“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: Its Origin and Meaning

Julia Ward HoweOne of the most popular patriotic anthems of all time, this song is often performed at the funerals of American soldiers and statesmen, presidential nominating conventions and inaugurations (both Republican and Democrat), and at Independence Day church services and festivities.  It was played during the Boston fireworks show on Wednesday, only a mile or so away from where its lyricist, Julia Ward Howe, is buried.

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” originated during the Civil War.  On November 17, 1861, Howe traveled with her husband, Samuel, then director of the Army’s Sanitary Commission, to inspect a Union camp outside Washington, DC.  While there, she took notice of a particularly catchy marching song that the troops were fond of singing, called “John Brown’s Body (Lies A-Mouldering in the Grave).”  The song memorializes John Brown, the radical abolitionist who was executed in 1859 after leading an unsuccessful raid on the federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), that killed fourteen men.  Brown became a Union hero, praised by the pens of famous writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, and even the French novelist Victor Hugo, whose open letter requesting a pardon for Brown was published by newspapers in both the U.S. and Europe.  “His soul’s marching on!” the Union soldiers sung in refrain—until Howe rewrote the lyrics, that is.

John Brown treason poster

She did so at the urging of a friend, the Reverend James Freeman Clarke, who was part of the traveling party that winter.  “Why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?” he suggested—something higher-minded, something grander and more poetic, not so coarse.

Howe’s solution was “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  It carries the same rah-rah sentiment as the old song, with the added weight of biblical references to Christ’s judgment of the wicked.  She penned the new lyrics overnight, and they were published two and a half months later, on the front page of the February 1862 edition of the Atlantic Monthly.  Notice the conflation of Christian apocalyptic imagery with the Union military campaign of the 1860s. 

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.

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.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
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.”

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
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.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
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.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
While God is marching on.

 

I never realized the central message of this song until I read through all five stanzas for the first time this week:  the Union forces were instruments of divine judgment and retribution against the Confederate states for establishing and persisting in the evil institution of slavery.

Let’s take a look at how this message plays out in each stanza.

Stanza 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.

The picture of Jesus that emerges from these lyrics is not popular with most folks, because it is a picture of Jesus the angry, Jesus the vengeful, Jesus the judge.  Words like “trampling,” “wrath,” “lightning,” and “sword” are not friendly words, but they are biblical descriptors of who Jesus is or will be.  People are much more apt to embrace Sermon-on-the-Mount Jesus from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and ignore this other aspect of his person, which we find described mostly in the prophetic books and in the Book of Revelation.  But to do so is untruthful, and an offense to Jesus himself.

     “The grapes of wrath”

No, John Steinbeck did not originate this phrase, and neither did Julia Ward Howe.  They were merely borrowing language from the biblical authors, who frequently compare God’s wrath to a winepress:  when harvest time comes, God will cut down the ripe grapevines with a sickle and trample the grapes underfoot; their juices will be squeezed out into vats and poured out over the earth (Revelation 15-16).  The grapes, of course, represent unrepentant sinners, and the wine their blood; the treading action represents God’s fury.  This metaphor is developed the most thoroughly by the apostle John in the Book of Revelation (a revelation of what? of what Jesus Christ’s second coming will look like):

  • Revelation 14:9-10:  “A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice:  ‘If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand,  they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath.’”
  • Revelation 14:18-20:  “Still another angel, who had charge of the fire, came from the altar and called in a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle [the one “like a son of man,” v. 14], ‘Take your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of grapes from the earth’s vine, because its grapes are ripe.’  The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath.  They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ brides for a distance of 1,600 stadia [about 180 miles].”
  • Revelation 19:15:  “… he [Jesus] treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.”

But John wasn’t the only one who had these fearsome visions of Christ.  The Jewish prophet Isaiah saw something very similar, about 800 years earlier:  a crimson-stained figure, who looked as if he had been crushing grapes all day.  After receiving this vision, Isaiah engaged in some Q&A with Jesus (Isaiah 63:1-6):

Who is this who comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bozrah, he who is splendid in his apparel, marching in the greatness of his strength?

“It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save.”

 Why is your apparel red, and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I trod them in my anger and trampled them in my wrath; their lifeblood spattered on my garments, and stained all my apparel.  For the day of vengeance was in my heart, and my year of redemption had come.  I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold; so my own arm brought me salvation, and my wrath upheld me.  I trampled down the peoples in my anger; I made them drunk in my wrath, and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.”

No, Isaiah, that’s not grape juice.

The other prophets, too, used the winepress metaphor.  The author of Lamentations (possibly Jeremiah), in lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, wrote, “In his winepress the Lord has trampled the Virgin daughter of Judah” (Lamentations 1:15).  The prophet Joel recorded a “word of the Lord” in Joel 3:13:  “Swing the sickle, for the harvest is ripe.  Come, trample the grapes, for the winepress is full and the vats overflow—so great is their [the nations’] wickedness!”  (This is God-of-the-future speaking either to his angels, or to his Son—I can’t tell.)

The image is gruesome, I know.  I list all these examples only to show that John wasn’t alone in his characterization of Jesus as wrathful, as I’ve heard people claim.

What’s problematic about Howe’s adaptation of these passages, though, is that she strips away their context, which the Bible very explicitly establishes as Christ’s second coming—an event that will happen only once, at the end of human history.  Their meaning doesn’t carry over to America’s domestic disputes.  Howe writes that she has seen the glory of Christ’s second coming—in the Union troops.  He has already started his trampling.  In this revisioning of Scripture, she casts the Southerners as the divinely disfavored grapes, and the Northerners as the grape-crushers, the righteous sword-wielders, the marching truth.  Apparently all those prophecies that fill the Christian Scriptures were fulfilled in 1865.

