Hymns, Odes and Songs To Pilrims and The Mayflower

By Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.

Over the years hymns, odes and songs have been composed about the Pilgrims and the Mayflower. This is an article about some of them.

On February 16, 1900, at the annual meeting of the SMDPA in Philadelphia, The Pilgrims, with words based on an earlier poem by Florence (Earle) Coates and music by Thomas Whitney Surette, was sung by the members and their guests. Its cover carries the copyright date of 1900. Florence Coates was a poet laureate of Pennsylvania and one of 21 Charter Members of SMDPA (#10). The composer was “of” Bryn Mawr College. I have not examined the minutes of subsequent annual meetings to see if there is an indication of how often and when it was last used. It is written in E-flat major in 4/2 time and the lyrics are:

Cover of 'The Pilgrims' Hymn. Image: Stacy B. C. Wood, Jr.

The Pilgrims

(Played “with dignity but not too slowly”)

Pilgrims of the trackless deep,
Leaving all, our fathers came,
Faith and liberty to keep
In Jehovah’s awful name.

(More softly)

Neither pillar’d flame nor cloud
Made the wild, for them rejoice,
But their hearts, with sorrow bowed,
In the darkness –
In the darkness
His voice.

Things above
them divined –
Thoughts of God, forever True,
And the deathless compact signed –
“Building better than they knew:”
Building liberty, not planned,
Law which ampler life controls,
All the greatness of our land
Lying shadowed –
Lying shadowed in their souls.
In the days that shall succeed,
Prouder boast no time shall grant
Than to be of them, indeed,
Children of their covenant:
Children of the promis’d day,
Bound by hope and memory.
Brave, devoted, wise as they,
Strong with love –
Strong with love’s humility.

Currently songs are not usually sung at the annual meeting. An annual memorial service on the Sunday before Thanksgiving was begun in 1933 and hymns and songs are sung there. In 1955 we adopted the Allen Eastman Cross hymn, sung to “Duke Street,” “More Light Shall Break” (aka “The Mayflower Hymn”) because it ends with “The Mayflower still is sailing on.” Written in 1920 on the 300th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ voyage to America in the Mayflower, this hymn was first sung at the International Council of Congregational Churches in the Old South Church, Boston, Massachusetts. The words come from Pastor John Robinson’s farewell to the Pilgrims. We also often sing “America the Beautiful” because of the 2nd verse “O beautiful for pilgrim feet.”

The February 1998 and June 2003 Mayflower Quarterly printed the “The Mayflower Song.” It had been composed for the Second General Congress of our General Society that was held in Plymouth, MA, on September 15, 1900. The song was reprinted for the 1903 Congress. The lyrics are by Richard H. Greene of the New York state society and the music was written by gospel song composer W. Howard Doane, a member of the Ohio state society.

The earliest item found to date was an ode for a Plymouth anniversary of 1794 at the First Parish Church meeting house. It begins “Sons of renowned Sires.” Additional hymns and odes were composed at least through the 1831 dedication of the new church building when they sang “Lo! The rising star of Freedom.” Since both the meeting house and the 1831 wooden church were destroyed by fire, it is possible that the scores of the hymns and odes did not survive. They may have just been sung to the tunes of existing popular hymns. The lyrics of these and other pre-1835 hymns and odes are found in History of The Town of Plymouth by James Thacher, M.D. This very worthwhile 1835 book is still available as a 1991 reprint at Higginson Book Co., Salem, MA.

Another major source, with many scores, is the General Mayflower Society’s 1999 Centennial History 1897-1997 compiled by the late Duane A. Cline. More on these later. The book is available at the GSMD store and highly recommended by this writer for a source of our General Society’s past. The occasions of the marking many of the Mayflower and Pilgrim Historic Sites are included therein.

There has been at least one opera involving the Pilgrims, and it is not covered here.

Continuing with the Centennial History, its Appendix, in addition to having “The Mayflower Compact,” has the “Roll Call of Passengers & Wives” which is limited to those whose lines survive and thus is an authentic list to use when Mayflower Society descendants are asked to be “upstanding” at Compact Day or Thanksgiving Memorial Services. It also has the “Pilgrim Pledge,” “The Elder’s Prayer,” “Mayflower Insignia Etiquette,” and “The American’s Creed.” But the gold mine music-wise is Mr. Cline’s fifteen pages of Mayflower and Pilgrim songs, all with their scores unless they use known tunes as their base.

