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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.

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.

19 thoughts on “Blasphemy in Song

  1. Wow. I don’t think the Battle Hymm of the Republic is found in any Christian hymm book, but I do not know that for sure. Odd that a website that is not Christian ( would be concerned about an old secular battle hymm that was not scripturally accurate.

    From About Us on the website.

    The daily news and opinion site was founded in 1999 by anarcho-capitalists Lew Rockwell [send him mail] and Burt Blumert to help carry on the anti-war, anti-state, pro-market work of Murray N. Rothbard.

    From a Google search:

    Murray Rothbard, Economist
    Murray Newton Rothbard was an American heterodox economist of the Austrian School, a revisionist historian, and a political theorist whose writings and personal influence played a seminal role in the development of modern libertarianism.

    Must be a dearth a blasphemy to talk about in 2014 if you are going to secular sources for instances of blasphemy against Yahweh to rant about.


  2. The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is found in at least one hymn book.
    I happen to have a copy of the “All-American Church Hymnal”, 11th edition, published by John T. Benson Publishing Company, 136 Fourth Avenue, Nashville, Tennessee.
    The hymn is #245 in that hymn book. I should note that this particular hymnal also contains “America”, “America the Beautiful”, and “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

    Of course, the idea of an “All-American” church hymnal doesn’t make much sense, as our worship should be centered around Christ and not around some nationalistic ideal.


  3. Wow…great article and dissection. But the worst thing about the article was the ability to place the stupid tune in my head 😦


  4. There are some issues with some of the wording, but it seems strange the author should say it isn’t the history, but theology, that matters — and then interpret the theology of line after line as if they are historical Civil War statements.

    The author says, “The very idea that the coming of the Union Army was akin to the coming of the Lord is blasphemous.” It certainly would be, but the hymn writer is speaking poetically of the coming of the Lord, not of what she has literally seen.

    Is it blasphemous to sing poetically, “The cleansing stream, I see, I see, I plunge and oh, it cleanseth me”? No one thinks the hymn writer is claiming to have actually seen the blood of Christ. How about, “Beneath the cross of Jesus, I fain would take my stand”? It’s poetic language, none of us literally stand beneath the cross. To assume Julia Ward Howe claimed to have seen the coming of the Lord in the Union Army. That is a ludicrous interpretation of the hymn, and makes one wonder the article’s agenda.

    The whole hymn hinges on this line:
    As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,

    The message of the hymn is simply this. God is marching on, Christ died to make us holy so we should do holy things. The judgment day is coming, and we must answer in that day, so “we should die to make men free.” That obviously could use some theological scrutiny. But to twist every reference to judgment day and God’s wrath into a direct reference to the Union Army and the U.S. Civil War is silly.

    The reference to “lilies” is obviously based on a Christological application of the Song of Solomon (esp. 2:16 “My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies”).. This kind of thing is common in Christian literature before the 20th century, when the Song was often seen as directly Christological (rather than typologically Christological, as is more common today). The “lilies” criticism comes from ignorance.

    Verse 3 is left out because it is simply confusing — it doesn’t make sense no matter how you read it. The second line sounds very similar to Matthew 5:11 and 6:14-15, saying that God will deal with us in grace if we deal thus even towards those who hate Him. Christ will deal with it, after all, He will crush Satan. But obviously, the first line is there — what does it mean? If we take the article’s conclusion, that it refers to fighting against Southerners, then it says God will fight you — He’s going to deal with you the same way you deal with His “contemners.” That obviously doesn’t make sense, either.

    In general, we shouldn’t take the worst possible interpretation of something and condemn it accordingly. This hymn was not intended to convey the messages that the article’s author ascribed to it.

    What it WAS intended to convey was that the war was a righteous cause. Any debate about the appropriateness of the war, the right of states to secede, financial motives, etc, was swept aside in the attempt to make the war only ever about slavery. If it was only about slavery, then fighting to free men is right. Those who know a righteous God is going to judge men, that His day is coming, must fight. It is not about money or power or selfishness, this is RIGHTEOUS!

    That was the intent. It’s intent today is similar, though the war has changed — God is righteous, and will judge us for what we do, so we should fight to make / keep men free. It should be evaluated on that message, rather than apply all the imagery of God’s judgment, in minute detail, to the Civil War. It was not meant that way, was not understood that way at that time, nor is it understood thus by most who sing it today.

    When we compiled our hymnbook, we did not include this. If I’d been compiling a hymnbook for American use, I doubt I’d have included it there, either. But it isn’t what the article’s author wants to make it.


  5. Jon,

    When is it honorable to drag the name of the Lord into a war? The only country that could do this was the one country He established as His theocracy and gave direct counsel to. All the wars started by men are the wrong places to bring the name of our God into on a banner – no matter if it was the horrible Crusades or this War of Aggression, which was NOT about freeing slaves. The War Between the States was about the same growth of national power as we’ve been seeing every since.

    Christ’s name does not belong on a battle flag or in a war song.


  6. “When is it honorable to drag the name of the Lord into a war?” Good question, Manfred.

    And as I said, that is the message on which it should be evaluated, not on the stuff in the article (which is largely based on misinterpreting the song, and so discredits itself).

    Is it ever our Christian duty to fight to make / keep men free? That is really the question that determines if a song with this kind of message has a place. The appropriateness of the particular war which led to its composition is not really the question. The article was right on one point — it is the theology, not the history, that matters. The theology of the song is a particular brand of “just war” theology, and it should be evaluated on that basis, not its history.

    And I don’t have time right now to write an evaluation on that basis.


