It’s amazing what strong associations music can forge in memory.
“I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” always reminds me of my grandma. The third verse of “Away in a Manger” will always be the bed-time prayer Dad sang with me, which I now sing with my children.
And the thumping, march-y beat of “Onward Christian Soldiers” will, likely, always be a funeral hymn in my mind.
Of course, musical associations are different from person to person. “Onward Christian Soldiers” certainly wasn’t written as a funerary piece.
Anglican priest, Sabine Baring-Gould penned the hymn in 1865. He wrote it to be a marching tune, sung during a procession of the children of his Sunday school.
The strong rhythm and the rousing wording of the hymn helped make it a marching song for a much different purpose nearly 80 years later, during World War 2.
My grandpa’s Second World War divisional history (as well as other memoirs I’ve come across) describes marching and singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” as a common occurence. The hymn was also popular at worship. Below is a video clip including FDR and Winston Churchill singing the hymn on HMS Prince of Wales in August of 1941.
(The song is at 4:07. The rest of the video-including some details of this secret meeting between Churchill and FDR- is worth a watch, too. 🙂 )
The adaptation of “Onward Christian Soldiers” as a military hymn was, perhaps not quite as fitting as it seems.
After all, although lines like Onward Christian soldiers/ Marching as to war sound martial, the hymn doesn’t really refer to traditional warfare.
Rather, it’s a hymn of the “Church militant.”*
No, this isn’t a reference to Crusades, or any physical body of Christians charging off into battle. Rather, it refers to the Christian life on earth, locked in a struggle against spiritual forces of sin and evil. (This is in contrast to the “Church triumphant” in heaven, free from all of those struggles and sorrows.)
Of course, whether the hymn had to do with literal marching or not, perhaps for the infantry men who were Christian, just singing these words was a comfort: Crowns and thrones may perish/ kingdoms rise and wane/ But the Church of Jesus/ Constant will remain.
Even many years later, it was one of Grandpa’s favorites.
Below are a couple of options for listening to “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The first is a full choral and orchestral version, the second is instrumental piano with the text written on the screen.
While each has its merits, neither of these quite captures my memories of this hymn.
When I think of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” I can only hear the untrained voices of a little congregation of friends and family, gathered in mourning and hope, singing it for Grandpa’s last march Home.
Many thanks for visiting.
*To clarify a little theology: the capital “C” in church describes not a building or particular denomination or group, but rather all Christians of all time- it’s also sometimes called the “invisible Church” since membership is a matter of the heart and something that only God can see.