Why I will not sing 'I vow to thee my country'

I never sing the patriotic song, 'I vow to thee my country'. When it comes to singing it at Remembrance Services, I am a conscientious objector. I keep my mouth firmly closed while others sing - at least for the first verse. I sometimes join in the second one.

I have no wish to upset or offend anyone by this post. I acknowledge that many people who served or serve in military service and their families have an attachment to this anthem and find in it layers of meaning that speak to a need. Because of that, when it is sung in services, I stand out of respect for those who want to sing it. I keep silence with my eyes on the service sheet, while using *alternative words in my head. 

'I vow to thee my country' is a well-known anthem in the UK and Commonwealth countries.

The words are based on on original poem 'Urbs Deo' (City of God) of 1908 or 1912 by Cecil Spring-Rice. During World War 1 he served as British Ambassador to the United States. He rewrote the words in January 1918, giving a greater emphasis on sacrifice, in the light of the catastrophic levels of war casualties. Here are the words:

I vow to thee, my country- all earthly things above 
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price
The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice. 

And there's another country I've heard of long ago 
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know 
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King 
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering 
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase 
And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

That version of 'I vow to thee my country' was set to music by Gustav Holst, using an adaptation of a theme from 'Jupiter' in The Planets. The harmonised tune is known as 'Thaxted'. It is a beautiful piece of music. I love the melody and its harmonies, but under no circumstances can I sing its first verse.

Why I do not sing 'I vow to thee my country'.

I have 2 main reasons for this:

  • I cannot vow to my country the 'entire and whole and perfect' service of my love. Apart from anything else, I'm aware of the imperfection of my love. If this vow is refers to loyalty to my country 1st, above 'all earthly things' then I'm sorry, you may accuse me of lack of patriotism, but in an earthly context the vow of love that trumps others for me is that made to my husband on our wedding day. I would not intentionally sacrifice him on the altar of 'my country first - right or wrong'. Neither would I pressurise the fruits of our marriage (my children and grandchildren) to go to war as so many wives and mothers did, particularly in World War 1. That would seem to be what laying "upon the altar the dearest and the best" is about. You may think differently.

  • I have a question about the phrase, "the love that asks no question". What sort of love is it that does not ask questions? What comes to mind is the sort of love that allows tyrannical dictators to control and manipulate the masses to achieve evil ends. I accept that in a war context, those serving in the armed forces must obey orders, often immediately. To stop to ask questions in emergency could endanger lives of comrades. So there may be times and particular situations when to offer unquestioning loyalty is the right thing to do. But the situation of most people who sing this anthem at football matches or Remembrance Services is different. I am sorry if this offends you, but I do not offer my country "the love that asks no question". To ask questions that may challenge those in authority is often a good, even a patriotic, thing to do.

Why I sometimes sing the 2nd verse of 'I vow to thee my country'

The second verse refers to Proverbs 3:17 where the ways of 'wisdom' are described as
"ways of pleasantness and all her paths are peace".
As the author intended, this evokes for me a picture of the Kingdom of God. Jesus spoke of that kingdom as a place for all people, where all are loved (not just 'my country'), where righteousness, peace, wisdom, truth, and justice are among its core values. It is a kingdom that can already be found in the heart and I believe will one day fully come. So yes, I do sometimes sing that second verse.

What *alternative words do I silently affirm during the 1st verse of 'I vow to thee my country'?

As a Christian I can see it is possible to interpret the 'my country' of the first verse as 'the kingdom of heaven' but that is not how the majority of patriotic singers understand it. People tend to think of their own earthly country. Even if I thought of the kingdom of heaven instead of the UK during the 1st verse, I would want to sing of the 'love that dares to question' rather than 'that asks no question'. For the first 2 lines I silently challenge myself to vow, 'I vow to thee, my Saviour...the service of my love.'

What is your view or experience of 'I vow to thee my country'?

Now I've got that off my chest this Armistice Day, I welcome you respectful comments, whether or not you agree with me.

Image Credit: Commons Wikimedia


  1. I agree with you about the uber-patriotic nature of the words and like you, feel uncomfortable when expected to sing them, I do however, have another reason for being unable to sing it.
    The first time I encountered it was at the age of eleven and it coincided with the death of my favourite Uncle. He was my father's youngest brother (in a family of eleven children), I knew him well and loved him very much. His death at the age of 21 in a freak diving accident was a huge shock to the family.
    I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the music, but vocally crippled by the words, and have been ever since.
    Like you, I find the 2nd verse easier to sing.

    1. The music is something I always find so moving Ray, often to the point of tears as I think about those who have died willingly and unwillingly in war.


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