View Full Version : A Biblical Exegesis on the Atheology of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

Thursday, March 9th, 2006, 08:01 PM

A Biblical Exegesis on the Atheology of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”

By R. Steve McKamey, P.E. and Tom Pardue LTC USA-RET

The words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic (BHR) were written in 1862 by Julia Ward Howe as she visited Washington D.C. with her husband, Samuel Gridley Howe. The verses she wrote employed a vivid imagery, loosely based on the Bible, to motivate a somewhat indifferent and unmotivated Federal Army to continue an increasingly unpopular war. Many writers have addressed the context from which the BHR was written. A cursory summary of that history will be presented here but the main thesis of this essay is to examine the theology of the verses and the suitability of this hymn for use in Christian worship.

The tune to which the BHR is sung came from the abominable anthem, “John Brown’s Body.” John Brown’s Body was a morbid glorification of the heinous murderer and militant abolitionist, John Brown. Brown organized a band of low-lifes, cutthroats, and rapists who brutally killed innocent men women and children. Their youngest victim was only nine months old. John Brown was properly brought to justice and hanged for his crimes but his admirers wrote the words to the song to continue to glorify his murderous hatred for Southerners.

Samuel Gridley Howe was an early fan of John Brown and helped finance his “cause”. It may be speculation, but circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that Mrs. Howe took the earlier song and penned new words that would glorify the cause of John Brown to millions of people who would in ignorance sing the new words to the old tune. The BHR has, as the Bible describes apostates and false prophets, taken a form of religion while denying its eternal power.

Mrs. Howe was also a Unitarian and even preached to Unitarian congregations in New England. Unitarians do not view the Bible as the inspired Word of God. They deny the deity and virgin birth of Christ, and they believe in an egalitarian form of salvation whose guarantor is in governments of men. These Unitarian views are evident in the BHR. The following is a treatise on these verses by which an attempt is made to demonstrate that they are incompatible with the true faith and practise of the Christian Church and as such should be excluded from the order of worship.

1) “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”

These are breathtakingly blasphemous words for a Christian to sing. Peter, James, and John were shown the glory of the transfigured Lord prior to the resurrection. (Mt. 17, 1-9) In Mt. 24:23, we are warned, “Then if any man say unto you, Loe, here is Christ, or there, beleeve it not.” Again in verse 27, “For as the lightening cometh out of the East, and is seen into the West, so shall also the coming of the Sonne of Man be. (1599 Geneva Bible) These verses show that 1) The apostles saw the glory of the risen Lord and this claim is one of the foundational claims to apostleship 2) The Lord will show his glory again when He returns. and 3) False prophets will claim to see him here and there. This claim is the work of a false prophet. Remember also, that attributing an evil or false work to any of the Trinity is blasphemy. The first line of the first verse of the BHR is, by the standards of the Bible, blasphemous and heretical – even to repeat in ignorance.

2) “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored”

“Vintage” is a term for a winery. Wine is the biblical symbol for blood. Before modern machinery, grapes were “trampled” under foot to press out the juice to be fermented into wine. The “vintage” here is the seceding (Southern) states. The imagery suggests that God, embodied here in the armies of the North, was squeezing out the blood of Southerners to ferment it into something better. This reference to God is entirely pantheistic humanism. St. Augustine thoroughly refuted this idea of the militaristic manifestation of God in his “City of God” which was written in the aftermath of the sacking of Rome by the Visigoth Barbarian, Alaric in 410 A.D. The Bible does give a picture of the pagan usage of this imagery in Judges 9:27, “And they went out into the fields, and gathered their vineyards, and trode the grapes, and made merry, and went into the house of their god, and did eat and drink, and cursed Abimelech. (KJV)

3) “He has loosed the faithful lightning of His terrible swift sword”

The Word is clear on this point. The Sword of the Lord is his word. Salvation and proselytisation come only through the preaching and exhortation of the Word of God. It does not come at the end of a gun barrel. This is what separates the true Christian faith from all other religions on earth. God makes his point in his Word. Man makes his point at the end of a gun. Consider these verses; Rev 2:16, “Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth”; Is 49:2, “And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me.” (KJV) The implication here is clear. As the Church of Jesus Christ, we are to conquer the world by the Word, not by the sword. As conquest is foreign to the “Just War” doctrine expounded from the Scriptures by St. Augustine, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and others, so is the ascription of God’s Holy name to military conquest, a blasphemy upon His name.

4) “His truth is marching on”

This is the most worthy line in the entire poem. Unfortunately, the context in which it is placed taints the meaning of it as well.

5) “I have seen Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps”
This is another pantheistic reference to God and is entirely consistent with the heretical Unitarian theology.

6) “They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps”

Because the previous references to their god have embodied him in the army and its implements, the altar must be built to these. In any case, this altar is to a foreign god and is therefore, idolatry. The first and second commandments in Exodus 20 state, “ 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”(KJV)

7) “I can read his righteous sentence by the evening dews and damps”

This is a claim that “God is on our side” which is bad theology for any Christian to claim. The question is, are we on God’s side by walking in his Word? Consider Mt 7:1-2, “1 Judge not, that ye be not judged.
2 For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” and Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven.”

