There are Bible verses we embroider on throw pillows and print out for the walls, and there are Bible verses we tend to skim. For example, “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed” probably isn’t one you’re going to hang above the dining table in time for Thanksgiving. None of us may be quite as bold as Thomas Jefferson, who famously read through the New Testament armed with a razor a pot of glue, literally cutting and pasting together an account that better suited his philosophy, but we all do a little picking and choosing. I’m guilty of it too, but I’ve found that when I’m preaching, the verses that seem at first glance the most challenging wind up being the ones that I’m drawn to. I’m always looking for the Good News, perhaps especially when it seems difficult to find.
Maybe that’s why when I was planning hymns for this series, I found myself drawn to “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Because I do love it, even though it’s also not exactly an easy one. And yet, it has a dearly held place in American Christianity. Some people refer to it as the second national anthem. Despite the image of God that it invokes—with grapes of wrath and fateful lightning and a terrible swift sword—there is something about it that we find comforting. The hymn has appeared in almost every American hymnal since its publication, and we have turned to it repeatedly in national crises. It was played at the funerals of Bobby Kennedy, John McCain, and even Winston Churchill (who had specifically requested that it be sung, much to the dismay of some British church musicians). During memorial services for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, it was sung at both the Washington National Cathedral in D.C. and St. Paul’s Cathedral in New York. Maybe we turn to it in moments of grief tumult because it was born out of the most divisive moment in American history.
The author, Julia Ward Howe, was a social worker, a suffragette, and a leader of one of the first conventions of clergywomen. She was the first woman to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, one of the founders of Mothers’ Day, and longtime editor of Women’s Journal. She was also a dedicated abolitionist. She and her husband were supporters of John Brown, and even helped fund his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry.
According to Howe’s own account, which she gave in The Century Magazine, she was inspired to write the song after she, her husband, and some of their friends visited Washington, D.C. in November of 1861, in the early months of the Civil War. They met with President Abraham Lincoln at the White House and then visited some camps of Union Troops on the banks of the Potomac River. They heard tragic stories, saw the campfires burning at twilight to stave of the chill, and dared to dream of a country free of slavery. While among the soldiers, they heard several of the popular marching songs that had spread among the troops. One of them in particular stood out to Howe. It went, “John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave… His soul is marching on.”
Howe said, “Some remarked upon the excellence of the tune, and I said that I had often wished to write some words which might be sung to it. We sang, however, the words which were already well known as belonging to it, and our singing seemed to please the soldiers, who surrounded us like a river and who themselves took up the strain in the intervals, crying to us ‘Good for you.’”
Not long after her evening with the soldiers, the words she had wished to write for the tune came to her in the night. “I awoke in the grey of the morning,” she wrote, “and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to entwine themselves in my mind, and I said to myself, ‘I must get up and write these verses, lest I fall asleep and forget them!’ So I sprang out of bed and in the dimness found an old stump of a pen, which I remembered using the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.”
The words she scrawled before dawn would go on to be the song we know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” She sold it to The Atlantic for five dollars. On the 150th anniversary of the poem’s publishing, Atlantic writer Dominic Tierney referred to the hymn as “America’s song of itself.” Although Howe doesn’t quote scripture directly, the song was clearly inspired by her familiarity with the Bible. It is full of biblical allusions to prophets like Isaiah in the passage we read today, describing a vineyard trampled into ruin and left to thorns and thistles. We also hear echoes of Jeremiah, who wrote, “The Lord will roar from on high, and from his holy habitation utter his voice; he will roar mightily against his fold, and shout, like those who tread grapes, against all the inhabitants of the earth.” Like the prophets, Howe saw the war around her as a consequence of America’s sin of slavery and hoped that we could turn from it and turn toward God’s vision.
Often in scripture, I’ve found that if it doesn’t sound like Good News, we have to keep going. Isaiah 5 presents us with the image of the vineyard ruined—of God’s people facing the devastating costs of their actions—but the prophets never leave us mired in our own consequences without hope. Over and over again, they point out where selfishness, pride, injustice, and faithlessness will lead, but they also offer a vision of what could be if we will turn from those things and instead chose love, humility, righteousness, and commitment. Just a little later, in chapter 11, Isaiah will offer up another vision of the future. This vision is not one of devastation, but of a world in which the wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the goat, and the calf and the young lion will feed together, and where nothing will harm or destroy. If it doesn’t seem like Good News yet, keep going.
Julia Ward Howe had a vision of God as militant and mighty, striding out like the army she’d seen encamped outside of Washington, and yet, she was also able to envision us running toward God’s judgment with swift and jubilant feet rather than fleeing it. When asked whether he thought God was on the side of the Union during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln replied, “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.” If we are on God’s side—on the side of love—then the grapes we produce will not be rotten grapes good only to be trampled, but instead sweet grapes that can nourish ourselves and those around us. We will have no need to fear God, instead we run to God. If it doesn’t seem like Good News yet, keep going.
On the night of April 3, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee to deliver a sermon. He was in Memphis to speak in support of striking sanitation workers, and that night as a storm raged outside, he told the packed sanctuary, "I've looked over, and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." The next day, King would be shot and killed at the Lorraine Motel. The last words that King ever spoke in public were the words of this hymn. He knew that if it doesn’t seem like Good News yet, you have to keep going. You have to march on, past the dogs and the water hoses and the people who hate you. You have to march on even in the face of death. You have march on, so that we can all get to the Promised Land.
One of my favorite images of God is found in Exodus, when the people have been brought out of the land of Egypt and are walking through the wilderness. Exodus 13:21-22 reads, “The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.” The pillar of cloud and fire never left its place in front of the people. God never left God’s place in front of the people.
Sometimes we want to believe that God is back behind us. We want to believe this because we know what’s back there, and it’s human nature to long for the familiar. We aren’t alone. The Israelites were barely past Pharaoh’s gates before they started crying out, accusing God and Moses of bringing them into the wilderness only to kill them. They longed to go back to their days as slaves because at least then they knew what to expect. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness,” they cried, more than once. They forgot that if it doesn’t seem like Good News, you have to keep going. Is there darkness ahead? Of course there is. But God will illuminate the way. Is there bright light ahead? Of course there is. But God will still be visible. God has not left God’s place in front of the people. If it doesn’t seem like Good News yet, keep going. God is not behind us calling retreat, God is out in front of us, leading us and marching on