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Churches, patriotism and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’

The season of Advent back in 1941 soon brought news in striking contrast to the Christmas message of ‘peace on earth’. On Dec. 7, 1941, we had attended church, enjoyed a big dinner, and were relaxing in the living room. Dad was napping in front of the radio which was broadcasting symphonic music when suddenly an impassioned announcer broke in. Pearl Harbor had been bombed. The next afternoon boys in our 8th grade met in their clubhouse upstairs in our barn, renamed our group the Defenders of Democracy, and wrote a letter to the two Vermont Senators in Washington, pledging our zealous aid in the war effort.

My father had argued against American participation in the European conflict that had been raging for two years, and today many historians would unfairly label him an ‘isolationalist’. He detested Hitler, but had no affection for the British empire, its monarchy and rigid class system. Dad had expressed the hope that Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union that summer would lead to the collapse of both Nazism and Communism. Mom had told us that his main reason for opposing our intervention (and hers, too) was their four sons, all subject to military service if we became involved and the war dragged on.

Our local pastor had a strong pacifist bent, as did many ministers of that era. After the attack on Pearl Harbor he and others were faced with the delicate decision of how to respond to this sudden crisis. Vigorously or reluctantly endorse the war? Or, continue to oppose it in principle, probably in silence, while supporting the military personnel and their families?

And how much patriotism should be incorporated into worship? That still can be an issue. A few would say ‘none’, that Christianity is an international faith that transcends national borders. More might suggest that surely American democracy, even American ‘exceptionalism’, must be favored by God. Others would argue for some middle course.

Like many other ministers over the years, I wrestled with this question, particularly when I disagreed with our foreign policy. Yet, my patriotism runs deep, and when a national holiday came along, I would give it attention in the sermon and hymns. My favorites include “America, the Beautiful” and “A Song of Peace”, sung to that poignant tune “Finlandia” by composer Jean Sibelius.

The patriotic selection that I most enjoy singing is “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, which congregations would belt out. However, I always sang it with mixed feelings. The lyrics serve as an exhilarating clarion call to join in holy battle against injustice. At the same time, is it blessing the brutality of war when it speaks of God’s wrath and his “terrible swift sword“?

Prior to the Civil War, a song to the same tune was popular at revivals in the South, whose opening stanza asked: “Say brothers, will you meet us on Canaan’s happy shore?” In 1861 Union troops replaced those words with “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave, but his soul is marching on!” John Brown, of course, had been executed after leading an effort to foment a slave rebellion by attacking Harpers Ferry in 1859. He had been born in Torrington, Conn.

In November 1861, Samuel Gridley Howe and his wife, Julia Ward Howe, a prominent poet, both avid abolitionists, visited Union encampments in Washington. When one Army unit began to sing “John Brown’s body”, a minister suggested to Mrs. Howe that she could pen more suitable lyrics. That night, she later wrote, “I awoke…and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain.” She quickly scribbled them down, and they met with wide acclaim throughout the North. Once bitter memories of the Civil War faded away, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” became popular across the country and is included today in numerous patriotic observances.

Some controversy is likely to continue to surround the song. Jesus is prominent in its lyrics and opposition to public use of sectarian texts increases as America’s secular and non-Christian population grows. Those with pacifist inclinations remain uncomfortable with its seeming endorsement of warfare along with its generous dose of apocalyptic imagery.

Many other words have been sung to the same melody. For years “Solidarity Forever” served as an anthem of the labor movement. Children return from summer camp singing: “I wear my pink pajamas in the summer when it’s hot!” We used to shout out another parody back in elementary school. The chorus began: “Glory, glory, hallelujah, teacher hit me with a ruler.” Fortunately, I can’t remember the rest of it - something about a gun, a loaded .44.

Interested in more information on this topic? Check out the engaging new book titled “The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography and the Song That Marches On”, written by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis.

Ralph Lord Roy of Southington is an author and retired United Methodist minister. Email: Ralphlroy@aol.com.



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