Monday, June 17, 2013

The Powerful History of a Popular Hymn

You have definitely heard "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" at some point. It's the one with the chorus that goes "Glory, glory, halleluiah, etc., His truth is marching on." I heard the melody at a swing dance last night, and as all three lyrics of the chorus that I knew were playing incessantly through my head on the way home, I started to wonder what the rest of them might be. When I finally looked them up, I was shocked by how strange, powerful, and violent the verses really are. "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword" is not something I generally expect to hear in an apparently upbeat popular song.

Until today, there's been no better way to put me to sleep than to start talking about American Civil War history. Boy has this changed things! I now feel an overwhelming pride to be the same species as the creatures who took part in creating this song--mixed, of course, with crushing disappointment that my American history classes failed so spectacularly. In case yours did too, here's why The Battle Hymn of the Republic is awesome.

Julia Howe

Just before the cold dawn of a November morning in 1861, poet and activist Julia Howe awoke from a dream. Beating against the cage of her skull were lyrics begging to be committed to paper. Stumbling in the dark for the nearest pen, frantically she wrote. Her verses were first published in Atlantic Monthly in February of 1862, about a year after the beginning of the Civil War.

The day before that dawn, she'd attended a public review of troops just outside Washington, DC. While the soldiers were gathered, they began to sing. They sang these words, to the tune of a snippet from an old campfire spiritual called "Canaan's Happy Shore", and Howe listened to their song.

John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave
But his soul keeps marching on

Who is this John Brown, 

and what has he to do with the meaning of Howe's song?

Some consider Brown a terrorist, others a hero. To the troops through which first "John Brown's Body" and then "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" shot light lightning, clearly he was a martyr.

Five years earlier, during the Bleeding Kansas border war, Brown distinguished himself from other abolitionists by insisting that passive resistance to southern slavery advocates would do nothing but protect the complacency of free northerners. If the Good Guys are to win, he thought, they'll have to actually do something. And he knew that it would have to involve violence.

His biographers say he believed he'd been sent to visit God's justice upon slaveholders and those who supported them. Whatever his motivation, he caused people to ask themselves, "How much do I care about what I believe? What will I do if I'm called to act? Would I fight for freedom? Would I kill? Would I die?"

In 1859, under Brown's command, some proved that the answer was "yes". His very own army set out to raid a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Their objective: Arm the local slaves for insurection. The raid was unsuccessful, and Brown was captured by the forces of Robert E. Lee.

In the following months, it became apparent that many more really would fight for freedom with their own hands. A year after John Brown's death, the song of his vision coursing through the northern air, half of a country went to war to save four million people they'd never even met.

This is the story Julia Howe immortalized when she wrote "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".

Why is this my new favorite song?

Because it means that when it matters enough, when a strong enough leader arises, sometimes--not always, but sometimes--humans will abandon personal comfort to fight for a better world.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

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