Julia Ward Howe: More than the Battle Hymn

Julia Ward Howe: More than the Battle Hymn

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Julia Ward Howe: More than the Battle Hymn


"Mine Eyes have seen the coming of the Glory of the Lord…." Almost effortlessly the rest of the familiar tune comes rolling off the tongue. The battle Hymn of the Republic, a traditional and powerful patriotic hymn, will undoubtedly remain that way for years to come. However is the average American able to place a face with that tune? Julia Ward Howe was the bright mind behind the Battle Hymn, but she did not stop there. Howe's life and poetry succeeded in meshing contrasting religions and beliefs, as well as strengthen and challenge the freedoms of women during her time.

In New York City, in the year 1819, Julia Ward was born into a strict Episcopalian Calvinist Family. Loosing her mother at a young age, Julia was raised by her father and an aunt. Not long after her mothers death Julia's father, a successful banker in the city, passed away, leaving Julia in the sole custody of her uncle. During her childhood she had been brought up believing in the strict and conservative views of Calvinism. Julia's mind was filled with the ideas and principles behind predestination and ramus logic, always encouraged to look for the hand of God first and then base everything else in society off of the premises she was taught (30). After the death of her father, Julia began searching for deeper meaning. She went through an intense period of revival as she attended church and became more and more involved with religious activities in the city. She soon began to notice, however, that men dominated this new conviction. Men wrote the sermons, men published the books, and men told her what she needed to do to become closer to God. Soon Julia's strict Calvinist kick would end (48). Prompted by Mary Ward, Julia took a winter "off" from any outside influences to get her thoughts in order. After this time she began to read and research Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson's introduction into Transcendentalism offered Julia the presence of God without the dominating male authority. Transcendentalism theory stressed the immanence of God and his active presence in everyone's life. She agreed with the idea that the bible was not meant to be taken literally, but that one's own intuition could lead to an understanding of God. These new and radical views for her time, coupled with her Calvinist upbringing, seems like it would be the recipe for disaster.

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But instead of a muddled mess, Julia arose from the wreckage a strong and passionate young woman, focused on religion, society, and women's issues (51).

It wasn't long before Julia's charisma, intellect, and wit captured the heart of a young man. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Transcendentalist Reformer, was a man rising in prestige and respect. Serving as director of Perkins Institute for the Blind, Howe was had a become a Unitarian whose strong religious convictions centered on service to the blind, mentally ill, those imprisoned, and as an active opponent to slavery. Julia and Samuel seemed a perfect match. At the age of 21 Julia married Samuel Howe. Together they proceeded to live out the Unitarian faith. Howe continued to believe in the person of Jesus Christ but reasoned that living a life totally dedicated to his teaching and his alone would be closed minded. Howe was said to of stated that religion was more "deed, not creed (51)." Howe's ability to interweave her beliefs into the flowing words of poetry created works that touched many simply because they pleased many. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is possibly the best example of Howe's ability to mesh together Calvinism, Transcendentalism, and the Unitarian faith. Julia presents strong support for the omnipotence of Christ, a Calvinist truth taught to her at a young age. In the first line of the Battle Hymn, Julia opens with the line, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." Clearly the "coming the Lord" refers back to her Calvinist days when she was taught that she should be expecting the Lord to return to take his elect to live with Him in heaven. The spirit of Calvinism appealed to the conservative, God fearing citizens of American while her bold claims about man and his own power and strength attracted Transcendentalist support. In the fifth stanza of the Battle Hymn, Julia states, "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free..." Assuming that the power to free men actually lies in the hands of mortal men, Howe is taking a huge step out for Transcendentalism claiming that human power matches and succeeds in the same way as God's power. The poem was seeped with a overall sense of the religous purpose. The purpose was clearly meant for individuals and society. Those who were going to war were not merely marching off to shoot some southerners, they were creating for themselves and for society, justice(139).

