A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic

The OPC/URC psalter-hymnal takes an appropriately cautious approach to the nation’s place in public worship.

Caution has not always characterized Presbyterians in the United States. A century ago, songs about America and America’s wars provoked controversy among Presbyterians, in part due to the nation’s intervention in World War I and the desire evident among many pastors and congregations to mobilize themselves for earthly warfare.

 

The new Trinity Psalter Hymnal includes only two hymns under the topic “The Nation.” The first is national only by implication. It pleas for “God the all-terrible” to have mercy and grant “peace in our time.” The second appeals to the “great King of nations,” again to show mercy to a repentant, humble, and needy people. Neither is specific to America. Both can be sung by Christians in any land.

The OPC/URC psalter-hymnal takes an appropriately cautious approach to the nation’s place in public worship. But that caution has not always characterized Presbyterians in the United States. A century ago, songs about America and America’s wars provoked controversy among Presbyterians, in part due to the nation’s intervention in World War I and the desire evident among many pastors and congregations to mobilize themselves for earthly warfare.

J. Gresham Machen still had one of these hymns in mind in 1933 when he reviewed the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). Never one to hold back, Machen charged “that the book does in rather clear fashion reveal the drift of the times” away from doctrinal clarity and orthodoxy and into modernism. Nevertheless, he found something good to say about it: Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” had been removed. Whatever one may think of the issues at stake in the Civil War, Machen wrote, “One thing is clear—a fiery war song like that has no place in the worship of a Christian congregation.”

Machen had already criticized the Battle Hymn a decade earlier in his landmark Christianity and Liberalism. In the closing paragraphs, he noted the sorrow that overwhelmed anyone who entered the modern American church seeking “refreshment for the soul” and heard instead “only the turmoil of the world”—a sermon consisting merely of “human opinions about the social problems of the hour” compounded by “one of those hymns breathing out the angry passions of 1861, which are to be found in the back part of the hymnals.” What cost did Machen see in political preaching and militant national hymns? Nothing less than this: instead of a refuge, hungry souls find that “the warfare of the world has entered even into the house of God.”

Apocalyptic Anthem

Machen’s reference to “the angry passions of 1861” might seem like a cryptic allusion to Julia Ward Howe’s famous poem, but by his adding that these kinds of hymns could be “found in the back part of the hymnals,” alert readers would have known that that is exactly where the PCUSA had placed the Battle Hymn during World War I.

In the spring of 1917, just weeks after Congress declared war on Germany, the General Assembly of the PCUSA approved the Committee on Publication’s recommendation to adopt “The Supplement of 1917.”  The Supplement comprised Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” (without the ferociously anti-British third verse sure to offend America’s new ally), Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional,” and Howe’s Battle Hymn. At the head of the Battle Hymn, in the place typically reserved for a Scripture text, appeared Woodrow Wilson’s pledge that “the world must be made safe for democracy.” Rarely had religion, politics, and war been so perfectly synthesized.

Editors Louis F. Benson and Franklin L. Sheppard produced the Supplement. Benson was a distinguished hymnologist with a degree from Princeton Theological Seminary.
Sheppard composed hymn tunes (among them the familiar setting of “This Is My Father’s World”) and served as president of the Board of Publication. These two opinionated editors might have disagreed about details, questioned each other’s musical judgment, or debated the merits of Kipling’s poem, but they never doubted that the Battle Hymn was appropriate for public worship or that the church should be mobilized for war. Together, the editors, the Board of Publication, and the pastors and elders of the General Assembly gave congregations the means to interpret the new war using Howe’s apocalyptic anthem and to imagine that they too saw the glory of the Lord coming on the battlefields of their day.

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