In 1861, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe heard Union troops singing at a review outside Washington D.C. She composed the well-known verses of the Battle Hymn of the Republic to the tune of “John Brown’s Body.” In time, the song with her words became the most recognized hymn of the Civil War. Her last stanza:
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on. (Civil War Heritage Trails)
In 1901, during the War in the Philippines that followed the Spanish-American War, Mark Twain—most glorious of American Tricksters—mused that Filipinos, to whom we were extending the “Blessings of Civilization,” were surely saying to themselves: “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” In Twain’s estimation, it was necessary that the Battle Hymn of the Republic be “Brought Down to Date” to conform to the kind of war the U.S. was fighting in the Pacific. The final stanza of Twain’s version:
In a sordid slime harmonious, Greed was born in yonder ditch,
With a longing in his bosom—and for others’ goods an itch—
As Christ died to make men holy, let men die to make us rich—
Our god is marching on.
(Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays 1891-1910, The Library of America, 1992)
In the early twentieth century, the British National Anthem “God Save the King” contained the following second stanza (seldom sung today):
O Lord our God arise,
Scatter his enemies
And make them fall;
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all!
These are sentiments that would be agreeable to any modern Conservative politician—British or American. But they were not agreeable to Sir Edward Elgar, composer and Master of the King’s Music. He asked George Bernard Shaw to write a “replacement for the inappropriate and heathenish stanza.” (Archibald Henderson, GBS: Man of the Century, 1956.) Shaw complied:
O Lord our God arise!
All of our safety lies
In Thy great hands.
Centre his thoughts on Thee,
Let him God’s captain be,
Thine to Eternity,
God save the King.
Let God make the King or Queen center their thoughts on Him; let them be, for Eternity, his “Captain.” There is no safety in chariots, or legions, or armies, or drones, except in God’s “great hands.”
Such acts of Creative Mythology (Joseph Campbell) must be made—and must be treasured by us—if ever we are to complete the alchemy of turning our swords into plowshares.