His Truth is Marching On? – The Battle Hymn of the Republic. When Theology Goes South


Strange title indeed. To “go south” is an idiom that means to deteriorate, decline, or lose value. When Theology goes south, it simply means that it loses its value and becomes worthless. Since theology is the study of God, it is extremely important that our theology is derived from scripture. Theology really does matter!

The Battle Hymn of the Republic is a song that every American has heard at least once. It is sung at sporting events, political and military ceremonies, and even in church services. And let’s be honest, who doesn’t get goose-bumps when hearing this patriotic song? But that is exactly what it is, a patriotic song. The song has absolutely nothing to do with God, Jesus, the Bible, or Christianity. I know that might be a shock to many, but this is why as Christians we really need to know our history and be able to discern sound theology.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written in 1861 by a Unitarian and social activist named Julia Ward Howe, a woman who denied the deity of Christ, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. The song, as many suppose, is not about the second coming of Jesus Christ — appearing in bodily form, since Howe clearly rejected this doctrine. Rather, the song is about the Union Army who represents God, marching into the south to defeat the Confederate Army, who, according to Howe, represents Satan. It is filled with erroneous teachings influenced by Unitarian Theology.

Here are some quotes from Julia Ward Howe that reveal her what she really believed about orthodox Christianity:

Theology (Study of God)
“Theology in general seems to me a substitution of human ingenuity for divine wisdom.” – Julia Ward Howe

On the Deity of Christ
“Not until the Civil War did I officially join the Unitarian Church and accept the fact that Christ was merely a great teacher” – Julia Ward Howe

Since Theology really was not important to Julia Ward Howe, it is not surprising that she outright rejected the deity of Christ. And this is the women who penned The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Howe wrote the song while visiting Washington D.C. in 1861. She observed several small encampments of Union soldiers along the outskirts of the city as the Confederate Army was drawing near. She heard Union soldiers singing the then famous song, “John Brown’s Body”, a song immortalizing the leader of the famous Harpers Ferry Raid.

“On the evening of October 16, 1859, John Brown, a staunch abolitionist, and a group of his supporters left their farmhouse hide-out en route to Harpers Ferry. Descending upon the town in the early hours of October 17th, Brown and his men captured prominent citizens and seized the federal armory and arsenal. Brown had hopes that the local slave population would join the raid and through the raid’s success weapons would be supplied to slaves and freedom fighters throughout the country; this was not to be. First held down by the local militia in the late morning of the 17th, Brown took refuge in the arsenal’s engine house. However, this sanctuary from the fire-storm did not last long, when in the late afternoon US Marines under Colonel Robert E. Lee arrived and stormed the engine house, killing many of the raiders and capturing Brown. Brown was quickly placed on trial and charged with treason against the state of Virginia, murder, and slave insurrection. Brown was sentenced to death for his crimes and hanged on December 2, 1859.” 1

This song was originally a camp meeting song that began with the words, “Say, brothers, will you meet us? On Canaan’s happy shore”. It has a catchy tune that made it a natural marching song. The lyrics were changed in 1859 after the failed Harpers Ferry raid, “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!” By the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, the song spread throughout the Union Army. New verses were added as they marched through the south, including one that promised to hang Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy from a tree. It was this song that Julia Ward Howe heard being sung that inspired her to write her own version of the song. 2  Although Howe rejected the deity of Christ and did not believe that the Bible was the infallible and inspired Word of God, she nevertheless used scripture as a source of poetry to write her new song.

Not everything that says Jesus is Jesus. Just because a song uses scripture and mentions the name of Jesus does not mean it is theologically sound or glorifying to God. Authorial intent is extremely important, in fact, this is one of the first lessons we learn when studying hermeneutics. In order to find the proper meaning of a text we must first understand the authors intent and purpose for writing in the first place. Words have meaning, and we cannot just take words that mean something to the original author, and change that meaning to fit our own theology. For instance, the famous British pop singer George Michael wrote a song that contains the lyrics,

Kindness in your eyes
I guess you heard me cry
You smiled at me
Like Jesus to a child
I’m blessed I know
Heaven sent and heaven stole
You smiled at me like
Jesus to a child

Does Jesus love children? Absolutely. Is it good to show kindness to others like Jesus showed kindness to children? Absolutely. Is it a blessing to know that God is the one who gives and takes away? Absolutely. But would we use this song to teach spiritual truths? Absolutely not! Why? Because of authorial intent. George Michael is not a Christian, but he used Jesus in his song to express his feelings for his homosexual lover who passed away. So just because he used the name Jesus does not mean the song is about Jesus. And just because Julia Ward Howe uses scripture does not mean her song is scriptural. As Christians we must be more discerning regarding the music we choose to sing. Especially when we claim that we are using the song to share the Gospel with a lost and dying world.

