March 13, 2012

Hymn History: Onward Christian Soldiers

The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould was ordained as a clergyman of the Church of England in 1864. He must have been an interesting man, for he was not content to merely propose to his future bride, but he also performed the ceremony! It must have been quite an experience to hear the officiating minister ask himself, “Will you, Sabine, take this woman, Grace, to be your lawful wedded wife?” and then reply to himself, “I will.” Anyway, when the bride kissed the groom she was kissing the minister at the same time. Whether he took the fee out of his left pocket and deposited it in his right after the ceremony has never been determined.

Pentecost, the Sunday that comes fifty days after Easter, is knowing in England as Whitsunday, an abbreviation of White-Sunday, from the custom of wearing white on that occasion. The day following, Whitmonday, is a legal as well as a Church holiday. On Whitmonday, 1865, Rev. Baring-Gould had arranged an outing for the children of his parish, including a hike from his own Church to a nearby village. Knowing that children like to march, and also how difficult it is for their elders to keep them together unless they are marching, he asked his helpers to find a good marching hymn to help them keep order during the hike.

The helpers could find no such hymn. Since Rev. Baring-Gould had already written other hymns, several of the parishioners suggested that he write his own marching hymn.

Unperturbed, this thiry-one-year-old pastor did just that. With no thought of writing a hymn for a nation at war, little dreaming that his stanzas would ever be so misconstrued, and taking a theme from Haydn’s “Symphony in D” for his music, he dashed off five stanzas of this thrilling hymn.

Rev. Baring-Gould lived to the age of ninety and wrote over eighty-five books, but he is more often remembered for one of the most militant marching hymns in all Christendom.

An interesting note: both this hymn and another of Sabine Baring-Gould’s hymns are written in the same metrical pattern: The first and third lines have six syllables; the second and fourth contain 5 syllables, with the whole pattern being doubled into a poem of eight lines.
Adapted from "Living Stories of Famous Hymns," Ernest K. Emurian


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