Onward Christian Soldiers

Onward, Christian Soldiers

"Onward, Christian Soldiers" is a 19th century English hymn. The words were written by Sabine Baring-Gould and the music by Arthur Sullivan in 1871. Sullivan named the tune "St. Gertrude," after the wife of his friend Ernest Clay Ker Seymer, at whose country home he composed the tune.

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.



The lyric was written as a processional hymn for children at Horbury Bridge, near Wakefield, Yorkshire. It was originally entitled, "Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners." According to the Center for Church Music, Baring-Gould reportedly wrote Onward Christian Soldiers in about 15 minutes, later apologizing, "It was written in great haste, and I am afraid that some of the lines are faulty." He later allowed hymn-book compilers to alter the lyrics. For example, The Fellowship Hymn Book, with his permission, changed the phrase ‘one in hope and doctrine’ to ‘one in hope and purpose." For the 1909 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, he changed the fifth line of the same verse from ‘We are not divided’ to ‘Though divisions harass." However, Baring-Gould’s original words are used in most modern hymnals.

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.

Later history

When Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met in 1941 on the battleship HMS Prince of Wales to agree the Atlantic Charter, a church service was held for which Prime Minster Churchill chose the hymns. He chose Onward, Christian Soldiers and afterwards made a radio broadcast explaining this choice:

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).

In popular culture

The song is sung in a number of films and television programmes. In the 1939 film, Stanley and Livingstone, by Sir Cedric Hardwicke leading a choir of African natives in his portrayal of Dr David Livingstone. Henry M. Stanley is played by Spencer Tracy in the movie. The piece appears in several other films, including Major Barbara, Mrs. Miniver, A Canterbury Tale, The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, M*A*S*H, Taps, Striptease, Walker and Flyboys. It is also sung or played in episodes of TV series, including Little House on the Prairie, The Simpsons, Little Britain and Dad's Army.

The song is also used in Jean-Claude van Itallie's America Hurrah, an anti-Vietnam War political play.



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