FamilyLife Today® Podcast

Hymns That Celebrate Victory

with Ace Collins | October 31, 2006
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On the broadcast today, Ace Collins, author of the best-selling book Stories Behind the Hymns That Inspire America, explains the origins of some of our country's greatest military ballads.

  • Show Notes

  • About the Host

  • About the Guest

  • On the broadcast today, Ace Collins, author of the best-selling book Stories Behind the Hymns That Inspire America, explains the origins of some of our country's greatest military ballads.

  • Dave and Ann Wilson

    Dave and Ann Wilson are hosts of FamilyLife Today®, FamilyLife’s nationally-syndicated radio program. Dave and Ann have been married for more than 38 years and have spent the last 33 teaching and mentoring couples and parents across the country. They have been featured speakers at FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway since 1993 and have also hosted their own marriage conferences across the country. Cofounders of Kensington Church—a national, multicampus church that hosts more than 14,000 visitors every weekend—the Wilsons are the creative force behind DVD teaching series Rock Your Marriage and The Survival Guide To Parenting, as well as authors of the recently released book Vertical Marriage (Zondervan, 2019). Dave is a graduate of the International School of Theology, where he received a Master of Divinity degree. A Ball State University Hall of Fame quarterback, Dave served the Detroit Lions as chaplain for 33 years. Ann attended the University of Kentucky. She has been active alongside Dave in ministry as a speaker, writer, small-group leader, and mentor to countless wives of professional athletes. The Wilsons live in the Detroit area. They have three grown sons, CJ, Austin, and Cody, three daughters-in-law, and a growing number of grandchildren.

Ace Collins explains the origins of some of our country’s greatest military ballads.

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Hymns That Celebrate Victory

With Ace Collins
October 31, 2006
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Bob: In late November of 1963, Americans became acquainted with a hymn, "The Navy Hymn," as the body of President John F. Kennedy was carried up the steps of the Capitol to lie in state.  Here's Barbara Rainey.

Barbara: It's not a hymn that I grew up singing or that I knew.  I finally learned it just in the last 10 years, and I think of it, honestly, as a great song for Thanksgiving, even though it's not traditionally associated with Thanksgiving, but it's a hymn asking God to protect those who are on the seas. 

 And so when I think of Thanksgiving, and I think of the Pilgrims coming over the ocean in the Mayflower, and I think, "Gosh, if they had had that song, they would have been singing that.

["Navy Hymn"]

Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, October 31st.  Our host is the president of FamilyLife, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll learn today how "The Navy Hymn" became the Navy hymn.  We'll learn about the Englishman who wrote it as well.  Stay with us.

["Navy Hymn"]

 And welcome to FamilyLife Today, thanks for joining us on the Tuesday edition.  We have had some listeners who have contacted us because of the appearance this week by one of our callers, Mr. Know-it-All.

Dennis: This actually happened a year ago, too, Bob.  You'll recall we had some listeners …

Bob: Who felt we were harsh with Mr. Know-it-All.

Dennis: Well, they couldn't believe that we gave him airtime.  I mean, he had some of the greatest yarns about how …

Bob: … yes …

Dennis: … mistletoe became mistletoe and …

Bob: It was – yeah, they were …

Dennis: Remember that one?

Bob: They were frayed yarns, I'm afraid, in this case.


 And, actually, he has already appeared this week as we've been talking about some of the songs that are patriotic, songs with Thanksgiving in mind, songs that, during this time of the year, we ought to reflect on and sing heartily and, I think, sing all four verses if there are four verses.  I think we stop too soon on some of these songs.

Dennis: I think you're right, Bob, and I'm thrilled that Barbara joins us on the broadcast.  Welcome back, sweetheart.

Barbara: Thank you, glad to be here.

Dennis: It's always good to have my wife on the broadcast.

Bob: Yes, it is.

Dennis: And, Bob, you say that I do a better job when she's here, so …

Bob: Yes, you do.

Dennis: So I'm on my toes with her in the studio.  And, you know, when we feature Mr. Know-it-All it's always good to have the standard-bearer of truth.

Bob: That's right.

Dennis: Ace Collins.  With a name like "Ace," huh?  You have to trust him, you know, to be the truth.  Ace, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.

Ace: Always enjoying being here and always enjoying hearing from Mr. Know-it-All.  Whenever I hear from Mr. Know-it-All it reminds me of something my grandfather told me when I was four years old up in Ash Flat, Arkansas.  We were walking along the road, and he saw a politician out there on the street corner handing out cards and making promises, and at the time I didn't understand what he meant – I do now.

