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By Mark Tooley @markdtooley

So much of what is good in America originated with Methodism! Or so it seems, as confirmed by a new book on the majestic hymn by Julia Ward Howe, called The Battle Hymn of the Republic; Biography of a Song, by John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis. Howe was a New England Unitarian bestirred to compose the soaring lyrics about Christ’s glorious return after a sleepless night in a Washington hotel room, having witnessed tens of thousands of Union troops on parade the previous day. Earlier words to the song cited mouldering John Brown’s body, originally referencing, mostly, a jocular Union soldier eventually killed, and later the hanged Abolitionist famous for his attempted Harpers Ferry insurrection. But the earliest version, dating at least to the dawn of the nineteenth century, was a Methodist camp meeting song, “Say Brothers, Can You Meet Us?” It was popular among early revivalists, black and white.

Few hymns merit a biography, but “Battle Hymn” certainly does. It remains popular in churches, despite a 1980s attempt by United Methodist liberals distressed by its ostensible militarism to delete it from a new hymnal. Thousands of letters and phone calls from outraged church members preserved it. It is also popular at civic events and was sung, at the suggestion of Bush Administration top aides, at the post 9-11 National Cathedral service where President Bush spoke, though Episcopal authorities were reputedly somewhat discomfited. Bush personally approved the choice. President Reagan also liked it as a personal favorite. It was performed at the Lincoln Memorial for his 1981 inaugural. As a teenager I personally witnessed Reagan enjoy it at a Memorial Day commemoration at Arlington Cemetery, where a young black woman singer magnificently sang it, provoking Reagan to flash her an appreciative grin.

Liberals have often deployed the “Battle Hymn.” Howe herself was an abolitionist social reformer. At Teddy Roosevelt’s 1912 Bull Moose convention, progressive delegates, including Jews, “fervently” sang this song of Christ’s return to signify their hopes for a righteous, socially just America. Roosevelt echoed the lyrics in his exhortation: “We stand at Armageddon, and we do battle for the Lord.” Lyndon Johnson had it sung at his funeral, with Billy Graham presiding. It was also sung at Reagan’s funeral. So too for Winston Churchill’s, at his own instruction. Although not mentioned in the book, Churchill had wept when hearing it at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia, while seated with Franklin Roosevelt in George Washington’s pew. The priest had announced the southern congregation would sing it for the first time that New Year’s Day in 1942 in a show of national unity.

“Battle Hymn” was long considered a Yankee song by southerners. During a 1960s hymnal revision, some southern Methodists had urged its omission. My mother recalls often provoking her grandmother, the daughter of a Confederate cavalryman, by asking her to play the “Battle Hymn” on the piano, which she always angrily refused.

The original Methodist camp meeting song was not regionally or politically controversial. But early revivalism, with shouting, fainting and even barking, was controversial. Religious traditionalists eschewed its emotionalism, but thousands of frontier Americans flocked to its exuberant rallies. A haggard and somewhat impoverished although persevering Methodist preacher based in Williamsburg, Virginia published a hymnal with the earliest version of the tune in 1807, titled “Grace Reviving in the Soul,” later known as “Say Brothers” or “O Brothers,” with these words:

O brothers will you meet me, O brother[s] will you meet me, O brothers will you meet me, on Canaan’s happy shore?

By the grace of God I’ll meet you, by the grace of God I’ll meet you, By the grace of God I’ll meet you, on Canaan’s happy shore.

[Chorus] There we’ll shout and give him glory, We’ll shout and give him glory, We’ll shout and give him glory, for glory is his own.

Like the later, but more lavish lyrics by Howe, the early hymn looked to the consummation of God’s Kingdom. But unlike the early version, focused on personal redemption, the “Battle Hymn” sweepingly envisioned a redeemed world ushered in by God’s saints who will “die to make men free.”

The fulfillment of God’s reign on earth appealed to nineteenth century social reformers, progressive Social Gospel advocates of the early twentieth century (including labor activists like the Wobblies who often sang it as “Solidarity Forever”), civil rights crusaders of the 1950s and 1960s, and many conservatives who, like earlier liberals, discerned providential purpose in American Christianity. It’s still a favorite in hymnals for oldline Protestants, evangelicals and Catholics.

A Methodist revivalist hymn reconfigured by a New England Unitarian into a vision of Christ’s second coming that continues to appeal across denominational, racial, theological and political boundaries, also serving as a unifying ode to civil religion, is quite remarkable. The Battle Hymn of the Republic: Biography of a Song is especially appropriate reading for Memorial Day.