  7. Jon, I think it’s not our place to war against men because of the way they treat humans. Consider the Apostle Paul’s admonition to slaves – don’t worry about being free because you are already free in Christ. Serve your master well so your Master’s name is well represented. The entire “just war” argument boils down to man’s wisdom, putting the temporal as too important.


  8. There’s many issues here, Manfred.

    Is there such a thing as a just war? I think we could conclude from Romans 13 that there is, that the government is to bear the sword to punish evildoers. That means force, up to and including death, is appropriate in an internal penal system. It then also means that it would be appropriate to withstand external invaders who would do evil to the citizens. The concept of a “just war” has a fairly sound Biblical basis.

    And if it is appropriate for government to wage war in some cases, then it is hard to see how it is appropriate for Christians to disobey the government when it calls them to fight.

    So I don’t see it as merely man’s wisdom, making the temporal too important, to say there is such a thing as a just war, and that Christians should fight in it if commanded by those in authority over them. Should Christians volunteer to fight in a “just war”? Harder question, but if it is appropriate for government to fight the war, I believe it is fully appropriate for Christians to serve.

    But as I said, “fight to make men free” is not normal “just war” theology, it is a particular brand of it, extrapolating beyond a war of self-defense to something further, which would be much harder to support Scripturally. There are some things that could be said on that front, but I just don’t have the time to discuss it in detail right now.

    That said, I’d be very hesitant to encourage someone to “fight to make men free” and I have no objection to anyone rejecting the song because they disapprove of its extrapolation of “just war” theology. My concern was that the big question around the song was obscured by an article which misinterpreted / misconstrued the song entirely.


  9. I think you’ve drawn the line rightly, Jon. God has given governments the sword to punish evil doers. Most governments do not do this; most Christians have failed to help their governments understand God’s view of evil so they can be proper ministers for Him.

    I also agree that there is a proper role for Christians in the military, though I would be loathe to serve these days since I cannot go along with our police state mentality and our wreckless habit of sending troops to fight and die without declaring war.

    The song was written as a war song to stir up Union sympathies – using Charles Finney’s “new methods” and should not be examined apart from that context. That’s what the author of the article did – review it in its context. Some elements of the song, as you’ve pointed out, are not in themselves wrong; but that does not make the song good.


  10. “The song was written as a war song to stir up Union sympathies – using Charles Finney’s “new methods” and should not be examined apart from that context.”

    This relies on one or both of two doctrines I call the doctrine of discernment by extra-Biblical history and the doctrine of discernment by origins. The Scripture teaches neither, and they fall foul of the true doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.

    The Holy Spirit recorded a statement by Caiaphas spoken maliciously to stir up murderous thoughts. Yet John says it should be understood completely differently from how Caiaphas intended it. This directly refutes the doctrine of discernment by origins. Paul’s quotations of pagan poets also indirectly refute it. All truth is God’s truth, whatever the motivation of the person who spoke / wrote it.

    Thus, a song should be evaluated by how well its words match God’s truth, not what someone somewhere sometime thought, even if that someone was the composer.

    Again, I do not consider the song to be without problems. But we should evaluate it on the content of its words.

    I consider this to be very important. The doctrines of discernment by extra-Biblical history and by origins lead to intellectual pride, as those who are “in the know” are the ones who get things right while others who don’t know as much do all kinds of wrong things. We then have to be teachers of extra-Biblical history (rather than the Word) to help people get things right.

    But the Scriptures are sufficient. You don’t have to know Civil War history to worship God in spirit and in truth. Your statement says you do, that you can’t make a proper spiritual evaluation of the song without knowing Civil War history. I cry foul.


  11. I said nothing about knowing history as a perquisite for worshiping God rightly. I said one cannot properly discern the message of the subject song apart from its historical context.


  12. I agree with Alan and with Jon; especially when I see what is “From About Us on the website.” There is NO reason to be quoting something from someone like that. The hynm is mostly Scriptural, even though it hasn’t happened YET with the Tribulation and the Lord’s Second Coming in Revelation. I will continue to sing it for what it says…not what some non-christian wants us to do.


  13. Hmm. My response here disappeared — probably eaten by the spam filter. No time to recreate it all.

    In brief, Manfred, if your assertion is true, then likewise the meaning of the statements from pagan poets which Paul quoted on several occasions cannot be properly discerned apart from their historical contexts. And if so, then Paul was blasphemous for quoting them. I discussed it here:

    Therefore, I don’t accept your assertion. People who don’t know the historical context of Paul’s quotes can indeed evaluate them based on their words and how they match up to Scriptural truth, without knowing anything about their history. And the same can be done with any relatively modern poem as well.

    If you personally can’t get past the historical context, because you know it and can’t separate the words from the context in which it was written, then you would do better not to sing it. But that context is 150 years old and is irrelevant to most people. The meaning of the song today is not driven by the context in which it was written, but by what the words say.


  14. Jon – One has to understand the context of Paul’s discourse before one can understand his message and use of the quote from pagan poets. The purpose and context of the subject song are every bit a part of it as are the purpose and context of Paul’s message are to it.


  15. Manfred, you obviously missed my point, so I apologise for lack of clarity.

    Paul knew the blasphemous context and intent of the pagan writings, yet considered their words appropriate for use in preaching and teaching >because the words were true<.

    The only measure of the appropriateness of using words from extra-biblical sources (such as a hymn, or a quote from a poet) for Christian purposes is whether or not the words are true.

    Epimenides, who Paul quoted, was more blasphemous than anything Julia Ward Howe wrote. If Paul could use his words, why could not Christians use hers? If Paul can adapt a hymn of praise to Zeus to his purpose of giving Christian teaching, why cannot Christians adapt a song from a misguided composer to better purposes?


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