Battle Hymn of the Republic

Dr. John Hosler holds two undergraduate degrees in Bible and Pastoral Studies and a B.S. in History from Martin University; an M.A. in History/Political Science from Butler University; and has earned an M.Div. and Th.D from Trinity Theological Seminary. He has served as an adjunct college instructor and full-time pastor since his early twenties. His two greatest academic passions are the clarity of the gospel and the sole authority of Scripture for faith and doctrine. Pastor Hosler, along with his wife Susan, have served at Napier Parkview since October 2002, and came to us from ministries in Chattanooga, TN and Indianapolis, IN.

Here is Pastor Hosler’s article:

Battle Hymn of the Republic, Examined – Or – Should Christians Sing What They Don’t Believe Just Because It Is An Old Hymn? — By Pastor J. O. Hosler, Th.D.

1. Do we believe that the American Civil War was the Second Coming of Christ and the Battle of Armageddon?
2. Do we believe that the evening campfires of the Union soldiers were actual altars to Jesus Christ?
3. Do we believe that the Civil War was the “Day of the Lord” prophesied in Scripture?
4. Do we believe that we receive the grace of God only to the extent that we brandish literal swords against the enemies of God?
5. Do we believe that Gen. 3:15 speaks of the Messiah or of soldiers in the Union Army?
6. Do we believe that answering the call to serve in the Armed Forces will enable us to avoid condemnation at the Judgment Seat of God?
7. Does Christ’s death on the cross inspire us to preach the gospel or to take up literal swords in a holy Jihad and die for the cause of political freedom?

These are questions we need to ask when we sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

Introduction: When patriotic holidays approach, a favorite song will be one that challenges sound Bible doctrine. It is not a rap song about violence or perverted sex. It will be a so-called Christian anthem known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. This song will hold a prominent position in nationalistic celebrations and Christian services. Many Christians understand its stirring words to be an image of a victorious Church dominating the world and bringing in the Kingdom of God (post millennialism). But let us take a closer reading of the song.

I. A hymn is a song which incorporates theological truth into its text such as A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Great Is Thy Faithfulness and How Firm A Foundation. But the Battle Hymn is not about Christ marching against sin or the church being victorious over evil.

A. The Battle Hymn was written in the fall of 1861. While in Washington, D.C. with her husband, Mrs. Julia Ward Howe watched troops marching off to war singing John Brown’s Body and she determined to write a more inspiring war song. The Atlantic Monthly paid her five dollars for the song.

B. She was born into a prominent New York City family in 1819, a strict Episcopalian Calvinist home. Her mother died when she was young and she was raised by an aunt. When her father died, a more liberal minded uncle became her guardian. This caused her to grow more liberal religiously and socially.

1. Thus, in her younger years she rebelled against her parents’ strong Calvinism but ultimately married a Boston reformer, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe. He had become a radical Unitarian who had moved far from the Calvinism of New England. She adopted his tenants of Transcendentalism, then Unitarianism, and it was from these beliefs that the Battle Hymn was written. She believed that religion was a matter of deed, not creed

  1. The Transcendentalists became the core of the radical abolitionist movement. Many Baptists in the North were part of a less radical abolitionism.

1. Dr. Howe and their Boston pastor, Rev. Theodore Parker, were members of the Secret Six who financed and armed the anti-slavery terrorist John Brown. Rev Parker often wrote his sermons with a handgun on his desk, ready if necessary to defend the runaway slaves hiding in his cellar

2. After his murderous rampage in Kansas and at Harper’s Ferry, Mrs. Howe lamented, John Brown’s death will be holy and glorious. John Brown will glorify the gallows like Jesus glorified the cross.

II. The Battle Hymn of the Republic can only be understood within the framework of the Transcendental-Unitarian creed. The First verse reads: 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 has loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.

