I spent a great deal of yesterday watching President Reagan’s memorial and interment ceremonies. Very impressive. Very moving. As one Brit put it “Americans can do pomp and circumstance as well as anyone”. I also paid a lot of attention to the music. We don’t hear a lot of great choral music these days and there was no lack of it yesterday.

One thing that really struck me was something I’ve actually been thinking about for some time. The United States really has three national anthems. Yes, I know the official national anthem is The Star Spangled Banner but for most of my life the real national anthem has been America the Beautiful. It has a lovely melody, more beautiful words, and I truly believe that it represents my country’s real aspirations. It’s the anthem of America at peace. I’ve always loved it.

But something about it has changed for me and perhaps been lost since September 11, 2001. I just can’t hear the fourth verse without dissolving in tears.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

It’s just too much for me. I see towers falling, twisted metal, and a whole nation in mourning. As I say, I’ve always loved it and I hope I can hear it as I did before some day. I once thought it should be our official anthem rather than The Star Spangled Banner. Now I’m not so sure.

Although I’ve heard and sung The Star Spangled Banner all of my life I never really understood it, I never really got it until after 9/11. Now I get it.

On the shore dimly seen thro’ the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner: O, long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

This is the anthem of America embattled, an America that really does not know how things will turn out. When the smoke clears will our flag still be flying? We must hope. After 9/11 The Star Spangled Banner came alive for me. Now I understand.

But the United States has a third national anthem and although it’s been kept under wraps for quite a few years it’s been much in evidence since 9/11 and certainly was in evidence yesterday. It’s The Battle Hymn of the Republic

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 has loosed the fateful lightening of His terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps
l can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps
His day is marching on.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnish`d 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.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

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

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
His truth 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.

Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!

This is not the hymn of pastoral America nor is it the ballad of an America rocked back on her heels. This is the anthem of revolutionary America. It is our La Marseillaise. Unabashedly Christian, unswerving in its commitments, it is the marching song for Winthrop’s “City on a Hill”.

I’m not entirely comfortable with The Battle Hymn but that means that I get it. You’re not supposed to be comfortable with it. It’s a challenge. It’s a slap in the face to the complacent.

Those who do not believe in American exceptionalism and do believe in the moral equivalence of all cultures either find The Battle Hymn of the Republic incomprehensible, or quaint, or horrifying. They think or at least hope that its singers must be kidding. Those who do believe in American exceptionalism and in the superiority of America’s aspirations hope the singers aren’t kidding.

I think we’ll be hearing The Battle Hymn of the Republic for some time to come.

22 comments… add one
  • Buddy Larsen Link

    Like you I stayed glued to the funeral, the whole thing was mesmerizing, with always the back image, nowhere on screen but very definitely above, around, imbedded, part of the air now, the image of the man at his work…which as much as anything was the gaining of our attention in order to then point to all that is extraordinary within our national experience…in speeches where the face matched the voice and the voice the words and the words the ideas and the ideas the half-formed meanings in the air, in our minds, that needed only a simple craftsman with a good heart and a certain knowledge of what is important in nature and history, to bring them back to us at a point when our need for someone to bring them back to us had become so great that it had enveloped us and had become almost too large to see anymore.

    And for me as it wasd for you, the music was otherworldly. I lost composure over and over again, and I’m a hard guy. The Irishman tenor gave the cathedral an Ave Maria that removed all doubts and questions about the meaning of the day. The Battle Hymn of the Republic played dirge-like as the procession ascended the Rotunda steps, then later flowing into a choral continuation that, emerging and swelling from behind the altar, saying something like, “My God, can we really be a special people, a people with a mission, to show a fallen world that there really does exist a difference between right and wrong?” And then came the sublime “Mansions of the Lord” as the mourners bore the nation’s fallen hero away. Justice was done the man by the nation in those few days.

    We can only imagine the effect on anyone watching from a different sort of place. I too had youthful reservations about the Battle Hymn, but because as a southerner and admirer of our ancestral Civil War fighting spirit, the Battle Hymn was the other people’s rally song; mine was “Dixie”. No more, I’m with you, and admire you for pointing it out, the Battle Hymn will be an adjunct national anthem for the foreseeable future. I mean, look at the title for goodness sakes, what could be more clear than “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”?

