Line by Line

Hymns that make you go "Hmm...": "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

posted July 5, 2012 (Written July 4, 2012)

Tags: Religion, Hymns




I had planned for the next post in this series to be "Be Not Afraid." I wanted to do one I actually liked in order to bring the theme of series back around to "Let's think critically about our liturgical music" instead of the "Here are all the reasons this hymn sucks" formula I wound up using on "Gather us In."

But then I got the urge to be topical. Today[ish] is July 4th, Independence Day in the United States of America, so this past Sunday we celebrated by singing "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory," better known as "Battle Hymn of the Republic." I'll be dealing mainly with the version from OCP, but the lyrics are available on the Wikipedia article. The only differences I can spot are some verses cut out of OCP's version, and that OCP has the chorus repeat "His truth is marching on," whereas Wikipedia's version uses whatever was "marching on" in the corresponding verse.

My problems with the song are twofold: First, its approach to battle, and how God relates to human warfare, doesn't seem to mesh well with Christian ideas. Second, it's not really much of a worship song, which makes me think it's not really appropriate for use during the Mass.

Iím not doing a full-blown explication of the song, by the way, as that would be excruciatingly boring for you and me both. Iíll try to stick with just the highlights.

Here's the first line:

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;

Nothing wrong with that. In fact, there's something really appropriate about singing this line in a Catholic church because--guess what?--we have seen exactly that. It's called the Eucharist. Okay, okay, the lyrics are more about the Second Coming with trumpets and everything than anything like the humble appearance of bread and wine. But I still think it's important to keep the Real Presence in mind.

But I digress. Getting back to the song, it doesn't take long before I start seeing problems.

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.

There may be something seriously deep and poetic going on in the line about "grapes of wrath," but it went over my head. Wikipedia says it's a reference to the winepress metaphors in Revelation and Isaiah, but I wish there were some follow-up about exactly what it's being used to mean here. To me, it just sounds like Jesus stomping on bad guys.

The next line does nothing to dispel that notion. Moreover, it sounds completely out-of-character for Jesus. For comparison, here's a scene from the Gospels:

When those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said, ďLord, shall we strike with the sword?Ē And one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus a nswered and said, ďStop! No more of this.Ē And He touched his ear and healed him. (Luke 22:49-51)
Simon Peter then, having a sword, drew it and struck the high priestís slave, and cut off his right ear; and the slaveís name was Malchus. So Jesus said to Peter, ďPut the sword into the sheath; the cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?Ē (John 18:10-11)

Now, I'm not saying that Christians are called to be pacifists. There is such a thing as a just war. But it's worth noting that the only recorded instance of Jesus using a weapon, it was a non-lethal one. (Well, I think the proper term is "less-than-lethal"; you probably could kill someone with a whip made of cords. Then again, you could probably kill someone with a spoon if you were determined enough.)

This line also refers to Isaiah and Revelation, but to me it just demonstrates the need to be extremely careful when using Scripture. Itís not enough to write things like this and then defend them by saying, "But itís from the Bible!" The use must also align with the original intended meaning of the Scripture passages in question. I'm not sure that a song for American soldiers going into battle against the Confederacy meets that requirement.

The second verse has this line to offer:

They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;

The first thing that jumps out at me is "builded," but since I don't know that people didn't actually use that word at the time the song was written, I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.

I have no problem with the idea of building an altar to God even in the midst of a battle. Heck, if I were on the front lines, I'd be praying to God every chance I got. The idea of an altar reminds me of all the military chaplains who celebrate Mass for our troops (and, for that matter, chaplains of all faiths).

My problem with this song is not that God and war don't mix. It's more about the God-is-on-our-side attitude and the portrayal of Jesus as warrior. You see shades of this attitude in the next line:

I can read his righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps;

It just doesn't seem right to me to view going into battle as delivering God's "righteous sentence" onto our enemies. It seems presumptuous.

Moving on, we come to one of the two verses listed on Wikipedia but omitted by OCP:

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."

The second line of this verse does a lot to mitigate the problems I had with the previous one. The idea (if not the exact wording) comes, as the songwriter says, straight from the gospel. The judgment by which we judge others will be used to judge us (Matthew 7:2).

In that light, I'm not going to read any bad intentions into OCP's leaving it out. My best guess is it was cut for space reasons. Still, I'm sad that it didn't make the cut.

