Onward, Christian Soldiers

From the book "Lead, Kindly Light..."  (Reproduced with kind permission of ‘This England’ magazine)

Sabine Baring-Gould was a complex character who crowded a dozen callings and as many talents into his 90 adventurous years. He was born in the 1830’s in England, and in the 50’s his father sent him to Cambridge to study maths, determined that Sabine should become an engineer. But the project was doomed to failure and Sabine confessed in later years that all his life he had always counted on his fingers! However, the Rev. Harvey Goodwin, Baring-Gould’s maths tutor, succeeded in instilling his 18-year-old pupil with a love of scripture.

A fellow student said that Sabine always appeared serene and undisturbed, with an almost supernatural brightness about his face. He spent much of his time in devotion and much of his money in alms giving, conducting himself altogether according to his faith.

Baring-Gould’s most lasting contribution to English folklore may be the 15 years he spent scouring the West Country in search of old people who could still remember the words and music of folk songs that were already being forgotten.

After a period as a schoolmaster, first in the slums of London and then in Sussex, he was eventually ordained into the Anglican church in Yorkshire. Soon after his arrival, seeing that he had a way with the rough-and-ready Yorkshire folk, the vicar sent Sabine to develop a mission church in a previously neglected part of the parish. He rented a small cottage and opened the ground floor as a night school to educate youngsters and anyone who cared to come along. The upstairs single bedroom he turned into a “chapel”. He also began a Sunday School to teach them Bible stories, and a choir so they could sing their prayers to God. Within a short time Sabine’s mission cottage was packed to the doors with fervent people – young and old alike.

The vicar asked Sabine to have his Sunday School pupils march up the hill from their mission to join the parish church scholars for the Whit Tuesday procession in 1865. Not able to procure a suitable hymn for the children to sing on the long walk, Sabine set about writing a processional hymn himself. He later claimed to have written the hymn in “about 10 minutes” although there was some controversy surrounding this – the full text of the hymn appeared 6 months earlier in the Church Times, under the initials S.B-G. However it came to be, the poor children of his mission sang the hymn with gusto as they marched up the hill behind a brass band leading them into the confines of St. Peter’s parish church. That was to be the first public performance of the hymn that has since resounded around the world from generation to generation:

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 banners go!

 

At the sign of triumph Satan’s legions flee;

On then Christian soldiers, On to victory.

Hell’s foundations quiver at the sound 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.

 

Crown and thrones may perish, Kingdoms rise and wane, But the Church of Jesus constant will remain;

Gates of hell can never ‘gainst that Church prevail;

We have Christ’s own promise, And that cannot fail.

 

Onward, then, ye people, Join our happy throng,

Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song:

Glory, laud, and honour unto Christ our King,

This through countless ages Men and angels sing.

 

Onward, Christian soldiers, Marching as to war,

With the Cross of Jesus, Going on before.