Blasphemy in Song

For those who know the background or meaning of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, the following is a public service announcement.

Blasphemy in Song

by Laurence M. Vance
by Laurence M. Vance

This past weekend, since it was the closest weekend to the Fourth of July holiday that we observe today, churches all across America resounded with patriotic songs. Although the wisdom of singing patriotic songs in church is itself a debatable proposition, there should be no debate in any church about uttering words of blasphemy, whether spoken or sung. Yet, the patriotic song that is perhaps the one most frequently sung in the churches of America — for the Fourth of July or otherwise — is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But this so-called hymn is no Christian hymn at all — it is blasphemy in song.

Most Americans are familiar with the words of this “hymn”:

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
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.
Chorus
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished 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.”
Chorus
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
Chorus
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.
Chorus
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.
Chorus

The chorus is, of course, as follows:

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

Although most Americans who are familiar with this “patriotic anthem” rightly connect it with the so-called Civil War, many probably don’t know who wrote it, and even fewer know anything about how it came about.

The author of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was the abolitionist and social activist, Julia Ward Howe (1819—1910). The song first appeared, minus the last verse, on the front cover of The Atlantic Monthly for February 1862. That it originally had six verses can be seen by looking at her first draft, which was written on a scrap of Sanitary Commission paper. Christian hymnbooks that contain this song only include verses one, two, four, and five. The words as it was first published are slightly different than her original draft, which is transcribed here.

The tune is from a camp-meeting song with a “Glory Hallelujah” refrain by William Steffe, written about 1856. This tune was in turn used for what became the Union marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” the first verse of which begins by repeating three times: “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” and ends with: “His soul goes marching on!” Other lines read: “They will hang Jeff. Davis to a sour apple tree!” and “Now, three rousing cheers for the Union.”

Read the remainder of this article here.