, and it was evident that the message of his song came directly from his allegiance to this country. He donated millions of dollars in royalties to organizations such as the God Bless America Fund, the Army Emergency Relief Fund, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Girl Scouts of America.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1955, presented Berlin with the Congressional Gold Medal for "God Bless America" and other patriotic songs. President Gerald Ford presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to him in 1977. 

Irving Berlin died in his sleep at his home in New York City on September 22, 1989, at the age of 101.

Reflection 

The next time you have an opportunity to sing "God Bless America," make it a meaningful experience as you join others in this patriotic prayer song. Also, make it your daily petition that the Lord will truly bless our nation with guidance from above, and that each of us will love our fellow Americans.

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