Be Transformed by God’s Word: Thoughts on the Battle Hymn of the Republic


One of the best-loved hymns in history originally began with these words:

“John Brown’s body lies a-smoulderin’ in the grave.”

Sound familiar? No? How about this?

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord”.

Ah yes, that’s better. It’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. No doubt you’ve memorized the first stanza of the hymn. If not, at least you know the Refrain.

“Glory, Glory Hallelujah! His truth is marching on!”

I’ve become somewhat of a hymn geek lately, so one of the things I’d noticed was that the hymn tune name to the Battle Hymn of the Republic is “John Brown’s Body”. I looked it up, and found out that the song used to be a little ditty from the 19th century, popular around civil war times. John Brown was an abolitionist who led an unsuccessful insurrection to free slaves. He died, but as the ditty went, “his soul goes marching on.”

Julia Ward Howe happened to visit a Union Army camp one day, and heard the song. The next day, in the early morning before dawn, she woke up and scrawled the verses to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. It’s a good thing she found the stump of a pen she was using before, or this tune and the poem in her mind would have been lost to obscurity.

The poem she wrote, of course, was inspired by the word of God. The second line, “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” seems to be inspired by Revelation 14:19…”The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath”. The third line is from Ezekiel 21:9. “A sword, a sword, sharpened and polished—sharpened for the slaughter, polished to flash like lightning”. In the third stanza, which not many people know, she writes, “Let the Hero, born of women, crush the serpent with His heel”, from Genesis 3:15.

The hymn has become one of the most beloved hymns in history. You can hardly sing it without feeling excited about the coming day of Christ, without feeling the fear of God’s righteous judgement, without feeling the need to get yourself ready for the train a-coming.

And to think that it started as a little war camp ditty.

When my mom was still on the earth, she had a gift for counseling. To her last days, people would literally come to her for counsel and wisdom. Even as she lay in the hospital with cancer, a steady stream of people came to her hospital room. They came to visit her, but by the end of their visit, they were telling her about their problems and asking for advice.

I once asked her what her ‘approach’ was to pastoral work. I’ll never forget her answer. She said that too many people think you need to be versed in psychology, or to learn counseling techniques. Mom didn’t learn any of that—in fact, she was a chemist. What did she do when people came to her for advice? All she did was to sit with them, let them talk, and then share some scripture verses with them. She always seemed to have just the right verse for the occasion. Then, she would put them into prayer. Mom once told me that endless talk is worthless–because man can do nothing…only God can melt the human heart.

What’s the message here? Only this. The word of God is “living and active. Sharper than any two-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”

Just as the word of God transformed this song, it can transform your life. If the Word of God is a part of you, your mundane, workaday job becomes a blessing, even a ministry to the co-workers around you. Casual, ordinary conversations with friends become blessings to them.

If we view Bible reading just as some kind of chore, forcing ourselves to read three chapters a day just so we can read through it once by the end of the year, that’s exactly what will happen. But if we read the Bible because we know that its words can transform our lives and help us be a blessing to those around us, that’s exactly what will happen too.

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1.
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 hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

2.
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.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His day is marching on.

3.
I have read a fiery Gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with My contemners, so with you My grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with His heel,
Since God is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Since God is marching on.

4.
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet;
Our God is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.

5. 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 live to make men free;
While God is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
While God is marching on.

6.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave,
Our God is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Our God is marching on.