When Julia Ward Howe penned new words to the popular Union soldier song, “John Brown’s Body”, she drew an overt parallel between the Abolitionist movement and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It was a bold move. It paid off, though, as Battle Hymn of the Republic is now among the most beloved patriotic songs in the United States.
But this hymn is not about freeing slaves from bondage. Or perhaps it is, just not only in the way the Union soldiers of 1861 were thinking.
Let’s look at the third verse, which speaks of Jesus’ birth “in the beauty of the lilies”. Lilies are Easter flowers, though, so when we sing of a Christ who was “born across the sea…with a glory in his bosom,” we probably aren’t referring to the Baby Jesus. Instead we are singing of the Resurrected Lord, reborn when He rose from the tomb on the third day. It is this rebirth that “transfigures you and me”.
That same resurrected Jesus appeared alongside God the Father to Joseph Smith nearly two thousand years later (but, interestingly enough, only a few decades before Sister Howe wrote these verses). It was then that the Lord, as the second verse says, “sounded forth the trumpet that will never call retreat”. The fullness of the gospel would never again be taken from the earth. Restored light and truth freed mankind from the darkness of the Apostasy.
When the Book of Mormon was translated, we learned more about the connection between the Atonement and our freedom:
And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given.
Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. (2 Nephi 2:26-27)
The Savior suffered so we could be free from the bonds of sin, and He rose again so we could be free from the bonds of death. Heavenly Father then gave us freedom to choose for ourselves whether to follow Him or not. We, as Latter-Day Saints, know these truths; not everyone does. Therein lies our obligation to “live to make men free.”
Let us bring men to an awareness of the source of their freedom to choose. Let us teach them the law, so they can know the consequences of their choices. Let us show them how to repent and come unto Christ that they may be free from sin. Let us invite them to take the necessary steps that lead to eternal freedom. Let us perform those same ordinances by proxy for the dead so that they too may be free. Let us live our lives in such a way that we lead others to Christ and help them become truly free.
The glory of the Second Coming of the Lord has been foretold. Until that day comes, “Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer him; be jubilant my feet!” for His truth is marching on.