Battle Hymn of the Republic

John Brown believed he could free the slaves, and in 1859, with a small band of dedicated men, raided the arsenal at Harpers Ferry to gain weapons and supplies to help the effort.  Thirty-six hours after the raid began, most of the men were wounded or killed, and John Brown was captured.  Abolitionist Brown was brought to trial, tried and convicted of treason, conspiring with slaves to rebel, and murder.  He was hanged on December 2, 1859.

A popular Methodist camp meeting song of the time, written by Wiliam Steffe, began with the words:
Say brothers, will you meet us?  (3X) On Canaan’s happy shore?
Glory, glory hallelujah!  (3X) For ever, evermore!

After the Harpers Ferry incident, many considered John Brown a martyr, and added new verses:
John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, (3X)  His soul is marching on!

During the Civil War, “John Brown’s Body” was a very popular marching song with Union Army. The Twelfth Massachusetts Regiment, in particular, spread the song’s fame on their march to the SouthAt Antietam, the regiment lost 224 of 334 men, the highest percentage casualty rate of any Union regiment in the battle.

Julia Ward Howe and her husband, both of whom were active abolitionists, observed a skirmish between Confederate and Union troops near Washington, D.C, and heard the troops go into battle singing “John Brown’s Body.”  Later that evening, November 18, 1861, a pastor friend  encouraged Ward to write a poem more appropriate to the war effort, to be used with the stirring tune. Her words began “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” The Atlantic Monthly  paid her four dollars for her poem, and published it in February, 1862, when it became the song we know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was popular through the remainder of the Civil War, has encouraged American soldiers and civil-rights activists, and continues to inspire us today.



Every Time I Feel the Spirit

It is not always possible to find the story behind a song.  Songs classified as African-American spirituals, like this one, were typically created by slaves living in the southern United States in the pre-Civil War era.  The tunes and words were passed down for generations before even being written.

If we try to guess what might have been the inspiration for any song, it is truly only our personal conclusion, perhaps guided by study, certainly filtered by our own time and experiences.  Such is the case with Every Time I Feel the Spirit, one of my all time favorite songs.   I have read that some people consider Galatians 4:6 as the verse of inspiration for the song.  Could be.  Or not.  We don’t know.

We do know, however, that words of spirituals often had multiple meanings.  This idea of layered meanings in lyrics is still around.  I know of more than a few secular songs –and I bet you do, too– in which the double meaning of the words escapes parents but brings an exchange of winks and sly grins among their adolescent children and friends.  Multi-layered meanings are and were readily understood by the target audience.  For example, the line in Every Time I Feel the Spirit that reads, “There ain’t but one train on this track; It runs to heaven…” is likely referring to the Underground Railroad and the escape to freedom, a message easily recognized and of comfort to those enduring slavery.

It is impossible to separate the message from the form in a spiritual song.  A call-and-response song might contain the coded message in the “call” part of the song.  The “response” could be an indicator that the message was received. Much in the same way, songs with multiple verses and a refrain could contain information sent and acknowledged.  If a variation of a song (or portion of a song)  was sung, it could be an alert that new information was coming, not unlike a “breaking news” banner across the TV screen of today. It was simple yet brilliant and highly effective.

What messages does your heart hear in this song?

Here is a link to an organ setting of this song.  It is great fun to play, and is my postlude of choice on Pentecost.

Every Time I Feel The Spirit

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray
Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

Up on the mountains my Lord spoke
Out of His mouth came fire and smoke
Looked all around me, it looked so fine
I asked the Lord could it be mine

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

The Jordan river is chilly and cold.
It chills the body but not the soul.
There ain’t but one train upon this track.
It runs to heaven and then right back.

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

Oh, I have sorrow and I have woe
I have heartaches here below
But while God leads me I’ll never fear
For I know that He is near

I’m Gonna Live So God Can Use Me

Anyone who knows me knows that for better or worse, I am a planner, a list-maker, an over-achieving perfectionist.  In spite of my color coded post-it notes, volumes of topically organized handwritten notes, meticulous scrap books and perfectly arranged sock drawer, there are only a few things is virtually nothing in my life that is the way I envisioned it would be at this stage of the game.  I’m not complaining.  I’m just saying things happened in ways I didn’t expect.  Life can be like that.

The name of the first person who first sang the words “I’m gonna live so God can use me, anywhere, Lord, anytime” is lost to history.  This song is one of many that people have learned by listening.  We do know that this song has been included in printed collections of hymns and spirituals for over 100 years.  While the song is in many hymnals, most do not include verses, only the chorus with a modification each time it is repeated: I’m gonna live/pray/work/sing so God can use me.

On first hearing, I thought the song was only about living “so that”, or in such a way that, God can use each of us.  Now it seems to me that is a shallow approach.  I do this so God can do that?  I don’t think so.  God’s responses are not limited by what I do or don’t do. The more time I have spent with this song, the more significance I see in the words live, pray, work, and sing.  These are all words of specific action, of movement, of journey.   I find it pretty easy to sing.  Work certainly isn’t a problem.  Prayer comes naturally to me.  But that word ‘live’.  Wow.  That’s the tough one for me.  To be fully alive includes trusting for God’s provision and guidance in my life, to let go of my planning and putting it all in God’s hands.  It’s not easy for me to put my planners and calendars aside.  Yet it is in the very act of “letting go and letting God” that I can become fully alive, and with God’s grace, allow the Spirit to work through me anywhere, anytime.

This YouTube clip is by Doris Akers, the writer of “Sweet, Sweet Spirit”.

God of Grace and God of Glory

“God of grace and God of glory, on your people pour thy power.”  These opening words from the hymn with the same name set the mood for a majestic and jubilant hymn.  Although it is typically used as a processional hymn, I think it makes a particularly effective closing or recessional hymn, asking for God’s strength as we leave the sanctuary and return to the world.

Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969) wrote this text as part of the 1930 opening celebration of Riverside Church in New York City.  Fosdick was an influential figure throughout his career through teaching, preaching and writing.  Ordained a Baptist, Fosdick served as minister to First Presbyterian Church, New York, where his eloquence from the pulpit became well-known.  His writings garnered much attention, but his liberal views caused controversy among fundamentalists.

The story of his life is an interesting one, full of controversies and colorful personalities.  As I was reading about him, I found myself frowning at some of his views, yet smiling at others.  I began to wonder if perhaps my love of this hymn was misplaced.  I mean, is it okay to appreciate the work of someone when I disagree with some of his views?  Do the views that are in line with my own allow me to cut him some slack in other areas?  I have researched hundreds of hymn writers through the years and I have come to this conclusion:  Every single one of them, without exception, is human.  Have some hymn writers led lives that could be considered more godly, more wholesome, more ‘correct’ than others?  Certainly, and I am thankful for their witness.  Have some of them taught what might be considered heresy in certain circles, or others taken some mighty hard falls, even to denying their faith?  Without a doubt.  Does that mean we should avoid singing the songs they penned? Not necessarily.  If we are to deny ourselves access to everything written by a flawed human, then you should not be reading this blog.  I, too, am a flawed human.   It is only because of my imperfection and God’s perfect grace that I can sing with Fosdick “God of grace and God of glory, on your people pour thy power…..Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the facing of this hour!”