Martial Hymns

November 25, 2007 | 30 comments

A Canticle for Liebowitz has a remarkable scene where a priest tries to persuade a mother not to euthanize her radiation-poisoned child. He argues with her in front of the emergency euthanasia tents, under the gaze of a statue called “Mercy” that the emergency euthanasia authorities have erected. The statue is a copy of a copy of a copy of a Christus, each copy more androgynous, more passive and weak.

My employer held a craft sale last week to benefit the Ronald McDonald House. I bought a retablo of the Archangel Michael sabering the dragon on the grounds that he’s my namesake, though my coworker who sold it looked at me funny when I told her that. Since owning a retablo of Michael fighting the devil is pretty unusual among the Saints, I started wondering what it is that keeps us from going the route of the statue of Mercy. Our hymnbook was one of the first things that came to mind.

Have you ever noticed how many martial hymns there are? Without getting out my hymbook, I can think of–
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
Onward, Christian Soldiers
The Battle Hymn of the Republic
Jesus, Once of Humble Birth
To All the Saints (“when strife is fierce, and is the warfare long” etc.)
–not to mention the Star-Spangled Banner, which in the old hymnbook even used to have the third verse, the one that says of the British “their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.” I know I’m missing a lot. What can you think of?

P.S. Talking about science fiction and martial hymns reminds me of the grim Puritans in Gordon Dickson’s Dorsai cycle. If I recall, their battle hymn was something like

Soldier, ask not,
when to war you banners go.
Satan’s legions now surround us;
strike, and do not count the blow

, found in the book also called Soldier, Ask Not. I recommend it strongly to SF fans of religious sensibilities. The hymn’s meter is pretty irregular so I doubt its singable.


30 Responses to Martial Hymns

  1. Kristine on November 25, 2007 at 10:52 pm

    Also “God Speed the Right,” “We Are All Enlisted”, “Who’s on the Lord’s Side, Who?”…

    There’s a good article by Warrick Kear about the LDS “sound world” in which he discusses, inter alia, the “feminization” of our hymnal (I’d call it the because-i-have-been-given-much-ization, but that is rather awkward). You can find it starting here:

  2. Adam Greenwood on November 25, 2007 at 11:10 pm

    Thanks for the link. I’m no big fan of Because I Have Been Given Much because its lyrics and music are so dull. There’s nothing much feminine about ‘feminization’ if that hymn is the model.

    P.S. I’m not advocating stripping it from the hymnbook. No one’s asked me, for one, and I know lots and lots of people who like it. I just can’t be one of them.

  3. David Grua on November 25, 2007 at 11:33 pm

    The plethora of martial hymns in our hymnal brings to mind a story I once heard of a pacifist in a BYU ward who would, when his Sunday School class would be singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” or another fighting song, stand on his chair and swing an imaginary sword in the air. I would love to have seen that in person.

  4. Sarah on November 25, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    I like “Because I Have Been Given Much” *and* “Behold, A Royal Army.” Actually, I’m hard pressed to find a hymn I don’t like, but I also have no taste or style.

    Hymns I’d say qualify for the “martial” category by virtue of being vigorous in tone and having at least one military reference:

    Arise, O Glorious Zion
    Awake, Ye Saints of God, Awake!
    Called to Serve
    Carry On (“We march in the glorious dawn.”)
    Christ the Lord Is Risen Today (“Fought the fight, the vict’ry won,”)
    Come, O Thou King of Kings
    Come, Ye Children of the Lord
    Do What Is Right (“Battle for freedom in spirit and might;” “Do what is right; be faithful and fearless.”)
    Glorious Things Are Sung of Zion (“And we hear the watchman cry,”)
    Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken (“Thou may’st smile on all thy foes.”)

    I’d keep going, but I need to go back to my National Novel Writing Month project. ^_^

  5. TMD on November 25, 2007 at 11:41 pm

    What about praise to the man? (“Wake up the world for the conflict of justice,” sung to the tune of Scotland the Brave)

  6. Eric Russell on November 26, 2007 at 12:07 am

    Adam, I blame all the armed conflicts of the last century on the militaristic attitudes propagated by these hymns. I just want to say, you know, can we all get along?

  7. Christopher on November 26, 2007 at 12:14 am

    It is also interesting to note that most (though not all) of these “martial hymns” are not uniquely LDS hymns, but rather written by other Christian authors and fairly common among many Protestant faiths.

  8. Ann on November 26, 2007 at 12:29 am

    We Thank Thee, O God, For a Prophet: “The wicked that fight against Zion, will surely be smitten at last.” Sing it with a cheery smile and a bounce in the meter. Yeah! SMITE them wicked. Woo hoo!

  9. Scott Fife on November 26, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Hope of Israel is one of my favorite martial hymns. “Strike for Zion, down with error; flash the sword above the foe. Every stroke disarms a foeman; every step we conqring go.” Then the classic chorus: “Hope of Israel, rise in might, with the sword of truth and right; sound the war-cry watch and pray, vanquish every foe today.”

