August 5, 2018

2018 August5

The Battle Cry in ‘The Battle Hymn’” - The Transfiguration

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M. Delinger


One of my favorite hymns is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. The arrangement that Clare played and the Choir sang on Veterans’ Day Sunday last year brings back special memories for me.

Regardless of the version, the 5th verse starts with:


In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.


So, I thought, why not explore “transfiguration” and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, and I discovered a whole lotta religion when I did.


The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was written by poet and author Julia Ward Howe in 1861. She set it to music already popular from the song “John Brown’s Body”, which was derived from a song called “Oh! Brothers”. Julia Ward Howe was a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery, and John Brown was a white abolitionist who famously led an effort to initiate an armed slave revolt in 1859 by taking over a United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Howe was also an advocate for women’s suffrage. She lived through the Civil War, and she died 10 years before she could vote.


The “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was universally popular among those in the Union during the Civil War. The Civil War started in April 1861, and it was no coincidence that Julia Ward Howe wrote the lyrics later that year. She and her husband visited Washington, D.C., and met Abraham Lincoln at the White House in November 1861. The lyrics were written shortly afterward, and the lyrics with the tune were published the following year. One might say that Julia Ward Howe was “transfigured” as she wrote her lyrics, or in order to write these lyrics.


The term “transfigure” is defined by Merriam-Webster as


“to give a new and typically
exalted or spiritual appearance
– to transform outwardly and
usually for the better”.


As an abolitionist and suffragist, it may have not been a big transfiguration for Julia Ward Howe to come up with these lyrics. Yet, in it, she links Jesus’ Final Judgment with the Civil War. And through it,


I see the song as one of
– of the individual
and of the nation –
by Christ Himself.


The song calls upon us to live our Christian duty: “Let us [live] to make all free.” That was a battle cry within “The Battle Hymn” to free those who were enslaved. It was phrased to underscore that even the slaves were “men”, they were human, men & women – not subhuman. And we are called today to maintain that all people are human and are entitled to the freedoms that this nation was founded upon and that the Civil War fought to protect and extend.


Our resident Musicologist, Dr Kathryn Bumpass, helped me out a little with the history of The Battle Hymn. If you attended the Lenten Education Hymn Sing Series, you would have heard Kathryn teach us about “camp meeting songs”. They are characterized by simple, catchy tunes and words so that people without hymnals can pick them up easily and quickly – like in a camp-like setting, hence camp meeting song. So, there is a lot of repetition. In the case of “John Brown’s Body”, the verses and chorus each has 4 lines, 3 of which are repeated:


John Brown’s Body lies a-smoulderin’ in the grave.
John Brown’s Body lies a-smoulderin’ in the grave.
John Brown’s Body lies a-smoulderin’ in the grave.


· The 3 repeated verses, followed by:


His soul is marching on.


Then, of course, the chorus: “Glory, glory, halleluiah” – 3 times – then “His soul is marching on!”


As you will know from history, and if you don’t remember, will have guessed, John Brown was captured. He was executed 16 months before the start of the Civil War, in front of Stonewall Jackson – not yet a general – and John Wilkes Booth – not yet a Presidential assassin. There is a fascinating history of the development of the song, in true camp-meeting-fashion – meaning, rather organically. But the true significance for today is that the development of “John Brown’s Body” was both a transfiguration of a pervious song (“Oh, Brothers”) and of the people who sang it. They are being transformed for the better, outwardly and spiritually, toward John Brown’s pursuit against slavery.


Not 6 months from the first public singing of “John Brown’s Body” and we have “The Battle Hymn”. It, too, is a transfiguration. As Kathryn put it:


“It’s now a statement that ennobles the people who sing it, the righteous cause, and those – the soldiers – whom it hopes to inspire…Here the theme of slavery is introduced.”


As Kathryn and other sources point out:


“Julia Ward Howe…wrote her poem so quickly [which] is suggestive of unusual inspiration. She was of course an active abolitionist.”


So…these lyrics:


In the beauty of the lilies, Christ
was born across the sea.
In the glory of His bosom, He
transfigures you and me.


…are not unrelated to the Biblical Transfiguration of Jesus, which we commemorate today. The whole Jesus experience, and the whole Jesus Movement that followed were and are intended for humanity to be transfigured: “to be given a new and typically exalted or spiritual appearance – to transform outwardly and usually for the better”.


The Biblical Jesus experience was a Divine Experiment in these ways:


  • The Incarnation sanctified humanity – if not all of Creation, all matter – by God deigning to become part of Creation. Through that, humanity was given a new and exalted appearance.
  • The Crucifixion and Resurrection transformed human, earthly death into Eternal Life – another new and exalted, and definitely spiritual appearance.
  • The Ascension pointed humanity toward Heaven, toward living lives which focused on this new, exalted and spiritual experience.


Peter, James and John’s experience on that mountaintop was yet another opportunity for Jesus to remind them that,


“Hey, you’re not getting this <those things listed above>. I came to earth to illustrate this amazing love and offer you this amazing transformation, and then share that transformation so others can be transformed. Why aren’t you getting it?”


Jesus even pulled out the ace and “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”” And they didn’t get it. Instead, “they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.”


Of course, the Apostles eventually go on to do what Jesus called them to do, and the attempt to transfigure humanity into the likeness of Christ caught on fire…but not until after The Ascension. The Epistles are full of stories and commands to be “transformed outwardly and for the better,” all in the name of Christ. And we have evidence of that today.


One of those pieces of evidence is the whole thrust of a hastily-written song, through which the singer realizes that:


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
In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea. In the glory of His bosom, He transfigures you and me.
As He died to make us holy, let us [live] to make all free,
While God is marching on!


With these words, we are pointed back to this story of The Transfiguration, reminded of our call to live lives that exemplify the new, exalted spiritual appearance we have been given. But furthermore, the rest of verse 5 reminds us:


As [Christ] died to make [us] holy, let us [live] to make [all] free!


This was a battle cry within “The Battle Hymn” to free those who are enslaved. And still today, this is our battle cry within “The Battle Hymn” to free all those who are enslaved by injustice today, who are our brothers and sisters by virtue of our common humanity.


The grace we receive from Jesus – and this potential for Transfiguration – however freely bestowed upon us, is never a call to be passive. Our transfiguration into the likeness of Christ is to share the freedom that we know with others. Our second lesson tells us what we are to do and to be:


“So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”


  • Be attentive – shine a light in those dark places of injustice.
  • Allow the Morning Star – which is Jesus Christ, by the way – to rise in your heart.
  • Be moved by the Holy Spirit as your transfiguration is maturing.
  • Be the Light of Christ in the world as you are called to be by your Baptism.


The whole Christ Story, the whole Jesus Movement is one of sacrifice and love, a sacrifice of love that has transfiguring power, the power to transform us outwardly and for the better. And it is our call to action: to live to make all free – the battle cry within “The Battle Hymn” to free those who are enslaved:

  • Enslaved to work
  • Enslaved for sex
  • Enslaved because they are foreign
  • Enslaved and tortured
  • Enslaved by mental or physical illness
  • Enslaved by prejudice
  • Enslaved by greed and power
  • Enslaved by all manner of injustice

In the glory of His bosom, Christ transfigures you and me to live our battle cry within “The Battle Hymn”:


As Christ died to make us holy,      
let us live to make all free!


– while God is marching on!


Glory, glory, hallelujah!

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