So what about The Battle Hymn of the Republic? Is it a Christian song? Does it sing about the glories of Christ, His second coming, the Gospel? Absolutely not! When we take into account authorial intent, it is clear that Julia Ward Howe saw the Second Coming of Christ as the Union Army representing God coming to pour out His wrath on the Confederate Army. Here is what Howe believed:

  • The Civil War was to be viewed apocalyptically
  • The Union Army was God’s army, dispensing His wrath on the Confederacy
  • God dwelt in the midst of the Union camps and their fires were altars to Him
  • The Union Army is even to be equated with God’s Word (“His sword”) 3

Now does that sound like the Gospel to you? Granted, slavery was a grievous sin and there are those who are not convinced that John Brown was necessarily wrong. But that is not the issue. The issue of this post is not slavery but theology. Is the song Battle Hymn of the Republic a song that represents the gospel of Jesus Christ?

The below excerpt is taken from an article called, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” from the blog Herescope. You can read the full article here. This article explains the theology behind the lyrics of this popular song.

The Lyrics

Verse 1
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.”

Howe described with pride how she saw the coming of the Lord in the Union Army in those bleak months of 1861: “When the war broke out, the passion of patriotism lent its color to the religion of humanity in my own mind… and a moment came when I could say: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”[xviii]

Howe’s view that the Civil War was the coming of the Lord accords with the view held by her pastor, Mr. Clarke, who did not believe that Jesus will return bodily as He ascended (Acts 1:11). Rather he believed that Jesus comes mystically and in many ways. Clarke said:

“Christ also comes in the great events of history, which contribute to the progress of the human race… When Jerusalem was compassed with armies, and terrible bloodshed and awful suffering fell on the nation… that was a coming of Christ. For out of the midst of those horrors, came a new and better day.”[xix]

Clarke then continued to explain his belief that the Civil War was also a “coming of the Christ” as it brought about the end of slavery.[xx]

In the same year that Howe wrote the Battle Hymn, Rev. William Weston Patton also wrote new words to the John Brown’s Body tune. In his version, Patton confirmed the prevailing view that the Union Army was “Christ.” He further made John Brown out to be John the Baptist!

“John Brown was John the Baptist of the Christ we are to see,
Christ who of the bondmen shall the Liberator be,
And soon thru out the Sunny South the slaves shall all be free,
For his soul is marching on.”[xxi]

This is nothing short of blasphemy – to suggest that the American Civil War, and the Northern Army in particular, is the coming of the Lord! These words should never have passed the lips of any Christian, let alone be sung in any assembly of God’s people.

The rest of the verse continues to misquote Revelation 19:15, which states: “Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” The Apostle John here is speaking about Jesus Christ who returns to vanquish His enemies and set up His Kingdom at the end of the age. Once again, it is pure blasphemy to equate a human army on earth with the “King of King and Lord of Lords” (Revelation 19:16).

The last line of the first verse is repeated at the end of the Chorus: “His truth is marching on.” God’s Truth is spread through one way, and one way only: the preaching and teaching of His Word. God’s truth does not march in rank and file. God’s Word is not forced upon others at the end of the sword. God’s truth does not kill brothers, cousins and uncles, as happened in the Civil War.

This song Battle Hymn does not promote God’s truth, but rather promotes murder, hate and violence. Constantine, the Crusaders, the Roman Church, and many others throughout church history all thought they could promote God’s truth by the shedding of blood. And many during the Civil War thought they could do the same. There is simply no sanction for this in the Bible.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies and to turn the other cheek. When pushed to defend Himself He responded: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). This teaching is the opposite of taking up arms against one’s physical and/or spiritual brother, even if the purported purpose is to oppose a grievous error like slavery.

Verse 2
“I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have built 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.”

Julia Ward Howe told how she noticed, on her first visit to Washington, D.C., at the outbreak of the war, groups of soldiers at their fires surrounding the Capital.[xxii] They had built a “steel girdle” around Washington because the Confederate (Southern) Army was close.

Once again she equated the Union Army with the Lord (“I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps”). Again, this is extreme blasphemy. God is not manifest in any army, let alone one fighting a civil war! If this were true then we would be going door-to-door forcing people to believe the Gospel at the end of a gun, and calling that “the Lord and His truth marching on.” This can never be!

Howe then changed the metaphor so that the fires of the soldiers become altars through which they worship God! These “altars” are certainly not built to worship the True God. They must, therefore, be in honor of another deity, a fact which makes this a violation of the first command – “you shall have no other gods before Me.”

