STLT#114, Forward through the Ages


Seriously – it was like I had bit into a sour lemon or sipped some turned milk when I sang this. I honestly don’t know when I’ve ever had such a reaction to a song as I have sung; I’ve had lots of “um…what” and “dang, I cannot get this” moments, particularly the first time singing through a complex score. But this one isn’t complex. It’s just… awful.

It starts with a tune that is indelibly imprinted with the lyrics “Onward, Christian Soldiers / Marching as to war / with the cross of Jesus / going on before.” I love repurposing hymn tunes, but it’s hard to separate the tune from those militant lyrics. And learning that WIlliam Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan) wrote the tune doesn’t help. While their light operettas rank high for me for their cleverness and singability, they are all – from The Mikado to Iolanthe to HMS Pinafore – are all about duty. And they all feature major generals and admirals and all manner of military positivity.

The lyrics we use emerge from the late 19th century as well, from Unitarian minister and hymn writer Frederick Hosmer, and heaven help us, carry that same militarism that is found in the original lyrics. “Forward…in unbroken line”… “heroes for it died” … “not alone we conquer” … “loss or triumph” …. Blech.

Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine:
gifts in differing measure, hearts of one accord,
manifold the service, one the sure reward.

(Chorus) Forward through the ages, in unbroken line,
move the faithful spirits at the call divine.

Wider grows the vision, realm of love and light;
for it we must labor, till our faith is sight.
Prophets have proclaimed it, martyrs testified,
poets sung its glory, heroes for it died. (Chorus)

Not alone we conquer, not alone we fall;
in each loss or triumph lose or triumph all.
Bound by God’s far purpose in one living whole,
move we on together to the shining goal. (Chorus)

I won’t use this hymn. It honestly scares me a little to think modern Unitarian Universalists would take up a fight in this manner. Yes, fight – of course, always fight for what is just and right and inclusive and expansive. But this feels very … just wrong in its manner of fighting. And I can’t imagine it would go over well with congregants who fought (or fought against) the 20th century wars, especially Vietnam.

There are many other great hymns to talk about commitment and action and rallying us for the resistance ahead. This one doesn’t work anymore.


Postscript: some might argue that we need to preserve this as part of our history – which says to me there’s a new book to be written, one that collects our musical history so we don’t lose them but don’t use them, because they no longer are in line with our theology and principles. Hmmm. Maybe this project is two books?


Image by Susan Herbert, for purchase here:


  1. During the past 23 years since STLT came out, I’ve never heard this hymn sung in a UU congregation. (Has anyone?) I think it sends shivers (and not the good kind) down the backs of most of us.


  2. I am in total agreement! Growing up Lutheran, we sang this hymn often with the original words. It still leaves a bad taste in my mouth!


  3. Really?

    This is one that pops up once or twice a year in the congregations I frequent (both here in small-town New England.) I guess my reaction to it is neutral to mildly positive – my biggest reservation is that the Onward and Upward to Glory! culturally-white liberal tradition that is its theological framework is, in my estimation, woefully inadequate for these complex and uncertain times. That and people don’t know when to start singing because the first lyric of the first verse is repeated in the chorus.

    I’m partial to the old hymn tunes, though. Even the ones with martial imagery associated.


  4. I just added this to the service I am doing next Sunday on UU history. I had written a comment earlier, but from my phone and didn’t post because of logon problems.

    First, we sang this at FUU Austin. I always liked it because it reclaimed a familiar hymn I could never agree with, with completely different thoughts – to my mind they are not martial at all, but express community and solidarity – differing gifts, manifold service.

    I see the unbroken line not as a line of soldiers, but as a line of pilgrims, trailing back into the past and moving into the future. We are not fighting for a vision, but laboring. And our heroes have died as martyrs, not in battle – think Servetus, Capek, Reeb. Loss and triumph are not solely metaphors for battle – most of our losses and triumphs are not in battle or even in competition, but in the inevitably of all things passing away, or in our strengths and weaknesses struggling within ourselves. “We must labor, till our faith is sight” – until we see the truth.


  5. Like LdeG, I hear not battle but persistent labor in this hymn. (Pilgrimage, not so much–I have different associations with that idea.) I’m writing a service right now about the heritage of resistance. At a moment when things feel so frightening and uncertain, it’s good to know that we are not alone–that through the ages, people have pressed forward towards what is good and right, willing to risk far more than I am urging myself and my congregation to risk.


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