In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!

. . . from the BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Battle Hymn of the Republic: Its History and Meaning


Irish Brigade Monument, Antietam National Battlefield
[NOTE: This post was adapted from a recent item on my blog Songs of Praises, which features the best in hymns and sacred music.]
A couple of weeks ago (May 27) people in the United States observed Memorial Day, on which we  remember and honor those who gave their lives while serving our country in the armed forces.  In less than a month (July 1-3), we will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the costliest and, perhaps, most decisive engagement in the American Civil War.  Dark clouds of wars past, as well as the "wars and rumors of wars" today, are on our minds.  For centuries, people have resorted to sacred music as a way to find meaning, comfort, and inspiration amidst the terrible trials that wars produce. Sometimes a hymn will reflect on what has been lost in past conflicts, especially fallen warriors, and at other times (and often in the same hymn) on the causes for which the war was fought.

War, for a Christian, is among the most troubling features of life in this world. We believe that our God is loving and merciful, yet untold millions of innocent  human beings have been killed, maimed, starved, enslaved, and otherwise suffered in countless wars down through history, a scourge which seems to have no end. God commands us not to kill (Exodus 20:13), but legions of professing Christians have taken up arms, and still do, to defend their homelands or way of life--and too often in the past, most regrettably, to engage in conquest and even to war against each other.  We pray fervently for peace and look forward to the blessed day when "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." (Isaiah 2:3-4)  And yet, we "put on the whole armour of God" (Ephesians 6:11) and sing rousing hymns that are full of military imagery, such as Onward Christian Soldiers, Who Is on the Lord’s Side?, and Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus, Ye Soldiers of the Cross. Ultimately, perhaps, war is but one facet of the opposition and conflict that came into the world with sin, and will be our lot until Christ returns and banishes Satan forever.

This view suffuses one of Christendom's (and the world's) most famous hymns, The Battle Hymn of the Republic. This remarkable work may be less of a "hymn" as commonly understood, than an anthem, for it became the inspirational "theme" music for the Union (or perhaps more precisely, the abolitionist) cause in the American Civil War. While it reflects on the issues that gave rise to that war and invokes images common to the 19th century soldier's experience, the Battle Hymn elevates the conflict to a higher, sacred plane and speaks to what many Christians believe about evil, the destiny of the world, and our role in fulfilling that destiny. Its refrain even inspires the title and Web address of this blog!

THE HISTORY BEHIND THE HYMN

The text of the Battle Hymn was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910), a prominent American social activist and wife of Samuel Gridley Howe (1801–1876), a famed scholar in education of the blind. Samuel and Julia were both deeply involved in the anti-slavery or "abolitionist" movement, in which thousands of Americans had, for more than thirty years, worked tirelessly to end the practice of slavery in the United States through religious and moral persuasion, political agitation, and even spiriting slaves away to the Northern states and Canada from their places of bondage in the South. Many abolitionists had exhausted their fortunes and risked (and some suffered)  prison or death in the cause. The movement grew out of the American religious revival known as the the Second Great Awakening in the 1820s and 1830s, and its most passionate and committed members were motivated by the conviction that "all people were equal in God's sight; the souls of black folks were as valuable as those of whites; [and] for one of God's children to enslave another was a violation of the Higher Law, even if it was sanctioned by the Constitution." (James Brewer Stewart, Holy Warriors: The Abolitionists and American Slavery (1976)). They were also convinced, as were most zealous believers since the Second Great Awakening, that the Millennium was near and that Jesus Christ would return to the earth soon to usher it in. That society could and should be transformed for the better in furtherance of God's purpose, and that it was the Christian's duty to help bring about that transformation, was an article of faith among religious abolitionists and social reformers of that day.

John Brown
By the 1860s the abolition movement seemed--but for the liberation of some thousands of slaves through the "underground railroad"--to have borne little fruit but to set the Northern and Southern sections of the United States implacably against each other. The 1859 assault on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia led by John Brown, a deeply religious abolition zealot who sought to spark a slave uprising--and which was funded in part by Samuel Gridley Howe--only hastened the rupture. Finally, five months after anti-slavery Republican Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in November 1860, and several Southern states seceded from the Union, the conflict became an open and deadly Civil War.

