From THE DICK CAVETT SHOW. September 18, 1972. The lyrics were written sometime in the 1890's by a Wellesley College English professor named Katharine Lee Bates, who wrote it as a poem. In 1926, the poem was combined with the music of a hymn written by Samuel Ward called "Materna" for a contest by the National Federation of Music Clubs.A lot of artists have recorded this, including Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, but Charles' version is the most famous.
Bates was inspired by the beauty of nature during a lecture tour in Colorado Springs. She recalled just before her death in 1929: "One day, some of the other teachers and I decided to go on a trip to 14,000-foot Pikes Peak. We hired a prairie wagon. Near the top we had to leave the wagon and go the rest of the way on mules. I was very tired. But when I saw the view, I felt great joy. All the wonder of America seemed displayed there."
She continued: "We stood at last on that Gate-of-Heaven summit, hallowed by the worship of perished races, and gazed in wordless rapture over the far expanse... It was then and there, as I was looking out over the sea-like expanse of fertile country spreading away so far under those ample skies, that the opening lines of the hymn floated into my mind."