The Battle Hymn of the Republic

July 1, 2007
Guest Preaching @ St Philip’s Lutheran Church, Wilmington, DE
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Go ahead. Turn to it
in your hymnal if you like – we’ll be singing it in a few minutes.   What comes to mind when you hear its tune, when you
sing its words?  It’s no mistake that we’re singing it this weekend, days before
the July 4th Independence Day holiday, for it has
become an unofficial national hymn, and
is often sung at the funerals of fallen heroes and national leaders – Martin
Luther King Jr, Bobby Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Ted Thomas.

Ted Thomas? 

Ted Thomas was my grandfather, who died
almost exactly 10 years ago, and whose
100th birthday is later this month.  Brought to an orphanage shortly after birth and never quite
accepted by his adopted father, he snuck
into the military at age 17 and spent
more than 20 years serving in the US Marine Corps.  His time of service was the time after World War One, what they then called “The Great War,” for they could imagine no war greater, no war more devastating, no war more
deadly than that wretched conflict which ripped Europe apart.

My grandfather was part of the projection of American power
south into our hemisphere,

fighting an
ugly, undeclared war in

Nicaragua

against the original Sandino,

  after whom the 1980s rebel
Sandinistas were named.

Except for a few stories and anecdotes,

– the kind
about war and women that my mother didn’t want my adolescent ears to hear –

He spoke little about this time in the service,

though was
incredibly proud of it.

He flew a
flag outside his house everyday,

and met the
men at his American Legion post for a drink once a week.

At his funeral, just weeks after my graduation from college,

we sang
that hymn, The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Well,
others sang. Sitting in that front pew, I
simply wept.

The power of that hymn along with the memory of my
grandfather was too much.

Singing of God’s truth marching on,

with the
image of my grandfather marching in uniform,

with the
promised hope of the resurrection being celebrated in that funeral service,

I was
overcome – with sadness, with grief, with joy, with hope.

Words of
glory, glory, hallelujah, surrounded me, comforted me,

brought
me some solace as they proclaimed that our God is marching on.

 

Like many hymns, The Battle Hymn of the Republic has a
wonderful

            – if not straight-forward – history.

The tune, a nice tight march,

            actually started out as a campfire meeting song in the early
1800s

before it became a patriotic anthem.

The song’s title and first verse asked with hope,

“Oh brother, won’t you meet me at

Canaan

’s
happy shore?”

to which the next verse responded,

“By the
grace of God I’ll meet you on

Canaan

’s happy
shore,”

which then concluded with

“There
we’ll shout and give him glory for glory is his own.”

Let’s sing it.

Oh brother, won’t you meet me at

Canaan

’s
happy shore?

(approx. 1856, by William Steffe)

 

Oh brother, won’t you meet me at

Canaan

’s
happy shore?

Oh brother, won’t you meet me at

Canaan

’s
happy shore?

Oh brother, won’t you meet me at

Canaan

’s
happy shore?

at

Canaan

’s happy shore?

 

refrain:

Glory, glory hallelujah

Glory, glory hallelujah

Glory, glory hallelujah

forever, ever more!

 

By the grace of God I’ll meet you at

Canaan

’s
happy shore!

By the grace of God I’ll meet you at

Canaan

’s
happy shore!

By the grace of God I’ll meet you at

Canaan

’s
happy shore!

at

Canaan

’s happy shore!

 

(refrain)

 

There we’ll shout and give Him glory for glory is His own;

There we’ll shout and give Him glory for glory is His own;

There we’ll shout and give Him glory for glory is His own;

for glory is His own!

 

(refrain)

 

 

In the few years prior to the Civil War,

this song was particularly popular in the South among freed
blacks,

            for a people for whom the word “freedom” was a terribly
relative,

            terribly limited term.

Yet they sang this song in faith,

            for it’s a song of hope,

            of an end-time promise of the return of God’s people to
God’s land,

a song that suggests that freedom can be found on Canaan’s

Happy

Shore

.

There’s milk and honey dripping from that tune,

a hope for,
an expectation of God’s gift of freedom saturates the hymn

 

Well, the catchy tune caught hold of some new lyrics.

Around the time of the Civil War, the tune sang the praises
of John Brown,

the man who attempted to ignite a slave rebellion by raiding
an Army station

at

Harpers Ferry

,

VA

,
in 1859.

His abolitionist insurrection failed, and he was executed
for his treason,

but his
attack on slavery and subsequent martyrdom

became the
inspiration for a new set of lyrics for this tune,

set as a marching song for Union troops called “John Brown’s
Body.”

Let’s sing.

John Brown’s Body

(selected verses only, approx. 1860)

 

Oh John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave

While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save

But tho’ he lost his life in struggling for the slave

his soul is marching on!

 

refrain:

Oh glory, glory hallelujah

Oh glory, glory hallelujah

Oh glory, glory hallelujah

His soul is marching on

 

John Brown was John the Baptist for the Christ we are to see

Christ who of the bondsman shall the Liberator be

And soon throughout the sunny south, the slaves shall all be
free

for his soul is marching on!

 

(refrain)

 

It was a song about John Brown and his heroic efforts to
free slaves,

to change
the nation,

to bring
about justice.

