When I was in school, we began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance. After the pledge, we students took turns selecting a patriotic song to sing, such as “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ’tis of Thee,” “God Bless America,” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” All of the afore-mentioned songs are engraved deeply in my soul. I am an American. I could never be anything else. But my favorite among them was the stirring “Battle Hymn of the Republic” by Julia Ward Howe.
The story behind the anthem begins with an old Methodist hymn called “Say, Brothers, will you meet Us?” The familiar melody with its original lyrics are attributed to William Steffe (1830-1890). It became a popular Southern camp-meeting song.
Say brothers, will you meet us? Say brothers, will you meet us? Say brothers, will you meet us? On Canaan’s happy shore? Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah!Forever, evermore!
In 1859 the virulent anti-slavery zealot John Brown attempted to foment an insurrection in the South through arming the slaves and encouraging them to rise up against their masters. He was captured at Harper’s Ferry on Oct. 18, 1859, tried, and subsequently hanged on Dec. 2 of that same year.
The American Civil War then commenced on April 12, 1861, when Confederate cannon fired on Union forces at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. The garrison at Fort Sumter surrendered the next day. In response, President Abraham Lincoln called Union troops to Washington D.C., first to defend the Capitol against possible Confederate attack and secondly to prepare an army to march southward to put down the rebellion.
As the Union soldiers trained, one of their marching songs used the same melody attributed to William Steffe’s hymn, but adjusted the lyrics and retitled it “John Brown’s Body.”
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, His soul is marching on!
Other bawdy stanzas were added to the tune. Some of the officers wished to elevate the lyrics to a more dignified level, but to no avail — until they came to the ears of a certain woman.
In November 1861 Julia Ward Howe (May 27, 1819-Oct. 17, 1910), already a published poet of some note, was touring the Union army camps near the Capitol with her husband, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, and the Rev. James Freeman Clarke. Her husband was a member of Lincoln’s Military Sanitary Commission, which fostered clean, hygienic conditions for the soldiers. Both he and Julia were fervently pro-Union and anti-slavery. When the three overheard the soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body” as they marched, Clarke suggested that Mrs. Howe pen new lyrics to the familiar tune. She replied that the very same thought had come to her mind.
“I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I … awoke the next morning … and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, ‘I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately.’ So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pencil which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper. … Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me.”
She submitted her “something of importance” to editor James T. Fields of the Atlantic Monthly, who upon examining it paid her $5 and entitled her work “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was first published in February 1862.
Packed with biblical imagery, its inspiring words quickly became the Union’s Civil War anthem. It gave the North a sense of moral purpose to see the war through to its triumphant conclusion.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watchfires 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.
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.
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.
Today our nation is locked in another great civil war of values. On one side are those of us who believe in the God of the Bible, in freedom, in the sanctity of human life, in marriage as God designed it, in two God-ordained genders and in the value of hard work.
On the other side are those who see humanity as a biological accident in a purposeless universe that somehow sprang into existence from nothing. The confusion, chaos, and tyranny that inevitably results from the latter conclusion is being played out before our eyes.
May we who follow Christ experience “something of importance” that would give us the strength and resolution to stand against the tide and direct our very lost nation back to the truth.
Robert Alan Ward served in the United States Air Force before earning a B.S. in Christian Education from San Diego Christian College. Now retired, he lives in Show Low with his wife, Gisela.