"Onward Christian Soldiers": 1790s Version



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By Jonathan Den Hartog

I'm sure no one else on this blog has ever written about a topic only to discover you've missed some evidence. O.K., I'll admit it—it has occasionally happened to me. Fortunately, nothing I've discovered has caused me to rethink my interpretations radically, but it's a good reminder that even after studying a topic for years you can still learn more.

In this case, I've found out more about Timothy Dwight, a figure with whom I feel like I've lived for quite a few years. Dwight bore a prestigious pedigree as the grandson of Jonathan Edwards. He was also a minister, theologian, president of Yale College, member of the literary circle known as the "Connecticut Wits," active Federalist, and general curmudgeon. What I hadn't realized until recently, though, was that he was also a hymn-writer.

Of his hymns, a well-known one still sung today is "I love Thy kingdom, Lord," for which a tinny reproduction exists here

The first stanza proclaims, "I love Thy kingdom, Lord,/ The house of Thine abode,/The church our blessed Redeemer saved/With His own precious blood."

I especially hear Dwight's devotion in a later line that praises the Church's "heavenly ways,/Her sweet communion, solemn vows,/Her hymns of love and praise.

This musical contribution was one area of Dwight's career that I had just not taken the time to investigate, but it's one that probably has had as much public impact as others. After all, this hymn is still in many Protestant hymnals.

I learned from Amanda Porterfield's recent and intriguing book Conceived in Doubt (which I've been thinking a lot about for a review essay) that Dwight's edition of hymns served at least two purposes. First, it worked to Americanize hymnody, by removing extraneous references to Great Britain. Second, it sought to keep Calvinist music up to speed with the Methodists, who were already becoming known for their vibrant music. As a result, there could be multiple reasons for producing a hymn. As other religious historians have pointed out, religious music always needs to be contextualized.

For my purposes, it strikes me that the hymn also has a political connotation. Dwight wrote it in the late 1790s or early 1800s, at a time when he was less than sanguine about the state of the nation. He suspected the republic was being undermined by secret societies like the Bavarian Illuminati and not-so-secret societies like the Democratic-Republicans who were championing Thomas Jefferson for president. That concern would only increase when Jefferson was, in fact, elected. Dwight believed only the good sense of Calvinist New England could now preserve the original ideals of the American Revolution. So, it's interesting that in 1800 he would contrast his very real doubts about the survival of the nation with his permanent confidence in the Kingdom of God. In that way, the hymn might be read as an aggressive response to the "scoffers" who abused church altars and who might produce persecution in the years to come. This is a battle hymn for aggressive resistance. This type of historical background gives the song a great deal more texture than as just one more in the hymnal.

So, I'm glad I've found another piece of evidence--even if it took me a decade to do so.

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