By Trudy Wischemann
One of the beauties of Independence Day is being taken back to the roots of our country, our nationhood. Last week National Public Radio did a piece on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which led to this reverie.
They started with an interview of Tim McGraw, who told of singing the song for his first audition at 12. His performance won him the part he (and his mother) so wanted, which led, of course to his singing career and Thursday night’s performance on the National Mall. But the story of the song itself led me to dig deeper into our country’s history.
“Battle Hymn” was written by a woman, Julia Ward Howe, in 1861 after the election of a pro-emancipation president and the eruption of the Civil War. The words are so familiar now that singing them is like saying the Flag Salute or the Lord’s Prayer. But to hear them read slowly or to examine them on the page is to suddenly find yourself in a deep pool where there is no separation between church and state, where God reigns without regard to man’s rules about voting rights or citizenship, much less who qualifies for those privileges.
“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” she declares, where God makes wine from the grapes of wrath. When His sword’s fateful lightning is loosed, liberating His truth. And that’s just the first verse. Yikes.
The story of the writing of these lyrics is wonderfully revealing. Julia and her husband Stanley, both reformers (she for women’s rights and abolition, he for the deaf and blind,) were visiting Washington, D.C. Julia and her pastor toured a Union army camp on the Potomac River, where she heard soldiers singing the tribute to John Brown, who had been hanged two years before for the insurrection at Harper’s Ferry (“John Brown’s body lies a-mould’ring in the Grave….”) Her pastor asked Julia to consider writing other words to the rousing music. That night, after returning to her hotel, the words came in the dark. She scribbled them down on a scrap of paper, and sent them to a friend at The Atlantic Monthly, who paid her $5 and published them.
Four years later those Union soldiers she emboldened would win emancipation and the right to vote for negroes. But it would be 55 years more before the right to vote for women of any color would be won, not by soldiers but by women taking to the streets and arguing in their kitchens, penning less poetic but eventually more persuasive phrases. Julia Ward Howe was dead by then, as were the other instigators of women’s suffrage: Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott. They lived and worked their entire lives so that you and I, sisters, could vote, without seeing the fruit themselves.
The last verse of “Battle Hymn” rose up and caught me by surprise this year, perhaps because I’ve been preaching. “In the beauty of the lilies,” she starts, “Christ was born across the sea.” The image of a field of lilies rather than a stable in Bethlehem opened my heart. “With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” Transfiguration: the hope of Easter. And then, this perfect, womanly challenge: “As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free…”
Mankind, men and women together, living free and helping others attain their freedom. Isn’t that what we’re really all about as a nation?
Trudy Wischemann is a skeptical patriot who writes. You can send her your favorite verses c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.