At the conclusion of Friday's memorial service for the terrorism victims--conducted at National Cathedral in Washington and attended by George W. Bush along with former presidents Clinton, George Bush, Carter and Ford--the choir sang "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

This choice was no coincidence. The Battle Hymn is the most militaristic of Christian songs, much more so than "Onward Christian Soldiers." The latter asks Christians to march "as to" war, meaning to view their faith as metaphorically engaged in conflict with other faiths. The Battle Hymn, by contrast, is meant to inspire you to pick up arms and fight, and played a prominent role in intensifying combat during the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln called the Battle Hymn "the song that saved the Union." Framed with a chorus full of "Glory, Alleluia," the lyrics are:

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 lightening of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watchfires 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.

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

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 song's history. Christian abolitionist sentiment is widely regarded as the leading factor in bringing about the election of Lincoln. But though almost all Northern (and some Southern) Christians fervently demanded an end to slavery, many felt that because Jesus was a pacifist, it would be wrong to attain abolition via war. When the early battles of 1861 were bloody and horrible rather than quick and neat, Union Christians of many denominations began to say the fighting should stop and the North should wait the Confederacy out.

Julia Ward Howe, a Boston abolitionist, wrote the Battle Hymn as a poem to inspire Christian desire to fight to free slaves. She said she was awakened from sleep at 3 a.m., went to her table as if in a trance and composed the work in just minutes, as though a supernatural power were dictating it to her. Published in early 1862 in The Atlantic Monthly, the poem caused a sensation at a time when, to educated society, Atlantic Monthly held the significance of all today's newspapers and television networks rolled into one.

A Methodist minister set the poem to the music of a traditional hymn. Congregations began singing it, and it was widely sung at public rallies. Soon Northern Christians began to feel the desire to lift "the terrible swift sword" and the willingness to "die to make men free." Enlistment rose. Howe visited the White House; Lincoln ordered Union troops to sing the Battle Hymn as they marched. Lincoln's affection for the song developed at the same time he converted to Christianity (prior to 1862, Lincoln had been a mild agnostic) and began to talk about the Civil War in Biblical terms, especially to speak of the bloodshed as divine vengeance for the abomination of holding slaves.

Three decades after the Civil War ended, Mark Twain would call Howe's composition "the most beautiful and the most sublime battle hymn the world has ever known," crediting its imagery of celestial fury for inspiring the North to the ghastly determination to carry the conflict through. Later, as World War II gathered, authors such as Rebecca West and C.S. Lewis would write works arguing that Christians not only may but must kill when confronted with evil.

Now a national memorial service to the terror victims has ended with the Battle Hymn--and took place in a cathedral of the Episcopal denomination, whose presiding bishop demonstrated in 1991 against the Gulf War. There was no controversy about use of the song, urging, as it does, Christians to fight and kill. Perhaps, given the enormity of the situation, Christians should. But would Jesus have sung "The Battle Hymn of the Republic?" Not a chance.

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