The Biblical roots of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

I was reminded recently of one of my favorite hymns as I read the first reading at Mass. In particular these lines stood out:

[An] angel came out of the temple, crying out in a loud voice to the one sitting on the cloud [Jesus], “Use your sickle and reap the harvest, for the time to reap has come, because the earth’s harvest is fully ripe.” So the one who was sitting on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was harvested. Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven who also had a sharp sickle……“Use your sharp sickle and cut the clusters from the earth’s vines, for its grapes are ripe.” So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great wine press of God’s wrath. (Rev 14:14-19)

Ah, yes, 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
– –

We live in a time that does not usually appreciate these fearsome images of God. These are dainty times where many have tried to tame God. And yet the image from the hymn above is thoroughly biblical as you can already see. This first verse of the Battle Hymn also recalls Jeremiah

God will thunder from his holy dwelling and roar mightily against his land. He will shout like those who tread the grapes, shout against all who live on the earth. The tumult will resound to the ends of the earth, for the LORD will bring charges against the nations; he will bring judgment on all mankind and put the wicked to the sword,'” declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 25:30-31)

Yet again Scripture is alluded to by the hymn in reference to the terrible swift sword which is from Isaiah: In that day the LORD will take his terrible, swift sword and punish Leviathan, the swiftly moving serpent, the coiling, writhing serpent. He will kill the dragon of the sea (Isaiah 27:1). And the Book of Revelation 19:15 also speaks of the word coming forth from the Lord’s mouth like a sword: Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. And in the fateful lightning the hymn alludes to Luke 17:24 For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.

Yes, the Lord is coming in judgment on and for his people. Injustice will be avenged and holiness disclosed.

The author of these words, Julia Ward Howe, lived in times that were anything but dainty or delicate. She lived in time of war, the Civil War. And she , like many of that time, possibly including President Lincoln, had come to see that horrible war as God’s judgment on a land that had enslaved, and cruelly and unjustly treated a whole race of people. Many decades before Thomas Jefferson had written, Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free (Notes on the State of Virginia). Yes, many abolitionists and others saw the Civil War in terms of God coming to render justice for the oppressed and to punish and purify by fire a land that strayed far from justice.

Julia Ward Howe had been stirred to write the hymn when, just outside of Washington DC, she heard the troops marching to the tune “John Brown’s Body.” The rhythm of that hymn stayed with her and that night she lodged at the Willard Hotel in Washington and recounts how she was was inspired to write:

I awoke in the grey of the morn­ing, and as I lay wait­ing for dawn, the long lines of the de­sired po­em be­gan to en­twine them­selves in my mind, and I said to my­self, “I must get up and write these vers­es, lest I fall asleep and for­get them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dim­ness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered us­ing the day be­fore. I scrawled the vers­es al­most with­out look­ing at the p­aper (Julia Ward Howe, 1861).

She describes it as a moment of inspiration. The words seem to flow from her effortlessly as is the case with inspiration. We have been blessed by these words ever since. It is true, these words do not remain without controversy. Some object to such warlike imagery associated with God. Even more objectionable to some is the human tendency to have God take sides in a war or to attribute any war to his inspiration. And yet, for one who has read Scripture, it is hard to wholly dismiss the notions advanced in this hymn even if they are offensive to modern ears. The Battle Hymn remains a masterpiece of English Literature and the music is surely masterful as well.

Other verses contain Biblical quotes and allusions as well. Perhaps a brief look at them.

Verse two says,

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.

A powerful word painting here. The campfires of the bivouacked troops burning like candles before an altar to God’s glory and justice. The righteous sentence perceived by the flickering light recalls Daniel 5 where the hand of God wrote a sentence on the wall near the lamp stand at King Bleshazzar’s feast: MENE, TEKEL, PERES. The King trembled and all with him as the words appeared in the flickering candlelight. The righteous sentence of God announced that the King had been “placed in the scales and found wanting.” His kingdom was about to end. Of this sentence, Scripture says, From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet—when you, O God, rose up to judge, to save all the afflicted of the land (Psalm 76:9-10)

And also in those signal fires, those watch fires, is recalled the question of Isaiah the Prophet: Watchman, how far gone is the night? Watchman, how far gone is the night?” The watchman says, “Morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; Come back again.” (21:11-12). As if to ask, “How much longer must justice tarry, how much longer?”