8) “I have read the fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel”

This is the gospel according to the Roman Empire, not of Jesus Christ. The Romans conquered peoples of many religions and allowed them to continue in their religions with one additional obligation. That obligation was to burn incense on an altar to Ceasar once a year and proclaim, “Ceasar is Lord.” Consider that in the aftermath of the war that the BHR glorifies, there has been constructed a monument modeled after the Greco-Roman temple to the goddess, Minerva (Athena to the Greeks). That on this monument the symbols of ancient Rome, the “fasces”, that proclaimed “Kesar et Kurios” (Ceasar is Lord) are inscribed in four prominent locations. Two are on the parapet framing the steps leading up to the monument and two are on the front of the chair that the statue is seated on. The first three words of the inscription above the statue’s head are, “In this temple…”

10) “As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”

There were strong sectional theological tensions present in the U.S. during this era. Wilkins summarizes these irreconcilable tensions as “Calvinist vs. Anti-Calvinist” and notes that “The South had increasingly become the last stronghold of the old Puritan orthodoxy.”

The Second Great Awakening formed profound cultural changes in America. Someone has noted that culture is religion externalized and made explicit. The culture of Mrs. Howe was one deeply affected by aberrant theology; perfectionism, transcendentalism, millennialism, universalism and illuminism. These beliefs evolved from earlier theological errors, e.g. the New Haven Theology, revivalism, the “New Measures” of Finney and Arminianism. Ian Murray reported “the innovations in evangelism and worship [of the Second Great Awakening] . . .were forerunners of spiritual barrenness.” Dabney cited a northerner, “Mr. Adams,” who noted “Spiritual rappings, biology, second-adventism, Mormonism, and the whole spawn of errors which infest us [northerners], do not find subjects at the South. . . . [T]here is more faith, less infidelity, at the South, than at the North.”

On the other hand, Snapp reported that “Unlike the North, where the Second Great Awakening contributed to a near abandonment of Calvinist theology, in the South Calvinism gained in influence.”

Notwithstanding hyperbole defining the South as the serpent, historical testimony supports the assertion that the spiritually barren northern theological ethos was far more serpentine. The northern religious ethos more closely depicted the “thesis”. While not an entirely perfect match the Southern religious ethos more closely depicted the “antithesis,” CF. Gen. 3:15.

11) Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,

It is ironic that Howe wrote with approbation of Christ. Her description hardly gives honor to God, the Ruler of the kings of the earth. This is especially poignant when one contemplates her true testimony of Christ. Howe stated "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 many other men."

This is not a North-South issue or dispute. It has nothing to do with either political view of the war. Even those who believe that the cause was just or that the issue is “settled” should take issue with these symbols and the hymn that glorifies them precisely because they are not an affront to any man but upon the person, majesty, and attributes of Almighty God himself.

The Battle Hymn is a passionately popular ditty in contemporary America, even the world. Its fame has increased since 9-11. It is synonymous with patriotism now as it was in the northern culture of the 1860s. It appears that one of the purposes of this jingle was to inspire by appropriating language from another world-view. The undiscerning listener, then as now, failed to recognize the hymn and the underlying presuppositions as a counterfeit gospel.

It has always been the manner of the “thesis” to plagiarize the themes of the “antithesis.” Mrs. Howe’s theology was the prototype of the social gospel. The mainline liberal Protestant institutions as well as Roman Catholicism advocate this theology. Superficially it resembles the true gospel with its emphasis on Christian love. Yet, it too is a counterfeit gospel that does not recognize Christ as God, the Redeemer of the Elect. It is a gospel incorporating the ethics of Christianity while rejecting the crown rights of King Jesus.

The gospel of Battle Hymn is a gospel of reform. It is not a gospel of true reformation, but a gospel of forced reform by civil government. Before the Great Unpleasantness of 1861-65 the United States was known internationally for Christian missions to the world. After the Great Unpleasantness this Christian mission was gradually supplanted. The religion of the state little by little became the religion of the republic. The armed force of the government first used in 1861-65 as a method of reform eventually has become the norm. In contemporary interventionist America the military, not the Christian missionaries, are dispatched to trouble spots like Bosnia and Kosovo to “save the world for democracy.”

The gospel of Battle Hymn is a “postmillennial” gospel. Its ambition is human perfection fashioned by biological and cultural evolution resulting in perfect cultural harmony. The missing component is Christ.

Scripture gives the Christian examples of hymns. Hymns are for thanking and praising God, C.F. Neh. 12:27,46; Acts 16:25. The Battle Hymn of the Republic praises and thanks. It does not praise and thank the God of the Bible. Based in heretical, corrupt and hypothetical theology, it praises and thanks nothing more than a hypothetical god. Thus, it is nothing but idolatry.

Idolatry does not belong to God and those who worship Him in spirit and truth.

The remaining verses retain the same themes, imagery, and theological problems of those examined. Smith1 has addressed some of these verses. The conclusion that must be reached is that the Battle Hymn of the Republic is reflective of a gospel foreign to the Christian faith. It surely reflects the Unitarian view that there is no heaven or hell and that judgement must be effected by the institutions of man. A far more honest hymn would be “Imagine” by John Lennon. At least its blasphemy is overt.

I write this critique as an attempt to put into practise the words of the Apostle, Paul, in 2Cor 10:3-5, “3For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.”(NIV)

May God bless my words that are true to His Word and wipe those away that are not. Amen.

1William H. Smith, “A Hymn of Hate”, World Magazine Vol._ No._, June 22, 1996.

Email Me: vindiciae@yahoo.com (vindiciae@yahoo.com)