    Well, I’m overwriting here, actually had meant only to thank you for posting these lyrics; wonderful idea, reading them tonight was a gift, thanks again.

  • Wonderduck Link

    Interesting post; I’d not known the full lyrics of the “Battle Hymn,” and think it fits, as you say, in this post-9/11 world… and I’m not a Christian in any way, shape or form.

    I second your thoughts on “America The Beautiful,” and find it painful to think that the man who has done the best performance of it ever (in my mind, at least), Ray Charles, passed away last week. I didn’t tear up when it was sung by the Singing Sergeants, but I did when I heard WGN Radio (out of Chicago) play it later that night.

    *shrug* I’m a sap, so sue me.

  • Buddy Larsen Link

    Hi, Wonderduck. I like your post. Ray Charles was one of the major boots who kickeded me out my white suburban subteen snotty self and into the world where real folks did real stuff, with “You are my Sunshine” on Modern Sounds in Country and Western…some four plus decades back along the trail there. I’m glad for you that he got to you, I’m glad for you that the anthem got to you, too. I do wish, I hope you won’t mind me saying so, that you’d think a little harder about those ‘singing sargeants”, some reflection on how they were trying hard to open up hearts, and how they’re wearing the uniform and serving the country (and could any time be sent to where folks are getting killed in our name), would do your heart some good. I’ve always been sharp-tongued myself, and somehow it has taken me a half-century to arrive at the simple truth that words have meaning, and can and do cut people, and as great as it is to have a chuckle, I’m going to forgo that little riff from here on in if it has to be at someone else’s expense. I know I’m being a self-righteous jerk, I’ll start working on that, next.

  • Bobo Link

    I thought the rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by the military chorus was the most guttural rendition of an English language song I have ever heard. It was perhaps one of the most impressive renditions of that song I have ever heard.

    And as a Canadian, I must echo the comments of the Briton – the cermonies surrounding Reagan were some of the most impressive displays of pomp and pageantry I have ever seen. Pat Buchanan rightfully called it “a solemn High Mass of the Republic.”

  • Ryan Booth Link

    Actually, I would say that God Bless America is more of a national anthem than America the Beautiful. It is a prayer — and that is appropriate in many ways. It is forward looking, as America has always been, and optimistic.

  • God Bless America would certainly be in the running as would My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.

  • Tom Cohoe Link

    This is the anthem of revolutionary America.

    The Battle Hymn of the Republic is not the anthem of revolutionary America – unless you count the Civil War as part of the revolution (which some do). It was the favorite marching song of union troops in its first incarnation as “John Brown’s body”. Julia Ward Howe wrote the stirring “Mine eyes …” words during the Civil War.

    Some say John Brown was a hero, some say he was a madman, some say he was a murderer. To Thoreau, he was a hero. I’ll go with Thoreau’s version.

    A number of years ago, I listened to a radio program about the suffering of the blacks as slaves in the South. At the end, after all the talking was done, the program closed with Herbie Mann’s instrumental version of the piece, which I was unfamiliar with. In it, the familiar theme is not stated until about a half minute or so into the piece. For me, the sudden recognition of the piece, in the context of the program about the suffering people that John Brown died for was nearly overwhelming. That was the beginning of my love of that piece of music.

    I don’t think I could sing it, in either incarnation, without high likelihood of weeping.

    What the heck’s the matter with me.

    If you want a song that is chock full of the truth about what the United States is about, that’s it.

  • Buddy Larsen Link

    Whatever the heck’s the matter with you, Tom, we could use more of it. The song is sublime, that’s all. The backstory, the lyrics, the events where it is performed, all add their own colors, but the melody and the standard tempos somehow–and this sort of thing is a true mystery–link up parts of the mind that involve altruism, sacrifice, love of one’s land and people, spiritual might, ancient visions of God and angels, all those self-surpassing themes that release the imagination from the mundane and gives a glimpse of the realm of the ecstatic that we all feel is just beyond our vision.

