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When Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, on Whitsunday, 1865, sat up a greater portion of the night to compose a hymn, he did not realize he was writing words that would be sung through the centuries; but that no doubt will be the result of his zeal. The hymn he wrote was “Onward, Christian soldiers.”

The story is an interesting one. At that time Baring-Gould was minister of the Established Church at Lew-Trenchard, England. On Whitmonday the children of his village were to march to an adjoining village for a Sunday school rally.

“If only there was something they could sing as they marched,” the pastor thought, “the way would not seem so long.” He searched diligently for something suitable but failed to find what he wanted. Finally he decided to write a marching song. It took the greater part of the night to do it, but the next morning the children’s pilgrimage was made the lighter and happier by “Onward, Christian soldiers.”

Commenting on the hymn some thirty years later, the author said: “It was written in great haste, and I am afraid some of the rhymes are faulty. Certainly, nothing has surprised me more than its popularity.”

In this instance, as in many others that might be mentioned, the tune to which it is inseparably wedded, has no doubt contributed much to make it popular. Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan, the great English organist who wrote 324 “The Lost Chord,” in 1872 composed the stirring music now used for Baring-Gould’s hymn.

Objection has sometimes been voiced against the hymn because of its martial spirit. However, it should be noted that this hymn gives not the slightest hint of warfare with carnal weapons. The allusion is to spiritual warfare, and the warrior is the Christian soldier.

We are reminded throughout this hymn of Paul’s martial imagery in the sixth chapter of Ephesians, where he tells us that “our wrestling is not against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world-rulers of this darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places,” and admonishes us to put on “the whole armor of God.” We also recall the same apostle’s exhortation to Timothy to “war the good warfare,” and to “fight the good fight of faith.”

It is salutary to be reminded by such a hymn as this of the heroic character of the Christian life. The follower of Jesus is not to sit with folded hands and sing his way into Paradise. A sickly, sentimental religion has no more place in the Christian Church today than it had in those early days when apostles and martyrs sealed their faith with their life-blood. Baring-Gould’s hymn seems almost an exultant answer to Isaac Watts’ challenging stanza:

Must I be carried to the skies

On flowery beds of ease,

While others fought to win the prize,

And sailed through bloody seas?

We sometimes hear it said that the Church of Christ has fallen on evil days, and more than one faithful soul fears for the future. Baring-Gould has reminded us here of Christ’s 325 “own promise” that, though kingdoms may rise and fall, His kingdom shall ever remain, for the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

During a desperate battle between the French and Austrians in the Napoleonic wars, a French officer rushed to his commander and exclaimed, “The battle is lost!” Quietly the general answered, “One battle is lost, but there is time to win another.” Inspired by the commander’s unconquerable optimism, the French army renewed the struggle and snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat. That has ever been the history of the Church of Christ.

Baring-Gould was one of England’s most versatile ministers. In addition to his hymn-writing, he was a novelist of considerable reputation. For many years he regularly produced a novel every year. His “Lives of the Saints” in fifteen volumes, his “Curious Myths of the Middle Ages” and his “Legends of the Old Testament” are all notable works. It is said that he did all his writing in long hand without the aid of a secretary. He once declared that he often did his best work when he felt least inclined to apply himself to his task. He never waited for an “inspiration,” but plunged into his work and then stuck to it until it was finished.

The beautiful evening hymn, “Now the day is over,” is also from Baring-Gould’s pen, and, to show his versatility, he also composed the tune for it. He was also the translator of Bernhardt Severin Ingemann’s famous Danish hymn, “Through the night of doubt and sorrow.”

Despite his arduous and unceasing labors, Baring-Gould lived to the ripe old age of ninety years. He died in 1924, but his hymn goes marching on.

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