In all this, God’s “Day” of judgment marches on. The Scriptures often refer to the Day of the Lord as the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord” (eg. Mal 4:5-6).

Verse Three says,

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.”

“Contemners” are those who despise God and his justice, who hold his law in contempt. Against these is the fiery Gospel. The Scripture says the Lord Jesus will judge the world by fire (eg. 2 Peter 3:7) and that his word comes forth from his mouth like a sharp sword: Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty(Rev 19:5). The author allows the bayonets of the soldiers to allude to Word of the Lord whose fiery gospel judges the world. And in the second line the Lord promises grace to those who fight for justice.

The last two lines of this verse are the reference to Genesis: And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, while you strike at his heel (Gen 3:15). It also refers to the reiteration of this in Rev 12. The Lord is destroying Satan’s power and ending the injustice of slavery, and ultimately all injustice.

Verse Four says:

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.

A clear reference is made here to St. Paul who writes of the trumpet blast, For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised (1 Cor 15:52) and of the judgment we must face: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).

The third line of jubilation is a reference to Malachi which promises a joyful judgment day to the Righteous: Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out leaping like calves released from the stall. Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things,” says the Lord Almighty (Mal 4:1-4).

Verse Five says,

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.

The lily is a symbol of purity in the Scriptures. In the Song of Songs is the beautiful praise by the Bride for her groom: I am my lover’s and my lover is mine; he browses among the lilies (Song of songs 6:3). A sea a clear and calm as glass is described as surrounding the throne in heaven (Rev 4:6; 15:2). We are transfigured by Christ’s glory for we are made members of his body (Eph 5:30). Hence, when the Father sees Christ he also sees us, transfigured as it were in Christ’s glory.

We too are called to walk in Christ’s footsteps. We are to carry our cross as he did (eg. Lk 9:23) and if necessary to die for others. As his cross made us holy, our cross can help to make others free. Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church (Col 1:24). Clearly Howe is appealing here to Northern Soldiers to be willing to die in order to free the slaves.

The Final verse says in a kind of doxology:

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 wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.

Christ is Lord of History (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). He will come in Glory accompanied by his angels: They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other (Mat 24:30-31). The world has doubted and scorned him and his teachings, yet he is Wisdom to those who believe and whom he makes mighty by it, as Scripture says,  Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children (Luke 7:35).

In the end, the wicked shall be his footstool as Scripture says, He sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. (Heb 10:13-14)

Ah, what a hymn. It is remarkably Christological and Biblical. Some consider it controversial. But that’s OK, the Bible is too, and this hymn is rather remarkable stitching of Bible verses and allusions. For this reason, it is not only the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it is also the Bible Hymn of the Republic.

25 Replies to “The Biblical roots of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

  1. I thought about this song often during the recent presidential campaign and thought the republicans should have made it their official campaign song. Instead they chose to use songs by recent liberal musical artists who theatened to sue them if they didn’t cease using their artistic property. It would seem secularism has been the downfall of moral culture . Pundits claim that Christianity’s western civilization was responsible for the developement of the most highly developed moral culture in the history of mankind. Maybe the Church should evangelize through the cultural arts and take it to new heights. Life imitataing art hasn’t worked so well in the absence of moral culture.

  2. She saw the ‘coming of the glory of the Lord” as Sherman burning down & killing the southern people in his total war campaign during the war of northern agression (since a TRUE civil war is a war over the same gov’t & since the South established its own gov’t then there were 2 gov’ts & Lincoln invaded the south for something that the founders did to England & we celebrate on 4-July). To us in the south it is a disgusting song of a lady that tried to glorify the murderous rampage of Sherman & called that God’s work.

