I learned most of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" before I started grade school. The lyrics were part of a special supplement to the Philadelphia Inquirer, published at the beginning of the Civil War centennial. I must have read that supplement to pieces.
But the "Battle Hymn" was burned into my consciousness by the version we sang with the Youth Orchestra of Philadelphia in 1971, a sprawling, all-flags-flying arrangement by Peter J. Wilhousky. It's the version that half of all high-school band, chorus, and orchestra directors whip out whenever they need a closer to rouse their audience to a standing-ovation pitch. And if it weren't for baseball games, tourists from afar would think the "Battle Hymn," and not "The Star-Spangled Banner," was our national anthem.
Of course, there was a moment when the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" nearly did become our national anthem. This discovery is one of hundreds of insights gleaned from John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis's book, The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song That Marches On (Oxford University Press). The "Battle Hymn," offspring of frontier revival meetings, really did originate as a hymn. Waves of improvement and variation shaped the words into its familiar rhythmic pattern, with a long stress on the first syllable—Say, brothers, won't you meet us over on the other shore—and ending with a call-and-response-like chorus possibly copied from African American sources: There we'll shout and give him glory, There we'll shout and give him glory, There we'll shout and give him glory, For glory is his own.
The original hymn also inspired parodies. At the outbreak of the Civil War, soldiers of the 12th Massachusetts produced their own doggerel version, John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave. The butt of their joke was a Scottish-born recruit in the regiment. But the invocation of John Brown almost immediately raised the specter of a more famous John Brown, the abolitionist who had initiated the failed raid on the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry. By July 1861, "John Brown's Body" had sprouted wings and become a rally song so popular, "one can hardly walk on the streets for five minutes without hearing it whistled or hummed."
An Adaptable Anthem
It remained only for Julia Ward Howe, in that same year, to fashion words that transfigured an abolitionist's corpse into an ode to crusading militarism. Howe was the wife of one of Brown's Brahmin financial backers, and had actually met Brown in 1857. Prompted by a comment from theologian James Freeman Clarke—"write some good words for that stirring tune"—Howe wrote out a "Battle Hymn of the Republic" in a single burst of pre-dawn creativity. Then she published its five verses in the February 1862 issue of The Atlantic Monthly for the princely sum of five dollars, and without a byline.
The words took off at once, echoing across the White House, the House of Representatives, and throughout the wartime North. The "Battle Hymn" did not, however, freeze completely into the shape Howe had given it, and the story of the its political and cultural afterlife forms the largest and most interesting parts of the book.
Hard-line abolitionists, who felt that it did not go quite far enough in its militancy, were among the first to propose revisions. The Hutchinson Family Singers, who performed an abolitionist-themed entertainment show, insisted that the last stanza, where Stowe urged us to "die to make men free," ought instead urge that we live to make men free. (This is an alteration that keeps being proposed, inserted, debated, and opposed even today).
Republicans adopted the hymn as a campaign song for as long as the bloody-shirt of the war could be waved successfully. Various boosters and flag-wavers used it as a patriotic anthem in the Spanish-American War and the First World War, as a crowd-pleaser for Billy Sunday and Barry Goldwater, and as an anthem for "Bull Moose" Progressives. Winston Churchill specified that it be sung at his London memorial service in 1965.
Its words gave titles to productions as various as John Steinbeck's 1939 Popular Front novel, The Grapes of Wrath, and the 1957 Cold War flick Battle Hymn. And it continued to generate parodies, from Mark Twain's pout over Gilded Age wealth (In a sordid slime harmonious, Greed was born in yonder ditch) to college fight songs (Glory, Glory, Oh the Hawk Will Never Die). The "Battle Hymn" rewrite that most interests Stauffer and Soskis, however, is the labor-militant version, "Solidarity Forever," produced by Ralph Chaplin for the International Workers of the World in 1915 (When the Union's inspiration through the worker's blood shall run,/There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun).
But the strangest aspect of the song's appeal is its curiously feeble theology. Stauffer and Soskis give this only a cursory glance, but anyone who parses the words of Howe's poem will find little but puzzlement for their reward.
The first verse is pure millennialism—"Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord"—and it is a Revelation 19 millennialism, complete with Christ treading "the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty." However, the camp of saints Howe envisions more nearly resembles the Army of the Potomac, encircling the defenses of Washington in late 1861 "by the dim and flaring lamps," than the marriage supper of the Lamb. The third verse gets even more Civil War–specific, as Howe reads "a burning Gospel writ in fiery rows of steel." And in the fourth verse, Christ, as though he were a regimental bugler, has "sounded out the trumpet that shall never call retreat," a summons Howe longs to answer in terms both "swift" and "jubilant."
But in the fifth verse, the theology really runs off the rails:
In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the seas
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,
Our God is marching on….
Whence comes this "beauty of the lilies," as though Jesus was born in a greenhouse rather than a stable? What "glory" does this Man of Sorrows have in his bosom, apart from the divine nature of his incarnation? And isn't redemption, rather than transfiguration, what we want from that divine nature? Christ does not inspire us to make us better; he takes us as sinners and pleads for us before the bar of God's justice. And by what rationale does his death to justify us (which is not the same thing as making us holy) dictate our dying to "make men free"? There is nothing wrong with self-sacrificing behavior. But let us not imagine that even the noblest self-sacrifice stands on any equal ground with Jesus' death. Jesus, as J. Gresham Machen remarked (and Stauffer and Soskis suspect Machen had the "Battle Hymn" in mind), is the object of our faith, not the example for it.
We are likelier today to condemn the "Battle Hymn" not because of the mishmash it makes of Christian doctrine, but because so many of its lyrics offend the sensibilities of our postpatriotic elites. Tweaking those sensibilities may provide a pleasurably naughty reason for singing the "Battle Hymn" wherever they can hear it, but it does not do sound Christian theology much favor.
Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce III Professor of the Civil War Era and director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author, most recently, of Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Knopf).
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