Saturday, January 9, 2016

Onward Christian Soldiers -- Sabine Baring-Gould

The minister wanted to give his young charges a sense of the great task they were entering that Monday, so he thought a marching song was appropriate. An army leapt to Sabine Baring-Gould’s mind as he considered the poetry for “Onward Christian Soldiers” in 1864. The images he paints are vivid and exciting, spurring mental reminders from war pictures that stir one’s spirit. This was the period before moving picture shows, so Baring-Gould must have been drawing upon other resources to compose the lines that he says he dashed off rather hurriedly. His words were meant to mold young children, but they still ring in the ears of adults…we all must feel that conflict is still a reality, huh?

The 31-year-old minister Sabine Baring Gould was trying to inject some discipline, some stability, into the children as he thought about the marching they’d be doing, and perhaps it was something he wished had been a bit more true in his own upbringing. His childhood found him travelling throughout Europe with his family, though England was home, making his education by private tutors necessary. His father’s and maternal grandfather’s military backgrounds must have provided some of the foundation for “Onward…”, as Baring-Gould considered how his own childhood experience might be translatable for the children he was teaching in Horbury in northern England that day in the mid-19th Century. Banners (v.1) whipping in the wind, soldiers in tight rows in lock-step, perhaps singing a martial song in unison – these were memories perhaps from stories his father and grandfather might have told, which stayed with Sabine. And so, when gathering the children for Monday’s march to a nearby village, Sabine thought for a while the previous evening about how he could get his classroom kids to participate in the spirit of the occasion. He says he wrote hastily, and some three decades later was still unconvinced its rhymes were adequate. But, perhaps the aim of its inception was the hymn’s operative factor. Intended to teach and shape its vocalists, “Onward Christian Soldiers” communicates not only the gravity of the believer’s devotion, but the comradeship acquired in a group of followers, too. After all, it’d be tough to fight all by oneself.  

That companionship is celebrated weekly in most believers’ lives. Sunday, resurrection, is no small deal. It deserves a shout! But, I must admit that most of my marching by Monday afternoon, and especially by the time I reach Friday, seems a little weak-spirited by comparison. Think Sabine thought the same thing, or saw it in the faces of those children? A song helps me remember – and it’s why I try to ‘scoop’ a helping of song each Friday or Saturday too. With this techno-age, I don’t need to rely on my flawed memory. I can call other believer-friends, or send them a text, or I can punch a disk into an electronic device to waft that marching scent through my nose and ears once more. Play it again, Sam -- or rather, Sabine!   

See more information on the song story in these sources: The Complete Book of Hymns – Inspiring Stories About 600 Hymns and Praise Songs by William J. Petersen and Ardythe Petersen, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006; Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1990; 101 Hymn Stories, by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Kregel Publications, 1982; and Then Sings My Soul – 150 of the World’s Greatest Hymn Stories, Robert J. Morgan, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Also see these links: This one shows all six original verses:
Read about the town in northern England where composer was in 1865:

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