    1. As for me, I am kinda of over the Civil War. I think more in terms the Book of Revelation and also think back more to the Jewish War with the Romans that definitively ended the Sacrifices of the old Covenant. I also think of the cosmic struggle today that still continues. Re the Civil War, there was certainly a judgement of God upon this land for the awful injustices we were committing by slavery and while we can prescind from “baptizing” everything that happened in the war, (for war is very ugly) it would seem clear that injustice had reached a boiling point. Question now is where will the injustices of our own day lead? But the Point of the Article = Biblical roots of the Battle Hymn. (i.e. article is not not about an unqualified defense of war). We’re reading the Book of Revelation and the Mt. Olivet Discourse both of which theologize on the meaning of the horrifying judgement of the Jewish War with the Romans as a judgement of God upon ancient Israel. This article thus focuses on the hymn draws from those roots as well as from the prophetic tradition of the war with the Babylonians in 587 BC

  3. A stirring song and presentation, but indeed controversial. The last line captures much of the controversy in my mind: “it is not only the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it is also the Bible Hymn of the Republic”. The main focus in both is on the importance of the Republic (Could you honestly call it the Battle Hymn/Bible Hymn of God”?) The Bible and history are rife with examples of people trying to canonize their own wars and violence with Divine justification…. But the example Jesus set was one of the overwhelming power of love–a refusal to resort to violence and a willingness to become a victim in the name of obedience to God’s will. I can’t say it’s a “bad” hymn or “wrong”, but I’m always suspicious of attempt to give war a positive spin by playing a stirring melody which invokes God’s will while showing pictures of people killing one another. Our greatest heroes in the Christian tradition are not generals, but martyrs. My experience is that while we (in our Genesis 3 state) often (saepius?) see violence as a way to bring about God’s will in the world, God has set a different example in Jesus. Likely not a popular opinion on a blog where war imagery is often invoked (“Church militant” and all), but I hope we all agree that we need to pray for peace…

    1. Point of the Article = Biblical roots of the Battle Hymn. (i.e. article is not not about an unqualified defense of war). We’re reading the Book of Revelation and the Mt. Olivet Discourse both of which theologize on the meaning of the horrifying judgement of the Jewish War with the Romans as a judgement of God upon ancient Israel. This article thus focuses on the hymn draws from those roots as well as from the prophetic tradition of the war with the Babylonians in 587 BC

  4. Thank you for writing this great article. Since reading it, I’ve been singing the song to myself all day and thinking about the words. I’ve especially been thinking about “With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me” and how God in his love, sent Christ to suffer and die so we can become new creatures in him.

    I recently read Sherman’s autobiography and I think if Steve C read it, he would find that the “history” of Sherman perpetuated in the south is untrue.

  5. Great article, Monsignor. I saw a powerful video clip of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoting the first stanza of this hymn during his speech following the march from Selma to Montgomery. It’s worth watching if you have never seen it.

  6. Correction: I meant to add that Dr. King’s speech after the march from Selma to Montgomery quotes the first and fourth stanzas of the “Battle Hymn of The Republic”.

  7. As most boys do, I liked the Battle Hymn of the Republic and still do. I didn’t, though, know exactly what the grapes of wrath were that were being tread. What they are isn’t so clearly seen in this post either. What they are is clearly seen from Rev. 14: 20, the stunning conclusion to the passage that Monsignor Pope quoted from:

    “And the press was trodden without the city, and blood came out of the press, up to the horses’ bridles, for a thousand and six hundred furlongs.”

  8. Very insightful article, thank you. The civil war was very dramatic living history for us.
    The point of it all was the “Union” itself and a new birth of freedom for us all.
    President Lincoln made “Thanksgiving” an official federal holiday and gave the Lord
    all the credit.

  9. is it really a hymn? A hymn should be addressed to God – not a call to arms. I think it’s inappropriate to sing it in church, and I refuse to do so. Also, despite its biblical references, it has become (like it or not) the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Although I am a native New Yorker, I am now living in the South. The Civil War is a terrible blot on American history. Lincoln reached out to the South after the war. We should do the same. We should not subject our brothers and sisters to a reminder of a division which, hopefully, is slowly diminishing.

  10. Uh huh. So, are you all OK with these portrayals of Obama as a Messiah — including the recent one showing him wearing a crown of thorns? Or do you draw a line only with conflating a politician with God, but not the Union Army?

    Get over the IDOLATRY of the Union. This Unitarian “hymn” has no proper place in a Catholic Church — even less than “America the Beautiful” (which I have also heard as a “hymn”, though no doubt many have heard worse). In Church we should adore God and venerate the saints, and that’s about it — no songs about how great our political party, or country, or hockey team may be.

