Polyventure Publications

BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC

by Carl Mease

 

It was back in ‘73 when I was editor of the Friends University newspaper that I wrote an editorial concerning The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  My concern at the time, and now, was the audacity of poet Julia Ward Howe using the terminology of God’s judgment in the Revelation of John, as if the armies of the Potomac were God’s instrument in “trampling out the winepress where the grapes of wrath are stored”.  The song speaks of the troops, “They have builded Him an altar in the morning dews and damps…His day is marching on.”  “Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heal, our God is marching on.”  And on and on the sacrilege of attributing the Union army with “Our God is marching on”. 

 

But you say the tune is so triumphant, and can’t we spiritualize it all and make it appropriate regardless of its sordid past?  Well, maybe so.  We could make it more the ilk of Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.  But then even the tune was borrowed from John Brown’s Body, which was a rally call of both the blue and the gray.  At (http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa013100a.htm) you can read about the hymn's history and the various changes in the lyrics.  In his satirical stile Mark Twain did the best change of lyrics in his 1901 updated version of the battle hymn, which well describes the real reasons as to why even today  nations invade nations(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic%2C_Updated); with choice lines as "Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the sword;...his lust is marching on", "I have read his bandit gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;...Lo, greed is marching on.", "As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich - our god is marching on".

 

This song was simply written to give the North their own song to energize the war effort.  As you can learn from the above  womenshistory website, Julia Ward Howe was a Unitarian and Transcendentalist, and for what that means theologically see (http://www.scvcamp469-nbf.com/battlehymnofrepublic.htm).  The Unitarians themselves have since taken the song from their hymnbooks, while it remains a favorite in the patriotic section of most evangelical hymnbooks today.  The uniting force of the 1860’s between this Unitarian, Protestants and Catholics was the still virtually unchallenged Roman Catholic “tradition of men” called the “just war”, that unholy marriage of the kingdoms of the earth and the kingdom of God.  After all, she was encouraged to write the poem at the encouragement of “a man of the cloth”, James Freeman Clark.  Mrs. Howe effectively diverted the motive from taking vengeance on the South, to a war with a just cause, i.e. abolition. Although the emphasis was changed to abolition of slavery, that was not the purpose of the war, but only a moral justification to convince the masses the war was “just”. Independently written articles including those by  Dan Jones' (http://www.plplow.com/Atrcities_BattleHymn.htm), Civilized Revolt (http://civilizedrevolt.com/?p=129Michael) and  Mac Watters' (http://www.freeflorida.org/chairman/battlehymn.htm ) on the Battle Hymn, beg the question of why Christians would consider singing this song in church, as well as revealing more of the author's aberent theology and motives.  Mike Griffith gives the Southern version of the reasons behind the Civil War or Southern War of Indepencence at http://ourworld.cs.com/mikegriffith1/southernsidecondensed.htm, and why they felt they were fighting a "just war".  The fallacies and unbiblical position of the just war tradition in all wars are found in chapter five of Alvin Carpenter’s book From Missionary to Mercenary.

 

Mrs. Howe’s position on war seems to have drastically changed as early as 1870, when she wrote the very moving and compassionate anti-war Mother’s Day Proclamation, http://womenshistory.about.com/od/howejwriting/a/mothers_day.htm.  After 970,000 dead and wounded Americans, devastated lives and property, the Reconstruction era of abuses, Mrs. Howe now writes “Disarm, disarm, the sword of murder is not the balance of justice”.  Unfortunately, this too is my experience a century later.  It took seeing the carnage of Viet Nam to understand there are no “just” wars, and killing those we are called to disciple is not loving our enemy (see pp. 42,43 in my book, (God and Country from a Christian Perspective).  Christian Abraham Lincoln fighting a just cause against Christian Robert E. Lee, who was also fighting a just cause, has nothing to do with the Kingdom of God, righteousness, peace, or joy.

 

So, what about The Battle Hymn of the Republic?  It is only a song to be used as a battle cry for those who hold to the unscriptural “just war tradition” of the Roman Catholic Church.  As for me, I will hold to “sola scriptura” and denounce such a song as sacrilege, heresy and “tradition of men”, which holds to a different Jesus than of the Gospels.

 

 

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