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Home News The Midweek Hymn: The Battle Hymn of the Republic

The Midweek Hymn: The Battle Hymn of the Republic

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AFTER the August break, I thought it would be good for the Midweek Hymn to come back with a bang, and this is a definite blockbuster. 

Also known as Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, this started life as John Brown’s Body, an American song about the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown (1800-1859). He was dissatisfied with the pacifism of the organised abolitionist movement, saying: ‘These men are all talk. What we need is action – action!’ He and his supporters armed themselves and tried to start a revolt among slaves in Virginia and North Carolina, but it failed and Brown was hanged for treason. Increasing tensions led to the South’s secession a year later, and the American Civil War.

The words of John Brown’s Body were sung to a tune called Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us which originated in the American Protestant camp meeting circuit of the late 1700s and early 1800s, when melodies were made up on the spot or borrowed from earlier tunes.

These are the original lines, each repeated three times:

 John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave;

He’s gone to be a soldier in the army of the Lord!

John Brown’s knapsack is strapped upon his back!

His pet lambs will meet him on the way;

They will hang Jeff Davis [Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States from 1861 to 1865] to a sour apple tree!

Now, three rousing cheers for the Union;

With the chorus:

Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah! his soul’s marching on!

The authorship is not certain, but the words inspired others to write variations, of which The Battle Hymn of the Republic is the best known. It was written by Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910).

She was born in New York City to a well-to-do family. Her father was a banker and her mother a published poet who died after the birth of her seventh child, when Julia was five.

Although Julia’s schooling was limited, she educated herself and became fluent in seven languages. As a wealthy heiress she met some of the leading minds of the time such as Charles Dickens and Henry Longfellow. When her father died in 1839, Julia moved to her brother Sam’s house. Sam had recently married Emily Astor, grand-daughter of the tycoon John Jacob Astor, but only two years later Emily and her newborn son both died.

In 1843, Julia met and quickly married Samuel Gridley Howe, known for his reform work for prisoners, his efforts in education for the blind and his campaigning against slavery. He was 20 years older than his bride and domineering. He forbade Julia from working outside the home, and she was isolated and lonely living at the Perkins Institute for the Blind outside Boston where her husband taught. In 1852 the couple separated temporarily and Julia defied her husband’s wishes by publishing a collection of poems called Passion Flowers. Although it was published anonymously, her identity soon became known. While the poetry itself was not very well received, the sentiments in it were sensational. The poems revealed the intimate affairs of a ‘real’ man and woman, hinted at infidelity, openly challenged her husband’s authority and generally exposed the author in a manner which Boston society found shocking for a woman. Samuel was devastated by what he perceived to be his wife’s disobedience and betrayal and the marriage remained unhappy.

Nevertheless Samuel relied heavily on Julia as editor and writer for his newspaper, The Commonwealth, which was seen by many as incendiary propaganda for the abolition movement. As the Civil War approached, Howe became heavily involved in the funding of John Brown’s campaign. When Brown was arrested Howe fled to Canada for a while to avoid prosecution as a collaborator.

Despite her husband’s objections Julia was determined to follow her own interests. She first heard John Brown’s Body during a public review of troops outside Washington, DC. A friend, the American theologian James Freeman Clarke, suggested: ‘Why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?’

Staying at the Willard Hotel in Washington on the night of November 18, 1861, Howe wrote the verses to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. She recalled: ‘I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pencil which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.’

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was published on the front page of The Atlantic Monthly of February 1862. It brought Julia instant celebrity, and made her one of the most famous women in America. These are the words as it was published:

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.

(Chorus)
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

On their marriage, Samuel Howe had taken control of Julia’s considerable wealth, which he invested badly. When he died in 1876 she was left a widow with four children and a very small income. However in her first journal entry after her husband’s death she wrote, ‘Start my new life today.’ For more than forty years she travelled the world promoting women’s rights, peace, and prison and education reform. She was instrumental in creating Mother’s Day, which she envisioned as a day when women from all over the world could meet to discuss the means to achieve world peace.

A  website devoted to her, Juliawardhowe.org, says: ‘She had her faults, and none is more notable than her vanity. She thought very well of herself and was not afraid to voice her less than generous assessments of others. She often revealed her own ignorance and stubbornness, and perhaps this accounts for the solitude she encountered during her early years in Boston. However, over time, she outlived many of her detractors and her status as an American icon became almost mythical. Some refer to her as “The Queen of America”.’

The hymn has enormous resonance in America, and in Britain too.

Judy Garland sang it on her US TV show in tribute to President John F Kennedy, who was assassinated on November 22, 1963.

Here it is at the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill at St Paul’s Cathedral on January 30, 1965.

It was performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan on January 20, 1981 (and at his funeral in 2004).

This is the National Prayer Service at Washington National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, three days after the 9/11 attacks.

And this is the London service on the same day at St Paul’s Cathedral.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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