This is not a hymn for the faint of heart.
President Heber J. Grant went so far as to call it a “battle hymn”, in the Improvement Era in 1919.
And rightly so. This is not a hymn about making small good decisions every day, though such is a legitimate gospel topic. No, this is a hymn about standing for Good when Evil is bearing down with indefatigable force. This is a hymn about turning back the torrent of the adversary’s fiery darts when their sheer volume blots out the sun. This is a hymn about choosing Right just when it is the most difficult, disadvantageous, inconvenient, inopportune, embarrassing, and back-breakingly, titanically painful.
The chorus, originally the third verse but adapted as the chorus for the LDS hymnbook, lacks nothing in clarity:
Do what is right; let the consequence follow.
Battle for freedom in spirit and might;
And with stout hearts look ye forth till tomorrow.
God will protect you; then do what is right!
The text’s concept of consequences is particularly striking. Note that it does not say to let the consequences follow for bad actions; rather, the hymn acknowledges that there will be consequences—positive, perhaps, but the implication is that short-term negative consequences are just as likely—for the decisions we make to do the right.
The scriptures are clear that obedience to God’s commandments will afford us incomparable positive consequences after this life: life with God, as God lives. But the chorus of this hymn strikes much closer to home, with the suggestion of negative consequences—it is reminiscent of Peter and John leaving the presence of the Sanhedrin, after having been beaten and commanded to not preach Christ anymore, “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name” (Acts 5:40-41).
The hymn instructs us to look forward with stout hearts with an eye to tomorrow. But note the wording: The hymn doesn’t speak of tomorrow as another day, when we’ll wake up and face our set of challenges again. No, the hymn instructs us to look forward till tomorrow—the dawning of a brighter day, when Right will finally win over evil, forever.
All throughout, the text’s unknown author exhorts us to the right—indeed, the Right—without specifying exactly what it is that the Right comprises. As imperfect beings, this frustrates us, and results in a tendency to delineate what exactly is entailed in keeping the Sabbath Day holy and what specific articles of clothing are or are not modest. This act of delineation is perhaps itself also imperfect, as the Lord’s specific instruction isn’t to look for a list to tell us what He would have us do, but rather to study it out, ask Him, and ultimately feel deep in our souls that our actions are right (D&C 9:8-9).
There is nothing overly sophisticated, esoteric, or complex about this 150-year-old text. It’s a call to action. A call to arms.
One for those who are not faint of heart.