Marching As to War

There is an old hymn that we used to sing in Sunday school, “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war” … really quite interesting.

A bit of history from Wikipedia …

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” is a 19th-century English hymn. The words were written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865, and the music was composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871 … The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favored processional … The hymn’s theme is taken from references in the New Testament to the Christian being a soldier for Christ, for example II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): “Thou therefore endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in August 1941 on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to agree the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and afterwards made a radio broadcast explaining this choice:

We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers” indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation. —Winston Churchill

The song has been sung at many funerals, including at the funeral of American president Dwight D. Eisenhower at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., March 1969. Apart from its obvious martial associations, the song has been associated with protest against the established order, particularly in the case of the civil rights movement.

An attempt was made in the 1980s to strip “Onward, Christian Soldiers” from the United Methodist Hymnal and the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 due to perceived militarism. Outrage among church-goers caused both committees to back down. However, the hymn was omitted from both the 1990 and 2013 hymnals of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Australian Hymn Book, published in 1977, and its successor, Together in Song, published in 1999. The Spiritualists’ National Union hymnbook has a variation on the hymn, entitled “Onward, Comrades, Onward”. In some modern Anglican hymn books, it is replaced with Onward, Christian Pilgrims set to the same tune.

Here’s the hymn at its traditional best with fantastic organ accompaniment at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft Lauderdale. [Appologies for D. James Kennedy who was pastor when this was filmed. While I found his use of Elizabethan “thees and thous” out-of-touch and pretentious, Kennedy did a lot of good things. Unfortunately, toward the end of his life Kennedy became consumed with conservative right-wing causes including an organization known as the Moral Majority, and was vitriolically anti-gay. It’s also interesting, and a bit depressing from a church growth standpoint, to look at the age mix of the congregation.]

Unfortunately the unabashed military tone of the hymn reflects much of the problem that has existed through the ages as people have gone to war, killed, plundered, and tortured in the name of religions supposedly faith-based.

Here is the hymn at its militaristic best, or worst, with an appropos ending …

Because I liked the tune, and the chorus …

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King,
This through countless ages men and angels sing.

I just took a page from Arvella Schuller’s Hour of Power playbook and  simply rewrote the hymn and the words … and unfortunately never saved a copy of my revised version.

It seems to me the attitude of making war over your religion [or chopping off heads as in the days of the Crusades, the time of the Spanish Inquisition, or the gruesome antics of blood-thirsty ISIS members] is one of the great plaques of pseudo religious faith. It seems to me if it’s something to go to war over, you miss the entire point.

Because on cruises, particularly the world cruise and cruises stopping in African ports, we end up going to a lot of places that are mostly Islamic, and passengers on board are heavily agnostic, Christian and Jewish, I end up in my lectures as being somewhat of a apologist [an apologist is not someone who apologizes for a belief system, but one who attempts to explain it], for Islam. A frequent question, “Why are there so many mosques?”

Aside from the correct answer that their should be a mosque within walking distance, I will add, “Wy are there so many churches in the US or England?” I usually point out that most folks follow their religion according to what is convenient for them, picking and choosing, like folks who celebrate the traditional Jewish holidays only when the parents are in town, or Christians who make it to church only on Christmas Eve and Easter.

One of my favorite lines . . . “If Moses, Jesus, and the Prophet Muhammad, blessed be all their names, we sitting together at Starbucks having a coffee, they would collectively ask, ‘WTF?'” I watch as the younger folks in the audience smile, or smirk, then quickly add for the rest of the audience, “which in theological terms means, ‘Where’s The Faith?'”

Which is a really good question.

2 thoughts on “Marching As to War

  1. As an ole Navy man and a Christian, I would like to have this sung at my memorial, along with “As The Saints Go Marching In” and the Navy Hymm, although if I die in Panama, it may not happen. I would also like to be buried at sea, however, my wife insist on my being cremated first. To me that is just a waste of a good fire, it is just my shell, I shall be in heaven with the Lord.

  2. I like how you vitriolically write off Kennedy’s ministry because he disagrees with your scriptural position on one issue. If only he had consulted with you first before he wandered off in left field. Instead he probably looked to the Bible for guidance. Silly Dr. Kennedy, perhaps you can find in your heart to forgive him. He probably had a touch of senility and couldn’t help himself.

    Larry, Actually I was one of many who used and benefited from Kennedy’s EVANGELISM EXPLOSION program. Unfortunately he wandered off into right, not left field. We are all imperfect tools … and just being a high profile, TV minister/evangelist is no guarantee that you won’t screw up like the rest of us … as we once again experience at Coral Ridge. The amazing thing is that God uses people with tons of imperfections to do his work. That includes a lot of high profile and no profile pastors who, like the rest of us are saints who happen to also be sinners. And the guidance people get from the Torah, Koran, or in the case of Christianity, the Bible, is all subject to interpretation … some of it with terrible consequences. And even folks with the best intentions and scholarship, draw different conclusions in interpreting the Bible. Regards, Richard

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