Hymn Story: Onward, Christian Soldiers

Hymn Story: Onward, Christian Soldiers
The well-known hymn, “Onward, Christian Soldiers” was written by S. Baring-Gould (1834-1924) and has been an athem sung by generations of Christians.

Read a story from Carl Price’s One Hundred and One Hymn Stories about the origin of this beloved hymn.

In Yorkshire, England, where Doctor Baring-Gould was stationed as curate of Horbury, it is the custom to observe Whitmonday as a day of festival for the school children. In 1865 his school was invited to march to a neighboring village, there to join the children of another school in the festival exercises.

As he could not find a suitable hymn for the children to sing while marching from one village to another, he sat up late into the night to compose a hymn; and out of those midnight hours came the lines, “Onward, Christian soldiers,” to which the children marched toward their festival and to which hundreds of thousands of Christians have marched in the decades since it was written.

“With the cross of Jesus going on before” refers to the cross, borne at the head of the procession; while the many banners, following it, are pictured in the line, “See His banners go!” It was published in the Church Times in 1865.

The hymnwithits stirring tune, written later by Sir Arthur Sullivan, makes an ideal processional and has been widely used, not only in places of worship, but also upon a great variety of other occasions. Allan Sutherland, in Famous Hymns of the World, describes the wild rejoicing in Philedelphia on election night, 1905, when to signalize the victory of the Reform Movement thousands paraded the streets, singing this hymn; also its use in cheering Christian Japanese soldiers, starting for the war of 1904.

It was the battle song of Roosevelt’s Progressive campaign in 1912. In the World War it was a prime favorite, and was sung by General Feng Yu-Hsiang‘s Eleventh Division of Chinese Christian soldiers as they advanced to battle before Peking in May, 1922.

While some are uncomfortable with the militaristic themes and the historical use of this hymn, it is important to note that Scripture itself contains a great deal of warfare imagery (such as the Armor of God). While conflating the purposes and goals of the state with those of the church–especially in regards to war–is problematic, the hymn itself is a helpful encouragement to believers as we “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12).

Learn about the time FDR and Winston Churchill sang Onward, Christian Soldiers in a secret meeting before the US joined WW2

The Lyrics to Onward, Christian Soldiers

Onward, Christian soldiers,
marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
going on before!
Christ, the royal Master,
leads against the foe;
Forward into battle,
see his banner go!

At the sign of triumph
Satan’s host doth flee;
On, then, Christian soldiers,
on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver
at the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices,
loud your anthems raise!

Like a mighty army
moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
where the saints have trod;
We are not divided;
all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine,
one in charity.

Onward, then, ye people,
join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices
in the triumph song;
Glory, laud, and honor,
unto Christ the King;
This thro’ countless ages
men and angels sing.

Clayton Kraby
Written by Clayton Kraby
I'm a Pastor in North Dakota and created ReasonableTheology.org to help make theology accessible for the everyday Christian. You can find me on Twitter @ClayKraby.