History of Hymns: 'Soldiers of Christ, Arise'
By Victoria Schwarz & C. Michael Hawn
“Soldiers of Christ, Arise”
By Charles Wesley
The United Methodist Hymnal, 513
Soldiers of Christ, arise,
and put your armor on,
strong in the strength which God supplies
thru his eternal Son;
strong in the Lord of Hosts,
and in his mighty power,
who in the strength of Jesus trusts
is more than conqueror.
With the expansion of Methodist societies and bands in England, the open-air preaching by John Wesley in Bristol and elsewhere, the first commissioning of Methodist lay preachers and leaders, and the dynamic growth of the New Room meetings, early Methodists experienced persecution from clergy, press, and people in the community. This was often a response to the Anglican Church’s disenchantment with Wesley’s reformational efforts and some doctrinal differences of Methodism. Reports from this time detail riots, mob attacks, stonings, clubbings, intentional tramplings by livestock, vandalized homes and meeting houses, and verbal attacks in sermons and print articles against Methodist preachers and their audiences. It was in the midst of these turbulent times, yet times of growth, that Charles Wesley (1707–1788) wrote his hymn, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise.”
Initially published as a poem titled “The Whole Armor of God” at the end of John Wesley’s tract The Character of a Methodist (1742), its first hymnal appearance was in Hymns and Sacred Poems (1749) in the section of “Hymns for Believers.” Eight stanzas (in two parts) return in John Wesley’s monumental A Collection of Hymns for Use by the People Called Methodists (1780) in the section “For Believers Fighting.” Hymnary.org reports that this hymn, in various stanzas, has been published in 826 hymnals, an astonishing number. The original version, a sixteen-stanza poem—each stanza constructed of eight lines in a pithy S.M.D. (220.127.116.11.18.104.22.168)—was modeled after Paul’s description of spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 (For complete hymn text, see Wesley, “Whole Armour,” 18–20). George Findlay points out that S.M.D. was “Charles Wesley’s fighting metre” because simplicity of the short lines leant themselves to terse commands rather than longer and more complex theological ideas (Watson, 2002, p. 179). Wesley scholar Frank Baker refers to S.M.D. and this hymn as one of Charles’s “magnificent marching poems” (Baker, 1988, p. 71). Charles bases his first twelve stanzas of his original poem on each line of Ephesians 6:10–18 in sequential order, invoking the petitionary and supplicatory posture of prayer in stanzas 12–15. In stanza 16, Wesley encourages Christians to heed the call of the Spirit, persevere in the work of fending off darkness, and live in the hope that Christ will come to take “the conquerors home.”
Textually, this hymn is a lyrical call for Christians to resist evil forces, part of the work of sanctification and a commitment to the baptismal vows of the church. Charles’s call to “strength” (a word that appears five times in the four stanzas of The United Methodist Hymnal version) and other biblical metaphors of soldiers and battle were not uncommon. Australian hymnologist Wesley Milgate writes: “The opening line is possibly a reminiscence of the words of Pope Innocent III, exhorting Philip Albigenses in 1208: ‘Up, soldiers of Christ!’” (Milgate and Wood, 2006, p. 413). Anglican Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith responds that, “the metaphor of the Christian soldier is so common, from Ephesians 6 (and 2 Tim 2:3), that the hymn needs no specific occasion as a starting point” (Dudley-Smith, Canterbury, n.p.). Evangelical Christians often refer to this hymn as “The Christian’s bugle blast” because of the commanding imperatives and militaristic metaphors embedded in the text (Osbeck, 202, p. 305).
In spite of its militant theme and straightforward language, scholars point out that this hymn is representative of the high degree of poetic subtlety of which Wesley was capable. In addition to the hymn’s strong scriptural foundation, the original stanza 7 refers to a shield of “adamant and gold” (“adamant” being in this case a legendary valuable rock or mineral), an appropriate reference to John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Book VI (1667), where the forces of good and evil are arrayed (Watson, 2002, pp. 178–179). In Milton’s case, Satan is “armed in adamant and gold”; in Wesley’s hymn, it is the faithful follower of Christ who “lay[s] hold / On FAITH’s victorious shield, / Armed with that adamant and gold . . .”. This is but one of several allusions in this hymn to Milton’s classic work.
As a lengthy poem, Wesley sought to vary the poetic meter. A technique he employed was choriambus—and insertion of “trochaic vigour [/uu] into the otherwise docile iambics [u/] of the double short meter [S.M.D.]” (Baker, 1988, p. 79). In the first stanza cited above, note the choriambus effect in the first three syllables of lines 1, 3, 5, and 7. This technique was employed several other times to add metrical variety to this long poem that could otherwise become somewhat “sing-song” and predictable.
The original hymn is full of Wesley’s “exotic and polysyllabic words” (Watson, 2002, p. 179): “panoply” (stanza 2) from the Greek panoplia; “fortify” and “indissolubly” (stanza 4); “adamant” (stanza 7); “unutterable” (stanza 13); and “engrasping” (stanza 15). Wesley was not just composing a text to stir up the faithful; these were substantial words.
