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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.