History of Hymns: Battle Hymn inspired by visit to troops in Civil War

by C. Michael Hawn

“Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”
Julia Ward Howe
UM Hymnal, No. 717

 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.

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910), a Unitarian social worker, captured the spirit of the abolitionist cause in one of the most memorable hymns in United States history.

This hymn, according to the author’s own account in The Century Magazine (August 1887), was written after she, her husband and friends visited Union troops near Washington, D.C. in 1861. As they returned to the city, they traveled among the soldiers who were preparing for a counterattack against Southern forces. The visitors began to sing favorite war choruses including “John Brown’s Body”—a song about the militant abolitionist who was tried and hanged in 1859 for his raid to free slaves at Harper’s Ferry with only 21 people.

Howe commented on her fascination with the tune: “Some remarked upon the excellence of the tune, and I said that I had often wished to write some words which might be sung to it. We sang, however, the words which were already well known as belonging to it, and our singing seemed to please the soldiers, who surrounded us like a river and who themselves took up the strain in the intervals, crying to us ‘Good for you.’”

Julia Ward Howe

Soon after the encounter with the soldiers, the text to the tune of “John Brown’s Body” came to her in the middle of the night. Hymnologist Kenneth Osbeck provides an account of the origins of the hymn, in the author’s own words:

“I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!” So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”

Upon her return to Boston, the text was published in The Atlantic Monthly, under the title “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in five stanzas on the front page of the February 1862 issue.

The original stanza three is usually omitted. It is not known who wrote the fifth stanza found in the United Methodist Hymnal, according to the Rev. Carlton Young, the hymnal’s editor.

This hymn has become, Dr. Young says, “the USA’s second and more singable national anthem. It has been associated with various nationalistic and political causes including women’s suffrage, temperance, two world wars, the Vietnam War, the 1960s USA civil rights movement, most political gatherings at every level, and it has been sung in many churches on the Sunday nearest the Fourth of July.”

Mr. Osbeck notes that when this hymn was sung for President Lincoln as a solo, there was a thunderous applause. “The President, with tears in his eyes, cried out, ‘Sing it again,’ and it was sung again.” The hymn has appeared in almost every American hymnal since its publication.

Even Winston Churchill directed that it be sung at his memorial service in 1965 at St. Paul’s Cathedral, much to the consternation of English church musicians who did not deem the music appropriate for worship.

More recently the song was played on Sept. 14, 2001 at both the Washington National Cathedral and St. Paul’s Cathedral during memorial services for the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

It is no doubt the stirring refrain, text and music, that provide the basis for the popularity of the song for so many different occasions.

The original music was written by William Steffe (1830-1890) around 1856. The original text was a campfire spiritual called “Canaan’s Happy Shore” or “Brethren Will You Meet Me.” According to correspondence that I received from several readers when an earlier version of this article was published in the Reporter in 2005, this song, identified with the abolitionist cause, can still inspire strong negative feelings from many in the southern United States.

Howe published three collections of verse: Passion Flowers (1854), Words of the Hour (1856), and Later Lyrics (1866). In the 1870s, known by then as an influential public speaker, Howe proposed that the women of the world should unite against war and end it for all time. She was a leader in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Twelve days before her death in 1910, the honorary Doctor of Laws Degree was bestowed on her by Smith College for her many accomplishments.

 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

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