Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the penning of the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which you may know better as the song with the rousing chorus “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!”
The tune was a little older that; it began life earlier in the 19th century as Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us On Canaan’s Happy Shore. When the Civil War broke out in April, 1861, Union soldiers picked up on it, changing the opening words to the irreverent John Brown’s Body Lies A’mouldering in the Grave, which caught on quickly among the ranks. John Brown, you may recall, was the God expert abolitionist who had done as much as anyone to prevent America from ending slavery in the orderly, peaceful fashion of the other American republics and colonies. He was executed after a failed attempt to incite a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. According to one story, the lyrics were dreamed up by a soldier whose name was also John Brown, responding to the joke he kept hearing from his buddies that “I thought John Brown was dead!” Some soldiers who sang the catchy tune thought they were nobly carrying on the work of “the” John Brown, whose soul marched with them; others no doubt had a less sanguine view, more along the lines of “Brown’s dead already – so what the hell am I doing here, getting ready to fill my own moldy grave?”
In any event, Union bigwigs were uncomfortable hearing their men dwell so incessantly on the “good chance of getting killed” aspect of their service, and thus sought a more uplifting song that would be as invigorating to march to without being quite so morbid. When Julia Ward Howe, the wife of a prominent abolitionist editor, accompanied her husband on a visit to President Lincoln and a review of troops stationed in Arlington, Virginia on November 18, 1861, a minister who accompanied her group suggested that if she found the lyrics unseemly, perhaps she could write some better ones.
That night, after Howe returned to the comfort of Washington’s Willard Hotel:
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.The resulting opus was a marvelous mixture of God, blood, and guts:
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.Subtle, it wasn’t. We’re fighting for God, our enemies are fighting for “the serpent.” Retreating would be defiance of God’s command. Dying in God’s cause is a fine thing, because it makes you like Jesus. For the well-read, there were also lots of Biblical allusions to make themselves feel smart. Revelation 19:15, for example, is the source for combining the images of a sword and a winepress. The “righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps” related to the writing on the wall behind the lampstand in Daniel, which foretold the destruction of Babylon
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.
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, Since God 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.
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.
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.
After Howe’s lyrics were published in the Atlantic Monthly a few months later, they became an instant hit, and the unofficial theme song for the entire Union war effort. Many others have followed in Howe’s footsteps by appropriating the same tune, from labor’s Solidarity Forever, for the Union Makes Us Strong to my personal favorite, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Burning of the School.
Howe is far from the only songwriter to associate God with military carnage. Just ten years later, across the Atlantic, Arthur Sullivan (who later teamed up with W. S. Gilbert on lighter fare) composed the melody for Onward Christian Soldiers, assuring listeners that “Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle see his banners go!”
Christians are not alone in this. Mormon hymnal #258 urges “Hark! the sound of battle sounding loudly and clear; Come join the ranks! Come join the ranks! We are waiting now for soldiers; who’ll volunteer?” The Jewish Psalms, originally meant to be sung, proclaim:
People of Babylon, you are sentenced to be destroyed. Happy are those who pay you back for what you have done to us. Happy are those who grab your babies and smash them against the rocks.Why such a strong link between God and violence? Here’s my theory. Most wars don’t make much sense, except for a handful of big shots who profit from them. If there is no persuasive rational reason to persuade young men to risk their necks on your behalf, then you need to try some irrational reasons. “God wants you to do it!” is a time-tested, terrific justification for going out and getting shot. Putting God on your team also serves to dampen the soldier’s common-sense fear of death with the fraudulent promise of an afterlife. One Confederate wrote that “Christians make the best soldiers, as they would not fear the consequences after death as others would.” Another reassured his wife in 1862 that “when we lay all upon this altar of our country, the God of Nations will give us a permanent happy existence. How near akin is patriotism to religion!” A Pennsylvania soldier was more succinct: “Religion is what makes brave soldiers.” It’s little wonder that the chairman of the Military Commission in the Confederate House of Representatives testified near the end of the war that “The clergy have done more for our cause, than any other class … Not even the bayonets have done more.”
God’s truth marching on sufficiently inspired both sides in the Civil War to produce over 600,000 dead young men. In a world where religion had lost most of its influence – say, western Europe over the last 60 years – how easy would it be to replicate that feat?