1:00 P.M. EST July 1, 2010
Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry. Flag photo from the Library of Congress, Creative Commons.
About once every seven years, Independence Day in the United States
(July 4) falls on a Sunday and many churches again debate whether to
include patriotic elements in worship: American flag, Pledge of
Allegiance, a color guard, the national anthem, readings from our
founding documents and patriotic choir music and congregational songs.
It is such a year in 2010.
Whatever secular, patriotic elements may find their way into worship
this year, one of the most popular sacred elements to be included will
undoubtedly be the congregational hymn, "The Battle Hymn of the
Republic," no. 717 in “The United Methodist Hymnal.”
Controversy has often accompanied the use of this hymn in worship,
even its inclusion in the hymnal, said hymnal editor Carlton Young in
an article on the history of the hymn in the “Companion to the United
Methodist Hymnal” from Abingdon Press.
Some southern Methodists opposed including it in the 1966 “Methodist
Hymnal,” but it was included nonetheless. The 1989 Hymnal Revision
Committee voted to delete the more militaristic stanzas two and three.
Protests erupted across the church. The decision was reversed, and the
stanzas were included. The author's original stanza three is
customarily omitted from hymnals:
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
Stanza five in our hymnal is of unknown origin.
Paths to salvation
And what is the mystery? Speaking of Christ, stanza four includes
the phrase, "as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free."
It is perhaps a parallel allusion of those who fight and die in war
for freedom to salvation through the death of Christ on the cross. Some
see it as an endorsement of or justification for war, and there have
been a number of changes and adaptations of the line.
I have always sung, "as he died to make us holy, now he lives to make us free," regardless of what those around me are singing.
Famed arranger and conductor Roy Ringwald made this change in his
1944 arrangement for choir and orchestra: "as he died to make men holy,
let us live to make men free." That version was approved by the Hymnal
Revision Committee and also by General Conference, the denomination’s
top policy making body, when it voted to accept the new hymnal in 1988.
Inexplicably, and despite the vote of General Conference, that
change was never included in our hymnal. It is one of the great hymnal
mysteries that remain: Who made the decision to ignore the committee
and General Conference, and why? And why was it not corrected in
The hymn is fully in the public domain and lyrics may be legally
adapted and changed. In my own selecting, leading, and singing of this
hymn in worship, I have always sung, "as he died to make us holy, now
he lives to make us free," regardless of what those around me are
*McIntyre is director of music resources for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.
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