When I was younger, I was taught that the most important part of our worship in song wasn’t the notes, but rather the words. When we sing to God, we are also speaking to and teaching one another (Eph. 5.19; Col. 3.16). We should be able to “sing with the mind” (1 Cor. 14.15).
Every Sunday, our worship is filled with wonderful, beautiful, theologically rich hymns which remind us of biblical truths. But growing up in the church, there was one song that we didn’t sing. In fact, we avoided it. We never sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It’s not that we didn’t know the song (if you know the tune of “Booster”, you know the song). But rather, we avoided it because of its anti-Christian message.
Of course, there are some who remain ignorant of the song’s history and its anti-Christian theology. There have been rare occasions (usually near a patriotic holiday) where I’ve heard this song led in worship. But those occasions are rare. And even when the song is led, there are usually at least a handful of Christians throughout the auditorium standing there in awkward silence.
It is important to pay attention to the message we teach with our songs. That’s why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn.”
The Origins of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”
(Source: Chapter 8 of Julia Ward Howe’s biography. You can read it here.)
The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 by a northern political activist, Julia Ward Howe. As an abolitionist, she was convinced that the Union cause was moral and righteous, and thus felt justified in supporting the destruction of her southern neighbors.
Returning from a visit to Washington in 1861, her carriage was delayed by marching regiments of Union soldiers. To pass the time, she and her companions sang several war songs which were popular at the time. Among them was a song called “John Brown’s Body”.
John Brown’s body lied a-moulding in the grave,
His soul is marching on!
The tune was catchy, and it wasn’t long until the marching soldiers joined in singing with her. One of her friends then suggested to her, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?”
Early the following morning the following lyrics came to her:
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.
After the song was published in 1862, it quickly found its way into military camps, and was frequently sung in exhortation before battles, and was sung joyously upon the news of military victories. In describing why she had written the song, Howe said:
Something seems to say to me, “You would be glad to serve, but you cannot help anyone; you have nothing to give, and there is nothing for you to do.” Yet, because of my sincere desire, a word was given to me to say, which did strengthen the hearts of those who fought in the field and of those who languished in the prison.
Despite originating during the war, it is important to realize that opposition to singing this “hymn” has nothing to do with who we think was right or wrong during the war. It has everything to do with the anti-Christian message of the song.
The Theology of the “Battle Hymn”
Like many who lived in the 19th century, Howe was very familiar with the Bible. Therefore the song is filled with language and imagery from Scripture. The song certainly has a spiritual message, but the message is not a Christian message.
The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is religious war propaganda. It twists and turns the biblical imagery for the purpose of “strengthening the hearts” of union soldiers as they fought and killed their southern neighbors. Far from being a Christian hymn, the “Battle Hymn” is anti-Christian to the core.
Revelation 19 and the Coming of the Lord
The phrase “coming of the Lord” is understood to refer to the 2nd coming of Christ (1 Thess. 4.15; Jas. 5.7-8). Despite the fact that the phrase “coming of the Lord” never appears in the book of Revelation, most of the songs images are drawn from Revelation 19.
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which not one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “King of kings, and Lord of lords.” – Rev. 19.11-16
In this passage, violence, war, and judgment seem to accompany the appearance of Christ, who arrives on a white horse (a common image used for Roman military conquerors). The passage describes Jesus in a blood-drenched robe treading out the “wine press of the fierce wrath of God.” Howe poetically uses the image to describe the Lord “Trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”
The problem is that Howe wrote this lyric, not for the purpose of trusting in the Lord’s judgment, but rather for the purpose of giving Union troops license to kill their southern enemies. Americans have continually heard this popular patriotic song exactly as it was intended by Howe to be understood – as a validation for Americans to destroy enemies whom they judge as being immoral.
As Howe wrote the following verses with Union soldiers in mind, seeking to “offer service to their cause”, even the triumph of the gospel and the birth of Christ and twisted into justification for war.
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!
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!
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!
John’s Use of Military Imagery
Howe used the military imagery of Revelation 19 to “strengthen the hearts” of union soldiers as they marched into battle against their enemies. John used Roman military imagery to show that Christ (as opposed to Roman military leaders) will ultimately win the day. If we are looking for a heroic conqueror on a white horse to ride in and save the day, John doesn’t want for us to look for a Roman military leader, a Union General, or any other military hero. He wants us to look to Christ.
By the time Revelation was written, the “sword” was already commonly understood by Christians as a figure of the word of God (Eph. 6.17; Heb. 4.12). Earlier in the book of Revelation, Christ is described as having a sword coming out of his mouth, strongly reinforcing this image (Rev. 1.16). The fact that Revelation 19 describes the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth indicates that the “weapon” John envisions is not the “burnished rows of steel”, but rather the God’s word.
John then describes how the sword is used to strike down the nations and rule them with a rod of iron. This is quite the opposite of Howe’s usage of Revelation’s imagery to “strengthen the hearts of those who fought” for her nation. In Revelation 19, the nations are not the victors. Rather the nations, having been deceived by Babylon (Rev. 18.23), are the ones who are defeated by the triumphant word of God.
The Victory of the Lamb
The book of Revelation not only assures us of Christ’s victory, it also gives us understanding as to how God destroys evil.
Amid all the violence and evil in the world, Revelation 5 gives good news. The victorious Lion of Judah is here to fight for us! But the surprising thing is that when John turns around to see the Lion, He looks like a slain Lamb.
“And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain.” (Rev. 5.6)
Significantly, a similar surprise is seen in the Revelation 19 battle scene. A close reading will show that the blood on Christ’s garment was not that of his enemies. Christ is described as being covered in blood (v. 13) before the enemies are struck down (v. 15). The blood is not that of His enemies. It is His own blood.
At the conclusion of Jesus’s conquest, He bears a new title: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (v. 16). Jesus replaces every other king, lord, or other political power which may demand our allegiance. Immediately after the conquest, the kings, the military commanders, the mighty men, the horses are their riders are all defeated (vs. 17-18).
Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn to strengthen others in their allegiance to the Union. Revelation 19 challenges us to give our allegiance to Him who is Faithful and True as opposed to giving our allegiance to the nations of this earth with their kings and military conquerors. The “Battle Hymn” uses the same images, but to a completely opposite end.
Choose Your Side
Though the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is filled with scriptural images, it has nothing to do with following Jesus. This is why many Christians don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”. We don’t sing the “Battle Hymn”, because we have decided to give our allegiance and worship to Christ alone, rejecting allegiance to any other defeated king, lord, or political entity.