Boy, July is just chock full of wonderful things isn’t it? Fireworks, watermelon, picnics, and getting to hear Christians rejoice over the destruction other Christians suffered in the 19th century — what could be more fun that this?
What’s that? You didn’t catch the last one? Oh sure you did. Who has a “patriotic service” nowadays without including a stirring rendition of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” (preferably with lots of violins and trumpets)? Well, nearly everybody, that’s who.
I just watched a special “Celebrate America” worship service from a prominent church which included (with full orchestration) a rousing performance of this “hymn.” Brought the congregation to tears and to their feet with a standing ovation. It gave me shivers too . . . of a somewhat different sort.
“The Battle Hymn” was written by Mrs. Julia Howe, wife of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, medical doctor who had gained a world-wide reputation for his work with the deaf and blind (and not-so-well-known secret supporter and co-conspirator with John Brown, the terrorist whom Dr. Howe and five other wealthy New Englanders — the notorious “Secret Six” — secretly funded for the purpose of starting a slave revolt in the South). Mrs. Howe had been reared in a solidly Christian home, but, like so many of her contemporaries, she had rejected Biblical teachings for the new Unitarianism that had become all the rage in the middle of the 19th century.
As a Unitarian, Mrs. Howe had rejected the Calvinistic training of her childhood and no longer believed in a literal coming of the Lord or a final day of judgment as both the Bible and the historic Christian creeds taught. Neither she nor her husband believed in special revelation or biblical salvation. Her faith rested in the “law of progress” and the perfectibility of man. God’s judgment was meted out here on earth by men who acted as His appointed emissaries. Thus, in her famous poem, the “Lord’s coming” is seen in the coming of the Union armies, trampling out the South, which is viewed as the spawn of Satan, the vineyard that must be trampled by the Northern armies as the rod of God’s wrath.
The second verse of her poem expresses her faith. She sees Jesus in the watch-fires of the Union army (“I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps”). Those fires are like an altar on which the wicked will be sacrificed (“they have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps”). The Union army is the arm of the Lord to carry out His righteous judgment against the South (“I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps; His day [i.e., Judgment Day] is marching on”).
The third verse of the “Hymn” is a tad too blatant even for evangelical taste, so it is commonly omitted in hymnals (and in the bombastic choir renditions): “I have read the fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel. As ye deal with My contempters, so with you My grace shall deal; Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel. Since God is marching on.” Here Mrs. Howe gets explicit regarding what she’s talking about in her poem. The gospel is writ not in the Scriptures but in “burnished rows of steel” (the shining bayonets of the army). The army’s job is to bring in the kingdom by destroying God’s “contempters” — the better they do that, the more grace they will receive and, further, as they do that, they, as the ordained representatives of the Savior, will fulfill the promise of “crushing the serpent.”
Mrs. Howe was not being sacrilegious — at least, not in her mind. She openly rejected Christ and the Biblical gospel. She did not believe in the need for forgiveness or grace in the Biblical sense. After the war, she stated, “Not until the Civil War did I officially join the Unitarian church and accept the fact the Christ was merely a great teacher with no higher claim to preeminence in wisdom, goodness, and power than any other man. . . . I threw away, once and forever, the thought of the terrible hell which appears to me impossible.” The only salvation that could be obtained was that of ridding the world of those miscreants who disagreed with her and her Unitarian friends. She believed that the destruction of the South was a major step forward in the “redemption” of our country and the world (and to Julia, anytime you have the opportunity to cleanse the world of Satan’s children, it stands to reason that you should take advantage of it, regardless of how it is to be done).
Mrs Howe’s righteous indignation against the slave-holding South did not carry with it a corresponding respect for the black slaves, however. In a private letter she gave her opinion of the slaves. They are “as ugly as Caliban, lazy as the laziest of brutes, chiefly ambitious to be of no use to anybody.” She concluded by wondering if compulsory labor was not better than no labor at all. In other words, since good help is so hard to find, maybe slavery ain’t so bad after all.
So, given these facts, why is it that Christians now sing this song with tears in their eyes and the swelling feeling of nobility in their hearts? Probably for the same reason we have worship services devoted to the praise of our country rather than to the praise of God. We love to feel good. Most of all, let us feel good and noble, and if possible, superior to those who disagree with us. Yep. That’s our chief end. And we’re all convinced that God understands.