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Why I Don’t Sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

June 22, 2010

 As the nation gears up to celebrate our independence, many churches will take the opportunity to do so as well in their worship services – particularly as the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday this year. In addition to other patriotic standards such as the Star-Spangled Banner, America the Beautiful, and others, many of those churches will be singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. As I have reflected lately upon this song – which I confess I have sung heartily for most of my life (in church, no less) – I have become convinced that the theology contained therein is not biblical, nor does the song’s history commend it to be sung by the Christian church.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 by Julia Ward Howe after she visited a war camp of the Union Army. Mrs. Howe was a Unitarian and an adherent of Transcendentalism. She wrote this song (for which she was paid five dollars when it was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly) from her unique theological perspective.

The first two verses set the stage for the song’s theology:

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 has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.

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.

Among the assumptions that Mrs. Howe incorporated into these lyrics are:

  • The Civil War was to be viewed apocalyptically
  • The Union Army was God’s army, dispensing His wrath on the Confederacy
  • God dwelt in the midst of the Union camps and their fires were alters to Him
  • The Union Army is even to be equated with God’s Word (“His sword”)

 

Though the version sung in many churches (and printed in many church hymnals) leaves out the third verse, it specifically equates the Gospel with the Union Army’s bayonets and swords:

I have read the fiery gospel writ in the burnished rows of steel.

As ye deal with My contempters, so with you My grace shall deal;

Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel.

Since God is marching on.

In this verse, the Messianic promise in Genesis 3:15 is connected – not with the victory of Christ over sin and death – but with the “hero” (the Union Army) crushing the “serpent” (the Confederacy). Also extremely problematic is that God’s grace is intricately tied to the way in which one responds to His “contempters” in the particular context of the Civil War.

In the fourth verse, Mrs. Howe wrote:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat;

He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.

O be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!

Our God is marching on.

Here, we see a picture of God weighing the hearts of men and judging them accordingly on the basis of the war. We are thus enjoined to be “swift” and “jubilant” as we fulfill His judgment against His enemies – in context, of course, killing Southerners.

The final verse declares:

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.

Apart from the obvious error of saying that Christ was “born among the lilies,” these lyrics betray the fundamental rejection of the deity of Christ common to Unitarians. Christ died “to make men holy”; that is, He lived and died nobly, that we might follow His example. Yet it remains for man (through government and social action) to “make them free” through the death associated with war. Even changing “die” to “live” (as some hymnals do) does not avoid the blatant social element of the “gospel” being presented.

This song, then, has little to commend it to the Christian who takes seriously the Word of God and the orthodox doctrines derived from it. Further, the song has nothing to do with the historic event of America’s independence from England; it is uniquely addressing the war that rent our nation in two. While the underlying issue of slavery in that war was indeed a moral one, and while the morally right position won the day, The Battle Hymn of the Republic interjects the grace of God, the judgment of God, and the Gospel of God into the conflict in such a way as to significantly blur the theological import of each of these into the internecine struggles among sinful humanity.

As Christians in this great nation, we may indeed celebrate our freedoms and honor those by whom such freedoms were purchased. However, as Christians, our greatest freedom does not yet await another’s living or dying, but was purchased for us by Jesus Christ once for all. Amidst the celebratory events surrounding our nation’s independence, perhaps the best use of the time we gather to worship corporately would be to remember the deliverance won for us – not on the battlefield – but on the cross of Calvary.

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3 Comments
  1. It’s worth noting that when she wrote that he “died to make men holy” that was a reflection of her universalism as well. You may also want to search for the original version of the song, as most copies leave out a couple of the worst verses.

    The very idea that we might sing in our churches a song sung by truly wicked men (read the actual historical accounts even by some northern soldiers of the evils perpetrated by the northern army — and no, the southern army was not similarly guilty, and not for lack of opportunity) as they marched to murder their southern brethren and their families and children, and generally commit wickedness against their brother is just reprehensible.

    This song is a reflection of that attitude that made such acts possible. Southerners were not men who disagreed, they weren’t countrymen who took a different view, they were subhuman, and worthy of extermination. As history demonstrates time and again, when you dehumanize the enemy the results are horrifying, and this war was no exception. This song contributed to that and it has no business on the lips of any Christian.

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  1. "1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War" by Anonymous 4 with Bruce Molsky — The Lonesome Road Review

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