    But, silly as that sounds in the PoMo world, anybody that studies the nineteenth century American character, and is able to separate the virtue from the vice for purposes of understanding both, can’t help but be deeply astonished at the virtues. Read Civil War letters, and marvel.

  • Tom Cohoe:

    I know when The Battle Hymn of the Republic was written. When I characterized The Battle Hymn as belonging to revolutionary America I didn’t mean the War of the American Revolution. I meant revolutionary America. This is a country not based on ethnicity but on a creed. And our revolution is ongoing.

  • Tom Cohoe Link

    I thought probably you meant it that way Dave. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to express my passion for that song Dave.

  • Eric Jablow Link

    I believe the “John Brown” of John Brown’s Body wasn’t the Brown of Harper’s Ferry. And I would add The Stars and Stripes Forever to the list.

  • Tom Cohoe Link

    I believe the “John Brown” of John Brown’s Body wasn’t the Brown of Harper’s Ferry.

    Of course it was. From the song:

    John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
    John Brown died that the slaves might be free,
    His soul goes marching on.

    Was there another John Brown who died famously so the slaves could be free?

  • rabidfox Link

    I didn’t realize how much I’d missed those three songs until I heard them at the funeral. Why haven’t we heard the Battle Hymn lately?

  • Why haven’t we heard the Battle Hymn lately?

    Well, that’s my point. The Battle Hymn is scary. Most un-PC.

  • Gerry Owen Link

    “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free”

    This was Reagan’s favorite verse from the Battle Hymn. If you get a chance to catch the rendition at the Library, the Army chorus paid special attention to that line.

  • In the fall of 1981 I was a sophomore at TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. The music for the fall convocation was chosen and published several weeks in advance. The choir would be singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Well…

    Several professors in the Religion Department started a crusade against the playing of the Battle Hymn. It was, they said, sexist, racist and militaristic.

    Sexist? Rubbish. The words were written by a woman.

    Racist? “Let us die to make men free” was an explicit reference to freeing the slaves and of the willingness to lose one’s life in the effort. Abolition, after all, was Julia Ward Howe’s reason for writing the words in the first place.

    Militaristic? Ummm….so?

    At any rate, the choir did indeed sing the Battle Hymn and it was sounded all the more stirring considering the circumstances.

    I was heartened to hear it so often during the Reagan observances. As gEye observed, we will surely be hearing it often in the years to come.

  • Buddy Larsen Link

    Can’t help but wonder if those TCU prof’s maybe hired on without ever figuring out what the letters “TCU” stand for? But knowing the date, explains it all. I can easily imagine the BHotR being banned from President Reagan’s funeral. Oh, not by the people in power now, but by the other folks, whose exquisite sensitivities about the nuances of insult reach far and wide in the defense of all those forced to share the world with Christians. I’ll never be a good one, probably, but this war has sure gotten me thinking that the Christians in this country may be gaining plenty of company over the coming decade.

  • Eric Jablow Link


    I found the story of how John Brown got into the song. It seems some Union soldiers modified an earlier song to be a spoof on one of their sergeants, a certain Sgt. John Brown. I had remembered that part of the story, but not the actual lyrics. Oops.

    See Various Versions of the John Brown Song.

  • Tom Cohoe Link

    That’s interesting Eric. I’ve found an article which says “… as the catchy verse traveled to other units, it was known only as a song about the John Brown who was captured at Harpers Ferry” which would imply that as the favorite Union marching song, it was indeed about the John Brown of Harper’s Ferry, even though it began as a tease about Sergeant John Brown. Apparently Sergeant Brown was teased this way because his name was John Brown, as well, so in some sense the John Brown of Harper’s Ferry was involved from the start. It certainly didn’t take long for it to become a song about him, and through him and his cause, the Battle Hymn, so full of meaning.

  • Jim Link

    Where can the rendition of the Battle hyme of republic sung by the military choir be obtained

  • Sara Link

    The print in this webpage is too little!!!!

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