The phrase “I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps” speaks of the judgment (sentence) God had supposedly passed on the South, and that He was about to execute that sentence. This also is blasphemous. Taking up arms against one’s brother can never be regarded as “righteous,” and to suggest that the North was “God” executing judgment against the South is nothing less than sacrilege. To suggest that political leaders have a religious authority to pass the death sentence on any part of the nation because they believe differently, even if what they believe is wrong, is the height of arrogance and wickedness.

Verse 3
This verse is not included in many hymn books, yet is part of the song and is vital to an understanding of the meaning of the song.

“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.

The “burnished rows of steel” refers to the sun reflecting off the gun barrels and the fixed bayonets of the army.[xxiii] The Gospel is never written in guns and bayonets and the implements of war. The Gospel of salvation is written in the hearts of those who have believed the message of Jesus Christ and been transformed by the power of that Gospel.

“Contemners” is an old English word which means those who treat one with contempt. This line says that to the degree that we kill those who despise God, God will extend grace to us! The Bible never links God’s grace to killing those who disagree with us. This bloody kind of hate-mongering is absolutely not part of the Christian message. In fact, the opposite is true. If we willfully disobey God’s Word by killing those with whom we have disagreements, there is not likely much grace for such willful sin. “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:1-2).

“Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel” is a misquoted reference to Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.”[xxiv] Once again, Howe turned the Union Army into “Christ” and the Confederate Army into “Satan.” This is an outright heresy and a total abuse of the Scriptures, which Howe used to support her own political agenda. At the time of the war, there were just as many true Christians in the South as in the North, yet the one reserved the moral high ground to call itself “Christ” and the other “Satan.” This is not remotely Christian. It is just plain worldly and a pagan way of thinking.

Verse 4
“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.”

The trumpet probably refers to the references in Revelation to the trumpet. The army used bugles to either sound the “retreat” or the “charge,” and Howe seemed to use poetic license to make this connection. The Last Trumpet heralds the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.”[xxv] Once again, Howe replaced “Christ” with the Army.

Sifting out the hearts of men can only mean that they judge the motives of men’s hearts. Thus Howe once again deified the Army and, worse, gives to the military the divine task of judging men’s motives and condemning them to death if they don’t pass the test (sifting). How blasphemous! God alone is the judge and He has committed all judgment to His Son (John 5:22). Paul is very clear on our not judging men’s hearts: “Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts” (1Corinthians 4:5). But this does not present a problem to Howe since she believed that the Army is Christ!

Verse 5
“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.”

“In the beauty of the lilies…” is sweet sentimentality that is void of any doctrinal support, but helps to make this bloody promotion of “truth” by killing your brother sound very nice. Jesus was not born in the beauty of the lilies; He was born in a stable and laid in a feed trough. But Howe had no problem twisting Scripture to suit her purpose.

The second line of this stanza is equally trite and void of Biblical support. Nowhere does the Bible speak of a “glory in His bosom,” and since she has clearly identified the Army as Christ, somehow she believes that the military will change us. War does indeed change people, but it is never in a good way.

The first part of the third line belies her own theology as she did not believe that Jesus’ death saves us or sanctifies us. But, as we have seen, she did not hesitate to use words without concern for their meaning, as long as they would have the desired effect. I can only assume that she felt that throwing this reference to Christ’s atoning sacrifice would fool Christians to believe that the song was Christian. She succeeded, and continues to succeed, in fooling the vast majority of non-discerning Christians. The presence of this line is vital to the deception. In the eyes of many, reference to Our Lord’s atoning work “sanctifies” the whole song.

The call for us to “die to make men free” is obviously a call to die in battle in order to liberate the slaves and pays respect to John Brown. While this sentiment may have value in the world, it has no support from Scripture. “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”[xxvi] 4

The Jesus in Julia Ward Howe’s song is a Jesus of Julia Ward Howe’s own imagination. The song is filled with blasphemy and false teaching regarding the person and work of Christ. This song should never be sung as an attempt to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ and should never be sung in a Christian worship service period.

Unfortunately, the only thing that appears to be marching on as a result of this song is false teaching and heresy. For those who desire to honor God and adhere to sound theology, we need to be more selective in the songs that choose to sing. Just because something looks “Christian” does not mean that it is “Christian”. Theology matters!

“Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” 1 Timothy 4:16





For more on the Heresies of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, see links below

Why I Don’t Sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic

The Truth About “Battle Hymn of the Republic

Battle Hymn of the Republic – An Honest Examination

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