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.
Philip Adams begins his column (“Divine recruitment”) in The Australian on 1-2 August 2009 with those stirring words from Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic –“ that magnificent anthem for the American abolitionists.”
This was a favourite hymn of Winston Churchill, pictured below as a young subaltern in 1903. I remember, from a grainy black and white newsreel, the kings, princes, presidents, prime ministers, prelates and others who gathered in St. Paul’s Cathedral, singing this hymn, at Churchill's State Funeral in 1965. It was truly the end of an era.
The Singing Cadets, a magnificent uniformed choir from the great Texas A & M University, came to Australia a few years ago to coincide with a Presidential visit. Their singing of the Battle ymn was the moving highlight of a concert in a church in Sydney; that and their impeccable courtesy left a lasting impression on all present.
…Onwards Christian Soldiers…
But when Churchill received President Roosevelt on HMS Prince of Wales in 1941, where they agreed on what came to be called the Atlantic Charter, Churchill chose another hymn for the church service, Onward, Christian Soldiers.
He explained this choice later in a broadcast:
“We sang Onward, Christian Soldiers indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high."
“When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”
But Philip Adams scorns this hymn. He says that about the same time as Julia Ward Howe was writing the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Arthur Sullivan was setting the “banal” words of Sabine Baring-Gould to music for “the battle hymn of the British monarchy, Onward Christian Soldiers”
It is difficult to see why he calls this the battle hymn of the British monarchy. The words do not suggest anything but the Christian religion. It seems that Phillip Adams needed to launch yet another of his tedious attacks on the monarchy. He should have checked the facts first.
He says ”it was nothing as lofty as freeing the slaves that inspired Sullivan”. Perhaps this was because Great Britain had long before abolished slavery and before that, the slave trade.
Indeed the declaration in Somersets’ case (1772) that “ the air of England is to pure for a slave to breathe” was as important a cause of the American War of Independence as the imposition of taxes to recover the costs of so successfully protecting the colonialists from the French. (The other was King George III's Great Proclamation reserving the lands to the West of the thirteen colonies to the Indian Nations.)
This was not because of some sensitivity for the mainly Hindu and Muslim attendees. While it was to be included in the books to be placed in the bookcases of each of the visiting dignitaries, he ordered that the fourth stanza be deleted.
The stanza was seen as sending the wrong message, as we would say today.
When you read, or preferably sing the stanza, you will understand what Phillip Adams doesn't:
Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
but the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
we have Christ's own promise, and that cannot fail.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
with the cross of Jesus going on before.
Mr. Adams, you are wrong. Both hymns are truly magnificent.
The following letter has been sent to The Australian:
In his curious ” compare and contrast “ exercise on two great hymns, Phillip Adams rightly praises the abolitionist Battle Hymn of the Republic, “Winston Churchill’s wartime favourite”, but on spurious grounds pours scorn on Onward Christian Soldiers.
In fact when Churchill received President Roosevelt on HMS Prince of Wales in 1941, where they agreed on the Atlantic Charter, Churchill chose Onward, Christian Soldiers for the church service.
He said later that when he looked “ upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals … it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”
Adams says Onwards is not about anything as lofty as “freeing the slaves”. Perhaps this was because Great Britain had long before abolished slavery.
Indeed the declaration in Somerset’s Case (1772) that “the air of England is to pure for a slave to breathe” was as important a cause for the War of Independence as the imposition of taxes to cover the costs of protecting the colonists from the French.
Adams is mistaken to claim Onward, Christian Soldiers is the “battle hymn of monarchy” or as “unashamedly imperialist”. Indeed Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy in India, ordered the removal of one stanza from hymn books at the Great Durbar of 1903 honouring the coronation of Edward VII.
This begins: “Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
but the church of Jesus constant will remain.”
Mr. Adams should not allow his obsessive republicanism to override the facts.