STUDIES OF FAMILIAR HYMNS

Lewis Benson

ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS

THE TEXT OF THE HYMN

1 Onward, Christian soldiers,
   Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
   Going on before:
Christ the Royal Master
   Leads against the foe;
Forward into battle,
   See, His banners go.
      Onward, Christian soldiers,
         Marching as to war,
      With the cross of Jesus
         Going on before.
2 At the sign of triumph
   Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers,
   On to victory:
Hell’s foundations quiver
   At the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices,
   Loud your anthems raise.
      Onward, etc.
3 Like a mighty army
   Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
   Where the saints have trod;
We are not divided,
   All one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
   One in charity.
      Onward, etc.
4 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, etc.
5 Onward, then, ye people,
   Join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices
   In the triumph-song;
Glory, laud, and honor
   Unto Christ the King;
This through countless ages
   Men and angels sing.
      Onward, etc.

Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865

NOTE– The text is that printed in the Appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1868, and ever since the standard. An autograph copy of the hymn in the writer’s possession reads, in the second line of the second verse, “Satan’s legions flee.”

THE STORY OF THE HYMN

This marching hymn was written in England just at the time when in our own country the sad strife of the Civil War had drawn to a close. And it is not unlikely that the new soldier-spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by the four years of the Civil War has had something to do with the marked popularity gained by this and other military hymns. An influence of the same sort can be seen plainly in American hymn books published after the close of the Revolution of 1776.

The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould wrote the hymn while curate of a Yorkshire parish, and in a recent interview he has given an account of its origin. “It was written,” he says, “in a very simple fashion, without a thought of publication. 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 the other, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up at 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.” The hymn was written to be sung to a well-known tune by Haydn, which has been much used in American churches; so much used, indeed, that it became worn out.

“Onward, Christian Soldiers” was written in 1865. That same year it was printed in a periodical, The Church Times. As early as 1868 it was given a place in the Appendix to Hymns Ancient and Modern, thus securing a sponsor of the most influential kind. This was at a time when the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States was restive under its old hymn book, and feeling its way toward something better. Eager eyes had already turned toward Hymns Ancient and Modern. Its very name pleased the growing party who were seeking “primitive” paths, while the High Church doctrine of its hymns and the ecclesiastical tone of the new “Anglican school” of music it represented, won their hearts completely. A reprint of Hymns Ancient and Modern and its new Appendix appeared at Philadelphia in 1869, with the imprint of the Lippincotts. In this “Onward, Christian Soldiers” appeared for the first time, probably, in this country. During the year following the Rev. Charles L. Hutchins included it in his Church Hymnal, originally planned for use in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Buffalo, New York. In 1871 it appeared in the draft of the new hymnal laid before the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church, becoming one of the authorized hymns of that Church. Into the church-worship of other denominations the hymn (like many other things that would once have seemed alien) gradually worked its way by first becoming familiar in the freer atmosphere of the Sunday-schools. The hymn was not included in the authorized Presbyterian Hymnal of 1874, although the compilers of that book made large use of Hymns Ancient and Modern. The rival Hymns and Songs of Praise, by Drs. Hitchcock and Schaff, published that same year, did, however, include it.

What proved a most effective letter of introduction for the hymn, and has secured its continued general use, was the appearance in The Musical Times for December, 1871, of the stirring tune written for it by Arthur S. Sullivan, to which it has been wedded ever since. At the present time it is unquestionably the most popular and often-used of all processional hymns. If it should ever drop out of use, that result would probably come about through sheer weariness caused by over-repetition.

Autograph Verses
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THE AUTHOR OF THE HYMN

In this hymn we have for the first time one by a living author. Mr. Baring-Gould is so many-sided a man, with such a variety of gifts and accomplishments, and he has done so much work of so many kinds, that he may be said to combine in himself the material for the make-up of at least two distinguished men. There is, therefore, an amusing fitness in his compound name, and in the fact that sometimes he is indexed among the B’s for Baring, and sometimes among the G’s for Gould.