The version of “Soldiers of Christ, Arise” that is found in The United Methodist Hymnal retains stanzas 1, 2, 12, and 16 of the original text, highlighting the primary themes of the longer poem: the call to be armed as a soldier of Christ (stanza 1), the encouragement to clothe ourselves with the complete armor (“the panoply”) of God and know Christ is our strength (stanza 2), a reminder to pray without ceasing (I Thess 5:17; stanza 3), and encouragement to persevere (stanza 4).
Stanza 1 begins with an imperative command—“Soldiers of Christ, arise”—reminding us that complacency in our spiritual battle is dangerous; we must rise up and put on God’s armor, so we can face the challenges of each day. Charles’s words—“strong in the strength which God supplies thru his eternal Son”—has a parallel reference to Paul’s writing in Philippians 4:13, where he wrote “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NKJV). Wesley integrates the theme of Christ’s strength throughout stanza 2. Stanza 3 focuses on the need and power of prayer. Paul W. Chilcote describes this portion of the hymn:
This hymn identifies several critical elements related to prayer in addition to the claim for the need of constancy. Charles connects the practice immediately with the heart. He describes the posture of the soul in relation to God: bowed, open, extended. . . The prayers of the faithful unite them with others and receive those who are outside the community of faith into their embrace. Prayer not only unites the believer with God and feeds the soul but also connects those who pray with other people in ways that are meant to be healing and life-giving.” (Chilcote, 2016, pp. 77–78)
Stanza 4 re-emphasizes the need for strength and prayer to “tread all the powers of darkness down,” invoking the Spirit to continue to call Christians to the battle, and then reminds us—as Charles often does—of our final destination with Christ at the end.
John Wesley’s 1780 Collection specifies “Handel’s Tune” for this text, a reference to the composer’s Italian opera Ricardo Primo (1727). John Wesley’s Foundery Collection (1742) calls this “Jericho Tune” (See John Wesley, 1742, p. 5). The operatic range makes this tune a challenge for modern singers. Wesley scholar Oliver A. Beckerlegge suggests that this was “the earliest example of a popular tune being seized on by Wesley” (Young, 1993, p. 602).
Although several hymn tunes have been paired with this text, British organist George J. Elvey’s DIADEMATA (1868) is the most common. While people may connect this tune more readily to the hymn “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” its sturdy nature complements Charles’s text quite well, especially accommodating the unusual choriambus at the beginning. The opening melodic statement, using repeating tones mixed with steps to ascend a sixth, lyrically paints the text with strength for the word “arise,” before descending to the supertonic, which gives the singer a sense of work that is not quite finished when singing “and put your armor on.” A secondary harmonic chord is used to heighten the drive to the highest notes in the first half, leading voices upward to proclaim God’s power through Jesus. The next two lines use a sequence of secondary harmonic progressions paired with leaps of a sixth before each inner cadence to bring a victorious singing of the words “Lord of Hosts” and “mighty power,” and then descends through an octave, providing a solid return to the tonic for the word “conqueror.” The stanzas that follow find similar strong connections between the text and tune.
A final word might be said on singing a hymn replete with militaristic metaphors in an age that rightfully questions the use of martial images to express the nature and expansion of Christianity. United Methodist Hymnal editor Carlton Young believes that Wesley’s full exegesis, focusing on the struggle of good against evil, is theologically sound and faithful to the epistle, though weakened to some degree by the reduction of stanzas (Young, 1993, p. 601). This separates “Soldiers of Christ” from other hymns such as Sabine Baring-Gould’s “Onward Christian Soldiers” (1864) and Julia Ward Howe’s “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (1861), written more than a century later, and whose genesis and nationalism may limit their theological validity and liturgical efficacy.
Frank Baker, Charles Wesley’s Verse: An Introduction (London: Epworth Press.  1988).
Paul W. Chilcote, A Faith That Sings: Biblical Themes in the Lyrical Theology of Charles Wesley (Wesleyan Doctrine Series Book 12) (pp. 77-78). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition, 2016).
Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Soldiers of Christ, Arise,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology.
Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/soldiers-of-christ,-arise (accessed May 22, 2021).
Wesley Milgate and D’Arcy Wood, A Companion to Together in Song: Australian Hymn Book II (Sydney: The Australian Hymn Book Pty Ltd, 2006).
Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (2 ed.) (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2002).
J. Richard Watson, An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Charles Wesley, “Whole Armour,” from The Character of a Methodist (March 1742), http://divinityarchive.com/bitstream/handle/11258/474/11_Whole_Armour_of_God_%281742%29_Mod.pdf?sequence=2 (accessed May 22, 2021).
John Wesley, A Collection of Tunes Set to Music, As they are Commonly Sung at the Foundery (London: A Pearson, 1742), https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b11858da2772cf01402ee6e/t/5b2a8e70562fa782a81a477f/1529515647180/Wesley-1742CollectionofTunes.pdf (p. 5).
Carlton R. Young, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).
Scripture taken from the New King James Version (NKJV)®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Victoria Schwarz is a provisional deacon in the Rio Texas Conference and serves as the Associate Pastor and Minister of Music at Berkeley United Methodist Church in Austin, TX. She is active in the Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.