931 Onward Christian Soldiers

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Story Behind the Hymn

In 1864 the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was assigned to a poverty-stricken coal mining community in Horbury Bridge, England where many of the children had lost their fathers due to coal-mining accidents. Baring-Gould saw an opportunity to reach out and bring hope to the hopeless and faith to the faithless as he ministered to those Christ called “the least of these.” To him, Horbury was the greatest and most wonderful mission on earth. He inspired the children with stories of the amazing world of opportunities waiting for them to explore, encouraging them to work hard in school so they could escape the mines and discover the world of possibilities that waited for them. He was well-loved by children and parents alike.

One year into his ministry, he wanted to do something special for the children. With no uniforms and no money for banners, he wrote a song for the annual Pentecost march from Horbury Bridge to Horbury St. Peter’s Church. The day before the parade, he watched the children playing war on the playground. That night, inspired by the children’s activities, he wrote about “marching as to war.” In his own words,

It was arranged that our school should join its force with that of a neighboring village. I wanted the children to sing when marching from one village to the other, but I couldn’t think of anything quite suitable. So, I sat up at night and resolved to write something myself. [This song] was the result.

It took about 15 minutes to write the hymn, originally called “Hymn for Procession with Cross and Banners.” Baring-Gould apologized saying “It was written in great haste, and I am afraid that some of the lines are faulty.” As is common with our beloved hymns, some of the words have been altered through the years. 

In 1941, Winston Churchill chose this hymn for a church service that was held when he and Franklin Roosevelt met to outline American and British goals for the world after the end of WWII. In his words:

We sang [this hymn] indeed, and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals . . . it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.