A Famous Sunday School Song: Onward Christian Soldiers

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Whitmonday was a festival for schoolchildren. During the day children would march to neighboring villages carrying crosses and banners. In 1864, local pastor Sabine Baring-Gould wanted a new hymn to encourage the children in their marching. In just fifteen minutes, he wrote a song called “Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners.” It was later renamed “Onward Christian Soldiers.” He had no intention of it ever being published, especially in adult hymnals. Sabine-Gould was at the time a curate of a parish in Yorkshire county in northern England. He recounts how and why he wrote the song:

“It was written in a very simple fashion…Whitmonday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire, and one Whitmonday it was arranged that our school should join its forces with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to another, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up one night resolved to write something myself. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ was the result. It was written in great haste and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its great popularity.”

Though it was never intended for publication, it found its way into a periodical later that year and soon into English hymnals around the globe. Louis Benson suspects that it caught on in the U.S. because it tapped into the “soldier spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by four years of Civil War” which had just ended. 

The music was composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1871. Sullivan named the tune “St. Gertrude” after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymour, at whose country home he composed the tune. The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favored processional. The piece became Sullivan’s most popular hymn. The theme of the hymn is taken from New Testament references to the Christian being a soldier such as II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): “Thou therefore endure hardship, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1941 on the battleship Prince of Wales to agree to the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minister Churchill chose the hymns. He chose “Onward Christian Soldiers” and he made a radio broadcast afterwards explaining his choice:

“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.”

The hymn has been sung at many funerals, including that of Dwight D. Eisenhower at the National Cathedral in D.C. in March 1969. Apart from its obvious militant associations, the songs has been associated with protest against the established order, particularly the civil rights movement. An attempt was made in the 1980s to strip “Onward Christian Soldiers” from the United Methodist Hymnal and the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 due to the perceived militarism. Outrage among parishioners caused both committees to back down. However, the hymn was omitted from the 1990 hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Australian Hymn Book. 

Largely because of its association with missionaries of various types, the song has been sung in a number of movies and television programs including M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie and The Simpsons. 

I grew up with this hymn being sung at church and from my days in the church’s youth handbell choir. So it has great sentimental value. And indeed it is one of the great hymns of the church which has inspired and roused the hearts of generations of believers. 

 

 

Now Thank We All our God: Its Amazing Backdrop

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Now Thank We All our God is a popular Christian hymn that is often sung at weddings and at other times of rejoicing. In Germany, it is sung at times of national thanksgiving. Nun danket alle Gott (its German title) was written by Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), being inspired by Sirach, chapter 50, verses 22-24, from the praises of Simon the high priest. He was born in Eilenberg, Saxony (Germany), a small town near Leipzig, which during the twentieth century ended behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany for several decades. 

Rinkart studied for the Lutheran ministry and was called to be the pastor of his own hometown of Eilenberg. He arrived there just at the start of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), a war that would devestate Germany in general and Eilenberg in particular. Being a walled city, it became a place for refugees to flee to and it soon became overcrowded, thus rendering it susceptible to disease. And the result was indeed famine and pestilence. Armies overran it three times. The Rinkart home was a refuge for the victims, even though he was often hard-pressed to provide for his own family. At the start of 1637, the Year of the Great Pestilence, there were four ministers in Eilenberg. But one abandoned his post for healthier regions and could not be persuaded to return. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two ministers. As the only surviving pastor, he performed 40 to 50 funerals per day, some 4,480 in all that year. In May of that same year, his own wife died. By the end of that year, the refugees had to be buried in trenches without services. The plague decimated Eilenberg killing some 8,000 people. 

Yet, amazingly, it is out of such horrific tragedy, that Now Thank We All our God was written around the year 1636. Rinkart was a prolific hymn writer and he did not let the horrors of war, famine and plague deter him from writing praises to our God. Yet the first two stanzas were not written, not as a hymn for public worship, but as table grace for his own family. At the end of the war, Nun danket alle Gott was sung at the Peace of Westphalia (1648), the treaty that ended the war. Rinkart would die the following year in 1649 in Eillenberg. 

