COLUMN: Julia Ward Howe’s hymn still sung today

Published 7:30 am Sunday, June 30, 2024

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You may not recognize the name – Julia Ward Howe.  She was one of the most well-known women of the 19th century. Julia spoke against slavery, campaigned for child welfare and equal education, as well as prison reform.

Julia Howe was the first person with the idea for Mother’s Day. She tirelessly promoted the right for women to vote. She’s been described as a prolific writer of poetry and drama, biography, and a number of books on travel. But she’s best known for her greatest accomplishment.

During the dark days of the Civil War, Samuel and Julia Howe visited one of the Union soldiers’ camps near the Potomac River. She heard a few of the men singing. “John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave.” John Brown had been hanged a couple of years before for attempting to lead an insurrection of slaves at Harper’s Ferry.

The words made her heart sink with sadness. Her pastor, who was there with Julia and her husband, leaned over and said to her, “You should write new words. You could put better words to that tune.”

Samuel and Julia made their way to the Willard Hotel that night. As they lay down for the night, the pastor’s words kept coming to her mind over and over until she finally fell asleep. Early the next morning on a gray, overcast day, the words began to flow. The four verses and chorus came together almost effortlessly.

Julia Howe had a friend who worked at the “Atlantic Monthly,” and through him the song was first published in 1862. She was paid five dollars for writing, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.”

Glory, glory Hallelujah! Glory, glory Hallelujah! Glory, glory Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.”

Some suggest that the bloody, brutal conditions of the soldiers she saw in camp represented what she, as a Christian, had read in Revelation chapter 14. What Julia Howe described as His terrible swift sword the Bible calls a sharp sickle. The words of her song are filled with Biblical references.

The expression “grapes of wrath” refers to Revelation 14:19. The sounding of the trumpet is probably from Revelation 8. “For the Christian, the message of this song is that God’s truth is eternal. Although circumstances may appear overwhelmingly difficult, God will still accomplish his purposes, and his truth will endure,” according to “The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories about 600 Hymns.”

When President Abraham Lincoln first heard the hymn, he asked to have it sung again. Soon the entire nation was singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” And it’s still being sung today. The words remind us that God’s truth endures forever!

— Jan White has compiled a collection of her columns in her book, “Everyday Faith for Daily Life.”