Friday, December 28, 2012

Beloved Hymns: Battle Hymn of the Republic

What I love most about hymns is the story behind their being written.  What event prompted him or her to pen the words?  Was it a tragic event, or was it a realization of one of the aspects of God's character?  And further, how did it reach the public eye (or rather, ear) and become the treasured hymn it is now? 

This hymn has always been one of my favorite.  It is a fairly new one, since it was written in the mid-19th century whereas most beloved hymns of today were written in the 18th century (i.e. Isaac Watts).  This particular hymn was written not so much as the result of a personal tragedy or even a learned aspect of God's character; rather, it was penned as an alternative to a secular song.  And Julia Ward Howe, the writer, was herself a Unitarian.  She was raised by her Calvanist father but later joined the Unitarian church and herself preached at Pentecostal churches in later years.  However, God used her nonetheless to write a beautiful hymn, a tribute to God's great glory and power. 
Julia Ward Howe
(May 27, 1819-October 17, 1910)

The account says that, on a visit to President Lincoln in Washington, D.C. in November of 1861, Julia and her husband, along with some friends, including a gentlemen by the name of James Freeman Clarke (who was, by the way, a Unitarian minister) were watching the Union army in review when the Confederates suddenly attacked, which surprised the Union army and they fled.  As they retreated so did the Howes, but as they rode back to town they sang patriotic songs, probably to encourage the soldiers retreating alongside them.  One they sang was "John Brown's Body", a camp song about the crazy abolitionist who had been hung two years before.  Clarke mentioned to Julia that he would like her to write different words to the detestable song.  The request was honored.  Julia said,
I awoke in the grey of the morn­ing, and as I lay wait­ing for dawn, the long lines of the de­sired po­em be­gan to en­twine them­selves in my mind, and I said to my­self, “I must get up and write these vers­es, lest I fall asleep and for­get them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dim­ness found an old stump of a pen, which I re­mem­bered us­ing the day be­fore. I scrawled the vers­es al­most with­out look­ing at the p­aper.
The following February, the words were printed in The Atlantic Monthly and soon spread all over the North as the Union's own song of patriotism.  It is indeed a wonderful song of triumph over the enemy through Christ our Lord, not only for times of battle but for all times in the life of a christian.  Though some (including myself) may disagree with the writer's personal beliefs which run contrary to the Word of God, I believe He used Julia W. Howe all the same, to write one of the most beloved American hymns ever.

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.

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.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His day 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.
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 live to make men free;
[originally …let us die to make men free]
While God is marching on.
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! While God is marching on.

Sources: Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography: Julia Ward Howe, NetHymnal: Battle Hymn of the Republic


  1. Thanks for the post
    the hymn was one of the first I ever heard.... it came on a plastic record given away by the National Geographic magazine a edition that covered the funeral of Winston Churchill
    ...long before I was saved ....I learned the words at the time it was so impressive....remember them to this day
    other 2 verses are below
    Thanks Again

    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 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.

  2. Thank you! What beautiful, powerful words.