A Battle Hymn for the Republic?

You make the call

As Independence Day celebrations near, prepare yourself once again to hear the most offensive song ever written. No, not some rap drone about violence or perverted sex, rather that pseudo-Christian anthem known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

The song occupies a prominent position not only within the program of nearly every nationalistic celebration, but also as part of many Christian services. Admittedly, the anthem sounds good, but it is far from being a ‘hymn.’ Many Christians understand its stirring words to provide an image of a victorious Church, but the connotations of a spiritual patriotism, which have endeared it to many, result from a mistaken and cursory reading of the song.

By definition, a hymn is a song, which incorporates theological truth into its text. Wonderful examples of Christian hymns are A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Great Is Thy Faithfulness and How Firm a Foundation. But despite its author’s use of biblical phrasing, the Battle Hymn of the Republic is not about Christ ‘marching’ against sin and the Church being ‘victorious’ over evil. The theological truths that it expresses are anti-Christian and anti-biblical, thus it should never be sung by a Christian congregation.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in the fall of 1861. While in Washington, D.C. with her husband, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe watched troops marching off to war singing John Brown’s Body.  She determined to write a more inspiring war song to what was a good melody. First published in the Atlantic Monthly, she received five dollars for her literary effort.

Born into a prominent New York City family, Julia Ward was raised in a conservative, Christian home.  As a young woman she rebelled against her parents’ strong Calvinism and ultimately married the Boston reformer, Dr. Samuel G. Howe. She adopted the tenants of Transcendentalism, then Unitarianism, and it was in that light that the ‘Battle Hymn’ was written.

The Transcendentalists became the core of the radical abolitionist movement. Dr. Howe, as well as their Boston pastor, the Reverend Theodore Parker were two members of the ‘Secret Six’ who financed and armed the anti-slavery terrorist John Brown. After his murderous rampage in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, Mrs. Howe lamented, “John Brown’s death will be holy and glorious. John Brown will glorify the gallows like Jesus glorified the cross.”

The Battle Hymn of the Republic can only be understood within the framework of the Transcendentalist-Unitarian creed. The first verse reads:

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 has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.
His truth is marching on.

Mrs. Howe applied the apocalyptic judgment of the Revelation [14:17-20 & 19:15] to the Confederate nation. She pictured the Union army not only as that instrument which would cause Southern blood to flow out upon the earth, but also the Union army as the very expression of His Word [sword] itself. The Transcendentalist-Unitarians believed that the evil in man could be rooted out by governmental action. The South was evil and was thus deserving of judgment of the most extreme nature—its own Armageddon.

The second verse follows the same theme by presenting the Union army as the abode of their vengeful God.

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.

The third verse is so contrary of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that many hymnals leave it out altogether.

I have read the fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel.
As ye deal with My contempters, so with you My grace shall deal;
Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel.
Since God is marching on.

Mrs. Howe proclaimed a gospel of judgment pictured by rows of affixed bayonets. Taking God’s promise of deliverance from Genesis 3:15, she applied it not to Christ, but to the Union soldier who would receive God’s grace by killing Southerners. This was certainly a different gospel; the kind of which the Apostle Paul said, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” [Galatians 1:8]

Verse four returns to the prose of the Apocalypse with trumpet and judgment seat imagery:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat.
O be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

The problem again is that civil warfare was the instrument being promoted for determining the hearts of men. A man’s positive response to the call for enlistment in the Union army was the action, which would reveal their standing before God.

The fifth and final verse gives the ultimate expression of the warped and anti-biblical theology, which possessed the radical abolitionists.

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.

To Julia Ward Howe, the work of Christ was incomplete. It was up to men through civil government to bring about a utopian society. She was quoted in her biography, “Not until the Civil War did I officially join the Unitarian church and accept the fact the Christ was merely a great teacher with no higher claim to preeminence in wisdom, goodness, and power than any other man.”

The ‘Battle Hymn’ theme has nothing to do with Christianity or God. It is a political-patriotic song about the destruction of the South, written in religious terminology. It is a clever product. Howe deliberately created the idea that the North was doing God’s work. It paints a picture of a vengeful God destroying His enemies—the South, and elevating the North’s cause to that of a ‘holy war.’ In doing so, Howe portrayed the South and its people as evil and the enemy of God. – The “Grapes of Wrath”.  Outrageous, but it worked.

It’s unimaginable that this particular song has gained such wide usage within churches, especially when sung in Southern churches. A church might want to have some type of patriotic theme on particular holidays, but it would seem that something might be preferred more in tune with traditional Christian beliefs. “America The Beautiful ” is a good alternative.

Our challenge is to bring a proper understanding of the nature of this battle anthem to the leadership of the Christian church. No Christian church would intentionally sing a song of praise to Satan’s doctrines, nor would any pastor or elder lead their flock into rebellion against true biblical doctrine. Yet by ignorance, is has been done on a regular basis in the American church. The ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ is apostasy. It promotes hatred and vengeful destruction. It has no place in a worship service.

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