Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why do we still sing the "Battle Hymn"?

It's inevitable that somewhere in patriotic celebrations tomorrow, some well-intentioned group will sing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." However, there is a host of reasons why Americans should resist the urge. Perhaps a little history and exposition of this famous, yet scornful, song may shed a little light on why I feel as I do.

In the early months of 1861, the Civil War was going badly for the North. The Confederacy was winning, and the Union was having a hard time justifying losses to its citizens. The North needed a new cause, and abolitionist Julia Ward Howe was there to provide it. As the story goes, one night in November 1861, after visiting Yankee soldiers in Washington D.C., Howe had a poetic vision of Union victory. In the morning twilight, she penned, "almost without looking," some of the most famous lyrics of the war. The poem was unveiled to the nation in The Atlantic Monthly1 in February of 1862. It soon found a ready vehicle for distribution in the popular Yankee marching song, "John Brown's Body." Howe's song, now retitled the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," became the rallying cry for the Union in its war against the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln was so fond of it that he referenced it in his speeches throughout the war.

The "Battle Hymn" is the most famous song of the Civil War’s musical legacy. It has been rendered into several stirring and patriotic versions. 150 years later, it continues to be performed by military bands and sung in public assemblies everywhere. It has even found its way into a few Christian hymnals. In my mind's ear, I still can hear the little Friends congregation of my childhood singing (ironically for pacifist Quakers) the stirring chorus, "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on."

Howe's radical hymn is a cultural curiosity. Its fusion of Christian images with a confident secular moralism is extraordinary. It presents a righteous Federal army in a glorious cause, wielding the sword of truth against the Rebel foes of freedom. Drawing on prophetic symbolism and romantic metaphors Howe portrayed the war against the South in powerful biblical categories. Shrouding her extreme political agenda in the mantle of familiar biblical imagery, she enshrined for the ages the aims of a humanistic and militaristic gospel. She linked the prophetic pictures of divine vengeance ("grapes of wrath") with the certainty of a righteous crusade ("His truth is marching on"). Remarkably her anthem instantly became a catechism for a new world order, a lyrical cadence for young soldiers marching in step with Northern ideology. It’s even more astounding that this Unitarian hymn continues to be sung today by otherwise biblically minded Christians.

So why do we sing the "Battle Hymn"?

It's easy to fall into a habit of uncritically singing along with the lyrics to a song. And that is a danger. Songs are powerful pedagogical tools by which information is imprinted on the heart. Through repetition, lyrics are set in the soul for life. That’s why the excuse kids give that they aren't listening to the words of their favorite tunes just doesn't wash. Everyone unconsciously stores repeated data in the memory for later recall, and lyrical music is a forceful way to imprint it there. Too often even Christians robotically resonate to biblical sounding phrases while glossing over their underlying meanings. And this is the hazard in singing Howe's "Hymn."

Consider, for example, the familiar lines from the first stanza:
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 lightening of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
Notice the clear eschatological theme. Julia Ward Howe certainly can't be accused of being a Christian theologian. But she did have enough biblical knowledge to draw on some vivid images and phrases from Scripture. The first line is an obvious reference to the coming of Jesus Christ at the end of the age. While chapter 4 of Apostle Paul's first letter to the Thessalonian church may have been in her mind as she wrote, the rest of the Bible also repeatedly announces this event. "The coming of the Lord" will bring an end to history in an event when those who have died in Christ, together with Christians still living, will be received by Christ in eternity. For any who are not spiritually ready for the Lord's coming, they will meet with tragic judgment and eternal punishment.

But it is not that biblical day of reckoning that Howe envisions. Instead, she conveniently mixes the scriptural teaching of the end of the age with her passion for apocalyptic vengeance upon the Southern armies of her day. The line "He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored" makes this fact plain. The text she uses is most likely from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 63:3), although Revelation 14:18-20 is a parallel passage:
I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: For I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.
But has Howe made a legitimate application of the sacred text? Not likely. In its biblical context, Isaiah's prophecy is clearly directed against Edom (verse 1), which had set itself against God and his people. The prophecy is also applicable to all the enemies of God, which he will one day bring to judgment, trampling them in his fury and staining his robes in their blood. Clearly Isaiah is providing a metaphor for the coming judgment of the nations, "the day of the Lord." The "trampler" returning from Edom is a sure image for the Son of God who in verse 3 carries out his righteous justice. But Howe has misapplied this Scripture to fit her dreadful vision of Northern victory.

And she isn't finished yet. Consider the second verse:
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.
What could Howe mean by building an altar? The use of altars in the Bible is associated with worship and memorial. One remarkable but overlooked event in Civil War history is the outbreak of spiritual revival among soldiers on both sides of the conflict. These evangelistic meetings are well documented, and likely thousands of soldiers, from privates to generals, came to sincere faith at the "altar" of their Savior Jesus Christ. My own great grandfather witnessed this great revival of Christian faith in the spring of 1864 while encamped at Dalton, Georgia. He, along with thousands of other soldiers, clearly saw Jesus at work in the camp "watch-fires" of this period of great spiritual renewal.

