Our Truth Is Marching On

Summer Sundays: Musical Musings from Angelynne Hinson, Chapel Music Director

Sunday August 30, 2020

The end of August marks the end of the summer chapel season. For many years, Rev. Robert (Bobby) Thompson has ended the season with his beautiful singing and powerful sermons. I knew Rev. Thompson when I was a student at Phillips Exeter and then through musical performances in the area. Like most preachers at the chapel, he has served as a guest minister for close to 20 years.

On this final Sunday we will return to where we began in this series – the Nation section of the chapel hymnal. As with most early 20th century hymnals, there are no hymns associated with African American spiritual tunes. In the mid to late 20th century, a variety of denominations included spiritual tunes such as In Christ There is No East or West, There is Balm in Gilead and Were you there?. The Battle Hymn of the Republic (#399) comes closest to identifying with the fight against slavery and the Civil War. Interestingly the hymnal’s editor has an connection to the Civil War. His father, Milton S. Littlefield, Sr., took command of several Union infantries including the 21st Colored Infantry as colonel. After the war, he became known as “Prince of the Carpetbaggers” and swindled states, companies and individuals out of millions of dollars. His son, the editor of the chapel hymnal, disavowed his father and took steps to destroy all the pages of his father’s scrapbook. Littlefield, Jr. was constantly concerned that people would associate him with his father. Littlefield, Jr. died at age 69, in 1934, the year the chapel hymnal was republished. He had dedicated his life to religious and charitable causes.

The Battle Hymn has its provenance soon after the Civil War started. The text was written by Julia Ward Howe in 1861. The tune originated many years earlier perhaps in the South by way of Scotland. For more information, Wikipedia and NPR delve deeper into the hymn’s history. It has been used as a protest song for different political ideologies – from Pete Seeger to Anita Bryant to Martin Luther King. The rhythm and triumphant tone remind us that in times of trouble, we must keep marching on. May the fall and winter be healthy and productive for all of you. As the spring nears, let’s hope that we shall happily anticipate returning to the chapel in person next summer.

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