 He said, "Remember, son, the man that don't lie ain't got nothin' to say." 


 And I think of that with Mr. Know-it-All from time to time.

Bob: As a matter of fact, Mr. Know-it-All is on the line with us, because he knew we were going to be talking about one of the songs that is a great hymn of America.  Mr. Know-it-All, are you there?

Mr. Know-it-All: I am, and I think I was just insulted.

Bob: No, no, no, that was meant to be very complimentary.

Mr. Know-it-All: Oh, oh, well, thank you, Ace.

Ace: No problem.

Bob: Mr. Know-it-All, can you tell us what your research has unearthed about the song that we often sing during the Fourth of July, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic?"

Mr. Know-it-All: Ah, yes.  You know, a lot of people think that's a patriotic song but, you know, like a lot of those songs from that era, it really – it didn't start as a patriotic song.

Bob: Yes?

Mr. Know-it-All: Bob, do you remember player piano rolls?  They were like mechanical pianos?

Bob: I remember those, yes.

Mr. Know-it-All: Well, that song was actually published by a company called the Wrath, Grape, and Scythe Company.

Dennis: Run that by again, Mr. Know-it-All.

Mr. Know-it-All: The Wrath, Grape, and Scythe Company.  They were a company, they made a couple of different machines, okay?  They made a machine called – the Wrath brand grape crusher, and they also had their new – this is why they wrote the song – the electromechanical scythe and harvester, and they had a little ditty they sang, and it was, you know, where he's trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored.  They promised that this machine would strike terror into the hearts of lazy farmhands everywhere.

Bob: Did they write "Bringing in the Sheaves," too – same company?

Mr. Know-it-All: The same company.

Dennis: The invented that machine, too, didn't they?

Mr. Know-it-All: The same company, see, that's how it actually happened.

Bob: Thank you, Mr. Know-it-All.

Mr. Know-it-All: That's how it actually happened.  I know Ace is going to tell you all kinds of stuff that just isn't true about this song.  Ace, you've got to stop that.

Dennis: Stay on the line, Mr. Know-it-All, I think you're about to get an education.

Barbara: So is he saying this was the first advertising jingle?

Bob: I guess that's what it was, Ace.

Dennis: Picture "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" being an advertising jingle.  I don't think so.

Ace: Well, what they're using on TV now as advertising jingles, you never can tell.

Dennis: That's exactly right.

Ace: It may show up.  Well, that was very close to the truth.  You know, and it was rooted somewhere in there, because grapes are rooted, but, I mean, other than that, other than that, you know, he missed a couple of key elements.

Bob: Yeah, a couple.

Dennis: Okay.

Ace: The melody itself had been around for many, many years before the Civil War and was used during the early days of the Civil War to sing a tribute to the great freedom abolitionist, John Brown.

Bob: [singing] "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave" …

Barbara: Now, did you really learn that as a kid?

Bob: Yeah, I did.

Ace: And Julia Ward Howe and her husband, who was a doctor, were going through Washington on a carriage ride, and a bunch of troops were getting ready for their battle, you know, going out in battle the next day by going to their local pub and partaking of the spirit, shall we put it that way?  And when they partook of enough spirits, they would go out in the street and sing together, "John Brown's Body Lies a-Mouldering in the Grave," and, you know, the people who were listening to it in Julia Ward's carriage made the comment, you know, "That is a fabulous melody.  Why doesn't it have better lyrics?"

 Well, Julia Ward Howe went home that night, and she couldn't go to sleep so she got up, and on hotel stationary and started writing a new version of that song.  And she wasn't too impressed with it, but nevertheless she sent the poem to "The Atlantic Monthly," who published it, and people in the North started singing it all the time.  As a matter of fact, it became Abraham Lincoln's favorite song.  He felt that it should be played literally every time the troops gathered, and it was played throughout battles and around the United States.

 And most music from the Civil War era that was sung literally was lost after the war was over.  This song continued to be performed by many African-American congregations because they viewed it as a freedom hymn.  And so today it's known as a "freer of the soul."  But when they were singing it in 1862, they were also embracing the freedom that they now had as people in this country.

Bob: I'm being told that Mr. Know-it-All said that was actually piano roll Jordan, piano roll.  So, I don't know what to think about that.

