The theme is taken from references in the New Testament to the Christian being a soldier for Christ, for example II Timothy 2:3 (KJV): "Thou shalt endure hardness, as a good soldier of Jesus Christ." The Salvation Army adopted the hymn as its favoured processional.
The Spiritualists' National Union hymnbook has a variation on the hymn, entitled "Onward, Comrades, Onward". Another hymn sung to the St. Gertrude tune is "Forward Through the Ages", written by Frederick Lucian Hosmer (1840-1929) in 1908.
Baring-Gould originally set the lyrics to a melody from the slow movement of Joseph Haydn’s Symphony in D, No. 15. This was printed in 1871 in an English church periodical, the Church Times. The hymn did not receive wide acceptance, however, until Sullivan wrote the tune "St. Gertrude" for it. Sullivan re-used the tune in his Boer War Te Deum, first performed in 1902, after Sullivan's death.
The song has been sung at many funerals, including at the funeral of American president Dwight D. Eisenhower at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, March 1969. Apart from its obvious martial associations, the song has been associated with protest against the established order, as in the cases of civil rights and the attempts to outlaw chiropractry.
An attempt was made in 1986 to strip Onward Christian Solders from the Methodist Hymnal due to perceived militarism. Outrage among church goers caused the committee to back down. However, the hymn was not included in the 1990 hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The song is also used in Jean-Claude van Itallie's America Hurrah, an anti-Vietnam War political play.
Perspective: Onward into History We'll Be Singing Our Own Tune; Trevor Barr Examines the Hymn Onward! Christian Soldiers, My Fair Lady and the Abbey Organist Who Lost His Life Saving a Chorister and All Related to Warwick School
Feb 06, 2004; Byline: Trevor Barr At Warwick School we have a very fine school song but we do not have a school hymn -or at least we didn't...