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: http://www.chrisbeetles.com/gallery/animals/cats/gilbert-and-sullivan.html