Posted by: rcottrill | August 27, 2012

The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Words: Julia Ward Howe (b. May 27, 1819; d. Oct. 17, 1910)
Music: (composer unknown)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: In 1856, John William Steffe (1830-1890) published a collection of camp-meeting songs which included one beginning “Say, brothers, will you meet us, on Canaan’s happy shore.” The singable tune was later used for a Civil War song about a radical abolitionist named John Brown, who was executed in 1859 (“John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on”).

In December of 1861, on hearing the tune sung lustily by the Union troops with this text, Julia Ward Howe said she’d “often wished to write some words to it.” That night she awoke before dawn with an idea for a new hymn forming in her mind. Her infant children were sleeping in the room with her, so she did not light a lamp, but scribbled down the now famous lines in the semi-dark. (She’d done this sort of thing before, and says she found if she didn’t rewrite her scrawl within twenty-four hours, she was unable to decipher it!)

Five stanzas of the hymn were published in February of 1862. It has been claimed that Mrs. Howe withdrew CH-5 from publication, but we actually don’t know for certain whether she wrote it, or when it was first included in the song. It contained the line “As He [Christ] died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” It was a sentiment particularly suited to wartime. But in 1944, during World War II, choral conductor Fred Waring changed the latter phrase to “let us live to make men free,” and so it has remained.

Gaining immediate popularity, The Battle Hymn of the Republic (or simply Battle Hymn of the Republic) went on to become a kind of second, and unofficial national anthem in America. There are many colourful images called forth by the words of this song, and here and there we can catch a glimmer of orthodox Christian truth, but it is only a glimmer. This is not surprising, given Julia Howe’s beliefs.

She was raised in a conservative Anglican (Episcopalian) home, but she rebelled against the strict Calvinism of her father and became quite liberal, believing in the brotherhood of man, and the universal fatherhood of God. She joined the Unitarian Church (which denies the full deity of Christ) and frequently preached in Unitarian churches.

She and her husband also became involved in various humanitarian causes, including women’s suffrage. (In 1870 she proposed that all the women of the world could organize to end war for all time.) Commendably, the Howes were strong advocates of abolition as well.

Even with Mrs. Howe’s liberal theology, there is some truth in her hymn, especially if it is separated from its original historical context. Mrs. Howe thought of Christ coming spiritually in judgment on America’s national sin of slavery, through the avenging hand of the Union Army. But we can look beyond that and see in some of her words the literal second coming of Christ in His glory, meting out fiery judgment on the wicked. Consider the following two passages, and you will see that the hymn echoes a similar message.

“[There will come a day] when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day, to be glorified in His saints and to be admired among all those who believe” (II Thess. 1:7-10).

“Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev. 19:11-16; cf. Isa. 63:1-3).

CH-1) Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.

1) Is this a hymn you sing in your church? (Why? Or why not?)

2) What other hymns would you use that teach about Christ’s return with greater clarity?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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