HYMN 66 Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord
Isaiah 63:3; Revelation 20:11-12;
Text: Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910). Tune: American Folk
1. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord, He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on,
R/Glory, glory, Hallelujah! Glory, glory, Hallelujah! Glory, glory, Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.
2. I have seen Him in the watch fires of a hundred circling camps, They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps. I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps His day is marching on:
3. I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal.”
Let the Hero born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on:
4. 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 live to make men free While God is marching on:
5. He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave.
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succor to the brave.
So the world shall be his footstool and the soul of Time his slave
Our God is marching on:
The spring of 1960, I was a junior in high school. For our spring concert the choirs and orchestra of my high school played an arrangement of this hymn as done by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a smash hit the year before. The country was unified, it seemed, WWII still a vivid experience for us. The arrangement became popular for large groups to perform, especially with the quiet beginning of stanza three. If you listen carefully, there is a piccolo solo under the second stanza. As the piccolo player in the orchestra, I had to play this. On a Db piccolo. Sometimes I would get it right, other times not. That night, it went fine. But I still get nervous at the “evening dews and damps.”
Memorial Day in the USA. Patriotic songs are in the air, even if we cannot gather in large groups for the traditional parades or concerts. There are few songs so deeply written into the fabric of America than this one. Julia Ward Howe, the writer of our text, was born into privilege: her father was a wealthy stockbroker. She was well educated and took part in the life of the mind during one of America's most exciting intellectual periods: the 1850s.
When she was twenty-four she married Samuel Gridley Howe (1801-1876), scion of a wealthy ship building family. It was a passionate mismatch made in heaven: they shared their commitments to abolition and many other causes; he did not share her commitment to women’s rights, especially her writing. He had many causes, one, the reform of the treatment of the blind, helping establish Perkins School for the Blind.
Julia wrote poetry, keeping it secret from him, while bearing six children. Her writing enraged him, but she continued, to the point of his asking her for a separation. They still continued to be together in their causes while living somewhat separately until his death in 1876.
They vigorously opposed slavery; Howe even supported, secretly, the work of John Brown. Julia wrote this text soon after she had visited Washington in 1861 and heard the troops singing "John Brown's Body." A friend suggested she write new words to the tune.
She said later that she awoke in the early dawn of November 19, 1861. The words to the song were forming in her mind so she got up and wrote them down. They were published in February, 1862, in The Atlantic Monthly.
Julia Ward Howe had become a Unitarian in 1841. Her language, however, in this hymn is Christian apocalyptic. Life is a struggle against evil, Christ will come again to rule over the world, bruising the serpent’s head as prophesied by God in the Garden of Eden after the fall (Genesis 3:15).
Today more than ever our culture seems to be divided into a cold civil war. The virus has only made things worse, it appears. Abraham Lincoln noted in his Second Inaugural address that both sides of the Civil War had prayed to the same God and read the same Scriptures. Now with the peace, he hoped that the nation could bind up its wounds and go forward. Many today are longing for hostilities to cease in our midst. At the same time, they don't want to give up their political convictions. In her final stanza, not well known, Howe uses Scripture to speak of a final day when the Lord will return to rule over us all. Our politics are penultimate, for this world. What is ultimate is the kingdom of heaven. We can pray for an ending to our conflicts, knowing that God still rules.
The tune arose in the camp revivals of the early 19th century, but no one can really say where. Some attribute it to William Steffe (ca. 1830-1890) but he had probably arranged a tune he had heard. Some can trace it to a slave song, others to the revivals. Wherever it came from, it has endured. At the beginning of the Civil War, it became the tune for “John Brown’s Body lies a’mouldering in the grave.” Some people think those words appeared when soldiers sitting around the campfires composed it together—like many early American hymns of that tradition were.
Johnny Cash says on his recording, both sides sang the song and continue to--it wasn't quite true, but it is now. In our time of division, both sides sing it with gusto. Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted it in his last sermon before his assassination; Judy Garland sang it after Kennedy's assassination; Winston Churchill had it sung at his funeral; Anita Bryant sang it at Super Bowl V; the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang it for Obama’s second inauguration. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s performance in 1959 was given the Grammy prize for the best recording of a choir or vocal group in 1960. It is everywhere in the American soul.
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Johnny Cash 1969 Concert
Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir at the 2013 Obama inauguration
Judy Garland after President Kennedy’s assassination.
Winston Churchill Funeral