The Battle Hymn of the Republic

Julia Ward Howe was an American poet and abolitionist in the 19th century. When the Civil War began, she found herself touring one of the Union Army camps with family and friends. To the shock of Howe and her posh companions, the men of the armies were gustily singing out,

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’s marching on!

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

Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul’s marching on!

Then followed more verses of the catchy song, each one more alarming to the refined listeners than the last. John Brown was an avid abolitionist who had died before the war in a failed attempt to lead a slave revolt. His life inspired many to the cause of abolition, but the idea of the Union Army marching to Virginia singing about a moldy corpse left Julia Ward Howe concerned. At the encouragement of a friend, she wrote a new poem for the tune, which we now know as the Battle Hymn of the Republic:

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.

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

Glory, glory, hallelujah! His truth 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! His truth is marching on.

A bit more inspiring the second way, huh? The Battle Hymn of the Republic reminds us that although it is often easier to leave things just the way they are, it is important that we don’t just settle. Julia Ward Howe recognized the good of the marching song’s tune and its focus on freedom for slaves while thinking critically about better lyrics. Without her creative revision, we would never have the incredible moving power of the Battle Hymn.

The inspiring power of the Battle Hymn has itself been used for evil and good. In the mid 20th century, the KKK included it in their initiation ceremonies. Rejecting their idea that the Battle Hymn was only for certain Americans, a few decades later, Martin Luther King declared in his last speech, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord… His truth is marching on!” When we have powerful words, we must ensure that they are used for good.

As we commemorate our country’s independence this week, I hope we can celebrate the good and work to improve the not-so-good, just as Julia Ward Howe, Martin Luther King, and countless others have done. I pray that when we have powerful words, we use them in service to God and our neighbors.

O God, make my soul and feet swift to answer your call. Let your glory be seen in my life, words, and deeds, as I reject evil and work for good. Amen.

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