Julia Ward Howe’s poem, intentionally written to be sung to the familiar folk tune we all now know, was written in 1861 and published in 1862. Howe’s poem had a sixth stanza that The Atlantic Monthly did not print:

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,

He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave,

So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,

Our God is marching on.

The tune started as a folk hymn developed in religious camp meetings during the early 1800’s, with lyrics that varied, such as, “Oh! Brothers will you meet me… On Canaan’s happy shore?” And chorus:  

There we’ll shout and give him glory.

There we’ll shout and give him glory.

There we’ll shout and give him glory.

For glory is his own.

This refrain ultimately morphed into “Glory, glory, hallelujah.” 

By 1856, it was a well-known marching song about the abolitionist John Brown (supposedly created by a troop who had a Sargeant also named John Brown).

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,

His soul is  marching on.

Glory, glory hallelujah!

Glory, glory, glory hallelujah!

Glory, glory hallelujah!

John Brown was a white abolitionist so horrified by the sin of slavery, he tried to start a slave revolt by leading a multiracial party to raid the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. Brown lamented that peaceful resistance to slavery had proved ineffective. He believed he was the instrument of God’s wrath to punish people for the sin of slavery. After losing to an overwhelming force, he was convicted of treason and hanged. Some considered him a traitor. Others, a martyr. The song said that though John Brown’s body lies rotting in the grave, his soul, and his truth is still marching on.

Julia Ward Howe was raised by wealthy, Puritan, Calvinist parents. An independent thinker, abolitionist, and advocate for women’s rights, she would later convert to Unitarianism. When she married Samuel Howe, her wealth became that of her husband. He forbade her to work outside the home. She would not get control of her own wealth or vocation until his death in 1876. Such was the circumstance of women in the 19th century. 

The couple separated in 1852. In time, against her husband’s wishes, she published Passion Flowers, poems about intimacy and infidelity that challenged a husband’s authority. Sam felt betrayed. 

Sam and Julia were both abolitionists. Like John Brown, Sam was frustrated that the Republican Party’s peaceful attempts to rid the nation of the scourge of slavery had failed. Sam used his (wife’s) considerable wealth to fund John Brown’s slave revolt. In 1859, when John Brown was captured, Sam fled to Canada to avoid prosecution. 

On November 6, 1860, a prairie lawyer named Abraham Lincoln won the presidency on an anti-slavery platform. On December 20, South Carolina became the first slave state to secede. The act specifically mentioned “increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the Institution of Slavery.” It accused the Northern states of three key things:

1. Denying “the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution,”  

2. Denouncing “as sinful the institution of Slavery,” and 

3. Theft, by assisting thousands of slaves to escape their “homes.”

Not long after Lincoln took office, Julia was in a coach with a Unitarian minister. Union troops marched by singing John Brown’s Body. She was so moved, the minister suggested she write new lyrics for the tune. The very next morning, just two years after the revolt at Harper’s Ferry, in the grey twilight she awoke with the words in her head. Scrambling in the dark for a pen, she wrote the words many of us know by heart. This song united the troops around a higher cause. 

Her poem unmistakably drew upon Isaiah 63’s grapes of wrath:

Isaiah: Who is this that comes from Edom,

    from Bozrah in garments stained crimson?

Who is this so splendidly robed,

    marching in his great might?”

Yahweh: It is I, announcing vindication,

    mighty to save.

Isiaah: Why are your robes red,

    and your garments like theirs who tread the wine press?

Yahweh: I have trodden the wine press alone,

    and from the peoples no one was with me;

I trod them in my anger

    and trampled them in my wrath;

their juice spattered on my garments,

    and stained all my robes.

For the day of vengeance was in my heart,

    and the year for my redeeming work had come.

I looked, but there was no helper;

    I stared, but there was no one to sustain me;

so my own arm brought me victory,

    and my wrath sustained me.

I trampled down peoples in my anger,

    I crushed them in my wrath,

    and I poured out their lifeblood on the earth.

Isaiah chapters 56-66 form a section of Isaiah that speaks of a Suffering Servant, a Messiah who will come to judge the nations for their sin, and usher in salvation. Chapters 60-62 focus on Israel’s salvation. After this, Isaiah 63:1-6, which never appears in the Revised Common Lectionary, sits as a lone section, reminding Israel that their redemption will not come without bloodshed. Isaiah, The Watchman, interviews the regal warrior, who returns from battle in blood-stained gear.

Isaiah has been transported in an eschatological vision to the end of an apocalyptic battle in which the nations, in this case Edom, will be punished for their sins. Note that one of Edom’s sins is participating in the bloodshed, and the carrying of Judah’s people into slavery. 

Julia Ward Howe used imagery from Isaiah (and Revelation) to evoke a cosmic battle of good against evil. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

The hymn is often played at Republican and Democratic events. It was played at the 9/11 memorial service, and at the funerals of Nixon and Reagan. It was one of Winston Churchhill’s favorites, and played at his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1965. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic at President Barack Obama’s Second Presidential Inauguration Ceremony on January 21, 2013.

Martin Luther King’s last public words were “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” in his sermon I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, on the night before he was assassinated.  Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath) and Updike (The Beauty of the Lilies) were inspired by it. 

This hymn lies at the intersection of church and state. It proclaims the truth and justice of God that marches on in spite of human hatred and injustice. It announces an apocalyptic justice that is coming in the fulness of time.