History of Hymns: “Onward, Christian Soldiers”

by Joshua Zentner-Barrett

Sabine Baring-Gould

Sabine Baring-Gould

Onward, Christian Soldiers
by Sabine Baring-Gould
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 575

 Onward, Christian soldiers,
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.
CHRIST the royal Master
Leads against the foe,
Forward into battle,
See, his banners go.
          Onward Christian soldiers,
          Marching as to war,
          With the cross of Jesus
          Going on before.

Perhaps one of the most controversial hymns ever written, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” began its life as no more than a simple processional song, something for children to sing as they crossed the village of Horbury Bridge to the parish church. The author, Sabine Baring-Gould (1834–1924), was born in Exeter (Devon) on January 28, the son of a country squire. His family traveled through Europe extensively throughout his childhood; and despite an irregular education, he became a schoolmaster, a deacon, and finally a priest in 1865. He served first at Horbury Bridge (Yorkshire), where “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was written, later taking over as squire at Lew Trenchard in the early 1880s. Baring-Gould was a prolific writer, publishing hymns and hymn translations, poetry, sermons, short stories, a novel, and the massive work, The Lives of the Saints (1872–1877).

Written in 1864, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” appears to be simply constructed: each stanza is composed of two four-verse groups (quatrains), in which the second and fourth lines rhyme with each other. The meter is straightforward — an accented syllable followed by an unaccented one — such that one can easily imagine children marching to this text. The language is child-friendly, relying on a single metaphorical image – the marchers as soldiers, related to 2 Timothy 2:3, “Share in suffering like a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (NRSV). In the first stanza, the poet sets the scene for the spiritual conflict between Jesus and the devil. Instances of personification (“hell’s foundations” quiver in stanza two) and exaggeration (“This through countless ages” in stanza five) are strengthened by subtler devices, such as the intensification of elements in stanza four (from “crowns and thrones” to “kingdoms” to the “church of Jesus”), which create a remarkably engaging text.

Throughout its history, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” has been associated with two tunes. In Baring-Gould’s procession, it was sung to ST. ALBAN, an adaptation of the third movement of Haydn’s Symphony No.15 in D Major. The tune is simply constructed, with an exact repetition of the first eight measures for the refrain. It, like the text, lends itself well to usage by children, and it was to this tune that “Onward” was published in the 1868 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern.

It is, however, the success of the second tune, ST. GERTRUDE, which likely contributed to the hymn’s controversy. First published in 1871 by Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900), known for his collaboration with W.S. Gilbert on comic operas, this tune had a transformative effect on “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The frequent repeated notes that build up toward the rhythmic activity and “oompah” bass of the refrain match the perceived militarism of the text and work to invoke such a sentiment in the singer. Sung to ST. ALBAN, one can assume a certain innocence. With ST. GERTRUDE, one cannot ignore the nationalistic and militaristic overtones of the nineteenth-century in this hymn, regardless of Baring-Gould’s original intentions.

In its own context, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” functions as a children’s processional, where the military language is used metaphorically to describe the movement of the children through the town. In approaching the parish church, the children were preparing to engage in religious study, giving them the ability to struggle against sin and wickedness in the world. These children were representative of the Anglican tradition known as the “Church Militant,” a theological concept popularly understood along the lines of Crusader-like militarism. This is, however, inaccurate; the Church Militant was the body of Christians still living on earth, waging a spiritual war against evil. They were distinct from the Church Triumphant (Christians, angels, archangels, and company in heaven) and, in Catholic theology, the Church Penitent (Christians in Purgatory). The text appears to have largely transcended this meaning, such that many people understand it from a place of such polemic that any further discussion becomes largely irrelevant.

It comes as little surprise, then, to learn that “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was initially to be excluded from The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). The decision was picked up by local newspapers and national broadcasters, unleashing a wave of protest from across The United Methodist Church (some eleven thousand pieces of mail were sent to the hymnal committee) and stirring up debate in the journal of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, The Hymn, including a parody by Brian Wren, “Onward, Christian Rambos,” with updated military language, as found in this online article.

The restoration of the hymn resulted from a course of healthy debate over the use of military imagery, recognizing its biblical and early Christian origins as well as its changing perception after the horror of modern warfare during Korea, Vietnam, and the First and Second World Wars. The final decision of the hymnal committee marked a willingness to enact the will of the church, even to the disagreement of editors and theologians. Nevertheless, when “Onward, Christian Soldiers” does appear, it is usually edited, with a reduction in the use of male imagery and the number of stanzas (most hymnals, such as The United Methodist Hymnal, include four or five of Baring-Gould’s original six).

To many, the circumstances surrounding its controversy may indicate that, at best, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” is no longer relevant to sing. At worst, it may be dangerous in perpetuating the acceptability of religious warfare — metaphorical or otherwise. Candler University Professor of Preaching Emeritus Thomas Long’s 2012 article in The Christian Century, “The absurd in worship,” suggests another possibility, one that came to mind through the specific experience of singing this hymn — not dissimilar to Baring-Gould’s experience of writing this hymn for a specific time and place. While singing this hymn surrounded by a small, aging congregation, Long recognized the absurd image of these people marching to war. This absurdity can give meaning to the hymn — not in viewing the church as an entity able to militaristically destroy its enemies, but as one that “makes no advance except that of love and has no enemy but that which undermines God’s hope for human flourishing.”     

For further reading:

“Are We Disgusted Yet?” Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society. cvuus.org. February 28, 2016.

Thomas G. Long, “The absurd in worship,” The Christian Century (August 12, 2012), https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2012-08/absurd-worship

For a more complete account of the inclusion of “Onward Christian Soldiers” in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), see Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 135-138.
 

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Joshua Zentner-Barrett received a master of sacred music degree from Perkins School of Theology, SMU, in May 2017, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.


 

Categories: History of Hymns, Hymnals By Name, The United Methodist Hymnal

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