    Спаси Господи, люди Твоя

  11. Many thanks for sharing this beautiful article from a graduate of Julia Ward Howe Elementary School circa 1972.

  12. This is a very interesting article, Monsignor. Thank you for all your research on this and for your wonderful blog!

    I have enjoyed this tune for a long time, but I had no idea how Biblical the verses are! I guess that means I should dust off the ‘ol Bible. 🙁

    I agree that it is controversial. The verses you have explained cause my appreciation for this song to deepen. However, it’s connection to the song John Brown’s body is unfortunate. In fact, I have seen versions of the Battle Hymn of the Republic that include verses of John Brown’s Body. While Brown’s ideas may have been noble, I can’t say I agree with his hacking to pieces of innocent people with swords and spears. There was much injustice on both sides of the Civil War. Separated from it’s political origins, though, this is a delightfully Christological hymn!

    Thank you, Monsignor, for this post and all you do!

    P.S., I bet you weren’t expecting to ruffle the feathers of the last holdouts of the C.S.A.! 😀

    1. Yeah the whole civil war thing is getting a little old. The point of the article was to indicate the Biblical roots of the hymn, which remains a masterful stitching together of Biblical themes. These are dainty times in which we live but the fact is the Bible does theologize a lot on war and doesn’t always make the careful little distinctions we’d like. God does sometimes use war as a means of ushering in either punishment, justice or both. Jesus spoke at great length about a coming war that would utterly destroy Jerusalem, but that in this war Christians should lift up their heads and see that their redemption is at hand. None of this is to sanction or “baptize” everything that happens in every war or to say that war should ever be easily justified. It is just to say that war is a complex reality and the Bible’s treatment of it is not as simple as either “jihadists” or pacifists would like to make it.

      1. My apologies for going off-topic. I’m just a bit of a civil war buff and get all excited when the Civil War AND Christianity, both beloved interests of mine, are discussed at the same time. 😀

  13. The first shots of the Civil War were fired by the Secessionists at a US Army installation. The South started the fight.

    The war was about States’ Rights, specifically about the rights of some states to allow the aristocratic classes if those states to own as chattel slaves other human beings based on the race of those slaves.

    I blame the slaveholding class of the South for dragging this nation into it’s bloodiest and most tragic conflict.

    As far as the song, I have never heard it sung at a mass, nor would I expect it to be. It sure beats Dixie, though, doesn’t it?

    1. Actually the song is in every Catholic Hymnal and in parishes I have served over the years it is sung regularly, especially in Advent and near National holidays. Our Choir sings the very elaborate version in the video.

  14. We used to sing it before class everyday when I was a young lad in public schools in New England. Also God Bless America.

  15. The tune (in English, at least) began as “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave (repeat 2x more) but his soul goes marching on.”
    Over the years this has been susceptible to parody versions. One I learned as a Boy Scout 60 or so years ago begins “I wear my silk pajamas in the summer when it’s hot.”
    Discussions of whether certain “hymns” are appropriate in Church, or as part of liturgy, kind of miss the point. If the congregation as a recessional wants to conclude with “America! America! God mend thine every flaw; confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.” , we should not object to that as a prayer.
    Other Christian denominations have hymns such as “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war; with the cross of Jesus, carried on before.”
    I appreciate “Vexilla Regis” (the banners of the king” from the TLM Mass Good Friday liturgy, but I cannot object to other militant sentiments sung in Church if appropriate for the liturgy in question.

  16. Rev 14:14-19 Remember these verses were written by iron age peasants that thought the earth was flat.

    1. They didn’t think the earth was flat. That is a modern error. The Romans spoke of the orbem terrarum. Your ignorance is further indicated by speaking of the first Century as the Iron Age.

  17. Without a doubt it’s a work of genius as your post points out. But because a work is crafted with biblical imagery, does it necessarily follow that the final result is biblical as well? Monsignor, you seem to be arguing that it does.

    But would you agree that context is important in art? The poem’s context in the Union cause of the Civil War as well as in the poet’s own Unitarian religious tradition ought to engender some skepticism as its faithfulness in transmitting scriptural truth.

    So if you must sing it, sing it as a paean to the warfare state, for it glorifies the deeds of the state and demonizes its enemies in the highest possible register. It is a literary masterpiece, it has a lot of biblical allusions, but I cannot agree that it is rightly considered a Christian hymn. It’s a hymn to the state, a battle hymn if the republic and not of the Church, in my opinion.

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