For two decades as a member of the National Men’s Chorus I participated in the final concert of the season on Memorial Day weekend.
The annual program might be modified to recognize an anniversary such as VE day or a Civil War commemoration. However, most of the repertoire was arranged from popular melodies from the Revolutionary War era through the Vietnam conflict.
These songs, from Columbia Gem of the Ocean to The Ballad of the Green Berets, inspired and reminded listeners of the precious heritage that military conflicts have gained for all Americans.
This respect is especially evident during The Service Medley, as members of each military branch stand and honored as their song is sung.
One of the most uplifting moments in the program is The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861, it is sometimes called America’s second national anthem.
One writer described it as “a warrior’s cry and a call to arms. Its vivid portrait of sacred violence captures how Americans fight wars, from the minié balls of the Civil War to the shock and awe of Iraq. America’s song of itself-how the country feels about war.”
As a call to duty, it has inspired suffragists and labor organizers, civil rights leaders, and novelists—like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
A New Meaning with Another Word
Her poem’s first verse certainly evokes the fury and righteousness of war: (original spelling)
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord
He is trapling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored
He haved loosed the faiteful lightening of his terrible swift sword
His truth is marching on
The final verse call all to sacrifice in this sacred duty:
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
His truth is marching on
But Is Sacrifice the Intent?
My first wife. Mary Ann, died in 1984. In a Memorial Day church service earlier that decade, this Hymn was included. Except the line in the final verse was changed to, As he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free. For her that was the meaning of Memorial Day. We honor those who die by how we serve the living.
Which word best fits America today? What is our call to duty? Are we to remember just the increasingly small percentage of American families that serve and die in the military? Or might there be a more all-encompassing obligation to “truth marching on?”
A Contemporary Interpretation
After the Civil War, Juliet Ward Howe became active in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1868, she founded the New England Women’s Club and was one of the founders of the New England Women’s Suffrage Association. Her sense of duty was not limited to sacrifices in war. She was motivated by a broader view of “civic virtue.”
Would she approve replacing the word die with live? And what would that communicate to today’s listeners and singers?
The Battle Hymn of the Republic reminds us of the sacred (hymn) call (battle) that sustains our country (the republic). Its spirit, I believe, calls forth the responsibility of every citizen to sustain the country’s evolving experience of freedom, which we call democracy.
Relevance for Credit Unions
But what does this have to do with how we carry out our roles in the credit union system?
The Friday before this Memorial Day weekend I received an email from a colleague which said simply: “This is wild” and included a link to an article in CUToday:
The story summarized the intent of fifteen credit unions operating for generations to merge. In some cases, the arrangers of these transactions would receive increased compensation from the event.
What did the sender mean by This is Wild? While I do not know what the words intended, I suspect they reflect a deep concern with this wholesale abandonment of legacies of efforts and resources created by previous members and their leaders.
Those credit union ancestors paid forward the fruits of their labor so the current generation might prosper and build on their efforts. Instead, these leaders chose to hand over their members and inheritance to another, unrelated organization.
Howe’s third verse describes judgment:
He has sounded forth the trumpet
That shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men
Before His judgement seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him;
Be jubilant, my feet His truth is marching on
I believe the writer’s email reaction is raising this ultimate question of values: Can a democratic credit union financial system survive when leaders so easily lose the will and inspiration to continue? In the future, will any cooperative “truth be marching on”?
Here is Mary Ann’s preferred wording of The Battle Hymn of the Republic.