    As the saying goes: “The greatest battles in life are not fought on the battlefield, but are the battles of everyday life.” The battles of truth and right over evil. HOOAH !

  10. Jacob J on November 26, 2007 at 1:21 am

    Yea, when I was primary chorister I taught the kids Hope of Israel and I told them that bit about “every stroke disarms a foeman” means that every stroke cuts off an arm of the enemy. Then, when we got to that part, we would all draw our imaginary swords and cut off an arm like Ammon of old. Good times.

  11. Jeremiah J. on November 26, 2007 at 2:24 am

    Good on you for loving A Cantice for Leibowitz . It’s a great great novel. I have nothing else to add, except that Saint Michael is huge in Rio de Janeiro. An icon above every other door.

  12. Ronan on November 26, 2007 at 9:33 am

    We foul Brits also have a seldom-sung verse in our national anthem:

    Lord, grant that Marshal Wade,
    May by thy mighty aid,
    Victory bring.
    May he sedition hush and like a torrent rush,
    Rebellious Scots to crush,
    God save the King.

  13. Adam Greenwood on November 26, 2007 at 10:03 am

    I don’t think you’re foul anymore, Mr. Ronan. Apparently your blood has odor-fighting properties?

    Mr. Grua, I would have liked to see it even if it wasn’t a pacifist.

    Jeremy J., does this make me an honorary Rio de Janeiran? I also like the Christo Redentor, although I think the aesthetic is a bit 1930′s brutalist, if that helps.

    Hope of Israel! How could I have forgotten that?

    Love that bouncy meter, Miss Ann. Actually a lot of these songs get sung that way.

    Miss Sarah, TMD, all, thanks for comments and the hymn cites. I’ll have to look some of them up to refresh my memory.

  14. East Coast on November 26, 2007 at 10:50 am

    I think we often sing, say, or do things without really thinking about their meaning. The martial hymns are a great example. They may be a little strange in current American culture, but think of the history of Christianity…Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, David and Goliath, the Crusades…

    Speaking of hymns, I started to sing “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel” to my kids the other day and got as far as “…who wear the worker’s seal…” Perhaps reading blogs in my free time has made me too analytical, but I got hung up over that line. What is that? A reference to labor unions? A reference to Masonic practices?

    So I go to my trusty “Our Latter-day Hymns” (Karen Davidson). This one is not originally an LDS song. It was published in some other hymnal in 1904. The author, Will Thompson, also wrote “Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?” There is no explanation of the language, so I look online. No help there. All the references to the song are in the LDS culture (the top reply on google is a suggestion that it could be used as a theme song for the Romney campaign). So I google “worker’s seal.” No answers. Just more LDS blogs.

    Last resort: check the dictionary. I see that it says, “(In the Mormon church) mark (a marriage or adoption) as eternally binding in a formal ceremony.” That’s interesting but not the usage of the song. Keep looking. “Figurative: a thing regarded as a confirmation or guarantee of something.” Okay, that sounds right. He just needed something to rhyme with “wheel” in the context of saying the world needs people who are really, really workers. (Fewer bloggers and more workers???)

    By the way, this one has martial references, too: “Then don’t stand idly, looking on; The fight with sin is real” and later “Then work and watch and fight and pray.” So let’s all put our shoulders to the wheel and battle for freedom in spirit and might.

  15. Rob on November 26, 2007 at 11:03 am

    We can sing about grabbing our swords and marching behind the cross of Jesus in Sacrament Meeting, but we can’t sing Amazing Grace? Amazing.

  16. Adam Greenwood on November 26, 2007 at 11:21 am


  17. JAT on November 26, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Just a few more . . . (can’t help it, I was an organist for half a score)

    As Zion’s Youth
    Behold a Royal Army
    For the Strength of the Hills
    God Speed the Right
    Let Us All Press On
    Like 10,000 Legions Marching
    We Are Marching On To Glory
    O Ye Mts High (thy deliverance is neigh; thy opressors shall die)
    Press Fwd Saints (music mostly)
    Rise Up, O Men of God (323)
    See the Mighty Angel Flying (324 & 330)
    Zion Stands With Hills Surrounded (43)
    We Are All Enlisted (250)
    Who’s on the Lord’s Side Who? (260)
    Shall the Youth of Zion Falter (254)
    The Spirit of God (music)
    Up Awake Ye Defenders of Zion (248)
    Go Forth w/ Faith (music)
    God of Our Fathers (78- music)

  18. JAT on November 26, 2007 at 12:24 pm

    BTW, my favorite rendition of ‘Up Awake Ye Defenders of Zion’ is when Eulalie McKeckney Shinn gloriously sings it in its original form ‘Columbia, Gem of the Ocean’.

    “When borne by the red white and bluuuuuuee!”

    It was almost our national anthem, luckily the banner prevailed.

  19. Adam Greenwood on November 26, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    Is 10,000 Legions from the old hymnbook? Don’t know it.