According to various accounts, the Battle Hymn was born in the wake of a public review of federal troops outside Washington, D.C. in November 1861, which Julia Ward Howe attended along with her husband Samuel--now a member of President Lincoln's military Sanitary Commission--and the Rev. James Freeman Clarke. At some point the passing soldiers began singing John Brown's Body, a popular Union marching song that referred both to the famous antislavery martyr John Brown and to a certain irrepressible Union soldier of that name from Massachusetts. John Brown's Body itself originated from a popular religious camp-meeting song known as Canaan's Happy Shore or Brothers, Will You Meet Us?, which carried an old folk tune transcribed (and often attributed to) William Steffe (1830–1890), (of whom no known image exists) and published in about 1856. Although the words to John Brown's Body were thought by the more genteel people of the time as rather coarse and irreverent, Mrs. Howe and her party joined in the singing as the soldiers marched by. Reverend Clarke suggested to Mrs. Howe that she write some new lyrics to the familiar tune, and she resolved to do so. As she later recalled:
I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, 'I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.' So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper. [Howe, Julia Ward. Reminiscences: 1819-1899. Houghton, Mifflin: New York, 1899. p. 275]
Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic was first published on the front page of the February 1862 issue of the Atlantic Monthly (editor James T. Fields (1817-1881), who paid Mrs. Howe $5 for the piece, is credited with having given the song the name by which it is known today). By the time federal forces  took the field for their spring campaigns, soldiers were already singing and marching to the song.

Since the Civil War, the Battle Hymn has become one of the USA's most beloved patriotic songs. It also appears in many hymnals, and is widely sung at church services on such national holidays as Memorial Day and Independence Day. It is probably second in eminence only to The Star Spangled Banner as an American patriotic anthem.

THE MEANING AND IMPORTANCE OF THE HYMN

One cannot fully appreciate the meaning and significance of the Battle Hymn without reading and pondering its text in detail:

    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.

       
(Chorus)
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        His truth is marching on.

    I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
    They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
    I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
    His day is marching on.

       
(Chorus)
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        His day is marching on.

    I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
    "As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
    Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
    His truth is marching on."

       
(Chorus)
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        His truth is marching on.

    He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
    He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
    Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
    Our God is marching on.

       
(Chorus)
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Our God is marching on.

    In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
    With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
    As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
    While God is marching on.

       
(Chorus)
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Our God is marching on.

    He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
    He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
    So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
    Our God is marching on.

       
(Chorus)
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Glory, glory, hallelujah!
        Our God is marching on.




The Battle Hymn of the Republic is certainly different from most of the works featured in traditional collections of hymns, which tend to focus on the individual and his or her personal transformation through God and Jesus Christ. The Battle Hymn, on the other hand, focuses on the world and the injustice and evil within it, and its impending transformation by Christ, heralded by and working through the armies of His faithful.

The first stanza presents a clear vision of the Lord's return and the fearful judgment coming in its wake:  "glory of the coming of the Lord" (". . . the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory." Matthew 24:30); "grapes of wrath" ("And the angel thrust in his sickle into the earth, and gathered the vine of the earth, and cast it into the great winepress of the wrath of God."  Revelation 14:19); "terrible swift sword" (". . . out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword . . ."  Revelation 1:16).

As has been noted elsewhere, the main element of the chorus--"Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!"-- was probably also inspired by the book of Revelation: " . . . I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, saying, Alleluia; Salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God . . ."  (Revelation 19:1).

In the second and third stanzas, the Lord is seen in "the watchfires;" His righteous sentence and His fiery gospel are read in "the dim and burning lamps" and in "burnished rows of steel" (ranks of polished musket barrels). These are things characteristic of soldier life, so the hymn suggests that the army itself constitutes the Lord's "terrible swift sword" and, perhaps, the "Hero born of woman" which is to "crush the serpent" underfoot.

The fourth stanza's reference to the "trumpet that shall never call retreat" also invokes a familiar thing to soldiers of that day, the bugle, and suggests a stern call to duty and action, as well as to Judgment Day, "a day of the trumpet and alarm" (Zephaniah 1:14, 16). Tthat call is not one to be shirked or dreaded by a soldier in God's army, but embraced joyfully: "Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!"

The fifth stanza is the true climax of the hymn, and reveals its core inspiration: Christ, the beauty and glory of his Person. As He died to free all people  from sin, so should we be ready to give our lives to bring freedom to others ("As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free"). While the word "slavery" is never used in the Battle Hymn, its implication is unmistakable, given the times and the circumstances of the hymn's author and authorship.

