Thursday, July 4, 2013

A Hymn No Christian Should Sing - Ever

Mrs. Howe's Hateful Hymn 

What is below originally appeared as a Soul Food Column 
in the June 22, 1996 issue of World Magazine.

Julie Ward Howe

My friend came from old Virginia stock, spoke with the soft accents of Dixie, and should have known better. But destined for a military career and a lover of all things martial, he requested "That Hymn" during a pre-service hymn sing. The Yankee minister, however, knew better and refused to accept the request.

It was a hymn whose chorus every red-blooded American can sing. A hymn that was guaranteed to bring the crowd to its feet as the conclusion of the Pensacola Fighting Tigers High School Band's patriotic half-time show in the 1960s. A hymn whose rousing version was a standard in the repertory of the Belhaven College (Jackson, Miss.) Concert Choir during its glory days. What was it? "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Why did the New Jersey minister refuse 40 years ago to let us Southern boys sing the hymn whose secular version ("Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Teacher hit me with a ruler!") we sang almost every day? It was not sensitivity to Southern sensibilities.

Perhaps it was because he knew something about the author, Julia Ward Howe. She was a classic leftist. Born into a wealthy New York family, she settled with her philanthropist husband in Boston. Active in the Unitarian Church, she preached in congregations throughout New England and joined organizations of the 19th-century left such as the Woman's International Peace Association. And, as her hymn reveals, she had that ability to hate that liberals quickly condemn in conservatives but righteously indulge in themselves.

More importantly, our minister understood the words we so thoughtlessly sang. Before you sing "The Battle Hymn" this July 4, perhaps you will want to think about what Mrs. Howe would have you sing.

Mrs. Howe's Christ is not the Christ of the Bible. If, "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,/With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me," it was not "the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father," of "God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side," and who "became flesh" (John 1:14, 18) that Mrs. Howe saw. It was only the glory of human goodness.

If "he died to make men holy" it was to make them holy by the power of sacrificial example that would motivate them to "die to make men free." It was not to make them holy by the efficacy of an atoning sacrifice which frees from sin's guilt and power.

Mrs. Howe's eschatology is not the eschatology of the Bible. If she could not believe in judgment in the hereafter, she surely believed in it in the here and now. Her eyes had "seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" not at the end of the age, but in the 1860s. "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword" in the form of the Union army marching against the South, God through them "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."

One greater than Uncle Sam wants you in the righteous army which will execute judgment on the wicked whose cup of wrath is full:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call 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."

Mrs. Howe was nothing less than an early and ardent proponent of liberation theology. Sin is social. Salvation is freedom from structures of oppression. Redemption is by warfare. Judgment is now. Consider this little-used verse of her hymn:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished tows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;’
Let the Hero, born to woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

If she believed in moderation and toleration in religion, she gave little place to them in politics. If reason must lead to the discovery of religious truth, coercion must lead to social righteousness. She had no gospel of peace  - that this day is a day of mercy in which we can be saved from the wrath to come by a God who, in love, provided the propitiation his justice demands and now pleads with sinners to be reconciled.

Mrs. Howe's hymn is a liberal hymn of hate stirred by the passions of war and based on a "God is on our side" mentality. Today, some whose patriotic zeal is high and theological discernment low might be tempted to sing it. Worse, some on the religious right may march into the culture wars singing it.


R.C. said...

Years ago I was happily working away in my basement office. From upstairs, where my beloved was homeschooling my firstborn I heard the strains of that song. As I charged up the stairs, two and three at a time, my feet stomping all the way up, as I made my way toward the piano I heard the song stop, and my sweet wife, with pleading in her voice lest I explode exclaiming, "IT HAS DIFFERENT WORDS!! IT HAS DIFFERENT WORDS!!" I calmed down enough to say, "I don't ever again want to hear those notes strung together in this house, even if the words were my own."

Unknown said...

Wow. Just, wow. All I know is that God can use ANYTHING, even this "hymn of hate" to His glory and for His purpose. Then again I'm most definitely not a theologian lol.

Unknown said...

Of course in the sense of God's sovereign purposes in history, God not only can but does use everything. But,that is not to say all serves good moral purposes. I would, therefore, wonder what good was served by this hymn. It expressed hatred, stirred hatred, and inspired hateful acts.

Unknown said...

Our choir wanted to sing an arrangement of this hymn, so we worked together to change the lyrics. There was a beautiful monologue with words such as "...The battle is not done; Jesus who died shall be satisfied, and earth and Heaven be one..." with musical accompaniment that preceded the choir. Then we substituted the words of the first verse from another hymn that made Christ as Son of God and judge of mankind central. That, in effect, co-opted and re-interpreted any of Ms. Howe's lyrics that followed. Though I am still bothered by the dissonance in my own heart, I can be somewhat satisfied in the irony that our choir's version was used to subvert the humanistic hubris of Ms. Howe's intentions.

Unknown said...

I'm concerned that the historical context is missed in dismissing this song out of hand. Instead of banning it outright, the lesson needs to be told in full. The optic of today or even 40 years ago is not that of the Civil War era. To change the words is also wrong since words and music go together. To paraphase, when you sing you pray twice....not quite te prayer one would want to put forth. In the end it's not appropriate for activities where religion is intoned for sure.

Doug said...

The original words to this tune were written by a South Carolina Methodist Minister, named William Steffe around 1856. it was morphed into a hymn worshiping the terrorist and killer John Brown, "John Brown's Body" to whom perfection and deity is ascribed.

Howe recognized it was a catchy tune and when she heard Union soldiers singing it around campfires she saw it as the beginning of a war for righteousness, that would fulfill her family's dreams of killing southerners and ending slavery. She changed it to soften the references to John Brown and add ed her Unitarian version of Christ.

For those that like the tune I suggest you sing the original words:

Say, Brothers

(1st verse)
Say, brothers, will you meet us (3x)
On Canaan's happy shore.

Glory, glory, hallelujah (3x)
For ever, evermore!

(2nd verse)
By the grace of God we'll meet you (3x)
Where parting is no more.

(3rd verse)
Jesus lives and reigns forever (3x)
On Canaan's happy shore.

Doug said...

An irony of history is that the peaceful song of love and longing for home, written btw by a Northerner, is now banned as a hate song, and can't be sung anymore... I am referring to "I Wish I was in Dixie"

Curt Day said...

I hardly regard this hymn as one of hate in comparison to our nation's treatment of Blacks and Indians.

biggsenator said...

Although certainly not true of all of the verses Ms. Howe originally wrote, it is true that the ones commonly sung and appearing in evangelical hymnbooks can be interpreted along orthodox lines and given that interpretation be quite stirring and enducive of worshipful, God-honoring zeal. I wonder if the passage in John 11, where the Holy Spirit used an unbelieving Caiphas's words to convey an inspired prophecy with a meaning different from what he intended, can and should teach us the propriety of singing and reinterpreting impious lyrics to suit orthodox and pious (in the best sense) sensibilities and purposes. I for one think that it can and that it does. So although I do not disagree with any of the history behind this hymn here outlined, nor approve of it, I reserve the right to sing this hymn with my own meaning and significance, which, when adopted, allows stirring music and words to serve a righteous purpose.

Unknown said...

Sorry, Biggsenator, but that dog won't hunt.