Hymn Stories: Onward, Christian Soldiers

Onward, Christian Soldiers” was written in 1865 with no intention of ever being published, especially in adult hymn books. Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, its author, was at that time the curate of a parish in Yorkshire county in the north of England, and he recounts how and why he wrote it:

It was written in a very simple fashion … Whitmonday is a great day for school festivals in Yorkshire, and one Whitmonday it was arranged that our school should join its forces with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to the other, but couldn’t think of anything quite suitable, so I sat up at night resolved to write something myself. “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was the result. It was written in great haste, and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly nothing has surprised me more than its great popularity.

Though it was never meant for publication, it was nevertheless found its way into a periodical later that year, and soon it became included in English hymnals around the world. Louis Benson suspects that it caught on in the United States, at least in part, because it tapped into the “soldier-spirit left in the hearts of young and old Americans by the four years of the Civil War” which had just ended.

In 1871 Arthur Sullivan wrote the tune “St. Gertrude” for the hymn, which further popularized the hymn and has ever since been its standard melody.

Due to its militaristic theme and martial melody, the hymn has encountered some resistance in recent years, and some church denominations have removed it from their hymn books entirely. However, it is appropriate to remember that Paul commands Timothy to “share in suffering as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:3), and that he instructs the church to “put on the whole armor of God” because we wrestle against the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6).

The words of the hymn make it clear that the focus is on this spiritual battle—that our foe is Satan, not men, and that our King and Commander in Chief is the eternal, omnipotent Christ whose kingdom cannot fail.

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.

At the sign of triumph Satan's host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell's foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

What the saints established that I hold for true.
What the saints believd, that I believe too.
Long as earth endureth, men the faith will hold,
Kingdoms, nations, empires, in destruction rolled.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ's own promise, and that cannot fail.

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King,
This through countless ages men and angels sing.

The Christian Post