Sunday, July 12, 2009

Top Ten Hymns Countdown #7: Onward Christian Soldiers

One of the marks of a great hymn is that it is consistent with the Bible. In many passages we are reminded that we are in a battle with the devil and his forces, one which will never end until the final victory recorded in Revelation. On the flip side, sometimes the biggest battles Christians engage in are with...other Christians! The unity of the Church in its mission for God and against Satan is often sacrificed for more trivial matters.

This hymn, composed by Englishman Sabine Baring-Gould for a Whit-Monday school festival in 1865, emphasizes key elements of our ongoing spiritual battle:

  • Christ is our leader
  • The church is to be unified behind Christ
  • The church of Christ will ultimately be victorious
  • We are to reach out to others to join Christ's army
Sometimes I think the children understand this better than the adults do!

There are a number of amusing facts associated with this hymn.

The tune Baring-Gould used originally for his lyrics was a portion from Joseph Haydn's Symphony #15. However, the music we recognize for Onward, Christian Soldiers was written by one Arthur Sullivan. Most people don't recognize this "Sullivan" paired with "Arthur;" they recognize "Sullivan" paired with "Gilbert." As in, Gilbert and Sullivan. It is amusing to me that the composer of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance also wrote the music for which these lyrics have become famous.

In 1986, it was proposed that Onward, Christian Soldiers be removed from the United Methodist Hymnal due to its being perceived as militaristic. Methodist churchgoers expressed their outrage and the hymn was retained.

This hymn was sung in 1941 at the conference between Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill; it was chosen specifically by Churchill, who justified his choice on the radio later. It was also sung at the funeral of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Onward, Christian Soldiers

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.

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.


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.


What the saints established that I hold for true.
What the saints believ├Ęd, that I believe too.
Long as earth endureth, men the faith will hold,
Kingdoms, nations, empires, in destruction rolled.


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 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.


Past Entries in this Series:

Top Ten Hymns Countdown #8: How Great Thou Art
Top Ten Hymns Countdown #9: It Is Well With My Soul
Top Ten Hymns Countdown #10: All Creatures of Our God and King

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