Dennis: You know, I'm listening to you, and I'm thinking about some of the great hymns that have been written around the battle motif, and the Bible speaks of there being a battle in the soul and the hearts of men and women over who they're going to obey, and it's the battleground of the human heart where decisions are made that determine our legacy and our destiny, and ultimately, if we end up serving Christ, we become a soldier.

 There's another song called "Onward Christian Soldiers," that you've done some research into.

Ace: It's a children's song initially.  That's kind of hard for people to believe, but there was an Anglican priest, and I'm going to actually read his name off here – Sabine Baring-Gould – who wrote that song, and he wrote it back, really, about a decade before our Civil War, and he, in another community, his church and then a church in another community always got together once a year for a children's rally, and it was their turn, his church's turn, to march to the other community, and so that's what they did, they marched, but it was in the midst of the Depression.  They had no money for new choir robes, they had no money for new banners, but he wanted to do something that was new, so he wrote a new song, the song being "Onward Christian Soldiers," and as they marched into this new town, his children sang that song.

 Now, they sang it to a different melody than we sing it, and he really was kind of embarrassed by it, because he thought it was very poorly written, the song was.  He didn't like the rhyme, he didn't like the meter, and yet the song really swept Britain after that and became a focal point at many of the children's rallies that were held at that time.  This was during the "first revival movement" in Britain.

 Well, the song came to America.  It migrated to America; it was sung to the same lyrics, but then when we celebrated the centennial of our country, this song was used therefore, too, as well in many of those celebrations of "Onward Christian" …

Bob: … in 1876?

Ace: Yes.

Bob: Really, huh.

Ace: And it and "Amazing Grace" were probably the two most commonly used hymns, and they spread like a wave of wind over a nation starting with just a little breath and expanding as they went out until everybody knows them.

Bob: What about a song that didn't start as a poem but started as a bugle call.  "Taps," which we're all familiar with – I learned words to that when I went to camp, but I'm sure those words came much later than just that plaintive melody that we're used to at the close of the day, right?

Ace: And I would like you, if you could, during this broadcast, to recite all of those words as well, because there are actually over 222 different sets of lyrics for "Taps."

Bob: Are there really?

Ace: Yes, and so I'm not sure which one you got.

Bob: I just know "Day is done, gone the sun" – that's the only one I know.

Barbara: That's all I remember.

Dennis: Ace, you know what I've found, though?  Bob knows them all.  He could give them to us.

Barbara: Bob knows, huh?

Dennis: I don't think Mr. Know-it-All's got the corner on this one.

Ace: And "Taps" is a story that's hard to separate legend from fact, because there was a Union officer during the midst of the Civil War in 1862, the story goes he heard someone crying for help.  It was a foggy, foggy night.  He couldn't even see if it was friend or foe.  On his belly he continues to crawl for over an hour trying to find the voice; finds the voice; still can't tell because of the fog if it's friend or foe; puts that voice on his back, that crying man on his back and carries him back to camp, and when he gets back to the camp and the campfire finds out two things.  One, it's a Confederate soldier that he's rescued and saved and, two, it is his own son.

 Now, we don't know if that's true or not.  We do know that in this Confederate bugler's pocket was the melody for "Taps," and when they buried this boy, his son, he had the bugler play the notes that were in this kid's pocket, which is how "Taps" was supposedly associated with funerals.

 I believe that story is true up until a point.  I don't believe the kid in the Confederate uniform wrote "Taps."  "Taps" actually was probably written about a year earlier, and it was written by a general in the Union Army.  The general's name was Butterfield, and his bugler had been given those sets of notes by Butterfield and said, "I am tired of us going to bed, lights out every night, and going to bed with a song that was written by a British guy," and so they played "Taps" for lights out.

 So I think that is the origin of "Taps" right there, but I think the story that is the legend is the origin of "Taps" first being played at military funerals.

Bob: And it is – it's a haunting melody to hear, isn't it?

Ace: Yeah, it is.  Isn't it ironic, though, that a song that was written for lights out now represents two things – it represents the end of a servant's life, a soldier's life, but also, according to people who play it, it's the trumpet call so that heaven can know they're welcoming someone else.

Barbara: I've got a question about a hymn that I really love, Ace, and it's called "Eternal Father Strong to Save," and it's not a hymn that I grew up singing or that I knew.  My father was in the Army, and so he taught my brothers and I all these Army songs, but we didn't learn any of the Navy songs, and this is the Navy hymn.  I finally learned it and became familiar with it just in the last 10 years, and I think of it, honestly, as a great song for Thanksgiving, even though it's not traditionally associated with Thanksgiving, but it's a hymn asking God to protect those who are on the seas. 

