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New Horizons

A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Richard M. Gamble

The new Trinity Psalter Hymnal includes only two hymns under the topic “The Nation.” The first is national only by implication. It pleas for “God the all-terrible” to have mercy and grant “peace in our time.” The second appeals to the “great King of nations,” again to show mercy to a repentant, humble, and needy people. Neither is specific to America. Both can be sung by Christians in any land.

The OPC/URC psalter-hymnal takes an appropriately cautious approach to the nation’s place in public worship. But that caution has not always characterized Presbyterians in the United States. A century ago, songs about America and America’s wars provoked controversy among Presbyterians, in part due to the nation’s intervention in World War I and the desire evident among many pastors and congregations to mobilize themselves for earthly warfare.

J. Gresham Machen still had one of these hymns in mind in 1933 when he reviewed the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). Never one to hold back, Machen charged “that the book does in rather clear fashion reveal the drift of the times” away from doctrinal clarity and orthodoxy and into modernism. Nevertheless, he found something good to say about it: Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had been removed. Whatever one may think of the issues at stake in the Civil War, Machen wrote, “One thing is clear—a fiery war song like that has no place in the worship of a Christian congregation.”

Machen had already criticized the Battle Hymn a decade earlier in his landmark Christianity and Liberalism. In the closing paragraphs, he noted the sorrow that overwhelmed anyone who entered the modern American church seeking “refreshment for the soul” and heard instead “only the turmoil of the world”—a sermon consisting merely of “human opinions about the social problems of the hour” compounded by “one of those hymns breathing out the angry passions of 1861, which are to be found in the back part of the hymnals.” What cost did Machen see in political preaching and militant national hymns? Nothing less than this: instead of a refuge, hungry souls find that “the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God.”

Apocalyptic Anthem

Machen’s reference to “the angry passions of 1861” might seem like a cryptic allusion to Julia Ward Howe’s famous poem, but by his adding that these kinds of hymns could be “found in the back part of the hymnals,” alert readers would have known that that is exactly where the PCUSA had placed the Battle Hymn during World War I.

In the spring of 1917, just weeks after Congress declared war on Germany, the General Assembly of the PCUSA approved the Committee on Publication’s recommendation to adopt “The Supplement of 1917.”  The Supplement comprised Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” (without the ferociously anti-British third verse sure to offend America’s new ally), Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional,” and Howe’s Battle Hymn. At the head of the Battle Hymn, in the place typically reserved for a Scripture text, appeared Woodrow Wilson’s pledge that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Rarely had religion, politics, and war been so perfectly synthesized.

Editors Louis F. Benson and Franklin L. Sheppard produced the Supplement. Benson was a distinguished hymnologist with a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Sheppard composed hymn tunes (among them the familiar setting of “This Is My Father’s World”) and served as president of the Board of Publication. These two opinionated editors might have disagreed about details, questioned each other’s musical judgment, or debated the merits of Kipling’s poem, but they never doubted that the Battle Hymn was appropriate for public worship or that the church should be mobilized for war. Together, the editors, the Board of Publication, and the pastors and elders of the General Assembly gave congregations the means to interpret the new war using Howe’s apocalyptic anthem and to imagine that they too saw the glory of the Lord coming on the battlefields of their day.

The Hymn-Writer

Julia Ward Howe was reared in a pious evangelical household of the Protestant Episcopal Church. She was baptized, confirmed, and received into communicant membership in that denomination. In moments of crisis, she sought out revival meetings in the city and turned to her Bible and trusted family friends for consolation, and yet her search led her far beyond the bounds of historic Christianity. After her marriage and move to Boston, she joined the most radical Unitarian churches in the city. She never looked back.

Well educated and fluent in several languages, Howe as a young wife and mother managed to read deeply in Spinoza, Kant, Swedenborg, and many other philosophers, mystics, theologians, and historians. Kant remained her favorite. She took her place easily in the popularized German Idealism of New England Transcendentalism. Most famously, she became active in the abolitionist movement. She admired John Brown as a Christlike hero raised up for the times. Her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, was a member of the “Secret Six” that helped Brown fund his raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859. (Another member of the Secret Six always insisted that Brown was the “Hero, born of woman” in the Battle Hymn’s third stanza.)

Howe wrote the Battle Hymn on a visit to Washington, DC, in November 1861. She made the most of her time in and around the capital by visiting the Union officers and soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. Inspired by a troop review and by her brush with a Confederate raid and skirmish, she awoke early on the morning of November 19 with lines of poetry crowding her mind. She found some paper and wrote out the stanzas that begin, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  The lines fit the cadences of the “John Brown Song” she had heard the soldiers sing the day before.

Bible Hymn of the Republic?

The original manuscript of the Battle Hymn of the Republic sits on display at the new Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, just a few blocks from where Howe stayed in November of 1861. Museum board chairman Steve Green paid nearly $800,000 for Howe’s manuscript at a Christie’s auction in 2012 as one of many pieces amassed by the Green family and Hobby Lobby’s millions in order to show how much the Bible has influenced American history, politics, and culture. It now lives on the museum’s second floor, a permanent exhibit on “The Impact of the Bible.”

