The existence of war, of any form, in the world today is becoming more and more prevalent and inevitable. This war emanates from various sources – political, economic, personal, and the like. But, there’s that one factor always present in all these kinds of war. And, that’s the most important battle that each believer and follower of Christ must win and the rest of those unnecessary wars will cease. Spiritual warfare. We are all in this battle. Even our great ancestors have encountered this form of war.
In the book of Ephesians, particularly in chapter 6, the Apostle Paul emphasized several times the reality of spiritual warfare. He wrote,
“Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:11-12 ESV)
As soldiers of the Christian faith, it’s our duty to fight evil in all its forms. Certainly, God won’t let us march toward the battlefield without any weapon at all. He’ll arm us with His powerful armors to ensure our victory in the end. Such armors were listed also in the book of Ephesians (6:14-18), namely the truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God, and prayer.
It is from the above context that the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers” was conceived.
Before discussing further its composition history, let’s listen first to this rousing hymn.
Originally, the song’s text was written for a children’s procession for Whitsuntide (Pentecost) in the village of Horbury Bridge, England. It was Sabine Barin-Gould who’s responsible for writing the lyrics which took place in 1865. Then, later on, it appeared in Church Time. It carries the title “Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners.”
Usually, the hymn appears on publications with four stanzas and the refrain. Also, images of war were noticeable throughout the text. These, somewhat, spurred a few controversies in the past decades. Oftentimes, the hymn exhibits interpretations as giving support to militarism and triumphalism. But, as the book of Ephesians stated, the hymn calls all Christian soldiers to combat the forces of evil.
As far as the melody is concerned, it was Arthur S. Sullivan who composed it. The tune was entitled “St. Gertrude” which was presumably based on Gertrude Clay-Ker-Seymer’s name. He was a friend of Sullivan. His powerful composing skills were manifested in the tune’s magnificent outcome. The rhythm has a perfect fitting with text mood. Without a doubt, the hymn’s melody has contributed a lot to its extreme popularity. It’s commonly sung in services with spiritual warfare theme.
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Arthur S. Sullivan, Gertrude Clay-Ker-Seymer, Onward Christian Soldiers, Sabine Barin-Gould