 And so when I think of Thanksgiving and I think of the pilgrims coming over the ocean in the Mayflower, and I think, "Gosh, if they had had that song, they would have been singing that," because they went through all these storms and difficult days, and I just think what a good match that would have been had it been written that early.  Of course, it wasn't, but …

Ace: But it was written for much the same reasons, and we can preface this by saying not only do you recognize this as being such a powerful hymn, but this was Franklin Delano Roosevelt's favorite hymn.  It was played at his funeral, and this was the hymn that he wanted to hear during World War II, and whenever he went on a Navy ship to go to Yalta or someplace, they played this hymn for him. 

 And so what you feel, I think, is universal in people who have heard this hymn.  And it was written by a man named William Whiting who was from Great Britain, South Hampton, and he used to look at the ocean all the time.  But once he was caught in a mighty storm, kind of like "Amazing Grace," which we talked yesterday and thought he was going to go down, and he fell on his knees and prayed and prayed and prayed and was saved.  At that particular point, even on calm days, he recognized how powerful the ocean was, yet he also recognized the power of God for saving him.

 Well, he had a student who was going to America, and the student did not want to get on his ship.  He was afraid of storms.  He was afraid the ship would go down, and he kept talking about, to Whiting, "I don't want to go to America.  I won't make it.  I'll drown.  The ship will sink."

 Whiting wrote this poem, "Eternal Father strong to save whose arm hath bound the restless waves, who biddest the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep.  O hear us, when we cry to Thee, for those who peril in the sea."  And it goes on through three more verses and gave it to the student to read over and over again as he wept.

 And from there it was reprinted in little tract forms and from tract forms into books and matched with music, and it was an American sailor who heard it first in Britain and brought it back to America and took it to the Naval Academy choir and said, "Let's sing this once."  And it was so moving that it became something that closed all Navy chapel services thereafter and, to this day, still does.  And therefore the American Navy adopted this as if you will something to keep in mind that as powerful as they were, they were not as powerful as the sea nor were they as powerful as the one who calms the sea.

Barbara: I don't know if our listeners all know this hymn or not, but it was sung at the end of the movie that many, many people in America saw recently – "The Perfect Storm."  So I don't know if that will sort of click with anyone who is listening, but they played that at the very end of that movie.

Bob: It's another haunting melody – [sings] "Eternal Father strong to save, whose arm doth bind the restless wave."

Ace: But we're talking about – when we're talking about patriotic songs, realistically speaking, we're talking about songs that have some haunting elements, because when you're talking about hymns, in general, there were martyrs, there were people who gave their lives to the cause.  The same thing is true of freedom.  There are people who give their lives to establish freedom for other people, so not every patriotic song can therefore be uplifting in its meter and its lyrical value.

 You know, obviously, "God Bless America," is – and "America the Beautiful" is.  Some, though, have to paint the realistic picture of how much it takes to sustain faith, to hand it down, to pass it on.  Because there is a trial, there is a path that you take that is not always an easy path.

Dennis: And listening to you describe these hymns, again, patriotic hymns, hymns of the nation – how many of them, because they were centered around battles and death and dying and sacrifice and paying the price, pulled the nation back to God.  And I think today, as a country, as we move toward Thanksgiving, it would do us well to do the same thing in our hearts – to go back to God and, first of all, as individuals and families, give thanks for God's goodness.

 I know as we gather together at Thanksgiving, Barbara and I will be leading those children who are able to come home now as adults, as we go around the table and we talk about over the past year the five things we are most thankful for.  And I think Thanksgiving, unique as holidays, can be used by a family to turn hearts toward heaven.

Ace: Well, and I think what you're saying, too, is if you look at this book, and you start evaluating it and pulling out when these songs were written, you'll find that they were either written or introduced, by and large, when the country was going through a tremendous test, be it the Civil War, be it the Revolutionary War, be in World War I, be it World War II, even be it Vietnam, they were going through tests and therefore when you're tested is when you reflect and when you seek out the things that are deep within your heart.

 Now, I once asked the songwriter, Willie Nelson, you know, why he hadn't written anything good recently.  He said he wasn't hungry.  You know, you write to make money.  You write because you're hungry.  I think people, therefore, when they're tried start looking deeply at their faith and what it means to them.