Evidence for the Bible’s impact on America, from the colonial era to the present, is hard to miss, especially if we are familiar with the language and rhythm of the King James Version. But looking for that one-way impact uncovers only half the story at best. The story of what people have done to and with the Bible is at least as important as what the Bible has done to America. It may reveal much about our faith and nation. It’s tempting to imagine a museum with an exhibit called “What America Did to the Bible.” From John Winthrop to Tom Paine, from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt, from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump, that is a story worth telling. The Bible’s mobilization for the purposes of politics, war, and the culture wars is the very essence of civil religion. And never has the Bible remained unscathed as it has been snipped into pieces and reassembled for the purposes of the City of Man.

Like most of her generation, even among the liberals and skeptics, Howe knew her King James Bible, and she could count on a Bible-reading America to recognize what she was doing and what she meant to convey about America and Christianity. Her sermons, lectures, essays, and poems reflect her mastery of the pages of Scripture. While she filtered the Bible through the mesh of her radical theology and philosophy, and misapplied fragments in every way imaginable, she nevertheless had the text of the Bible readily at her command. Yet the Battle Hymn of the Republic’s extensive use of the Bible doesn’t make it biblical.

It is not necessary to match the Battle Hymn word for word to verses of Scripture in order to understand what Howe was attempting to do. In some cases, her language merely suggests the sound and weight of the Bible without being an actual quotation. Her opening line provides a good example: “Mine eyes have seen the glory.” These words echo Simeon’s prayer of thanksgiving when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple: “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:30). Howe’s technique may have simply evoked Holy Writ in the same way Abraham Lincoln did with his biblical-sounding “Four score and seven years ago.” Or she may have launched her battle anthem with a quotation from Isaiah the prophet’s vision of the Lord enthroned in his temple. A man of unclean lips, Isaiah cries out in woe “for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5).

Most of Howe’s biblical appropriations concern the impending day of the Lord. Isaiah 27 speaks of God’s punishment of Leviathan, the dragon, wielding his “great and strong sword” as he protects his “vineyard of red wine”—images central to the Battle Hymn. Isaiah 63 asks, “Wherefore art thou red in thine apparel, and thy garments like him that treadeth in the winefat?” The answer comes, “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.” Even the rhythm matches Howe’s verses.

These Old Testament images reappear in the apostle John’s vision, again associating God’s day of judgment with the harvest of ripe grapes, the treading of the vintage in the winepress of his wrath, and the blood flowing out from the press (Rev. 14:17–20). For centuries, Catholic and Lutheran art depicted Christ himself standing in that winepress, being pressed under the weight of the Cross, bearing God’s wrath, his blood pouring out of the vat for man’s redemption.

Howe’s more obvious use of the Bible appears in the Battle Hymn’s third verse. There the poet sees a “fiery gospel” glinting in the Union soldiers’ bayonets. She claims she witnesses nothing less than the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption after the Fall. “Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,” she writes. In her hands, God’s pronouncement to Satan that the woman’s seed “shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15) is imagined as being fulfilled in the epic clash of army with army. One side fought as God’s “contemners”; the other received his grace.

Howe used her knowledge of the Bible to mobilize a nation for a protracted war of unification and emancipation. To do so, she wrote a poem and not a theological treatise. She spun images and not arguments. Her poetic imagination borrowed biblical images meant to inspire rather than to make a rational appeal to action, and they spoke beyond the confines of the Civil War, as they were meant to. Indeed, the Battle Hymn has been used to explain and justify every subsequent war in American history. Part of its durability comes from the fact that Howe never mentions North or South or even slavery by name. In 1863, Lincoln achieved similar results with his Gettysburg Address, an even more famous appropriation of the Bible—or more specifically, of the language of Christian redemption—for war.

Read alongside the Battle Hymn, the passages from Genesis, Isaiah, and Revelation make quite clear what the poet was up to. She claimed that with her very eyes she had witnessed the coming of the day of the Lord in the campfires of the boys in blue in northern Virginia. Whether Christians in the twenty-first century realize it or not, the Battle Hymn of the Republic is a celebration of bloody and violent divine justice enacted in the here and now as if the end of the ages had come on an earthly field of battle. More than that, it ties the messianic hope and Christ’s triumphant reign to a war of man against man where the stakes, however great and however urgent, are not the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption.

Separate from the Warfare of the World

When Machen complained of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, he could have objected to it for any number of reasons. The Baltimore native could have taken pride in his Southern heritage and been loath to sing the songs of the victors. He could have criticized Howe’s radical Unitarianism with its denial of every fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. He could have pointed to Howe’s misapplication of the vineyard imagery from Isaiah and Revelation. He could have raised all these problems with the Battle Hymn, but he did not. Instead, he objected to it because anthems like these bring “the warfare of the world into the house of God.”

Some might counter that perhaps the Civil War was still too recent for Machen to overcome his scruples. Perhaps time will rescue the Battle Hymn from its associations. Once the Battle Hymn no longer “breathe[s] out the angry passions of 1861” in anyone’s mind, then congregations might sing it in good conscience as a worthy hymn “baptized” for the use of Christ’s church.

But a further question has to be asked: Can any element of worship be “baptized” by theological and historical ignorance? Stripped of its context, the Battle Hymn still appropriates the Bible for political purposes in ways alien to the gospel and to the church’s calling. What Machen said in 1933 still holds: it “has no place in the worship of a Christian congregation.”

If the Battle Hymn endures in public worship, it will not be for its fidelity to the Bible but because it has become the quintessential expression of American civil religion and the gospel of nationalism.  

The author, a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC, is professor of history at Hillsdale College and author of the forthcoming A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War (Cornell University Press, 2019). New Horizons, October 2018.

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