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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

History Behind the Hymn: "Battle Hymn of the Republic"-Part I

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.

This author is academically trained in the History of Christian Thought[1] and Classical Rhetoric. This dual training has smitten me with an interest in the background of how hymns came to be and the messages they convey. These disciplines came together, seemingly by Providence, when I discovered the somewhat checkered history of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Frederick Douglass’s, the famous 19th century Black Abolitionist voice and apologist, had a reputation that was somewhat alluring to the politically radical John Brown. Brown was possibly the most zealous and rabid White Abolitionist of the pre-War-Between-the-States era. He was a committed insurrectionist—even to the point of taking up arms—working for the violent overthrow of the federal government of the United States. He believed the present national government’s commitment to undo slavery was too slow; that it would even take violence to overthrow the existing rule and stance concerning the “particular institution.”[2] It might be said that Douglass “took up the pen” while Brown “took up the gun”—and that quite literally!

John Brown . . . declared war of slavery, and not only a war of words. Nearly two years before the Civil War, Brown led a band of whites and formerly enslaved people in a raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their goal was to seize weapons and lead a guerilla war on slavery. Brown tried to enlist Douglass, but he declined, telling Brown the attack had little chance of success.[3]

Brown actively sought to recruit Harriet Tubman, primarily known for her work in the Underground Railroad. Tubman “escaped from slavery in 1849 [and] seemed fearless in the face of [her] dangerous plans with little chance of success.”[4] Because, she ferried escaped Southern slaves through all the pitfalls they faced on their journeys to the free-slave states of the North. During her courageous ministry,

She . . . traveled from North to South and back again numerous times, defying all hazards to bring enslaved people to freedom. Tubman’s heroics had earned her . . . [the] biblical title—Moses—and that was more than enough to impress John Brown. In April 1858, Brown wrote of Tubman, “He is the most of a man, naturally, that I ever met with.” Note Brown’s use of the masculine pronoun to refer to Tubman. Brown meant it as a complement, a reference to her courage, as others did when they called Tubman “Moses” (italics added).[5]

All three crusaders; Douglass, Tubman, and Brown; were motivated by their interpretations of the Holy Scriptures, their Christian perspective, and their personal convictions. Douglass driven to be the rhetor-writer and Abolitionists apologist; Tubman driven to be the social-reformer and Abolitionist activist; Brown driven to be the radical-insurrectionist and Abolitionist renegade—who would eventually pay with his life!

Brown schemed to seize, at the point of a gun, a Federal arsenal in Virginia. But “Brown’s plan failed. He and his accomplices captured Harpers Ferry, but only briefly,” for “Robert E. Lee and his marines defeated them. Brown and his men were captured, tried, convicted, and executed.”[6] This is commonly known historically as “John Brown’s Raid.”[7] Brown planned a guerrilla war “of . . . servile insurrection in the South;” i.e., an overthrow of the Federal government by the newly liberated Southern slaves.

In October, 1859, with the aid of a party of sixteen whites and five blacks, into whom he had infused his own enthusiasm and reckless disdain of consequences, he actually invaded Virginia, and seized the Government arsenal and other buildings at Harper’s Ferry, with the desperate boldness that created the greatest consternation in the town and surrounding country.[8]

Brown prophetically perceived slavery’s evil and threat to America. So much so, “he knew that the longer the nation allowed its injustice to thrive the more disastrous its effects would become.”[9] When his insurrection came to a head, “All the insurgents,” except Brown and three others, were either, “killed or mortally wounded.”[10] In the end, Brown was put to death by the state of Virginia. Jill Lepore reported,

Brown’s “death marked the beginning of a second American Revolution.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote that “the second of December 1898,”[11] would be a great day in our history; the date of a new Revolution, —quite as much needed as the old one.”[12]

It is a lost and little-known historical fact, “Brown’s execution drew a crowd of well over a thousand soldiers, including John Wilkes Booth.”[13]

[1] “The History of Christian Thought” is similar to but not exactly the same as “Historical Theology.”

[2] In the extensive War-Between-the-States literature; histories, biographies, commentaries, et al; the term “particular institution” is referred to repeatedly for the slavery of the South. [3] James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 35. [4] Byrd, A Holy Baptism, 35. [5] This quotation and commentary were originally in Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, 78; 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. [6] Byrd, A Holy Baptism, 36. [7] A. L. Long, Memoirs of Robert E. Lee: His Military and Personal History Embracing a Large Among of Information Hitherto Unpublished (Secaucus, NJ: The Blue and Grey Press, 1983), 85. [8] Long, Memoirs, 85. [9] Byrd, A Holy Baptism, 38. [10] Long, Memoirs, 86. [11] The date John Brown was hanged. [12] Jill Lepore, A History of the United States (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018), 284-85; quoted in James P. Byrd, A Holy Baptism of Fire & Blood: The Bible & the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 38. [13] Lepore, A History, 285.

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