When have I not known this hymn? Not originally an LDS hymn, this is one I can join many of other faiths and sing with gusto and faith about our great Lord. I know from my experiences with this hymn that it was "made popular" because it was sung so much in the U.S. Civil War. Those men--both sides--were fighting for what they believed were their rights and freedom. Rights to live free, basically. And many on both sides probably felt their cause was just and that God would guide them in their fight. I am very grateful that the Lord did eventually bless us to keep our country together. If we can only continue to do so today when so much internal contention is tearing us apart.
I grew up with recordings of this hymn, mostly sung by MoTab, and of course being THE recording. My favorite arrangement. So I was thrilled when I toured Europe with the band and choir that this was one of the numbers we did together. Up till then it had always been a boisterous, wahoo-our-Lord-is-wonderful kind of song. Another one looking forward to His coming (thus still a Second Coming song). But it was not until I sang it in a cathedral in Paris, where my view took in a statue of my Savior on the cross that the last verse truly struck home with how spiritual the song can be to those who open up to its message of healing, strength, Atonement, and courage. I have never been able to sing this song the same since!
(Except for perhaps the time our visiting Nauvoo group sang it on one of our travels and the chorister led it SOOOOO slowly that we all believed that army was never going to make it.)
From the history book
The author of this hymn, Julia Ward Howe, just before the Civil War began, heard this familiar tune--often sung to words comic or satirical--being sung with words about John Brown's body. (Having studied West Virginia history, I was familiar with that version as well.) Her former pastor was visiting from Boston and encouraged her to write more uplifting words. She woke one morning with a poem in her mind, and hurried up to write it before she forgot. It was first published in 1862 and spread rapidly. It was originally written as a battle cry for the North side of the Civil War. But as the book says, "its meaning far transcends the original purpose." Other hymnals have 2 other verses, one concerning the Civil War background (which is in the version that is close to my heart) and one about the Second Coming:
I have seen him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read his righteous sentence in the dim and flaring lamps;
His day is marching on.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave;
He is wisdom to the mighty, he is honor to the brave;
So the world shall be his footstool, and the soul or wrong his slave.
Our God is marching on.
This hymn was sung in early hymnody, but not in the 1950 hymnal. It was brought back in 1985, to which I am very grateful. I do love this song.