From Abraham Lincoln to Elvis Presley, the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” has been championed by a vast array of Americans in the nearly 157 years since its composition. Featured prominently at America’s definitive battles, funerals, rallies, and consecrations, it has been used to prompt, justify, and glorify all manners of American thought and action. The Battle Hymn has made undeniable the American integration of nation and religion, and inspired scrutiny of the virtue thereof.
In his fourth book, “A Fiery Gospel,” set to be released May 15, Professor of History Richard Gamble tracks the emblematic song through time and across borders as it has become cemented in the American identity. The book is the first in a three-part “Religion and American Public Life” series published by Cornell University Press.
“It is for Christians and non-Christians, conservatives and non-conservatives alike: for anyone interested in questions of religion, politics, or war,” Gamble said of his book.
Julia Ward Howe wrote the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1862 after observing a skirmish between Union and Confederate troops just outside Washington, D.C. A recognizable Boston intellectual, abolitionist, and author, she presented her work to her editor, and it was published in The Atlantic and in the New York Tribune. Set to the melody of a well-known marching song, it enjoyed instant success, and was popularized as a stirring exaltation of the Union cause.
“As memories dulled, as the rough edges wore off the Civil War, and as Howe became a generic figure of Americanism suitable for postage stamps, the Battle Hymn became easier and easier to sing, moving freely across denominational, theological, and sectional boundaries,” Gamble writes.
The Battle Hymn did not fade with the memory of the Civil War, but instead has been reiterated vigorously and inventively for political, religious, and cultural purposes. Rife with biblical allusions, Howe’s poem evokes violent and apocalyptic language from the Old and New Testaments, referencing the books of Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah, and Revelation. Gamble argues Americans’ ready embrace of the song as a patriotic anthem demonstrates a propensity to religious nationalism, and the application of the song to sundry causes since betrays their ignorance of its origin and implications.
In “A Fiery Gospel,” Gamble demonstrates Americans’ heedlessness of the Battle Hymn’s meaning by chronicling its many and varied and uses since its creation.
He writes that Americans have used the battle song during every war they’ve fought in since the Civil War. Deployed by American imperialists, it justified aggressive foreign policy by sanctifying the United States’ mission. The Battle Hymn rallied troops and civilians alike during WWI and WWII , steeling their resolve and assuring them of the righteousness of their cause. During the Cold War, it was broadcasted to Russia on an American radio station.
Gamble also recounts the song’s various religious applications. Since the 1860s, religious leaders of all sects have presented the Battle Hymn in sermons, often relying on its lyrics to to reconcile Christian and patriotic duties. Notable evangelist Billy Graham incorporated it into his radio and television programs and revival meetings.
He also describes the Battle Hymn’s role in American popular culture. Excerpts of the Battle Hymn have appeared in the works of Ezra Pound, e. e. cummings, and its themes are echoed throughout John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” Performers as diverse as Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir have made popular their various renditions of the song.
The apparent versatility of the Battle Hymn of the Republic extends to tragedy, Gamble writes, as the song was played at the funerals of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and at the national memorial service held a few days after 9/11. From Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., leaders have used the song to promote freedom and civil rights for a century and a half.
In “A Fiery Gospel,” Gamble expounds the multiplicity of renditions of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” presenting a detailed analysis of its stake in American history and identity. He is critical of Americans’ ignorance of the Battle Hymn’s distinguished writer and its roots in religious nationalism, and of Americans’ disregard for their nation’s history at large, but offers a fine remedy in his accessible, engaging, and above all informative volume.
“I want people to understand Julia Ward Howe, and I want readers to think about the words they are singing,” Gamble said.