OCP's third verse (Wikipedia's fourth) does have a line that ties in with this theme:

He is sifting out the hearts of all before his judgment seat;

Here's where that missing verse would come in handy. Coming right after the "righteous sentence" business, this sounds like more of the idea of the warriors rendering God's judgment on others. In light of "so with you my grace shall deal," on the other hand, I get more of the feeling that it really is about the hearts of all.

Speaking of "all," however, I just noticed a little political correction in this verse: Wikipedia renders it as "the hearts of men." Let me get this straight: They kept "builded" but corrected "men"? Oh well.

O be swift, my soul, to answer him; be jubilant, my feet!

Sounds good to me. Would that more souls were swift to answer Christ.

The first line from the next verse has me baffled:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,

I don't remember anything about lilies in the nativity narratives in the Gospels. I recall it was a rather significant point that Christ's birth was a rather humble affair; the idea of it being decorated with flowers just seems odd to me. Maybe it's a reference to Mary's virginity or something?

I won't go so far as to object to this line on those grounds, but as a general rule of thumb I prefer not to sing something in church that doesn't even make any sense to me. If anyone out there knows what I'm missing, please fill me in. (By the way, I'm working on getting comments enabled here. No ETA yet.)

I'm also not objecting to the next line, but I do have a caveat:

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;

First of all, that's "bosom" with an M. Not those Higgs things everyone's been talking about today.

Now if you look back at my earliest post on the subject of religious nitpickery, you'll see me complain about the writer of the Little Black Book talking about us being transfigured and Christ-like. My problem then was the idea of making the Transfiguration all about us. It is (quite plainly, if you read the Gospels) all about Jesus. For that reason, I personally don't even like using the word "transfiguration" to refer to anything other than the Transfiguration.

I don't have a problem with this line, though. It makes clear that our transfiguration, or whatever you want to call it, is entirely Christ's doing and the glory is His. The idea of us being made like Him by His grace is hardly a foreign idea to Christian thought (Catholic or otherwise).

There's also the matter of context: While the Little Black Book also made it sound like in the Eucharist we offer ourselves in more or less the same way that we offer Christ ("the whole Christ offers the whole Christ" or some such nonsense), "Battle Hymn of the Republic" follows up with this line:

As he died to make us holy, let us die that all be free!

The language of self-sacrifice, especially in imitation of Christ's sacrifice, is something I admire about this song. It's a far cry from the Little Black Book's attitude. For that matter, it's a ways off from the earlier verses' God-is-on-our-side attitude.

While we're on the subject of context, let's take a look at the second verse missing from OCP's version, which (according to Wikipedia) is also the final verse:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

This seems to me to reinforce the idea of the glory and the authority belonging to God. It's a shame OCP cut it out. I'm still giving them the benefit of the doubt and assuming it was for space reasons, but I'm also sad this verse didn't make it in.

I did say at the beginning that there were two reasons I don't think this song should be sung at the Mass. I believe I've shown why I think its ideas about the relationship between God and warfare aren't quite right, but what about my other point?

To be frank, I don't think this song is much of a hymn at all. While there's plenty of stuff in there (much of it good stuff) about God, the song itself isn't really a hymn to God. At the end of the day, it's still a song about American soldiers going off to war.

It uses plenty of Second Coming imagery, and all of the positive aspects of the song I mentioned above are amplified if you read the lyrics with that mindset. In fact, OCP classifies the song under "Second Coming." (The bottom of each page in the Music Issue lists a theme such as "Second Coming," "Holy Trinity," "love," or "unity.") But that doesn't mean that it is actually about the Second Coming.

Even if it were, or even if it were just plain about God, that still doesn't make it appropriate for liturgical use. There are plenty of good songs about God that I like quite a bit, but I wouldn't sing them in church.

To summarize: "Battle Hymn of the Republic" is a flawed song, but not all that bad. The way it relates God with human warfare troubles me, but that problem is mitigated by later verses that provide context and a healthy view of the relationship between God and man. It's better if one includes the verses that OCP omitted. However, because the song is at least as much about battle and victory against enemies as it is about the Second Coming of Christ, it's not really suited to liturgical use. Therefore, I personally recommend against singing it in church.

So what do you think? Am I way off the mark here? Drop me a line and let me know. Iíll try and get comments up and running so that will be easier to do with future posts.