 When everything is good, and there's a lot of parables about this that Christ talked about.  When you've got the money, and you've got the big house, and you've got all the luxury items, you know, suddenly God is not as significant, and you also overlook the least of these all around you.  You overlook the men and women around you who, at Thanksgiving, you should be looking to.  I mean, let's face it, many of these hymns are about one thing – they're recognizing that we, as human beings, are the least of these.  In a world we are pretty powerless but with God we're pretty powerful, and therein is the magic of the stories that you find in "Eternal God," the Navy hymn.

 The stories that you find in "God Bless America," you know, the stories of the fact that we, as human beings, are insignificant until we're actually doing something that is significant.

Bob: I have a friend of mine who told me that he's using this book that you've written, "Stories Behind the Hymns that Inspire America," for family devotions.  They're reading one of these stories and listening to the song or singing it together as a family and, certainly, this is the kind of month in which that kind of family devotion is something that would be highlighted, and I know Barbara, at Thanksgiving time, you read your book – I guess you read it to your grandchildren now when they come over for Thanksgiving.

Barbara: No, the big kids listen, too – all the adult kids – everybody sits around the table.

Bob: Is that right?

Barbara: Uh-huh.

Bob: And you read through the Thanksgiving story and rehearse what happened when the pilgrims first came to America.  You may want to inject a few of these hymn stories …

Barbara: I'd love to.

Bob: … as you do Thanksgiving this year.

Dennis: Well, in Barbara's book, "Thanksgiving, a Time to Remember," she tells the story of how America was forged and formed, and it came on seas that were stormy, great hardship, loss, sacrifice.  That's all read about as we begin our Thanksgiving time together.

Barbara: Which is why the story is so powerful.  It's why it continues to be a story that you can read year after year after year, because it reminds us of how good God has been to bless us, and that those who went before did make great sacrifices that we could enjoy freedom and that we could live in a country where we can be prosperous.  And so reflecting on their hardship and their losses and their sacrifice prompts us to be grateful, which is the whole purpose for reading the story year after year, is to foster and to nurture and cultivate a heart of gratitude.

Dennis: And I just want to challenge every family listening, whether you're a single-parent home, whether you're a single person, use this Thanksgiving as an opportunity to reflect on how God's goodness has been upon you and your family over the past year.

Bob: And point your family in that direction as well.

Dennis: That's right, lead them in this direction.

Bob: Well, and I guess if you're going to do that, you're going to need more than a turkey.  You're going to need a copy of Barbara's book, which we have in our FamilyLife Resource Center; a copy of Ace's book, which shares the stories behind some of the "Great Songs That Inspire America," that's the title of the book.  In the back of Barbara's book, there's a music CD that features instrumental arrangements of many of these hymns and more.

 You can go to our website,, and request any of these resources.  Just click the "Go" button that you see in the middle of the home page.  It's a red button that says "Go," and that will take you right to a screen where you'll get information about the hardback edition of Barbara's book, the audio book, which also includes the music CD, and then Ace Collins' book, "Stories Behind the Hymns that Inspire America," and if you order a copy of Barbara's book and Ace's book together, we'll send along at no additional cost the CD of our conversation this week with Ace Collins, which includes more than we were actually able to include on the air because of time constraints.

 Again, the website is, click the red button that says "Go," or call 1-800-FLTODAY, and someone on our team can make arrangements to have any of these resources sent out to you.

 Let me say a special word of thanks, if I can today, to those folks who not only tune in and listen to our program but who, from time to time, will either pick up the phone or will go to our website and make a call or log on and say, "We want to help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today and make a donation."  We are listener-supported, and those of you who do make a donation from time to time, you help keep this program on the air in this city and in cities all across the country, and we appreciate our partnership with you.  In a very real sense, you are helping to provide this daily radio program not just for your family but for other families, other couples, who tune in and listen but who, for whatever reason, are not able to help support this ministry.  So let me say thanks to those of you who have done that in the past and remind you that if you'd like to make a donation to FamilyLife Today it's easy to do. 

 You can go online at, click the "Donate" button over on the left side of the screen, and that will take you to a screen where you can make a donation or call 1-800-358-6329, 1-800-F-as-in-family, L-as-in-life, and then the word TODAY, and you can make a donation over the phone, and we appreciate your financial support.

 Now, tomorrow we are going to hear more of the stories behind some of your favorite hymns including an interesting story about where the text for the children's song, "Jesus Loves Me," came from.  That's coming up tomorrow; I hope you can be with us for that.

 I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team.  On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine.  We'll see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.

 FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas, a ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ.

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