Her early beginnings as a published writer actually stemmed from Samuel's involvement with the abolitionist cause. The fact that her work was in the public eye and that he was aiding in it, further angered Samuel. Their relationship became more abusive. However, they continued to fight together for the causes that mattered(73). They both became a very active part of the U.S. Sanitary commission during the civil war, an institution that saved thousands of lives. Because of her service on the sanitary commission, Howe and her husband were invited to Washington by president Lincoln. While there, a clergy man who was aware of Julia's skill in poetry, asked her to write a new song for the war effort, one that would replace the morbid lyrics of "John's Brown's Body." Little did she know that the words she jotted down that morning would be the song admired and sung by the nation for years to come. She described the writing of the Battle Hymn later by stating this poetic response in itself:

In spite of the excitement of the day I went
To bed and slept as usual, but awoke the
Next morning in the gray of the early dawn,
And to my astonishment found that the
Wished-for lines were arranging themselves
In my brain. I lay quite still until the last
verse had completed itself in my thoughts,
then hastily arose, saying to myself, I shall
lose this if I don't write it down
immediately. I searched for an old sheet of
paper and an old stub of a pen which I had
had the night before, and began to scrawl
the lines almost without looking, as I
learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened
room when my little children were sleeping. Having completed
this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not before feeling that
something of importance had happened to me. (136-137)

Her confidence as a woman and an intellectual did bring about difficulty in her life. Her husband, although initially admiring Ward for her wit and intelligence, did not believe that the women's place was in the public sphere. Her most important duty was to be home with the children, acting as an educator and a homemaker. This environment obviously smothered Julia as well as her creative and passionate juices. But she remained faithful and obedient to her husband out of respect and fear. Julia stayed home and raised six children, four of which made it into adulthood. Her time was spent at church, with the children, or writing poetry (101). Soon Julia began to venture out more and more into the public arena. She was drawn out of hiding through the church and the obvious talent seen by many who visited the Howe residence. Her public life of publishing and speaking was not supported by Samuel and divorce was often times an option or a threat in their household, but the fear of loosing all her children kept her within the literally binding chains of her marriage. Fortunately, her desire was far greater than his oppression and she continued to learn, teach, and produce at will(105).

Slowly but surely, Samuel's resistance to her public life eased and Julia Howe became more and more involved in her writing and society. Her work with the war changed the way she thought about everything. The pursuit of peace haunted her. She was also affected with a deep devotion for her children. After seeing young men die on the battlefield, she was awed and convicted by the remaining silence of women about the issue of peace. "Why do not the mothers of mankind interfere in these matters, to prevent the waste of that human life of which they alone bear and know the cost?" Her convictions lead her to her next major piece of writing, the second work in which she is known for. Julia mustered up all her might and fired away an address, a proclamation of a Mother's Day of Peace (203). The poem was obviously influenced by her deep ties to motherhood and by her devoted involvement to the war-effort. Her attempts to establish a national Mother's Day of peace failed, but the concept was strong and supported nation wide. Howe's involvement with this new crusade led her into the workings of the first Women's Suffrage Movement. Her rich religious background gifted her with the strength, wisdom, and determination to pursue issues above and beyond. Drawing on her sense of power from Transcendentalism and her conviction aid those in need, Julia set out on he second journey of her life. A road less traveled that held many triumphs and challenges and oppression(194).

Julia Ward Howe was not alone in her discoveries between the oppression of blacks and the oppression of women. Once again the theme of slavery that had so manifested itself in her life, was an active ingredient. Not long into the movement, Julia was helping to establish the New England Suffrage Association, then co leading the American Woman Suffrage Association. This stimulated more writings and more lectures in the public eye. During her service to the Women's Suffrage movement she founded and edited the Woman's Journal and published articles on equal education between men and women in Sex and Education(203).

Later on into life, her themes nestled into service and reform. She continued to heavily pursue her involvement with Women's rights and more. She was involved and necessary to those groups. After Samuel died in 1876, Julia traveled Europe and the Middle East for 2 years, returning with more energy than ever, diving into her purpose and service. Julia's service ended strong in 1910. It was recorded that over 4,000 people attended her funeral and that her presence was greatly mourned in many social organizations where she has been a servant(203). In the end, the life Julia led was reflected most honestly and sincerely in her work. As a poet, she was able to capture the tugs of her heart and pen them in a magical way. The influence of Transcendentalism, Christ, the Unitarian church, slavery, motherhood, and reform fueled her passion for writing. Her religious ties imbued in her the strength and confidence she needed to step out into the fire. What began as a Battle Hymn would die as much, much more. The life of Julia Ward Howe can be seen as a tribute to all the women who have conquered the views of society and religion and learned to value and use their own expression, desire, and gifts above all.

Work Cited:

Grant, Mary H. Private Woman, Public Person. New York: Carlson, 1994.
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