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A sort of confession

By June 1, 2018 16 Comments

When Julia Ward Howe sat down to refashion a much beloved Union battle hymn the troops called “John Brown’s Body,” she created new lyrics and a bold new score that, almost magically, became as deeply imprinted on America’s soul as anything in our hymnbook. In just one sitting, Miss Howe created a national classic so familiar that all any of us have to hear is that opening drum roll to know what’s coming just down the pike.

John Brown’s body may well be ‘a molderin’ in the grave, but the man’s soul is still rustling in that hymn. I suspect that 150-some years after Ms. Howe put down the quill, “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” still isn’t belted out as lustily in the American South as it is here, above Mason-Dixon. But you’d have to bury yourself deep in the Rebel cause not to get a little stirred by those rolling “Glory, glory, hallelujahs.” Once some great choir starts in on the opening bars of “The Battle Hymn,” most of us fight the chills. Me too.

But that old hymn is dangerous. It is. It braids patriotism with religion in a fashion that’s downright scary. “His truth is marching on?” That old hymn is talking about John Brown and his God, Jehovah. God and America.

I know that.  I do.  I believe it.

So a couple days ago, I knew very well what I was doing. I’d been drafted to provide entertainment the next afternoon at the Home. Rather than preach, I thought some photos of big red neighborhood dawns would light things up more than me holding forth. That’s when I happened on a mass choir belting out that old war anthem on You Tube, big and strong and star-spangled. That old hymn has such radiance that I thought it just might engage my audience, so I decided to play that 2006 video, even though I’m not thrilled with what the hymn does. I admit it–I played that video with deliberate intent. I wanted my father-in-law and the rest of the old folks at Prairie Ridge to be able to love it, even if I didn’t.

Besides, not a one of those residents is going off to war any time soon, or drafting anyone else either. Truth is, I’d rather not throw a wet blanket over the whole blessed Mormon Tabernacle Choir, but I knew that when those high school choirs started into “In the beauty of the lily, Christ was born across the sea. . .” I would raise an eyebrow. I was once an academic, after all. Once upon a time I got paid to think.

But the old You Tube video was too darling, Miss Howe’s much-loved classic, sung by a mass choir at a college down the road, a dozen local high school choirs, an assembly so huge and wide they filled the bleachers of the gym, hundreds of kids, plus an orchestra to boot.

What you need to understand is that the very few of the residents who gathered in the home that afternoon will ever leave Prairie Ridge on anything other than a gurney, some of them still breathing, many not. I don’t think half the crowd had much of a sense about where they were that afternoon. Some were slumped in their chairs already when they were wheeled in.

So I put “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” up on the big screen. We turned out the lights, cranked up the volume, and I told those old folks that if they looked really closely they might just spot a grandchild. “These are your kids singing,” I told them. “Maybe you’ll see them.”

Then I clicked the mouse.

Some proud parent had put that video up after shooting the event on a cell phone. Not in any sense was it a professional production, but that made no difference to the residents. It was loud and it was powerful, and it was–good Lord, a’mighty–it was good. “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory”–that opening drum roll got whatever attention was get-able.

I don’t have to tell you there were tears. You darn right there were tears. I don’t think I could have put anything on that screen or said anything at all that afternoon, a day or two before Memorial Day, nothing that would have been more thrilling to those old folks, most of them, these days, only rarely blessed with thrills at all. Yes, there were tears.

This retired professor didn’t lecture on the inherent dangers of mixing faith and patriotism, didn’t remind them how the Founders had created a wall between church and state. I didn’t say a word. I just clicked the mouse, and let those kids on the bleachers sing their hearts out for their great-grandparents, some of whom couldn’t see much, many of whom had to strain to hear.

But there were tears, so don’t let this phony confession fool you: I am really not sorry for what I did. I let Ms. Howe’s old powerhouse battle hymn do its work, and it did, for Memorial Day.

They loved it. They adored it. There were tears.

It would have been nice if Julia Ward Howe could have seen it, or those singing kids up on those bleachers. Would have been nice for all of you to bear witness to chills and goosebumps on old folks’ thin arms. Yes, there were tears–who cares where they came from?

They were precious. Glory, glory, hallelujah.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I absolve you. I love to sing that hymn too.

  • Judy Gruver says:

    I was tempted to play this hymn last Sunday at church but didn’t. Then I thought maybe I’d throw it into the prelude for July 1st. Afterall, the oldsters will love it.

  • /svm says:

    Now you’ve got me looking for the link…

  • Helen Phillips says:

    I confess that the older I get the more the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” bothers me. I think if it appeared in the bulletin at my church I might stay until it began, but then I would walk out….particularly now.
    I prefer “Finlandia” with the lyrics below.

    “This is my song, O God of all the nations, a song of peace for lands afar and mine; this is my home, the country where my heart is; here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine: but other hearts in other lands are beating with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

    My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean, and sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine; but other lands have sunlight too, and clover, and skies are everywhere as blue as mine; O hear my song, thou God of all the nations, a song of peace for their land and for mine.”

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Feeble attempt at assuaging your guilt:

    “As the population rises and the climate takes a dump,
    We will agitate for change and a really big bump,
    In family planning funding and the total end of Trump,
    Robert Mueller marches on.”

    You have my permission to sing this at Synod.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Battle Hymn of the Progressives, verse 2:

    From the chaos and the folly of the Presidential shock,
    We will work together ceaselessly to absolutely block,
    Everything that Trump proposes and then venerate Barack,
    Eight years marches slowly on.”

    Verse 3:

    In the twilight of our culture it’s impossible to say,
    If our ideas are responsible for all the rot and decay,
    And besides, you have to know that we will always say,
    Our hearts are truly pure.”

    • George E says:

      Marty, as I read the blog post, I wonder: How to respond? With facts? Scripture? History? Nope, probably not persuasive, especially to a man who people stopped paying for his thoughts. And here you are with something not only creative but also with something that would make Alinsky proud — ridicule is the best answer to impossible nonsense. I admire you!

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Its lighthearted humor. Its not ridicule. If my mom found out that I was ridiculing James Schaap she would disown me.

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    As an ex-pat American, I thank you for giving me permission to love that song. I know we wince at the theology, or lack of, but it’s a grand old hymn!

  • Jcs says:

    Yes, ‘tis.

  • Phil VM says:

    When you speak of the “wall of separation” between Church and State, I’m wondering if you realize that the Founders didn’t actually create a wall separating the two. Sure, the constitution says the state shall “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”, but that’s completely different than Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church & State”. The “wall of separation” phrase comes from a political letter Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut. It is a political letter written 15 years after the U.S. Constitution was written, therefore it has nothing to do with the founding fathers and it isn’t his legal interpretation of the law. Jefferson himself used federal funds to build churches and support Christian missionaries. His “wall” is a wall between the executive branch of the federal government and individual States and churches. He saw no issue with States mixing with church as he said in his second inaugural address 3 years later:

    “In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general [i.e., federal] government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”

    His famously misinterpreted quote was not a declaration of a complete break between government and religion.

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