On Onward Christian Soldiers

2 minute read

One of my regular tasks is to work with the parish director of music to choose hymns for our Sunday services. Normally this is a fairly uncontroversial process, notwithstanding mistakes such as the one that led to us singing “Lord, enthroned in heavenly splendour” three times in seven weeks.

Last Sunday, however, we apparently made a bit of a controversial choice. I suggested we should sing “Onward, Christian soldiers” as our introit hymn. It wasn’t in our hymnal (the turgid Hymns Old and New: New Anglican Edition), as it was replaced by the bowdlerised “Onward, Christian pilgrims”, so it had to be printed off in our weekly notice-sheet.

I rather like it. I like the tongue-in-cheek melody (written by Arthur Sullivan). I like the scope for organists to play around with tempo and volume. I like the way that other people like it. It’s almost impossible to sing without a smile.

And I like the words and the imagery. Plenty of other people do as well. Several people made positive comments to me.

Others didn’t.

“Onward, Christian soldiers” is apparently a highly controversial hymn and, without going into too many details, I can say that I was made aware of that on Sunday.

Apparently the hymn glorifies war and is “bellicose”. Apparently it is supposed to make us take up arms and set to invading Greenland.

Let’s pass over the history of the hymn, where it has been sung proudly by civil rights campaigners. Let’s pass over the clear point of the hymn, which is to apply military imagery to a spiritual journey. Let’s pass over St Martin of Tours, who refused military service with the words “I am a soldier of Christ: I shall not fight.” Let’s pass over the fact that the “sign of triumph” behind which Christians march is the Cross of Christ, hardly a ringing endorsement of military power.

Let’s pass over all of them and focus on a particularly pernicious aspect of the campaign against the hymn.

It’s the idea that Christians should not be willing to associate themselves with soldiers. According to this philosophy, being a soldier is immoral. It’s a kind of aggressive, left-wing pacifism that says soldiers are incompatible with Christianity. We should be ashamed of soldiers, not proud of them.

What unpleasant rubbish. The military, both in this country and abroad, is a proud and honourable calling. Being a soldier (or a sailor or an airman, etc.) is a hard and painful calling, not just a job, that demands everything a person has and then more. It is an act of supreme service, putting other people’s safety and well-being above one’s own. It is a noble profession, not a shameful one. How is it that just as society has acknowledged the heroism of the military (see Help for Heroes), the church considers them shameful?

You could say that soldiering is noble, but warfare is not. Of course Christianity has much to say about war, but absolute pacifism is a departure from the historical norm. The mainstream of Christianity has consistently acknowledged that warfare is always tragic and sometimes necessary. I refuse to say that all wars are evil and sinful. And even the most evil of wars has room for heroism, glory and honour on an individual level.

For these reasons among many more, I am proud to sing “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and will continue to do so.