Not all change is good when it comes to the words of hymns.

My reflection on this Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day is on the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as sung by the parish choir of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston at yesterday’s funeral service for former president George H.W. Bush. The arrangement and singing were beautiful. In my opinion, there was just one problem: The lyrics in the fifth stanza.

Here are the lyrics as written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861 and first published in 1862:

“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.”

Here is the third line of the stanza as sung by the St. Martin choir:

“As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free!”

Let me make clear that I do not blame the choir or the church for the change; I am informed that “live” appears in many modern hymnals. The accepted history is that the change dates to 1959 when it appeared in a recording released by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The modification gained a foothold as churches became more self-conscious about the hymn’s celebration of American militancy and the glorification of war as a purported instrument of God’s will. I understand the concern, but the change strips the most powerful passage in the song of the historical context that gives the passage its power. And it misses the larger, most important point of the original lyrics.

Julia Ward Howe was an ardent abolitionist who chafed at her own inability to make a direct contribution to the Union cause. When she wrote “let us die to make men free” she was referring to a willingness to die for that cause, quite literally. She wrote the hymn at the beginning of a war that would claim the lives of approximately 360,000 Union soldiers.

The larger point is, of course, the righteousness of sacrificing oneself, if necessary, for the freedom of others. The original language of the stanza is rightfully considered one of the most brilliant and stirring passages in American music.

As a boy, I sang the hymn countless times at Advent Lutheran Church in West Lawn, Pa.    I understood what Julia Ward Howe meant by the words, although I may not have fully appreciated their gravity until later. But Pastor Ernest Weber did. Gassed with chlorine gas on the fields of France in World War I, he preached with a raspy voice barely louder than a whisper.

And the many veterans of World War II and Korea sitting in the pews, including my father, got it. And, so did the widows, including Helen Frey, one of my mother’s best friends, who lost her husband in Korea.

There were older men and women in the congregation, including my grandmother, whose grandfathers had fought for the Union in the Civil War. They understood the meaning of those words, as well.  They sang that hymn from their heart, and it feels disrespectful to suggest that the words that they sang were somehow inappropriate, or unChristian.

I don’t believe in glorifying war. But the hymn reminds Christians that there are some things worth fighting and even dying for, and that the freedom of black men, women and children held as slaves on American soil was one of them. It seems to me that message is no less important today than it was in 1861.

If you don’t believe me that we need to continue to celebrate the righteousness of sacrificing, if necessary, for a cause greater than ourselves, then ask Cadet Bone Spurs.

On second thought. . .

One thought on “Not all change is good when it comes to the words of hymns.

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