A column in Christian Century by a Presbyterian celebrates that the Presbyterian Church USA is publishing a new hymnal that will, as two previous hymnals, exclude “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
“Good riddance,” he wrote. “This hymn, with its ‘hut-two-three-four’ tune and its warring call for Christians to raise the battle flag, has long outlived its usefulness,” he insisted. “Few are nostalgic for a hymn that celebrates Christian soldiers marching to war.” But he admits tearing up when recently singing the hymn at a Methodist church, if only for the “irony” of it.
United Methodists also once nearly banished this supposedly naughty hymn. A hymnal revision committee in the 1980s was raring to delete it and the equally offensive “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Readers Digest reported the attempted deletion, and thousands of Methodists wrote protesting letters. The new 1989 hymnal, still in use, thankfully has these wonderfully stirring, bombastic hymns.
Remarkably, thanks to all the publicity, there are still indignant people today believing the hymnal lacks “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Battle Hymn.” I overheard one complaining just recently. Twenty years ago, I recall our pastor, responding to complaints, carrying the new hymnals into an administrative board meeting to prove that beloved old hymns had survived.
The 1980s United Methodist Hymnal controversy occurred when I was in college and helped to awaken me to the reality of church activists who think very differently from most church members.
Of course, both “Onward” and “Battle Hymn” are very biblical in their language. The New Testament is full of martial metaphors, and even the casual reader can understand that the hymns call for spiritual battle against wickedness, without and within. But apparently even apostolic language is offensive to enlightened church pacifists, still repenting for the Crusades of 1000 years ago, or whatever. They emasculated their churches’ theology, and often the hymnal was the last bastion of orthodoxy. Many of us remained orthodox partly thanks to the hymnal.
The new Presbyterian Church USA hymnal will need fewer copies, since the denomination is sadly in membership free fall. But maybe some Presbyterians, hungry for militant hymns, can occasionally visit a Methodist church.