It was a song of hope sung in a time of war,

for even as
the war was being waged between the states,

soldiers
and civilians dying,

slaves were
not free throughout the land,

and the
war’s outcome was far from certain.

In the face of a horrible injustice, a divided nation, and a
brutal war.

this tune carried words of hope for a better society, a
better country, a better way of life,

 

 

The lyrics of The Battle Hymn of the Republic,

were
written during the Civil War by Julia Ward Howe in November, 1861

upon visiting a Union encampment in

Washington

,

DC

,

and after witnessing a skirmish between

Union

and Confederate soldiers in nearby

Virginia

.

While at the encampment, she heard soldiers singing that
song, “John Brown’s Body.”

 

Like John Brown, Ms. Howe was an abolitionist,

and
believed that the

Union

’s struggle was just.

She took this tune of hope – remember?

– the Hope of a return to

Canaan

,
the hope of ending slavery –

and set some new words to it to proclaim God’s enduring
faithfulness.

 

Now, this hymn is not uncontroversial.

Its military imagery and associations, many argue
persuasively,

            do not rest well with the image of our God of peace

and the command of God to love neighbor

            or the vision that God’s people will turn swords into
plowshares.

This hymn has six verses, but only three appear in our hymn
book,

for the other
verses offer perhaps an overly idealized notion of war

or an overly militant expression of faith.

In the Lutheran church’s new hymnal,

this hymn
is given another title: Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

A battle hymn is not for worship, the thinking goes.

 

I tend to agree with “the thinking,”

and I don’t
mind that this hymn has been edited.

But there is one change, made perhaps in the early 20th
century

and published widely in hymnals of many denominations,

that does a
disservice to the context of the hymn and the Christian way of life.

 

Verse three there in your hymnal, the third line, reads,

“As He died
to make men holy, let us live to make men free”

Remember, this was a hymn written in a time of war,

the
American Civil War, the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history,

in a
struggle of justice unlike any we can fathom today.

Men going off to war almost expected to die,

and Ms
Howe’s words reflected as much.

The original words to that line were:

“As He died
to make men holy, let us die to make men free.”

Let us die to make men free.

Let us die.

Words of self-sacrifice, of martyrdom,

more often
associated with radical terrorists than with mainstream American Christianity.

But these words were proclaimed in the service of neighbor,
in the struggle for justice,

describing the
Christian life.

Let us die.

 

In these words we hear echoes of Jesus, who said,

“those who
are willing to lose their life for my sake will gain it.”

Indeed, death is part and parcel of the Christian story

for it was
in Jesus’ death that we are given life;

it is in
the drowning waters of baptism that we are born again;

Martin
Luther spoke about dying daily to sin, and rising daily in Christ.

Death is part of the Christian life.

But, you see, we’d rather live than die,

and so
we’ve altered the lyrics to this song,

and rather
than risk death so that others may be free,

we’ll
simply live to make men free.

Die to make someone free? Forget it. You’re asking too
much.

 

In today’s Gospel text, Luke tells us that Jesus’ face “is
set toward

Jerusalem

,”

toward the
place where he will suffer and die.

And you know how well the disciples respond to this, of
course.

Whenever Jesus tells his disciples that he will go to

Jerusalem

to be handed
over to death,

they balk
at the notion.

And when the time comes that Jesus is handed over,

the
disciples bail on him, they run away, they deny him.

They quite literally run from death.

Today Jesus tells his followers that the Son of Man has
nowhere to rest his head –

it’s as if
he is saying that walking his walk is not easy, folks.

His walk leads to the cross.

His kind of life – a life of love, of justice, of holiness,
of righteousness, of peace –

that kind
of life will kill ya.

There’s pain, there’s trouble, there’s sacrifice,

there’s death in the Christian life.

 

Yet the Good News is right there in the hymn – God is
marching on.

And to adapt some words from a favorite African American
hymn


a community that knows something about suffering and death –

God is leading us, guiding us, along the way.

We can live our life, follow our calling, serve our neighbor

knowing
that we’ve already died and risen again in Christ,

confident that
the Risen Lord is marching on,

calling
us forward,

leading
us into a new Kingdom of Hope.

Having already died and risen again by our baptism into
Christ,

we are free
from the power of death and its grisly grip.

We are free – as St Paul reminds us in the second reading today –

            free to live lives of justice, of service, of peace,

to
be people of freedom living and dying for the freedom of others,

and
to live into the hope of this great hymn,

a hope of
meeting brothers and sisters on

Canaan

’s happy
shore,

            meeting John Brown and my grandfather,

            the freedmen of the Antebellum South

            and those who struggle for freedom today throughout the
world.

When we sing this hymn, let us sing Ms. Julia Ward Howe’s
original words in that third verse.

Let us sing, “As he died to make men holy let us die to make
men free.”

Let’s sing these words to remind us of the Christian life,

and to
honor all who have died in the struggle for freedom.

For God is marching on, dear friends.

Glory, glory, Hallelujah. Amen.

("Oh Brother Won’t You Meet Me" and "John Brown’s Body" researched through a Google search for "Battle Hymn of
the Republic".  Wikipedia and The Library of Congress websites were
most helpful.)

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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