In thus replacing the words to the earthy marching song John Brown's Body, Mrs. Howe clearly intended to give the soldiers' agonizing work a new and higher meaning: not just the conquest of a menacing adversary, not just restoration of the Union, but a deliverance of millions of helpless souls from the crushing evil of bondage, and redemption of the whole nation from guilt for that terrible sin. As another perceptive observer explains: "[Mrs. Howe's] hymn was an attempt to frame [the soldiers'] sacrifice, to place it within the context of a great and glorious cause. . . . the advance of God’s Kingdom on earth."

OUR CALL TO ACTION?

Perhaps it is well that the Battle Hymn omits specific reference to the racial slavery over which the Civil War was fought 150 years ago, for as it is written the hymn speaks eloquently to us today, and calls us to be defenders of the freedom God intended for all our brothers and sisters. No wonder that the Battle Hymn became an anthem of the 20th century's civil rights movement.  In his final sermon delivered in Memphis, Tennessee on the evening of April 3, 1968, the night before his assassination, Dr. Marin Luther King, Jr. closed with the first line of the Battle Hymn: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!"  The Battle Hymn has also come to be associated with the American cause in confronting evil and oppression around the world. It was a favorite of British Prime Minister and World War II leader Winston Churchill, for example, and at his request was played at his funeral in 1965.

Some modern Christians are uncomfortable with the militancy of the Battle Hymn and its call to men and women for such deep and forceful involvement in worldly matters. In any such critique we need to be mindful of the social and religious currents, as well as of the desperate moral and political struggles, out of which it arose. Different conditions and attitudes prevail today, when the initiative for social reform has been largely assumed by, or ceded to, secular forces working through governments and their allied organizations. Moreover, and ominously, there is in our society a growing resistance to the involvement of religious elements in public life. Nevertheless, who but those inspired by the love and teachings of Christ are better suited to show the compassion and self-sacrifice today's world so desperately needs?  Do Christian believers simply stand aside and let the relentless tide of evil (violence, class/ethnic/sectarian enmity, abortion) wash over the world while we gaze upwards waiting for deliverance?  To put it in Civil War terms, should we yield the moral battlefield and ground arms until our General appears to do the fighting for us?  Or do we, in Christ's name and spirit, march forward now and do what we can, until He returns, to dispel Satan's lies and extend God's deliverance to all His beleaguered children?  Even if we do so with plowshares instead of swords, the Battle Hymn of the Republic would still be a perfect anthem for our efforts.

* * * * * * *
VIDEOS ABOUT THE HYMN

It's unusual to have multiple videos telling how a hymn came to be, and of its enduring significance--but the Battle Hymn is a very special piece. Here is the story of the hymn as told by the great actor and director Orson Welles:



Here is another fascinating video relating the story of the Battle Hymn by the great-great-great grandson of Julie Ward Howe:




* * * * * * *
PERFORMANCES OF THE HYMN

There are many excellent (and some not so satisfactory) video renditions of the Battle Hymn. Most present only the first, second, and fifth stanzas. I suppose they're the best-known and easiest to understand and relate to for modern listeners, although the fourth stanza is just as clear and inspiring as the others, in my humble opinion.

Most modern renditions also substitute "live" for the original "die" in the third line of the fifth stanza, making the line read: "As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free."  It is unclear when and why this change became commonplace. Perhaps it was in reaction against what some find to be the hymn's unsettling militancy. Others believe that "live" is preferable because it embraces commitment and potential sacrifice of one's whole being, in life as well as in death. Out of faithfulness to the original work I generally prefer its wording, but philosophically I prefer "live" for the reason just given. I find either formulation most inspiring.

Here is the video I thought most impressive musically and visually, featuring full orchestration and a large (though, unfortunately, unidentified) choir:



Good solo performances on video are harder to come by. Here is a good one by Judy Collins, joined by a U.S. Army chorus and the Boys Choir of Harlem in a 1993 concert televised live from Washington, D.C.:



For those who prefer a more spiritual, less military presentation, here's one featuring singer Jim Nabors along with images of Christ and scenes from His life and mission on Earth (in contrast to most other renditions, this one features the first, fourth, and fifth stanzas of the hymn):




* * * * * * *

  . . . [T]hey shall see the Son of man
coming in the clouds of heaven
with power and great glory.
And He shall send His angels
with a great sound of a trumpet . . .

Matthew 24:30-31

3 comments:

The Tom and Donna Johnson Family said...

Thanks for the informative piece- I had begun to think you'd given up on your blog!

Igraine von Dumnonia said...

Wonderrfull!
Good explanation about a great Hymn.

Darrin K. said...

Great job! I may use some of your information in a theology paper and presentation. As videos are encouraged, thank you also for the links!