A Warning of Judgment to Come

The Battle Hymn of the Republic has an important message for us all. The American Civil War (1861-1865) eventually cost over 600,000 lives. The bloody conflict divided communities and even families, as brother sometimes fought against brother. Though there were various economic and political factors involved, a major impetus for war came from the growing number who abhorred the practice of slavery. The courts had decreed that a slave was not a full human being, and not a citizen, but merely a piece of property. Many were appalled at this. Abraham Lincoln called slavery "a moral, a social, and a political wrong."

In the early days of the war, Dr. Samuel Howe and his wife Julia moved from Boston to Washington D.C., where he was involved in medical work for the government. Day by day, Mrs. Howe watched long lines of Union soldiers heading off to fight. As they marched along, they would often sing an old camp meeting song. The original said, "Oh, brothers, will you meet us on Canaan's happy shore?" But the soldiers borrowed the tune and sang, "John Brown's body lies a-moldering in the grave..." (Brown was an early abolitionist who had been hung.)

One day in 1861, Julia Howe's former pastor suggested she write some more fitting words for the melody. Hours later, she says, "I awoke in the grey of the morning, and as I lay waiting for dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind....I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen....I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper." The result would soon rouse a nation to defend the cause of freedom. When the song was sung at a rally, President Lincoln shouted, with tears streaming down his face, "Sing it again!" Now one of America's most beloved national hymns, it is known as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was raised in an orthodox Christian home, but later turned away from this early influence, becoming more liberal, and eventually joining the Unitarians. They accept the ethical teachings of Jesus, but generally deny His full deity. However, Mrs. Howe continued to believe in the presence and power of a personal God who is active in the affairs of men. She wrote her hymn as a warning to her nation of the Almighty's impending judgment, if the people did not uphold truth and righteousness by freeing the slaves.

The song begins, "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." These lines brim with the apocalyptic visions of Revelation--the glory of God being revealed, as His righteous indignation is poured out on the earth (Rev. 14:7; 19:1-2), the destroying sword proceeding from the mouth of the Messiah-king (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21), and the blood flowing crimson, like wine, as judgment is visited upon the wicked (Rev. 14:18-20; 19:11-19).

Another stanza adds, "Let the Hero born of woman crush the serpent with His heel," a reference to Christ's prophesied defeat of Satan (Gen. 3:15). But the hymn also finds hope in the Lord Jesus. It says rightly "He died to make men holy," and He has "a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me." In the words of Scripture, He "bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness" (I Pet. 2:24; cf. II Cor. 3:18).

Though the roots of The Battle Hymn of the Republic are American, its admonition is universal. "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach [a shame] to any people" (Prov. 14:34). If we reject or ignore God's moral law in our national policies, there will be a price to pay.