It was set to music by Johann Cruger (1598-1662) around 1647 (tune: “Leuthen Chorale”), who composed the music for many other hymns including Ah Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended and  Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness. The hymn tune, Leuthen Chorale is also used in Bach’s cantatas, such as BWV 79, 192 and in his BWV 252, 386 and 657. The now-familiar standardization was devised by Felix Mendelssohn in 1840, when he adopted the hymn, sung in the now-standard key of F Major, with its original German lyrics, as the chorale for his second symphony, known as Lobgesang or “Hymn of Praise.” The Late-Romantic Germanic composer Sigfrid Karg-Elert was one of the more recent composers to use this hymn composing a Marche Triomphale, a famous piece in the classic pipe organ repertoire. After the Battle of Leuthen during the Seven Years War, a soldier of the triumphant Prussian army started to sing it and soon all 25,000 soldiers joined in the hymn. Now that would have been something to hear!

Yet we in the English-speaking world would not have known of this great hymn of the church if it were not for the efforts of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878), an English woman who translated many hymns into English during the nineteenth century. Other hymns she translated are Deck Thyself, My Soul, with Gladness and Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Mighty Gates. 

If Martin Rinkart could sing such a great hymn of thanksgiving during a time of unimaginable horror and upheaval, surely we today, who will most likely not see such tragedy like he did, can do the same. So as we in America celebrate Thanksgiving in a couple weeks, let us remember the amazing account of the Rev. Martin Rinkart and may we, like him, sing with one voice:

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in whom the world rejoices; who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us! with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us; and keep us in his grace, and guide us when perplexed, and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given, the Son, who reigns with them in highest heaven, eternal, Triune God, whom earth and heaven adore, for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore. Amen. 

Abide With Me: The Story Behind the Beloved Hymn

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The hymn, “Abide With Me,” is one of the most popular English hymns of the past 150 years. Its author, Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), was an Anglican priest and the vicar of All Saints in Brixham, England, a small fishing village on the coast of Devonshire. Lyte was a published poet and an accomplished hymn-writer who also penned “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” For most of his life, he suffered from poor health and would regularly travel abroad for relief, as was the tradition of that day. Despite his compromised health, Lyte was a tireless minister and a devoted family man. He would often playfully comment that “It was better to wear out than to rust out.” 

In 1844, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. For the next three years, his health deteriorated. On September 4, 1847, he stood in the pulpit for the final time and delivered his farewell message to his parishioners, preaching on the meaning of the Eucharist. It was out of this context that this beloved hymn came out of. 

For that same afternoon, Lyte, after a walk on the beach, retired to his room. He emerged an hour later with a handwritten copy of “Abide With Me.” He then left for a voyage to Italy in order to get away from the cold damp coastal weather. While en route, he mailed a revised copy of the hymn to his wife, Anne. A few days later, on November 20, 1847, while resting in a hotel on the French Riviera, Father Lyte went home to be with the Lord. A fellow clergyman who with him during his final hours reported that his final words were “Peace! Joy!”

Lyte’s hymn was set to music to the tune of “Eventide” by William H. Monk (1823-1889) and was debuted at Lyte’s memorial service. 

The hymn is essentially a prayer for God to remain with the speaker throughout his life, trials, and death. The opening line alludes to Luke 24:29, “Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”

The hymn has been popular across many Christian denominations and was said to be a favorite of King George V and Mahatma Ghandi. It is often sung at Christian funerals. In the aftermath of the Titanic sinking, survivors reported that the ship’s band played the hymn while the ship was sinking. It was also sung at the weddings of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II. It is sung before kickoff at every FA Cup Final and Rugby League, and at various annual celebrations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom, including Remembrance Day (what we call Veterans’ Day). It has also been recorded by various jazz and gospel music artists. The hymn has also been a part of the soundtrack in numerous films and television programs including “Shane,” “Doc Martin” and “Touched By an Angel.” It was also sung at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London games. 

One scholar has commented, “As He often does, God took the sad ending of a life and made something lasting and beautiful.” May this also be our constant prayer-that the Lord would indeed abide with us throughout our lives and also at our death. Amen.