A Fiery Gospel: The Battle Hymn of the Republic and the Road to Righteous War
Reviewed by Matthew Hill, History, Liberty University
Each of us in our own way inherit traditions that are often little understood. Churches are stocked with American flags, and songs such as Katherine Lee Bates’s “America the Beautiful” and Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” are often sung on the Fourth of July, but few understand how these traditions materialized or why. There is often a residual effect in which traditions continue when the original rationale behind them has long been lost or forgotten. In recent years, following in the tradition of Robert Bellah, several scholars, including John D. Wiley, John Fea, Peter Gardella, Sam Halseby, Kevin Krause, Philip Gorski, Ronald Beiner, and Daniel T. Rodgers, have explored themes of American civil religion in this regard. In short, these works study the offspring of the mergers of religious and political themes.
In recent years, David Armitage, in The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Harvard University Press, 2008), explored how the Declaration of Independence influenced global political movements. Similarly, Richard Carwardine and Jay Sexton did the same for Abraham Lincoln in The Global Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 2011). Joining this chorus is historian Richard Gamble, who has authored several previous works discussing similar themes, including The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (ISI Books, 2003), and In Search of the City Upon a Hill: The Making and Unmaking of an American Myth (Bloomsbury, 2010). Gamble’s newest work details the history of Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” from its authorship to the present day. Gamble’s work affirms that songs, poems, and even speeches can have tremendous potency in providing inspiration in political and personal ways. His book is in good company, joining John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic: A Biography of the Song that Marches On (Oxford University Press, 2013).
Gamble traces the history of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” from Howe’s Washington, D.C. tour in 1861 to the present day. He argues that Howe’s “sacramental” poem is not just a form of civil religion, but even more a form of “religious nationalism.” The poem in its original time infused a sacred nobility into the Union cause, much like Abraham Lincoln did with the Gettysburg Address. The founding documents may have institutionalized separation of church and state, but for many religion and nation remain intimately wedded together in a common cause.
Julia Ward was born into a middle-class New York family in 1819. Her mother and father both died when she was young, and she was raised by her aunt. At age 21, she married Samuel Gridley Howe, known for his involvement in the Greek civil war and his work with blind persons in Boston. Howe herself was well educated, fluent in several languages, wrote poetry, bore six children, attended the church of Unitarian pastor Theodore Parker, befriended several notable intellectuals of the era, and threw herself into reform work.
Howe’s inspiration for the “Battle Hymn” came on a November 1861 trip to Washington, D.C. alongside her husband Samuel Gridley Howe, Unitarian pastor James Freeman Clarke, and Massachusetts governor John Andrew. The Civil War era featured several inspirational songs: the Americanized reworking of Richard Schuckberg’s “Yankee Doodle” was prominent, Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled-Banner” was growing in popularity and later became a rival for the national anthem, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Paul Revere’s Ride” (1860) created a new revolutionary hero. But none had more immediate influence on Howe than “John Brown’s Body.” Though this song was originally penned by a Scotsmen who bore the same name as the famed abolitionist John Brown, it nonetheless went through several revisions before becoming a popular Union camp song about the martyr abolitionist. Upon hearing this song, Howe was inspired to pen her own poem, and the result was the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her poem was published in the February 1862 edition of the Atlantic Monthly, which purchased it from Howe for $5. In short time, the poem gained popularity and became linked with the Union cause.
In 1864, for instance, President Lincoln attended a celebration for the second anniversary of the founding of the United States Christian Commission in the House of Representatives. Methodist chaplain Charles McCabe sang a rendition of the “Battle Hymn” to wild applause. Lincoln liked it so much that he called for an encore. Gamble argues that from this point on the song “became inseparable from the Union cause” (3). In its immediate context, then, it was thoroughly a “war poem,” but in time the original context of the poem was lost.
The “Battle Hymn” elevated Howe to near hallowed status. She continued to recite the poem when asked on speaking tours or public appearances. Her success, though, was not without its critics. Many hoped for more detail on her thought process in constructing the poem, but Howe was remarkably vague about it in her published autobiography. The “Battle Hymn” seemed in a sense to be removed from historical time. In 1874, Howe was criticized by The Boston Transcriber for being a “mono-poet” and essentially a one-hit wonder whose success rode on the back of a single poem. This aside, the fascination with the song did not fade with time, and it seemed to gain endless applications. Howe though saw in the poem a means to promote international peace and prosperity. Nothing indeed seemed out of reach. Howe condemned the Franco-Prussian War, and her “An Appeal To Womanhood Throughout the World” was a call for women to work toward diplomatic solutions. The “Battle Hymn” likewise provided inspiration in the Spanish-American War and the First and Second World Wars. The problem, though, is that the poem was firmly rooted in rallying Union troops to war. Whatever its larger meaning, this was its foundation.
In 1931, the “Battle Hymn” nearly eclipsed, but fell short of outmaneuvering, Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” to become the national anthem, though Theodore Roosevelt himself preferred the former. This setback did not stifle the song’s popularity though, and it became further ingrained in the national psyche. Its first line serves as the inscription for Donald Harcourt De Lue’s 1951 “The Spirit of American Youth Rising from the Waves” statue at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in France. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted it as the final line in his last speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop,” on April 3, 1968. Between 1975 and 1976, it was featured on a train tour of the country for the U.S. bicentennial along with a host of other famous items. The “Battle Hymn” was sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural ceremony in January 1981. It was played at the 9/11 memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral on September 14, 2011. That same day it was movingly played at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
The original manuscript now sits in the Bible Museum in Washington D.C., which draws us back to the original question about American civic religion. Gamble argues that we should focus less on what the Bible did for Americans, but rather what Americans have done with the Bible. This raises a legitimate question that should bear much scholarly fruit in the future. This study is a good reminder of the power of cultural symbols in shaping political culture. The arts, literature, music, films, and architecture are powerful influencers in shaping societal interpretations of the present and of the past. These tend to take on more potency when fused with religious nationalism and in conferring sacred meaning to events and causes.
I would suggest though that the significance of the “Battle Hymn” has waned, at least for younger people. Students today, I find, are less cognizant of such cultural symbols from the past, but nonetheless, there is often a residual effect that lingers for decades to come such as the idea of a Redeemer nation, or the “City Upon a Hill” motif, even if the knowledge of how these originated are lost.