Mr. Baring-Gould is now rector of the parish of Lew Trenchard, where his family has had its seat for nearly three hundred years. He is also squire and lord of the manor and a justice of the peace. He lives in Lew Trenchard Manor House, inherited with the family property at his father’s death in 1872. His study is described as a long, low room, with a deep embrasured window overlooking a lovely view, and paneled in fine dark oak, with the rich carvings of the old English time. In this room works the remarkable man, who is not only squire and rector, but also theologian, historian, antiquarian, student of comparative religion, novelist, and poet. The amount of literary work done in this room, much of it requiring wide research, is no less than amazing. On religious subjects, besides many volumes of his sermons and devotional and practical writings, he has written a number of works of a more learned character. Of these, the best known, perhaps, are, The Lives of the Saints, in fifteen volumes, and The Origin and Development of Religious Belief, in two. He has published many volumes dealing with manners and customs, legendary and folk lore, antiquities and out-of-the-way information, of which he is himself a living encyclopedia. Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, Legends of the Old Testament, Iceland, Its Scenes and its Sagas, Curiosities of the Olden Times, The Songs of the West, are but a few of the more familiar titles. And for some time it has been his custom to write a new novel every year. In England he is one of the most popular living novelists.

In all this work Mr. Baring-Gould has employed no secretaries or amanuenses. “The secret is simply that I stick to a task when I begin it,” he once said. “For some years I have found it necessary to spend the winters abroad, and while I am in the south of France or in Rome I think out the work which I am going to do when I return home. Thus I build up the plot of a story, and it all shapes itself in my head, even the dialogue. I make a few notes, principally of the division of the chapters, and then, when I come back, it is simply a matter of writing it out.”

Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould
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When asked if he did not have to wait for inspiration, he replied with a quiet smile, “Inspiration is all moonshine in the sense in which you mean it. It would never do to wait from day to day for some moment which might seem favorable for work”; adding that he often did his best work when he felt the least desire to go on with it. His hymn writing is, of course, small in quantity beside the great volume of his other achievements, but it certainly does not lack what is called inspiration, whether waited for or worked for. He has written many carols and quite a number of hymns, all of which have fresh and striking qualities. Next to “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” the lovely evening hymn for children, “Now the Day is Over” (The Hymnal, No. 692), and his translation, “Through the Night of Doubt and Sorrow” (The Hymnal, No. 418), are probably most often sung.

Mr. Baring-Gould was born at Exeter, January 28th, 1834. He was graduated from Clare College, Cambridge, in 1854. In 1864 he was ordained and became curate of Horbury, where he wrote our hymn. From 1867 he was Incumbent of Dalton, until Mr, Gladstone appointed him Rector of East Mersea, in 1871. The rectorate of Lew Trenchard is what in England is called a family living, and when in 1881 the last incumbent died, Mr. Baring-Gould, who was the patron of the living as well as lord of the manor, became also rector of the parish by his own appointment. It cannot be denied that he chose an able and hard-working man to fill the post.

SOME POINTS FOR DISCUSSION

(1) This hymn may be examined as an example of a class of hymns standing somewhat apart from others. It is what is called a processional hymn. In church life a processional hymn corresponds to a marching song in civil life, one “useful for church parade and similar services.” What are the qualities proper for such a hymn? Is there any other so good for the purpose as this?

(2) It is interesting to contrast this Anglican “Onward, Christian Soldiers” with the Presbyterian “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.” Note the different ways in which the two writers picture the Church. Can you trace in each hymn the marks of the peculiar type of Christianity for which the author stands? Which hymn has more picturesque beauty, and which the greater moral earnestness? But is not the purpose and right use of the hymns quite different? If so, each must be judged from its own standpoint.

(2) Once, in referring to criticisms of the hymn from a literary standpoint, Dr. Holmes called attention to the strength of the first line, and said, “He wrote ‘My country.’ If he had said ‘Our country,’ the hymn would not have been immortal, but that ‘my’ was a master- stroke.” Just what was the gain of the “my” over “our” in that place?

(3) In what sense are we to take the statements of the third verse,–

   “We are not divided,
   All one body we,
   One in hope and doctrine,” etc.?

They may be contrasted with the familiar lines of his fellow-churchman (the Rev. Samuel J. Stone),–

   “Though with a scornful wonder
      Men see her sore oppressed,
   By schisms rent asunder,
      By heresies distressed.”

(4) As originally written, the hymn had an additional (then the fourth) verse, as follows: –

   “What the saints established
      That I hold for true,
   What the saints believed
      That believe I too.
   Long as earth endureth
      Men that Faith will hold,–
   Kingdoms, nations, empires,
      In destruction rolled.”

This is to be read immediately after the present third verse. Should it be restored to its original place? (The faulty rhyme in this verse is doubtless what the author had in mind in the remark already quoted.)