    Just remembered that the most popular hymn with Spanish members is “Oid el toque del clarin, nos llama a luchar” which roughly translates as “Hear ye the sounding of the trump, it calls us to fight.”

  20. Ivan Wolfe on November 26, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    [Adam Greenwood - thanks for the nice mention of my favorite novel in the whole wide world].

    Behold a Royal Army – this hymn is interesting, because it would be a great hymn – IF it was every played to speed. Yet every time I have experienced it in church, it is played at half speed (likely because they read the half note in the metronome marking as a quarter note), making it sound like a funeral dirge. Play this one at full speed, and you have a good martial hymn. But, as it’s usually done, it’s rather boring.

  21. Kaimi Wenger on November 26, 2007 at 1:55 pm


    10,000 Legions is in the current book. Music available here: .
    (The music is nice, but the tune isn’t all that martial, and in my opinion really isn’t a great match for the words.)

    According to Karen Davidson’s book, the composer suggested to the lyricist that she write a hymn about missionary work. The “legions marching” theme is a comparison to missionaries.

  22. TMD on November 26, 2007 at 3:02 pm

    Oh Say, What is Truth also has a militant aesthetic, if also tinged with a (violent) revolutionary one. See the third verse:

    The sceptre may fall from the despot’s grasp
    When with winds of stern justice he copes,
    But the pillar of truth will endure to the last,
    And its firm-rooted bulwarks outstand the rude blast,
    And the wreck of the fell tyrant’s hopes.

  23. WillF on November 26, 2007 at 4:12 pm

    In the Dominican Republic I seem to remember that the Battle Hymn of the Republic was quite a popular hymn. The fact that the country has Republic in its name probably contributed.

    And now a hymn that sounds militant but isn’t: Secret Prayer. This is a really catchy one, but it always make me laugh when I think about the fact that a song about something quiet is so loud.

  24. Mark B. on November 26, 2007 at 4:43 pm

    That “worker’s seal” is sort of like the Good Housekeeping Seal–it shows that you are a real worker and not a person who wastes hours each day blogging.

    I find that “Put your Shoulder to the Wheel” is easier to stomach if that one part is changed to

    “Do not be discouraged, God wears overalls”

  25. Eric Boysen on November 27, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    If we venture out of our own hymnody, one of my favorites is “Jerusalem.” The notion of our Savior as a young man sailing across the sea with his tin merchant uncle and walking the hills of Britain is not part of our tradition, but the image is compelling. William Blake obviously found incongruity in the contrast between the evils of our modern times represented by the “dark, Satanic mills” of the industrial revolution and the ancient tale of the feet of the Shepard walking in the beauty of the countryside. The call to arms is to purge the nation of its vain glories (quite a lot of those in a world-wide empire, I expect) and build the city of God, the new Jerusalem, in his home islands. Too bad he didn’t know about Jackson County.

    I have loved this since the first time I heard it in _Chariot’s of Fire_, which, of course, took its title from the words of the hymn. I sing it just about every day, along with “The Star Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful” (which also honors martial virtues in its third verse), “Rally ‘Round the Flag,” “Tramp, Tramp, Tramp the Boys are Marching” and many of the Hymns of Zion. My children (when they reach a certain age) are often embarrassed by me, and I may not have a lot of friends, but the music is so compelling!

    For the uninitiated:

    Words (as I remember them) by William Blake

    And did those feet in ancient time
    Walk upon England’s mountains green
    And was the Holy Lamb of God
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen
    And did that countenance divine
    Shine upon these golden hills
    And was Jerusalem builded here
    Among these dark, Satanic mills

    Bring me my bow of burning gold.
    Bring me my arrows of desire.
    Bring me my spear. Oh clouds unfold.
    Bring me my Chariot of Fire
    I will not cease from mental fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
    ‘Til we have built Jerusalem
    On England’s green and pleasant land

  26. Adam Greenwood on November 27, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Those are all good songs, Eric B. There’s a sense in which the Civil War is our national epic, so I sing a lot of those too.

  27. Velikye Kniaz on November 28, 2007 at 12:23 am

    Methinks Brother Fife was a ‘jarhead’ (Marine) in a former life…
    Good on him!

  28. Velikye Kniaz on November 28, 2007 at 12:29 am

    East Coast, RE your last paragraph in #14; I believe that the original lyric was, “Sound the war cry, ‘Watch and pray’…

  29. NoCoolName_Tom on December 2, 2007 at 7:28 pm

    Occasionally I’ve run across versions of “Prayer of Thanksgiving” with the line “We all do extol thee thou leader in battle..” I’ve always liked it; I think it fits better with the rest of the verse: “and pray that thou still our defender wilt be.”

  30. Dorsai Fan on May 27, 2008 at 1:41 am

    \”Soldier Ask Not\” is indeed singable. I\’ve sung it. I\’m not clear who wrote the music, but it was probably Gordon Dickson or George Hunt, who certainly did an arrangement of it. This would have been sometime in the mid to late 70s, in the first flush of the Dorsai Irregulars.


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