Could this be what Howe is referring to? Hardly. Hers is a symbolic altar whose purpose is to induce God to carry out a "righteous sentence" on the enemies of the Union government. Actually, Israel's King Saul attempted this very thing in ancient times, a fact that Howe overlooked. Saul performed an unauthorized burnt offering for his soldiers in an effort to invoke God to defeat the Philistine enemies. For his sin of presumption, God took away Saul's kingdom and gave it to another. In a similar manner, Howe's altar image calls upon God to bring judgment upon a people of opposing political views. In neither instance can there be hope of inviting God's blessing.

But her theology gets even worse in the lines of the third verse. In fact, it's downright heretical.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnish’d 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.
"Gospel writ in burnish'd rows of steel"? Fighting in the Civil War was more brutal than all previous wars, often barehanded or with bayonet. "Give them steel" was an oft-heard command when the fighting was in close, and the bayonet was the only sensible weapon. That makes it hard to imagine any lover of the good news of the Christian gospel singing these lines. Now, sad enough are the tragic scenes of history when the Church wrongly took up the sword to conquer her foes. But is this what Howe means, forcing the gospel of Christ on the enemy at the point of a bayonet? I don’t think so. Indeed, she perverts the meaning of the gospel message, twisting it to justify her utilitarian view of God's grace. "Offer no pity to those who despise our cause, and you will receive God’s grace,” she seems to promise in the second line. In the third line there is a clear reference to Christ as victor over the serpent, Satan (Genesis 3). But rather than offering the hopeful message of victory over the devil through our conquering Savior, Howe provides a perverse rendering of Scripture that calls upon Christ to crush her political enemy, which she personifies as "the serpent." It’s no wonder that many later editions of her "Hymn" omit this vile verse.

In her "Battle Hymn," Julia Ward Howe blatantly hijacked the gospel of grace for militaristic and ideological purposes. It is nowhere more evident than in the evocative final stanza:
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.
What possibly could she be saying in this verse? Extending to her the benefit of the doubt, perhaps she actually means to praise our Savior Jesus Christ who was "born across the sea." Indeed, Jesus has the power to change lives completely, making rebel sinners "new creations" in Christ (I Corinthians 5:17). But that is not what she is implying. Rather than using the gospel language of "regeneration" or "conversion" to describe the change in a sinner's heart through grace, Howe instead chooses to use "transfigure." In fact, the term "transfigure" and its variations are used in the Bible, but their uses are limited. Jesus was transfigured (Matthew 17 & Mark 9), "and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light." In the Old Testament, Moses may have had a sort of transfiguration after seeing God in person (Exodus 34). But biblical transfiguration is definitely not what this poet has in mind.

None of the transfiguration references in the Bible relate to the image Howe evokes, nor, more importantly, do they connect with her assertion in the third line that Christ's purpose in saving us is to send us out to die to free those in political or institutional bondage. But this actually is the heart of the abolitionist's "fiery gospel." In reality American slavery was an issue that divided this country during that great conflict, and it needed to be abolished. But doing so by killing slaveholders or even giving one’s life in a crusade to free slaves is not the gospel of grace found in the Scriptures. The truly Good News is not mere freedom from human bondage, but actual freedom from bondage to sin through the atoning work of Christ. Anything less is no gospel to die for. In fact, it’s no gospel at all.

For a song that captures so many biblical images, it is astounding that Julia Ward Howe left out one central message of the gospel: Love. In particular, Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" was an unconcealed attempt to cast the Union Army, "the Lord's army,” as executor of God's righteous judgment on the contemptible South. And she and her promoter, President Lincoln, did so by co-opting biblical imagery and sacred Scripture to promote their own political and social agenda. As such, the song ought to be rejected by Christians and other sensible people, even as it should have been decades ago. We already have so many wonderful songs for Christian patriots who want to sing out their love of God and country.

So, how about we just discard this derisive and irreverent song once and for all?

Comments in this essay refer to the version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as it first appeared to the public in The Atlantic Monthly, February 1862, Vol. 9,  No. 52.
The Great Revival in the Southern Army is a well documented, if often neglected, part of the history of the War Between the States. My great grandfather, Nathan Richardson Oakes, who served in the 32nd Mississippi Infantry Regiment, personally witnessed the result of this great spiritual renewal that swept through the army in 1864. In one of his letters to the Confederate Veteran (Vol. 7, p. 408) published in 1899, he recalls the conversion of one of his comrades in a camp meeting in Dalton, Georgia. For other stirring eyewitness accounts of Christian revivals in the army throughout the war, see Christ in the Camp by J. William Jones.

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