God’s Truth is Marching On

May 26, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert


Tomorrow is Memorial Day, and, as we know it is a day honoring all those who have died serving our country. This was the idea of General John A. Logan, with the first Memorial Day in 1868 at Arlington National Cemetery, where members of both the Union and Confederate Armies were buried. Logan had declared the day “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” We continue this tradition today and this weekend. It is meant to be more than cookouts and time off; it is meant to be a day to remember those who have given their lives. Let us pray, We pray, O God, for a day when wars will be no more, when people may live in peace and when your justice will reign. May we know peace in our hearts and work for peace in our nation and in our world. Amen.

On this day before Memorial Day, I would like to remember an important woman in history, and I hope some of you have heard her name before. She was a very brave and determined woman. She was a woman whose faith inspired her life, who was raised in a family of Calvinists and later embraced the teaching of the Unitarian Church. She lived in New England during the 19th century and was surrounded by many creative and liberal thinkers of her time.

She was a Unitarian preacher, a champion of social justice and civil rights, the leader of the first convention of Unitarian Clergywomen in history starting in 1875, the president, and one of the founders of the Massachusetts Women’s Suffrage Organization. She was the first woman to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was one of the founders of Mothers’ Day as an anti-war struggle. As the longtime editor of the national Women’s Journal, she was also a devout abolitionist who saw slavery as a national sin, believer in the potential of humanity to do better, a hero of the suffrage movement for women, an anti-war champion, and a global pacifist.

Her name was Julia Ward Howe, and today she is remembered for a poem she wrote by candlelight in the middle of a difficult night during the saddest time in our national memory.

Julia had spent the day walking through the muddy camps of Union Soldiers on the banks of the Potomac River during the Civil War. She had witnessed the terrible conditions which the soldiers had to endure and as she took in those images, she wanted to bear witness to the stories and the conversations she heard among those soldiers, who shared a hope for a freer more ethical country. She saw their fires burning at twilight, and she heard a song about John Brown which the Union soldiers sang to keep up their hopes and to remember the cause of freedom and unity for which they were fighting. That evening, she remembered the tune the soldiers had used as a marching anthem and she created her own words for it.

“My eyes have seen the Glory of the coming of the Lord…who is tramping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, and has loosed the fateful lighting of a terrible swift sword, God’s truth is marching on…. In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in whose bosom that transfigures you and me; as Christ died to make us holy, let us die to make all free… while God is marching on…Glory Glory Hallelujah. Glory Glory Hallelujah. Glory Glory Hallelujah. God’s Truth is marching on.” She called her new song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it was originally published as a poem in Atlantic Monthly.

It became a sensation among Union soldiers and, later, among abolitionists.  It’s said that Abraham Lincoln wept upon hearing it for the first time.

In recent decades, many have come to associate this hymn with those who embrace deeply conservative beliefs about politics and war; however, it was written by a committed abolitionist, a suffragette, and the pacifist founder of Mother’s Day as a song of hope for what she believed our nation should embrace, namely freedom, liberation, equality, and progress for all people. She bore witness to that vision with her own life story. That is why Julia cries out with the voice of the soldiers, and the suffragettes, and the abolitionists, and the witnesses for a better tomorrow where all are free: Glory, Glory Hallelujah! We know that hymns often take on a life of their own, interpreted and embraced through history for different sets of beliefs, but historians are united in their view that this hymn is actually an anthem of liberation that reminds us that God’s vision of the Kin’dom was one of justice and freedom.

And so as we remember today those who have died throughout history fighting for the values of our nation, we might consider again what it means to be patriotic in this nation. What are the values that not only the founders envisioned but those that we may embrace in this the 21st century. Democracy is challenging and is constantly being challenged by those who seek power or believe their views are the only true views, but I trust that the founders did have the foresight to envision that people down through the ages would live out the dream of this nation in many ways.

And so today, we might ask “What do we see of Christ working in and through our world that makes us want to sing GLORY, GLORY, HALLELUJAH!? If Julia Ward Howe was able to imagine these words to proclaim hope in the middle of the devastation of the civil war, a very divided and difficult time in our nation, how are we called to speak of hope and justice more than 150 years later?

Julia Ward Howe was clearly a prophetic witness of her day as she shared a vision of freedom and justice and gave witness to all of the confusion and tragedy of war. And through her song, she calls out to all of us again …. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord and she wasn’t speaking only about country but also about the values we embrace, the grander vision God has for this world rooted in justice, rooted in peace.

The Rev. Jake Joseph invites us to think about the ways in which we see the Glory of the coming of our Lord throughout history…

Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord when on July 4, 1776 a group of delegates signed a simple document of independence with the idea that all people should be free with self-government, human rights, and democracy. Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord when on January 1, 1863 Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery and setting us on a long road towards justice and freedom that we are still traveling today. Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord when on August 18, 1920, fewer than 100 years ago, the 19th Amendment was ratified and women gained universal suffrage and the right to vote! Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord when on October 24, 1945 when the United Nations was founded under Eleanor Roosevelt’s leadership and the world began to nobly attempt resolving conflicts and humanitarian issues without constant wars. Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory with the 1954 Brown Vs. Board of Education decision that ended school segregation. Glory, Glory Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965! Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory with the fall of the Berlin wall. Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory with the 1996 Good Friday Peace Accords in Northern Ireland; ending generations of conflict on the streets on Belfast. Glory, Glory, Halleluiah!

Our eyes have seen the glory in all the simple, quiet ways that people greet each other with welcome, with dignity and respect, and with love, and our eyes have seen the glory when we recognize that God calls us to reach out across all the ways we are divided and rediscover that we are meant to be united as brothers and sisters.

At Julia Ward Howe’s funeral in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1910, over 4,000 people of hope and vision gathered —and with determination and trembling voices, tears running down their stern New England faces, they sang in unison the words they knew so well—Glory, Glory, Halleluiah, Glory, Glory, Halleluiah… Glory, Glory, Halleluiah… God’s Truth is marching on. Amen.


(With thanks to Rev. Jake Miles Joseph, whose writing inspired this Sermon)