Why I Won’t Sing That Song

Jerry C. Brewer

In my travels, I’ve noticed that some churches use song books containing a song entitled, “Glory, Glory Hallelujah.” That title is misleading, and was not written as a spiritual song to be used in worship. Its original title is, “Battle Hymn of The Republic” and I won’t sing that song in worship because of its history, origin, philosophy, Biblical error, and blasphemy. It should not be in any song book which Christians use in worship. It was written by a woman who denied the Deity of Jesus Christ and it expresses sentiments that are anti-Scriptural, carnal in nature, and more accurately resemble the philosophy of Islam in advocating the killing of unbelievers.

Northern religionists and their abolitionist allies viewed the War Between The States (1861-1865) as a struggle of their righteousness against the “evil” South and that they were God’s instrument for meting out His wrath. That was the thesis of Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), who wrote “Battle Hymn of The Republic” in November, 1861, and which was first published in 1862. In an analysis of Howe and her song, Michael Givens wrote the following in 2009:

Mrs. Howe was not a Bible-believing Christian. She was a Unitarian Transcendentalist. As a Unitarian, her religious views were not based on fundamental theocentric doctrines of the Scriptures, but upon the anthropocentric beliefs of the higher critics of her day. . . . By her own statements, it is very clear as to what her opinion was concerning Jesus Christ. She was quoted in her biography saying, ‘Not until the Civil War (sic) did I officially join the Unitarian church and accept the fact that Christ was merely a great teacher with no higher claim to preeminence in wisdom, goodness, and power than any other man.’

In her Battle Hymn, Mrs. Howe arrogantly applied the apocalyptic judgment of Revelation 14:17-20 and 19:15 to the Confederate Nation. She pictured the Union army not only as that instrument which would cause Southern blood to flow out upon the earth, but also as the very expression of God’s word.

…from the moment these lines were first sung, when the Union Army first crossed onto Southern soil, the troops, via the strains of this song, were (according to Howe) authorized agents of the Lord’s work. Thenceforth, of the nearly 700,000 lives lost in that internecine war, the Union dead fell as martyrs, with a special place awaiting them in heaven. But Confederate soldiers or even Southern non-combatants were Satan’s minions, the plebian others, deserving of death and no hereafter.

Simply stated, this Battle Hymn was used as war propaganda to legitimize a cause for the Northern soldiers and citizens in their bloody invasion and destruction of the South.

Not only does the song express sentiments of carnal warfare and the bloody destruction of a people, but its words teach religious error, and it is as sinful to sing error as it is to preach it from the pulpit. Consider the following errors taught in the song’s original lyrics.

Stanza 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.

To apply the apocalyptic vision of John in Revelation, chapters 14 and 19 to any nation is a blatant disregard and perversion of Scripture. The, “Fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword,” is Howe’s direct reference to the Union armies who invaded the South. They were God’s “terrible swift sword.” “His truth” that she said was, “marching on” referred to the weapons of that carnal war wielded by Union soldiers—not the “sword of the Spirit” with which Christ’s soldiers are armed (Eph. 6:17). The Christian’s warfare and weaponry are spiritualnot carnal. The “truth” which she said, “is marching on” is a political statement referring to her perceived “divine mission” of the Union against the South.

Stanza 2:

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 “fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel” refers to the Union soldiers’ bayoneted rifles—a blasphemous substitution for the gospel of Christ, God’s power to save men (Rom. 1:16-17). Salvation comes through the gospel of Jesus Christ, revealed through inspired men (John 14:26; 16:12-13; Acts 2:1-4; 1 Cor. 2:9-16)—not in weapons of carnal warfare.

The second line of this stanza is in quotes and is allegedly God’s message to those soldiers. His “contemners” are Southern soldiers who, Howe says, have contempt for Him. In this line, she says that God promises to give them grace to the extent that they annihilate the enemy, i.e., the more Southern blood they shed, the more God will favor them.

This is diametrically—and diabolically—opposed to Paul’s teaching: “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” (Rom. 5:20; 6:1-2). Based upon what Paul wrote in Romans, chapter 5—that Christ’s sacrifice is extensive enough to cover all sin, great and small—some might argue that, “If the greater the sin, the greater the grace, then we may continue in more sin and receive even more of God’s grace.” Paul’s inspired answer in Romans 6:1-2 is, “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.”

Another blasphemous assertion in this stanza is, “Let the Hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel.” This phrase refers to the first mention in the Bible of a coming Saviour and His war with Satan, as God said to the serpent: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15). Howe took this Scripture, which pointed to the Son of God, and with presumptuous blasphemy, personified Union soldiers as “The Hero born of woman” who would “crush the serpent with his heel; “the serpent” being a metaphorical personification of Southern soldiers.

