Monday, June 7, 2010

Dancing and marching

During my vacation, I remembered something about our hymns for Pentecost and Trinity Sundays that I meant to note on the blog. Many of the songs we sang those weeks contained military references: "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" to name two that I recall (but I believe there was at least one more with a similar reference). In recent years, we've become uncomfortable with such aggressive language; indeed, some of these hymns were omitted from the ELW, presumably for that very reason.

There are certainly reasons to tone down such rhetoric, but we also lose out on part of our heritage and history. We also miss the chance to discuss the poetry and imagery such language can also represent - the final battle of the Book of Revelation, for example. We are also meant to wage a war for hearts and minds of converts, are we not?

For some reason, the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers" always brings to my mind an episode of "Little House on the Prairie." (I believe it was the finale, but I may be wrong since it has been so many years.) The town's people are being evicted from their homes, with the whole town being forced to move. I can't remember the details of why exactly - some faceless and sinister "corporation" is behind the whole thing, as I recall. Anyway, the reason it's relevant is that the community chooses to blow up all their homes and buildings before walking, riding, and marching their way out of town with the remainder of the possessions. As they march, they sing that hymn, and it represents their fortitude, their rectitude, their positive attitudes in the face of adversity. They stand up and do what they think is morally correct, waging their personal battles of faith, and they do it without acts of violence, of course. The image has stuck with me for years for its emotional impact. To stand up for what you believe is to be a Christian Soldier, and I think that's worth singing about.


  1. Rev. Robert FerroJune 8, 2010 at 9:55 AM

    The towns folk of Walnut Grove singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" is probably anachronistic. "Onward Christian Soldiers" was written in 1865 in England and the tune with which it is most associated, St. Gertrude, was written in 1871. I can not find when it was first published in an American hymnal, but because "Little House" takes place in the 1870-1880's in Minnesota, I doubt that they would have been familiar with "Onward Christian Soldiers."

    However, even if it is out of place, the hymn is a powerful demonstration of faith in the face of adversity. I appreciate your point that these hymns express important aspects of our faith and that they should continue to be part of our worship.

  2. and, by the way, they sang it all the time, at least every other time they went to church on the show. Also: Bringing In The Sheaves.

  3. Rev. Robert FerroJune 9, 2010 at 9:37 AM

    The folks of Walnut Grove singing "Bringing in the Sheaves" has a little bit better chance of being possible, but still is probably out of place. The words were written in 1874, but the tune with which we associate it was not written until 1880. The author was the Sunday School Superintendent of the First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. It is an American hymn (unlike "Onward Christian Soldiers" which was English), so it is more likely to have made it out to Minnesota during the time of "Little House on the Prairie".

    One other issue though is that both "Onward Christian Soldiers" and "Bringing in the Sheaves" were written as children's songs, so the likehood of adults singing them in a worship service is very slim. A few months ago we had a discussion on the blog about how children's songs often become adult hymns within a generation or two. If these two hymns were sung in Minnesota in the 1870-1880's, they probably would have been sung by Laura, Mary, and Carrie in Sunday School and not by Ma and Pa in worship.

    If you look into the history of hymns, it is amazing how many of the "old favorites" are not really as old as we thought, and often they are just the songs we sang as kids.