Friday, November 19, 2021

Today on the Almanac, we remember a popular and curious national hymn.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***

It is the 19th of November 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at, I’m Dan van Voorhis.

I am fascinated with the stories of hymns after they have been written and how they are received, changed, etc… think about it- with hymns we often have different authors writing the texts and the tunes.

Secondly, the alteration of these texts takes place far more often than the alteration of non-theological texts. You probably wouldn’t change the text of a sonnet from Shakespeare because you disagreed with his metaphysics, but very often hymn texts are changed because of theological concerns. (Real fast- finish this line: ponder anew, what the almighty can do…. “If with his love”? Or “As with his love”)

A popular Methodist hymn in the south, in the early 1800s, was called “O Brother’s Will You Meet Us On Canaan’s Happy Shores”. The lyrics are fine, but the tune was instantly catchy. So much so that it became a kind of “mad lib” song, you took the structure and made-up words for any occasion. One such occasion was the death of Abolitionist John Brown. Instead of the lyric about Canaan’s Happy Shore, it became popular to sing the tune about the abolitionist….

“He captured Harper's Ferry with his nineteen men so true

He frightened old Virginia till she trembled through and through

They hung him for a traitor, they themselves the traitor crew

But his soul goes marching on”

This song was being sung, according to the story, on the 18th of November in 1861 by a northern regiment in Washington D.C. The Reverend James Freeman Clarke suggested to his guest- the poet Julia Ward Howe, that she pen less bawdy and more appropriate lyrics. And then, according to Howe, it was on the 19th of November in 1862 that she wrote the lyrics for what would become one of the most popular national hymns in American history… although it didn’t have a name. She sold it to the Atlantic Monthly for $5, they printed it and gave it the title “the Battle Hymn of the Republic”.

I’ve mentioned it on this show before. It’s a peculiar hymn. The language is thoroughly biblical in the sense that sounds like the King James Bible. The first line “Mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord” would not pass my Grammarly filters. But “Mine eyes have seen” comes straight out of Simeon’s mouth in the Song of Simeon.

And then this doozie:

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

This was a Civil War battle hymn. But notice there is no mention of the North, South, Slavery, etc… this would enable the song to outlive the war.

But the language is ominous and there is no question as to who side God is on.

And then…

“Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

Whoa! Is the serpent death, sin, and the devil or the South?

But the last stanza (at least the last one published by the Atlantic) gives us insight into what would become the new Post-Civil War crusading spirit. Howe wrote:

ln 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.

Many have Tut-Tut’d Howe for what seems like a wonky atonement theory. It looks like Charles Finney’s theory of the cross as a moral example. Maybe. How are we transfigured?

But there is a bigger point here. Howe herself and many post-Civil War Christians saw a turning point with the war as to how America should see herself. Howe stated that the Old Testament model of protecting ourselves needed to give way to a New Testament vision of a Gospel that would be global, and America would be the vessel to provide this Gospel.

From here it is a hop skip and a jump to the Spanish American War and World War 1 when this avenging God could attack American enemies as Americans- in the words of the hymn “died to make men free”.

The tune has a strange history and the text itself has been adapted and understood in different contexts. It is a national hymn that has been translated into many languages and was sung in many parts of the world during revivals of national autonomy. It sounds a lot like the Old Testament but its interpretation of the New Testament has been found wanting by some.

Nonetheless, we can see the hymn as popular and as an important if the not awkward interface between church and state during the Civil War. The lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic were composed on this, the 19th of November in 1861.

The last word for today comes from Matthew 5:

43 “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you 45 so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sunrise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 19th of November 2021 brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose own bosom can transfigure- like a Care Bear stare. He is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man who knows this tune as the fight song for the U. Of Georgia. Go Dawgs. Or anyone that isn’t Alabama. I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.