To claim that God is on either side of any war is not only presumptuous, it’s sinful.  Sure, God waged war on other nations through Israel in Old Testament times, but that was for a specific purpose (Israel’s possession of the Promised Land); God does not work that way anymore, and even so, America is not God’s covenant people.  And when he does return to Earth to wage war on his enemies, it will be he himself, not us, who does the crushing.  (“Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” saith the Lord.)

     “His terrible swift sword”

God—both Father and Son—are also associated with the sword in Scripture.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Deuteronomy 32:41:  “When I sharpen my flashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me.”
  • Isaiah 66:15-16:  “See, the LORD is coming with fire, and his chariots are like a whirlwind; he will bring down his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.  For with fire and with his sword the LORD will execute judgment on all people, and many will be those slain by the LORD.”
  • Ezekiel 21:3-4:  “This is what the LORD says [to Israel]:  ‘I am against you.  I will draw my sword from its scabbard and cut off from you both the righteous and the wicked.  Because I am going to cut off the righteous and the wicked, my sword will be unsheathed against everyone from south to north.’”
  • Revelation 1:16:  “In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword…”
  • Revelation 2:16:  “Repent therefore!  Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth.”

Stanza 2

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.

In this stanza, Howe writes that Christ was in the watch-fires of the Union military camps, and more than that, that the camps they set up pleased him—they were altars of worship, erected in his name.  And the worshippers are fully prepared—eager, even—to carry out the “righteous sentence” of death prescribed in Revelation for all God’s enemies.  They’ll carry it out on God’s behalf.

In the Bible, the phrase “the day of the Lord” consistently refers to the day Christ will enact his final vengeance upon the earth (see the Blue Letter Bible concordance).  But in this song, the day of the Lord is ushered in by the marching forward of the Union troops.

Stanza 3

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.”

This stanza is appalling.  No wonder so many hymnals and recordings omit it.  The gospel being shot forth from the barrels of rifles (“burnished rows of steel”)?  Let’s spread the good news—bang, you’re dead.  Unfortunately, this corrupt theology of “holy war” is responsible for thousands upon thousands of deaths, stretching centuries back.  And here is Howe, perpetuating the lie.  The Civil War was a holy war, she suggests, sanctioned by God to wipe out the sins (or rather, the sinners) of the nation; the North will be blessed, just as soon as they finish off all those who scorn their God.

And here is crushing of an even more climactic kind.  The Southerners are now compared to Satan, God’s archenemy; their secession from the Union is akin to Satan’s rebellion, and will be punished accordingly (Genesis 3:15).

Stanza 4

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.

The Bible says that a series of trumpet blasts will precede the second coming of Christ (Zephaniah 1:14-16; Matthew 24:30-31; 1 Corinthians 15:51-52), to signal the start of a great battle (cf. Jeremiah 4:19; Ezekiel 7:14).  And this trumpet won’t ever sound forth the call to retreat, because Christ is going to win.

In line 3, the speaker addresses his/her own soul.  “Come on!  Brave up!” he/she soliloquizes.  “Respond to God’s call . . . by joining the Union cause!”  Whereas in the Bible, the call of God and the soul’s response almost always refers to repentance and salvation, here it refers to a literal battle call.

Stanza 5

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.

Aw, how pretty.  Lilies.  Transfiguration.  Freedom.  This is the victory stanza.

The war context is obvious from the third line.  Interestingly, though, the hymnal I grew up with (Majesty Hymns, Greenville, S.C.: Majesty Music, 1997), and in fact the majority of renditions, replace the word “die” with “live”:  “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.”  This has a much nicer ring to it, and a wider applicability.  We can’t all go sacrifice our lives on the front lines (nor is that choice necessarily God-honoring in all cases), but we can make little sacrifices every day—our time, our money, our personal comfort, and so on—to serve the cause of Christ.

Conclusion

So, should we ban this song from our churches?  Not necessarily, though I can see why others would say yes.  Now that I know more about the song, it does make me a little uneasy to sing.  But with the revisions that most churches make (dropping the second and third stanzas, with their explicit references to warfare, and reframing sacrifice in the final stanza in terms of a way of life rather than an act of death), the song reads more biblically—as an anticipation of Christ’s return, in all his conquering glory.  He will vindicate his children; he will destroy sin and death; he will make his holiness known as never before; he will create a new heaven and a new earth; and he will rapture his children into the presence of the eternal, triune Godhead.  Glory, glory, hallelujah, indeed!  If we are going to sing it in church, though, I propose a title change.  What about “The Battle Hymn of the Church”?  (Seems obvious enough.)

Should we ban it from our country’s political gatherings?  Probably.  We shouldn’t fill our heads with the presumption that God is on our side, just because we’re America.  We—as a nation, I mean—are not God’s chosen people.  And even if we cut out the references to war-camp altars and “(gun)fiery gospels” and anything else that suggests that God is pleased with us when we kill in his name, it doesn’t make sense for non-Christians to celebrate end-times events.  Why sing “Hallelujah” (literally “Praise the Lord”) if you don’t mean it?

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One Response to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: Its Origin and Meaning

  1. Brandy says:

    A few weeks ago I was sitting up in bed talking with my husband. It was late. I started hearing a choir, with music singing this song. Like it was playing in a car radio right outside our house (we live in the country in Southeast Texas). It was somewhere between midnight and 2:00 AM. I’ve never heard anything that nobody else couldn’t hear in my life. I wasn’t scared, though it was freaky, maybe because someone was there with me. Hasn’t happened since. I don’t know what to think?

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