The song “Battle Hymn of the Republic” should be struck from every hymnal and purged from every Christian believer’s heart. I have just reviewed the lyrics again, and I am stirred again with fresh distaste—aversion that is anything but overstated. The song has a storied history with many iterations. I simply can’t seem to find anything but historical merit in any of the song’s versions.
Back to hymnals. . . . I suspect many compilers of church songbooks were fatigued about the time they got around to considering whether to include this song. Perhaps glazed-over eyes would see the word “Hymn” in the title and say, “Oh, yeah, I guess we should put that in there. It has a great chorus that everyone knows.” Or maybe the tired hymnal editor’s eyes would rest on the beautiful expression, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,” not even seeing the subsequent, rhyming exhortation to “die to make men free” (i.e., free from Britain’s tyranny or from slavery, etc.). More thoughtful people have historically changed the expression to “live to make men free,” but that doesn’t change the overall flavor or import of the song. The idea of dying for the sake of freedom now appears inextricably associated with American ideals and some brand of manifest destiny, which makes it all the more ironic that Christian liberty and Jesus’ sacrificial death have ended up linked in the “Battle Hymn,” and in many Christians’ minds.
If your view of Christian involvement in military service is somewhat or entirely positive, the above thoughts may be new and/or non-palatable. My purpose here is not to debate that question. No matter how you take the song—as literal marching orders or theologically based poetry—it’s a horrible mixture of militarism and Christ . . . and the two do not mix well.
Here lies (along with John Brown’s body, which, according to an early version of the song, “lies a-moulderin’ in the grave”) an incisive analysis of the “Battle Hymn”: http://thejesusquestion.org/2012/07/09/the-battle-hymn-of-the-republic-its-origin-and-meaning/. I will not attempt to add to it but will include a quotation here to pique interest:
. . . In this revisioning of Scripture, [lyricist J.W. Howe] casts the Southerners as the divinely disfavored grapes, and the Northerners as the grape-crushers, the righteous sword-wielders, the marching truth. Apparently all those prophecies that fill the Christian Scriptures were fulfilled in 1865.
To claim that God is on either side of any war is not only presumptuous, it’s sinful. Sure, God waged war on other nations through Israel in Old Testament times, but that was for a specific purpose (Israel’s possession of the Promised Land); God does not work that way anymore, and even so, America is not God’s covenant people. And when he does return to Earth to wage war on his enemies, it will be he himself, not us, who does the crushing. . . .
I simply could not have said that better.