Stanza 3

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.

Seeing” Christ “in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps,” she again blasphemes the Son of God who walked in the midst of the golden candlesticks, representing the seven churches of Asia (Rev. 1:13, 20). In those “camps” she saw an altar upon which the Union “priests” would sacrifice Southern lives—a punishment meted out in “His righteous sentence” read by the light of the soldiers’ “dim and flaring lamps.”

Stanza 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.

This begins the crescendo that will culminate in Stanza 5. This stanza urges the soldiers to finish their bloody work of subjugating and/or eliminating the Southern people. His (the Lord’s) trumpet is sounded forth to battle and “shall never call retreat” until the South is crushed. The “sifting out the hearts of men” is being done by the war in which they are engaged and the Union soldiers are His instruments of judgment. The call then goes forth to, “be swift, my soul, to answer Him,” to which is added, “Be jubilant, my feet”—an urgent call for them to complete Christ’s bloody work with all the strength of body and soul.

Stanza 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.

While the first line may be poetry, it far transcends whatever poetic license it may have into false teaching. Christ was not born “in the beauty of the lilies.” No earthly “beauty” surrounded His birth. He was born into this world in a stable and laid in a manger (Luke 2:1-7, 12). His birth was not in the manner of a king, surrounded by beauty in royal quarters, but as a lowly child among animals.

In his commentary on Luke, chapter 2, Matthew Henry observed,

He was born at an inn. That son of David that was the glory of his father’s house had no inheritance that he could command, no not in the city of David, no nor a friend that would accommodate his mother in distress with lodgings to be brought to bed in. Christ was born in an inn, to intimate that he came into the world but to sojourn here for awhile, as in an inn, and to teach us to do likewise.

He was born in a stable; so some think the word signifies which we translate a manger, a place for cattle to stand to be fed in. Because there was no room in the inn, and for want of conveniences, nay for want of necessaries, he was laid in a manger, instead of a cradle. The word which we render swaddling clothes some derive from a word that signifies to rend, or tear, and these infer that he was so far from having a good suit of child-bed linen, that his very swaddles were ragged and torn.

Many suppose that, being born during the time of the taxing, he was enrolled as well as his father and mother, that it might appear how he made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant. Instead of having kings tributaries to him, when he came into the world he was himself a tributary (e-Sword).

And, what is the meaning of “a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me?” It is nothing but meaningless, empty poetry that tittilates the ear—not the inner man. The soul is not “transfigured” because it cannot be seen with human eyes. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says the word “transfigure” is, “to give a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance to: transform outwardly and usually for the better”—a definition which fits perfectly with Howe’s theology “that Christ was merely a great teacher with no higher claim to preeminence in wisdom, goodness, and power than any other man.” To Howe, Christ was not the Son of God, but simply a great teacher whose human insight and teaching could physically “transfigure” His fellow men “for the better.” That was her soulless religion expressed in this song.

Her third line in the last stanza is the song’s climax and final exhortation to Union soldiers. “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” If there is any truth in her blasphemous work, perhaps it lies in the first phrase of that line. Christ died for all men that we might be redeemed from sin by His blood (Heb. 2:9), which is only in Him through obedience to the gospel (Rom. 1:16-17; Eph. 1:7; Gal. 3:26-27). In gospel obedience, man’s outward visage remains unchanged, and that does not take place in carnal warfare. Jesus said it is not the flesh that is changed in conversion, but an inner change of man’s spirit.

Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit (John 3:3-8).

The fact that Lincoln’s war cost 618,000 American lives, a death toll exceeding the combined number of Americans subsequently killed in World War One, World War Two and Vietnam, was immaterial to Howe who reveled in the bloodletting of Americans. On a single day in Lincoln’s war, 23,582 Americans were killed at the Battle of Sharpsburg. That single day’s death toll was more than the combined total of Americans killed in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Spanish American War and the Mexican War. Lincoln went to his grave with the blood of more than a half million of his countrymen on his hands with Julia Ward Howe, crying, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” glorifying, praising, and urging the destruction of Southern people by those hands.

And that’s why I won’t sing that song.

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4 thoughts on “Why I Won’t Sing That Song

  1. This is only one of several songs in our hymnbook that I can’t sing. Songs that teach false doctrines are also on my list. Some song writers cannot understand nor can they teach God’s truth. Sincere Christian cannot sing such songs and claim to be teaching and admonishing each other that way (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).

    1. Your observation is precisely on target. Songs containing false doctrines neither teach nor admonish in the Biblical sense. Song leaders need to understand that there is neither worship, teaching nor admonition is a song’s tune, but in the words. A song may “sound pretty” but if the words are contrary to God’s Word those singing it are teaching false doctrines.

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