Of course there are two well known patriotic songs that bring our Pilgrim ancestors to mind when we sing “O beautiful for Pilgrim feet …” and “Land of the Pilgrim’s pride …” The hymns, odes and songs gathered so far are here listed by title with date of composition, first line, lyricist and composer or tune:

America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee), Boston Children’s Independence Day 1831, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” Samuel Francis Smith, God Save the King; America the Beautiful, 1910, “O beautiful for spacious skies,” Katharine Lee Bates, Samuel A. Ward; Anniversary Hymn [Pilgrim landing], 1834, “Lo where of old the Fathers dwelt,” W. S., Russell, St. Martins; Dorothy, My Dorothy, Opera 1927, “Oh fair the day first we met,” Henry Grattan Donnelly, Helen Merrill Choate; Hymn, pre 1835, “Wild was the day,” W. C. Bryant, unknown; Hymn for 22 December, pre-1835, “Hail, Pilgrim fathers of our race!,” Unknown, Old 100; Hymn for 22 December, 1806, “Our Fathers’ God! To Thee we raise,” Rev. Dr. Holmes, Old 100; More Light Shall Break, For International Council of Congregational Churches in 1900 on the 300th Anniversary of Pilgrim Landing, “More light shall break from out Thy Word,” Allen Eastman Cross, Duke Street; Ode For Pilgrim Society Celebration, Pilgrim Society Anniversary [Pilgrim Hall completed] 1824, “The Pilgrim Fathers – Where are They?,” Rev. J. Pierpont, unknown; Ode For 22 December, 1794, ”Sons of renowned Sires,” Hon. John Davis, Unknown; Original Hymn for 22 December, 1831, “Lo! The rising star of Freedom,” Rev. S. Deane, Unknown; Original Hymn for New 1st Parish Church Dedication, 1831, “The winds and waves are roaring,” Rev. J. Pierpont, Unknown; Our Mayflower – Thanksgiving Song, 1953, “We’ll sing a song of the Mayflower,” Marie Rich Rockwood, Marie Rich Rockwood; Our Mayflower Men, For GSMD 14th Congress 1936, “Time is now come to speak our praise,” Lydia Hammond Gale, Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes; Our Plymouth Ship, For GSMD 14th Congress 1936, “Oh Plymouth Ship, dear Plymouth Ship,” Annie L. Sutton, America the Beautiful; Saints and Strangers United, 2009, “Our homes we left,” Dr. Charles S. Bryant, Dr. Charles S. Bryant; The Breaking Waves Dashed High, 1824, “The breaking waves dashed high,” Felicia D. Hemans, Mary Ann Browne; The Mayflower Song, GSMD Congress 1900, “When the little pilgrim band left their home and native land,” Richard H. Greene, W. Howard Doane; The Pilgrims, SMDPA Annual Meeting 1900, “Pilgrims of trackless deep,” Florence Earle Coates, Thomas Whitney Surette; Two Hundred Years Ago, Plymouth Public Dinner 22 December 1820, “Come listen to my story,” Rev. Dr. Flint, Unknown; We Have Faith in This Land, GSMD Triennial Congress 1978, “Our Pilgrim fathers came to this Promis’d Land,” Mark Nichols, Mark Nichols.

In August 2009 I sent an e-mail to all State Society governors and editors and Pilgrim family association heads and editors asking the following:
1. Do you sing hymns/songs regularly at your meetings?
2. Do you use one or more of the songs in the Centennial History list? If so which and what meeting?
3. Do you have an original Mayflower/Pilgrim hymn/song? If so, who wrote it and when?
With thanks to the following State Societies for their responses: AL, AZ, CO, GA, IA, LA, MA, MD, ND, RI, SC, SD, TX, a colony whose state was not identified, and the Soule Kindred. With the exception of Arizona that had once used The Mayflower Song written by Richard H. Greene and W. Howard Doane for the Congress in 1900, and Massachusetts having sung standard English harvest hymns on occasion such as “We gather together,” the answers were ‘no’ on all accounts with one exception: There is a very recent (2009) original composition by the South Carolina state society’s member and Surgeon Dr. Charles S. Bryan: Saints and Strangers United.
Congratulations to Dr. Bryan!