Let Us Die to Make Men Free: Analyzing the Final Verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

The final verse of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" allows the singer or listener a moment of contemplation before requesting from warriors and the nation the ultimate sacrifice.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

Christianity emphasizes the idea that belief in Christ can make a person new, cleanse sins and bring everlasting life. This transfiguration is made possible by Christ's sacrifice. Thus Jesus died on the cross to "make men holy". Julia Ward Howe reminds the listener of this because in her next breath she says, "let us die to make men free". She and the people at the time of the American Civil War (1861-1864) understood that war was no picnic. There would be casualties. In fact, 620,000 people died in the war.1

Such casualties would be unthinkable in any cause today. As a percentage of population, the losses in the American Civil War cost six times the American lives lost in the Second World War. As a reflection of this, most modern hymn books change "Let us die to make men free," to "Let us live to make men free". This changes in many ways the focus of the song. No longer is it a call to arms, but a tepid call to inaction. It is even slightly jarring. A better single-syllable word would be "fight".

Whatever the arguments over "die", "live" or "fight", it is certain Julia Ward Howe believed the Civil War worth the expense in lives and treasure in order to "make men free". There is general agreement among the peoples of the world's great nations that slavery is an evil. The huge price the United States paid in the American Civil War has often been painted as an atonement for a national sin. Arguments will long rage over whether there is even such a thing as national sin. What is certain is that the Union army was inspired by this hymn. The North found strength in its stirring words.2 Ultimately, Mrs. Howe's work played a roll in bringing victory to the Union and, ultimately, making men, women and children free.

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Interesting Fact:

The last verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic makes explicit that this hymn is about making war to free the slaves in the Civil War.

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