A seldom-quoted stanza of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" says

In the beauty of the lillies Christ was born across the sea
with a beauty in his bosom that transfigures you and me.
As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
while God is marching on.

My question is, what does it mean when it says that Jesus was born "in the beauty of the lillies"? I thought the story was that he was born in a manger, not among lillies. Is there any reference to lillies in the Biblical description of Jesus' birth?

Or does the "in" mean "with", i.e. is it saying that Jesus was as beautiful as a lily when he was born? That could be a reference to the line in the Bible about how King Solomon was not arrayed so finely as the lillies of the field.

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    Religion without metaphor is a rainbow without color. May 7, 2014 at 3:09
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    The cantor who used to sing at my parish always sang that verse with lots of gusto, I miss that so much! I always just assumed it meant that palestine was known for its lilies when the song was written, thanks for asking this question!
    – Peter Turner
    Jun 24, 2014 at 12:32
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    I get the impression that Julia Ward Howe was often more concerned with getting a rhyme and making the words fit the metre than in having them make sense. After all, that other line "He is coming in the glory of the morning of the wave" doesn't make a lot of sense either. It's a catchy number but I'm not surprised that (so I understand) Northern soldiers usually preferred "John Brown's Body". It must have been far easier to understand.
    – mike stone
    Sep 6, 2017 at 9:13
  • It's poetry. Poetic usage is figurative, not literal. Sep 6, 2017 at 17:18
  • @mikestone I thought the John Brown version came first.
    – user3961
    Sep 6, 2017 at 23:07

5 Answers 5


According to this site, the first draft of the song actually had the words

In the whiteness of the lilies he was born across the sea

And then the final version of the song, which was first published in 1862 had the words

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea

That same site references a book by Edmund Wilson entitled Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966). On page 96 of that book, the author suggests that the lyrics may be referring to Easter lilies (which are associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus).

Absent any reason given by Julia Ward for choosing those words, we can merely speculate as to why she chose them. Based on the context, though, she was clearly wanting to convey the hope portrayed in Jesus' birth and the beauty of what He accomplished in stark contrast to the darkness underlying the rest of the song.


The answer I think may be found by comparing it to that other song from the same general time period that says "He's the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star; He's the fairest of ten thousand to my soul." (i.e. The Lilly of the Valley).

Its reference to Song of Solomon 2:1, "I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys."

  • I think you're correct. The Lilly of the Valley is on of numerous an attempts to make the Song of Songs less controversial by reading parts of it as though it is describing the Messiah.
    – mojo
    May 7, 2014 at 4:47

it's a reference to the Sermon on the Mount. consider the lilies of the field. Jesus says that the lilies are more beautiful than Solomon in all his glory. Solomon was the richest king in the history of Israel.since Christ was born in poverty, in a stable, any beauty that he had would have to be the beauty of the lilies. meaning in a beauty not provided through work, toil, or riches.


From my research I have concluded, that:

1. The Lilly is touted as the purest white of the flowers and is the standard of
whiteness used in judging other flowers.

2. The word transfigured according to Merriam Webster 'TRANSFIG'URE, v.t. 
[L. trans and figura.] To transform; to change the outward form or appearance.

It seems to me, that what the writer meant to convey is that just as the Lilly is the standard for judging the purity of other flowers, so Christ is the standard by which man's purity is judged. And that because of his purity we are changed into something of comparable beauty as is the Lilly.


I thought the word in the Battle Hymn of the Republic is not "born" but "borne", meaning "carried". The idea is that, in His death and resurrection, Christ crossed the sea that separates this life from the next. So the reference would be to Easter, not to Christmas, and lilies are a traditional decoration for Easter celebrations.

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    At least Wikipedia has it as "born", not "borne": en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Battle_Hymn_of_the_Republic#Lyrics May 7, 2014 at 17:12
  • And AFAIK the sea is not used in any Christian metaphor to symbolize passing between this life and the next. Jul 23, 2014 at 2:58
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    The word is "born," as in "being given birth to," not "borne," as in "carried." See my answer here. Apr 12, 2016 at 15:30

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