The Battle Hymn of the Republic – The Real Story

If you’ve had the opportunity to attend a hymn sing at Forest Hills, odds are you’ve heard me call out the hymn number “717!” at some point. Hymn #717 in the United Methodist Hymnal is The Battle Hymn of the Republic and my favorite hymn in the book. Since I’ve requested it so many times, I thought I might take this opportunity during Pastor David’s sabbatical to explain myself and my apparent obsession (it might seem) with this particular song. The truth? It all began with the American Civil War. Hello, my name is Amanda Lucas and I am a Civil War Nut. There, I’ve admitted it in front of all of you! Actually, the American Civil War (ACW) has been a hobby and area of interest of mine since I was all of seven years old. Maybe even prior to that. It began with paging through books, reading battle maps, and then it progressed to giving “presentations” on some of the major battles to my parents. Around the time I was in fourth grade, my dad took a new position within his company in North Carolina. This began a stint of six years that we lived on the East Coast and the South…right in the thick of where the Civil War took place. While moving more than the average family could have been seen as a terrible thing, it opened up a field of history that we don’t have direct access to here in the state of Minnesota—Civil War battlefields. Our moves blessed us with the opportunity to walk where history happened. Once I set foot on my first battlefield, I knew I was hooked.
What is the connection to The Battle Hymn? It is a very interesting story! You may be interested to know that the hymn written by Julia Ward Howe is not the original form of the song. It began as a campfire spiritual in the 1850s called Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us?, an old Methodist song! In an early show of something going “viral” (other than disease at that point), the song actually was taken up by the followers and supports of John Brown, the abolitionist who attacked Harper’s Ferry and was subsequently executed for his actions. Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us? then transformed into John Brown’s Body and was used as a rallying cry as the ACW began in earnest. Then, on a November night in 1861, the poet Julia Ward Howe awoke from a deep sleep with the song John Brown’s Body running through her mind. She began to formulate new verses in her mind and she furiously wrote them out. The day before she had toured military camps around Washington DC with her friend Reverend James Freeman Clarke and the Reverend had asked her to pen some new lyrics for the song after singing some of the more irreverent verses. Howe admitted that she had often thought of doing just that. Now the words came to her and she began to form the song we now know as The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The newly formed words were wildly popular and were sung by Union soldiers throughout the war. My love of the song comes from two things: the lyrics themselves and the history involved. The two are tied together, no doubt, as the words of the song can only remind one of the history that was present day for author. Some of the syntax seems a bit odd to us in 2019 but I’d argue it only adds to the weight of the composition.  For example, the use of the word “loosed” in verse one instead of something like “used” is a way we wouldn’t say something now. It might seem a little funny to refer to lightning as being “loosed” but what the word actually means is “released, sent forth, deployed.” It is something much more powerful than simply saying “He hath decided to use the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.” Albeit, that was a little tongue in cheek, but you understand the meaning. I’m including the lyrics below, read through them and see what stands out to you.
Verse 1 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.
 
Chorus Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
 
Verse 2
I have seen Him in the watchfires 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.
 
Verse 3
He has sounded forth the trumpet That shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men Before His judgement seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him; Be jubilant, my feet;
Our God is marching on.
 
Verse 4
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 did you notice? Did any phrases speak to you? Anything make you say “what does that even mean?” Verse two is one that has always stood out for me as far as words painting a picture. You get an exact vision of small campfires dotting the rolling countryside of Virginia, maybe on a wet, misty April night. Small lanterns lighting the Bible’s pages for the soldiers who are off duty, others are gathered around the campfires singing this very song. Quite an image! Which verse speaks to you the most? Beyond the words of The Battle Hymn, the history of the song also really speaks to me. Yeah, I know. A lot of songs we have in our hymnal are old. Ok, maybe that isn’t the word…how about venerable. The difference for me is we know exactly who sang this song, when they did, where they did it, and what they were doing at the time. I think that is amazing! Of course, my extreme interest in the Civil War is key here. If I weren’t such a history nut, I might also wonder why someone like me continuously requests this hymn at Hymn Sings. Although I think that there is another reason why I love this song aside from the lyrics and the history. I believe that The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a great representation of who America is. Yes, there has been war. Yes, we’ve had to set our friends free both in our own country and in others. We’re also a nation founded and rooted in Christian belief. While Christ was born on the other side of the planet from us, He died for us before we were even in existence. Even our Declaration of Independence states that we “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This ties in directly with verse four and our country’s veneration of freedom. Ah! What an amazing song! Even the actual musical arrangement is big, marching, and triumphant. America keeps going forward! I could go on, but I’m guessing you have some other things to get to in your day! Hopefully this blog helped to shed some light on why I always ask for this song and some of the history behind it. Needless to say, when I lead worship again on July 14th we’ll most likely be doing this song. I’ve held off until now, otherwise I’d do it all the time! Thanks for reading, our God is marching on!   Amanda Lucas


6 Responses to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic – The Real Story”

  1. Julie Hovey says:

    Hi Amanda, Thank you for posting this message on the blog. I really enjoyed reading it and have learned so much about the song. What a blessing! I lived in North Carolina back in 1988-1994. There is a lot of history. My verse that stood out to me was verse 3. Our Gods trumpet does not retreat and how is he sifting out the hearts of men before the judgement seat. ( bringing salvation on all who believe) Praise God!! Thank you! Psalm 150:6 Let everything that has breath, Praise the Lord!!!

    • Amanda Lucas says:

      Hi Julie! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I also had the pleasure of living in NC (96-99), it was actually the first place we moved while I was in school. That was probably where I first really started loving the Battle Hymn. 🙂

    • Amanda Lucas says:

      Hi Julie, thanks for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the blog 🙂 It was partially to be information and partially to be funny as I really do request this hymn all the time and I’m guessing people are curious…or they think I’m nuts 🙂

      I also lived in NC (from 96-99) and that was really where this hymn took hold of me. We lived in Pineville and attended the Methodist church there. Such a great place 🙂

  2. Teresa Gruber says:

    Thanks for all the history! I too love Civil War history. As a daughter of a Rebel dad and Yankee mom, there’s always been an exposure to multiple views about the causes.

    That said, the line about He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free…..wow.

    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Teresa Gruber says:

    Thank you for sharing this Amanda!

    I too love Civil War history. As a daughter of a Dixie dad and Yankee mom I have always had quite a bit of exposure to multiple views about the causes. With the historical archives now readily available online, it’s really given me a new perspective.

    That all said, the line “As He died to make men holy, Let us die to make men free;”…….just…..wow.

    Love this. Thank you!

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