Mrs. Howe applied the apocalyptic judgment of Revelation 14:17-20; 19:15 to the Confederate nation. She pictured the Union army not only as that instrument which would cause Southern blood to flow out upon the earth, but also the Union army as the very expression of His Word [sword] itself.

The Transcendentalist-Unitarians believed that the evil in man could be rooted out by government action. The South was evil and was thus deserving judgment of the most extreme nature-its own Armageddon.

III. The second verse presents the Union army as the abode of their vengeful God: 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.

A. The third verse is so contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that many hymnals leave it out altogether: I have read the fiery gospel writ in the burnished rows of steel. As ye deal with My contempters, so with you My grace shall deal; Let the hero born of woman crush the serpent with his heel. Since God is marching on.

1. Mrs. Howe proclaimed a gospel of judgment pictured by rows of affixed bayonets.

2. Taking God’s promise of deliverance of Genesis 3:15, instead of applying it to Christ, she applied it to the Union soldier who would receive God’s grace by killing Southerners. This was a different gospel and yet the Apostle Paul said, But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8).

IV. Verse four returns to the prose of the Apocalypse with trumpet and judgment seat imagery: He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. O be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet! Our God is marching on.

Civil warfare was the instrument being promoted for determining the hearts of men. A man’s positive response to the call for enlistment in the Union army was the action which would reveal their standing before God.

V. The fifth and final verse gives the ultimate expression of an unbiblical theology proposed by radical abolitionists: 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.

To Julia Ward Howe, the work of Christ was incomplete. It was up to men through civil government to bring about a utopian society.

She was quoted in her biography, “Not until the Civil War did I officially join the Unitarian church and accept the fact the Christ was merely a great teacher with no higher claim to preeminence in wisdom, goodness, and power than any other man.”

VI. The Battle Hymn theme is a political-patriotic song about the destruction of the South, written in religious terminology.

A. Mrs. Howe created the idea that the North was doing God’s work and paints a picture of a vengeful God destroying His enemies-the South, and elevating the North’s cause to that of a Holy War. In doing so, Howe portrayed the South and its people as evil and the enemy of God and it worked.

B. As a Unitarian, Julia Howe believed the Unitarian doctrine that man is characteristically good and that he can redeem himself by his own merits without any help from a savior who is God incarnate. She rejected a literal hell when she said: I threw away, once and forever, the thought of the terrible hell which appears to me impossible.

C. She also rejected the exclusive claim of Jesus, I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14:6) when she said, Having rejected the exclusive doctrine that made Christianity and special forms of it the only way of spiritual redemption, I now accept the belief that not only Christians but all human beings, no matter what their religion, are capable of redemption. Christianity was but one of God’s plans for bringing all of humanity to a state of ultimate perfection.

Conclusion: The Battle Hymn would be more appropriate to inspire a Moslem to engage in an Islamic Jihad rather than to encourage Christians to take up arms to spread the cause of Christ.

To visit Pastor John Hosler’s Church web site at —

Those who know Mrs Howe’s theology and what she meant when she penned those words usually don’t let this song be sung in their churches

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6 Responses to Battle Hymn of the Republic

  1. J. Brian McKillop says:

    I had a professor at my Christian Liberal Arts/Bible College tell me that he walked out of any church or chapel service whenever the song was played or sung. Now I understand better why he did.

  2. Chip says:

    Very well said. I once read an article characterizing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as a blasphemous piece of propaganda. I thought that was quite harsh but began to research. I soon came to the same conclusion and stopped singing it in church. I now refuse to sing it and look forward to being asked by others why I did not.

    I will likely refer people to your article as a good, concise explanation.

  3. Tyler says:

    Wow, I learn new things everyday. Thanks.

  4. Pingback: Corresponding Celebrations « Thideology

  5. Kris Johnson says:

    I appreciate your analysis of misused scripture, but must ask you to give credit to your sources. Much of what you have written appears directly quoted without attribution from a series of online articles I just read on Julia Ward Howe on

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