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“Battle Hymn of the Republic” Part II “The Story Behind the Hymn”

“Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Part II

“The Story Behind the Hymn”

By

Roger D. Duke ©


(It was formerly known as, “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Moldering in the Grave.” It was adopted and edited by William W. Patton and later re-written by Julia Ward Howe.[1])




Scripture Portion:


Rev. 19:15 (KJV)

And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.


Rev. 19:21

And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse, with sword proceeded out of his mouth; and all of the fowls were filled with their flesh.


“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Part II

So, one might ask: “What has this history lesson have to do with ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic?’” I am glad you asked. The original words were written in 1861. It came into being with the troops of the Massachusetts 12th Regiment. It clearly spread among the soldiers and became a most popular anthem of the Union Army. There were very many iterations of the hymn. “One particular well written version came” from the pen of “William W. Patton, and is reproduced below.”[2]

“John Brown’s Body”[3]

Old John Brown’s body lies moldering in the grave, While weep the sons of bondage whom he ventured all to save; But tho he lost his life while struggling for the slave, His soul is marching on.

John Brown was a hero, undaunted, true and brave, And Kansas knows his valor when he fought her rights to save; Now, tho the grass grows green above his grave, His soul is marching on.


He captured Harper’s Ferry, with his nineteen men so few, And frightened "Old Virginny" till she trembled thru and thru; They hung him for a traitor, themselves the traitor crew, But his soul is marching on.


John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see, Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be, And soon throughout the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free, For his soul is marching on.


The conflict that he heralded he looks from heaven to view, On the army of the Union with its flag red, white and blue. And heaven shall ring with anthems o’er the deed they mean to do, For his soul is marching on.


Ye soldiers of Freedom, then strike, while strike ye may, The death blow of oppression in a better time and way, For the dawn of old John Brown has brightened into day, And his soul is marching on.


Chorus:


Glory, glory, hallelujah, Glory, glory, hallelujah, His soul goes marching on.


Music has and always will have a unique way of stirring our deep feelings of patriotism. “Of our several fine and national hymns, this particular anthem has been unrivaled for inspiring these noble responses.”[4] One such instance occurred—when the Pentagon in Washington, DC and the World Trade Center Towers in New York City came down on Sept 11, 2001—after a terrorist’s attack. “[A] national service of prayer and remembrance was conducted at Washington’s National Cathedral. America’s most powerful leaders prayed together, listened to brief sermons by evangelist Billy Graham and others, then joined to sing the defiant anthem ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic.’ Its words seemed to perfectly signal America’s intention to battle the forces of terror in the world.”[5]


An even greater crisis in American history birthed the substituted lyrics to this patriotic anthem. Julia Ward Howe penned the words during the cataclysm of the War-Between-the-States. “She sent the words to the Atlantic Monthly magazine and received an honorarium of five dollars.”[6] Howe was “deeply anguished at the . . . conflict between the two sections of the country.”[7] It wrenched her soul as she observed and heard Northern troops marching off to war from Washington singing “John Brown’s Body lies a-moldering in the grave.”[8] As she watched with interest, a former pastor and visiting friend from Boston, Rev. James Freeman Clarke, questioned her: “‘Why don’t you write some decent words for that tune?’”[9] Her retort was sharp and quick: “‘I will.’”![10] She later recounted how the words came to her at the Willard Hotel in DC:


I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke the next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. 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. I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stub of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the line almost without looking, as I learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that something of importance had happened to me.[11]


“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has been acclaimed as one of our finest patriotic hymns. And it could quite possible be the ultimate of the genre written in America—for America. On one occasion it was sung as a solo at a very large rally attended by then President Abraham Lincoln. “When Lincoln first heard the hymn, he immediately asked to have it sung again.”[12] It brought tears to his eyes. In addition to this presidential accolade, “Howe’s ‘Battle Hymn’ became ‘the leading anthem of the Union cause during the ‘Civil War.’”[13] And still, “after more than a hundred years, Americans still join often in proclaiming, ‘Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on!’”[14]


Howe’s lyrics are full of Biblical imagery. “The expression ‘grapes of wrath’ refers to Revelation 14: 19” and “the sounding of the trumpet is probably from Revelation 8.” The Christian should understand that the message or theme of the song—God’s truth is eternal. Even when circumstances in time may be very difficult, “God will still accomplish His purposes, and His truth will endure.”[15] This is a wise word for eternity.


Here also is a wise word for time. “It can be dangerous to identify political causes or even national patriotism with God’s truth. Nations may rise and fall, but God’s truth remains forever. “‘His truth is marching on’”![16]

“The Battle Hymn of the Republic”[17]

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 had loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword-

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 sound retreat-

He is sifting out the hearts of me before His judgment seat-

O 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 the glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me-

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

While God is marching on.

Chorus:

Glory! glory, hallelujah!

Glory! glory, hallelujah!

Glory! glory, hallelujah!

His truth is marching on.


Now you know “The Story Behind the Hymn.”


Finis!

[1] Douglas O. Linder, Famous Trials, “John Brown’s Body Lies A-Moldering in the Grave,” retrieved 13 June 2022 from https://www.famous-trials.com/johnbrown/622-brownbody.


[2] Douglas O. Linder, “John Brown's Body Lies A-Moldering in the Grave,” in Famous Trials (University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, 1995), retrieved 17 June 17, 2022 from https://www.famous-trials.com/johnbrown/622-brownbody,

[3] William W. Patton, “John Brown’s Body,” in Douglas O. Linder, “John Brown's Body Lies A-Moldering in the Grave,” in Famous Trials (University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, 1995), retrieved 17 June 17, 2022 from https://www.famous-trials.com/johnbrown/622-brownbody.

[4] Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories: The Inspiring True Stories Behind 101 Favorite Hymns (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2012), 35. [5] Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul: 150 Christmas, Easter, and All-Time Favorite Hymn Stories, Special Edition (Nashville: W Publishing Group-An Imprint of Thomas Nelson, 2005), 131. [6] William J. Peterson and Randy Peterson-devotions; Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, comp. & eds., The One-Year Book of Hymns (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1995), July 4 entry. [7] Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions, 2nd Ed., (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002), 160. [8] Osbeck, Amazing Grace, 160. [9] Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, 35. [10] Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, 35. [11] Morgan, Then Sings My Soul,131. [12] William J. Peterson and Randy Peterson-devotions; Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, comp. & eds., The One-Year Book of Hymns, July 4 entry. [13] Stauffer and Soskis, Battle Hymn, 5-8; 86-90, end note 95, p. 321; adopted and paraphrased in James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 35. [14] Osbeck, Amazing Grace, 160. [15] William J. Peterson and Randy Peterson-devotions; Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, comp. & eds., The One-Year Book of Hymns, July 4 entry. [16] William J. Peterson and Randy Peterson-devotions; Robert K. Brown and Mark R. Norton, comp. & eds., The One-Year Book of Hymns, July 4 entry. [17] Tom Fettke, sr. ed., The Hymnal for Worship & Celebration (Waco: Word Music, 1986), 569-570.

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