Before the studies of the last few years, I held a rather simplistic, though not uncommon, view of the American Civil War. With this viewpoint came a series of misguided opinions, one of which we will address briefly here, regarding “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
In my simplistic understanding, that war was an attack on peaceful southern states who just wanted to secede peacefully, as was their very right to do, and to be left alone to carry on their business. It was, therefore, an attack on states’ rights, a “War of Northern Aggression.” It was waged by that big-state tyrant Lincoln, motivated by the advance of infidel, unitarian, and proto-communist forces trying to destroy the best of Christian civilization. We would have a freer, more decentralized government today if it weren’t for that invasion, subjugation, and occupation of the South.
Before I studied the questions more thoroughly and wrote The Problem of Slavery in Christian America, these views dominated my beliefs and practices.
One of the ways this manifested was recalled not too long ago when someone asked me if I could bring myself to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” In the past, I would not only not sing it, I have at least once refused even to stand with the rest of the congregation when it was sung. I considered it the rankest of blasphemies to call that war’s blast against states’ rights and decentralized government any kind of advance of God’s glory or truth.
It took a powerful, sanctifying look at the facts of history, among other things, to bring me to repentance on this issue. But it did come, as the book should make clear by itself. Nevertheless, the hymn question remained because that hymn seemed to contain statist or even messianic elements in it which would preclude even a Christian properly awakened to the slavery and Civil War issues from approving.
Upon rereading the hymn, however, I have to say that it can be read in such a way as to be fully consistent with biblical theology and practice. I find the fifth verse in particular not only true but moving:
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.
This is theologically accurate in that it attributes the transformative change of men to the power of Christ alone. Yet it is also proper Christian living in that it calls us to love our neighbors, even unto death—and this is the mind of Christ (Phil. 2)—and this can have a transformative effect on the lives of people in history.
The hymn also rejects both the mistaken view of the war, and also the mistaken theology that does not see a place for God’s historical sanctions in social issues today.
In the more famous first verse, we hear of people seeing “the coming of the Lord” and that He was trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored. Some may object that this language is making the state messianic, but it says no such thing. At most, it is seeing the judgment of God carried out in the advancing armies of the Union camps. This is not only not blasphemous, it is true.
As I have said a score of times now, our Civil War was very much like America’s AD 70. If you had been a Christian in first-century Jerusalem, which side would you have taken when the Roman armies encircled the city? Would you have sided with the pagan humanist Romans, or the unbelieving Jews of Jerusalem?
You would have sided with neither, of course. Both sides were wicked governments and societies. Yet as a Christian, you also would have recognized the judgment of God coming in the form of the Roman armies, upon Jerusalem, just as Christ had predicted.
There is a certain amount of truth to this same situation in AD 1865. The South may have had great Christian orthodoxy on its lips, but the slavery and race issues alone were an abomination worthy of epic destruction. The North had more advanced views in some regards, but was slipping in terms of religious belief, and was also in practice just as racist as the South. No true Christian, however, should have failed to see the destruction of the slave power as anything but the judgment of God in history, even if carried out by an Imperium every bit as tyrannical as Rome.
While I have been mulling these thoughts for some time, I was reminded of them while traveling this weekend, because I listened to some lectures by R.J. Rushdoony. During a Q&A period, someone asked him his views of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. His answer surprised me. Here’s the relevant part of what he said:
The question is with regard to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Does the hymn give a messianic character to the nation, and to the republic? It’s quite a story, the story of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. . . . The background of the family originally was very thoroughly Puritan and Calvinistic. But in her [the authoress’] generation, they were rapidly going into Unitarianism. . . . The poem therefore, which was set to music and became the great northern hymn during the Civil War, or the War of Northern Aggression, or whatever you want to call it, had overtones of the old Puritan belief that America should be made into a new Zion, a new Israel, of God. To serve and to magnify Him in all things. So there were definite elements of the old Puritan belief that a nation should be God’s nation. On the other hand, while the old phraseology still lingers, there are elements of a purely Unitarian, statist mentality there also. So, it’s a peculiar agglomeration of the two, you could read it almost either way. So you could take it in the wrong sense, but you could take also in the older Puritan sense of the wording.
I totally agree with this. It could be read either way, but does not need to be. It is perfectly consistent with orthodox Puritan beliefs.
Now, I don’t think this is a huge matter to be honest, but I am quite convinced that we can confidently sing this in its historical context, and should. Applied to any number of more modern wars or military “police actions” it would be more dubious, of course. Sung just in a general Sunday vacuum, it would probably also suffer a bit. But in hindsight with the issue of slavery, and in the spirit of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which acknowledged God’s judgment on the whole house of the United States “both North and South,” I don’t see how we can object to it.
In fact, let that fifth verse become for us a challenge and a motto for Christian Reconstruction. Let us live in by the transformative power and righteousness of Christ, and from that let us live in his example. Let us be willing even to die to seek the freedom of our fellow men.