And the subject was “Battle Hymn of the Republic”…

Months ago, my Unitarian Universalist minister asked a bunch of us to provide meaningful songs on which she could base sermons throughout the year. Mine, as it happens, was the subject of today’s service.

I chose (off the top of my head) the Battle Hymn of the Republic. A few weeks ago, she followed up with a request that I provide some words to explain why the song had such meaning for me. I thought about her question for days, coming close to the answer and then getting distracted. I went online and searched for a copy of the book I remembered, to no avail.

This morning, after a bad dream in which someone told me my father had died (he’s been gone since 2010), I woke up around 6 and proceeded to diddle around some more, trying to figure out how to approach the subject.

See, when I was a kid, I didn’t understand the meaning of pacifism. I knew the tune and it made me happy that I could read the song’s lyrics and put the music to the words, because I fail at reading music on a regular basis. Music for the musically illiterate, that’s what the Battle Hymn was to me as a kid.

Now, though, it’s got a different meaning.

Here’s the full text of the song. Somehow, the third verse had disappeared from the reproduced version for the service which I discovered when I got there. I added an introductory paragraph to the verse, just before the service started, because I had included it in my words and removing the reference took away from my point.

The original:

Battle Hymn of the Republic

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.

(Chorus)

Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

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.

(Chorus)

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

(Chorus)

Here, then, is what I wrote and delivered to my congregation (more or less):

Good morning.

If I could have stolen one book out of the library where I first attended Elementary school, it would have been a small, brown hardcover book of music and lyrics, tucked away on the shelves in the dark recesses toward the back of the room.

I don’t think anyone else ever checked the book out, but I did, repeatedly, because of this one song.

Honestly, I wish I had my hands on the book. I’d show you the illustration of grapes, the multiple verses.

The tune was easy to plunk out on my mother’s piano, even if I couldn’t read the music.

For a kid who was raised without religion, the flowery, grand language of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” spoke to me in a way no other song did. But I don’t remember why.

I remember all the other things…The smell of the library and that book, at least a couple of decades older than I was at the time (and that’s a solid 40 years ago, now), the location of the shelves, searching for the book, finding it and opening to the song again and again.

Nowadays, I think more about Julia Ward Howe’s words and what they did to galvanize a nation in righteous pursuit of freedom at the price of almost 213 thousand lives. It makes me sad to think such bloodshed was necessary. How easily the words of a supposed peacemaker who entreated his followers back then to beat their swords into plowshares could be used to encourage his more modern followers

to do precisely the opposite in that pursuit.

[Not in the song we just sang, but in the original, these words appear:]

“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.”

We do so many things in the name of righteousness, for the sake of freedom or economy, and we sacrifice so many lives to protect these things, I have to wonder: Is there a better way?

I wish I had answers. I have none. Only the memories of a small brown book with lyrics that nobody checked out of the library except me.

As I post this, the sky has gone a fiery shade of pink, which I find oddly fitting.

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