“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Or is it something else?
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is a wonderfully catchy tune that many have sung on the Fourth and even in church, because it talks about God’s truth marching forward, right? Just like “Onward Christian Soldiers,” isn’t it?
The writer, Julia Ward Howe, was a Unitarian, poet, and active supporter of abolition, women’s rights, prison reform, and education. Her public support of these issues was opposed by her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe, and put a strain on their marriage for years. He wanted her to keep her work domestic. When she published a book of poetry anonymously (but discovered a short time afterward), Samuel felt betrayed.
In November 1861, Samuel and Julia were visiting Union encampments close to Washington, D.C. as part of a presidential commission. Some of the men began singing, and one of their songs was “John Brown’s Body,” a song in praise of the violent abolitionist John Brown.
“John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave
But his soul goes marching on.
“He’s gone to be a soldier in the Army of the Lord,
His soul goes marching on.”
Reverend James Freeman Clarke was touring with the Howes and remarked that while the tune was great, the lyric could be stronger. He suggested Julia write new words to it, and she replied that she had had a similar idea.
She said the words came to her the next morning as if her mind had worked them out overnight. She listened to her own imagination until she had organized the whole song and then quickly scribbled them down on a scrap of paper next to the bed.
Is the glory spoken of in this hymn the glory of Christ or is it the glory of an idea for which Christ is a metaphor? William Smith says it’s the latter.
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.
Smith says Julia was advocating an early liberation theology, that sin is socially constructed and salvation is to be won through overcoming civil systems.
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.'”
This isn’t the humble advocacy of God’s truth, but the proud proclamation that God agrees with us, that the Union Army is God’s army, and America’s cause is God’s cause.–a bit different than “God Bless America.”