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The fifth verse of Julia Ward Howe's The Battle Hymn of the Republic, as published in 1862, goes like this:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory 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. (source)

What does the phrase "Christ was born across the sea" mean? Another question provides a tremendous explanation of the first part, regarding the lilies, so I'm hoping you can help me with the last part of this line.

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    I think it refers to the crossing over from earthly physical life to spiritual heavenly glory but can't find reference for that right now. – Kris Apr 9 '16 at 12:52
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    It's very easy to come up with figurative explanations to make it make sense. But what was the writer thinking? That's the hard part to figure out. – Steve Apr 9 '16 at 13:17
  • The song was derived from John Brown's Body (an abolitionist anthem) and influenced by related soldiers' songs during the early Civil War period. The Wikipedia entry on this song explains it well enough. Getting at one discrete phrase requires getting a look at wherever the artist's papers and manuscripts are collated. – KorvinStarmast Apr 11 '16 at 20:36
  • This question may be off topic for this site since consensus is that it was a union propaganda anthem and not a Christian song. – Kris Apr 15 '16 at 17:29
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First, just to be clear, this line is about Christ's birth, not about his being carried somewhere.

As explained at Grammarist.com here:

  • "Borne is the past tense and past participle of bear in all senses not related to birth," while
  • "Born is also a past tense and past participle of bear, but it’s reserved mainly for use as the passive verb in contexts relating to birth."

(The non-bold italics are added in both cases.)

If the author and the various editors of the lyrics to the song had wanted to say that Christ was "carried across the sea," they would have written "borne," not "born." Their consistent use of the form "born" indicates that the line is about Christ's birth.

Having established that:

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910) was an American. Therefore the simplest explanation for the line "Christ was born across the sea" in The Battle Hymn of the Republic is that the Holy Land, where Jesus was born, is across the "sea," or ocean, from North America, where the lyrics for the song were written, and where the song achieved great popularity both as a hymn and as a patriotic song.

Whatever metaphorical meanings the line may carry (and for Americans of previous centuries, living "across the sea" from their origins in the Old World continents did have a quasi-religious symbolism as they established a new nation on one of the continents of the New World), the most likely basic meaning is that the song is picturing Christ's wondrous birth ("in the beauty of the lilies") as having taken place across the ocean from the land where the song was set, in Civil War America.

This wondrous birth is then set in apposition to the power of his death "to make men holy," invoking enduring themes and metaphors of birth and death.

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Songwriting is Word Sculpture

It is hard to nail down what goes on in a poet's or a song writer's head as they sculpt words and phrases to craft a verse. (As a dabbler in poetry I reach far and wide for rhythm and rhyme. It's not as easy as it looks).

Any estimate is at best partly right without an explicit statement from the artist. But there are some clues.

Whence "Christ Was Born Across the Sea?"

A songwriter alive in the same time period penned a Christmas carol about the news of Christ's birth being "brought from oversea." The artistic point is strikingly similar to Howe's "Christ was born across the sea."

The Christmas carol, written by best estimates a few years before Julia Ward Howe wrote the Battle Hymn of the Republic, uses "oversea" which means "across the sea" quite literally.

The term "overseas" comes to English from the French outre-mer. The capitalized version Outremer was a general name given to the Crusader states established after the First Crusade: the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, the County of Tripoli and especially the Kingdom of Jerusalem. It is in that land where Jesus was born: Outremer. (The Holy Land, more or less ~ oversea ~ across the sea).

Masters in the Hall is a carol crafted by William Morris sometime before 1860. The carol is a song of celebration of the promised birth of Christ the Lord.

Masters in this Hall,
Hear ye news to-day.
Brought from over sea,
And ever I you pray:
Chorus Nowell! Nowell! Nowell! Nowell, sing we clear ...

I know about this song because we sang it in sixth grade choir. It wasn't until I was an adult, and learned about Crusades/Outremer, that I made an association between the two.

It's a song that is contemporary to the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Did Howe borrow from that tune, or did she as an educated person have enough familiarity with history, the classics and poetic styles to arrive at the same turn of phrase independently? Unknown, and either answer is as likely. Her story is that she came up with it on her own ...

I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, 'I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.' So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper (Howe, Julia Ward. Reminiscences: 1819–1899. Houghton, Mifflin: New York, 1899. p. 275.)

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Julia Ward Howe was hardly a Christian as we understand Christianity today. She and her husband were Unitarians. They were contemporaries of John Brown and admired him and financially supported him. http://chasvoice.blogspot.com/2012/04/battle-hymn-of-republic-what-it-really.html?m=1

Historian/author Howard Ray White writes an exhaustive piece on the history of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Well into it we come across the following in depth analysis of the fifth verse:

As originally written, the fifth verse continues the deification of John Brown. “In the whiteness of the lilies he was born across the sea,” paints an image of a Christ-like John Brown being carried across a vast span, such as being carried from earth to Heaven. The reference is not to Christ because the “he” is not capitalized. “Born,” also sometimes spelled “Borne,” is the past participle of “bear” and has potentially far more meanings than giving birth to a baby. Anyway, what is the point of mentioning that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, beyond the far shore of the Atlantic Ocean? Furthermore, John Brown is pictured as being carried from earth to Heaven, “With a glory in his bosom that shines out on you and me.” Clearly the terrorist leader is being carried to Heaven by angels, his soul being filled with a “glory” that shines its light down upon the people of the northern States, like a bright star, offering encouragement that they join his spirit in the holy crusade. Equating John Brown to Jesus Christ reaches a crescendo in the third line, where Howe had written, “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Again we see “he” not “He.” Anyway, Jesus Christ did not die to make bonded people independent, he died for their sins, and other people’s sins, to symbolize God’s grace. Again the God that is seen “marching on” is “Our God,” somehow different from other people’s God. But before this verse would be published in February, the meaning would be inverted: Jesus Christ would replace John Brown. The wording would then seem strange and forced as it would become, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me.” This message now strikes me as silly and without pertinence. But did the editors also goof and overlook two capitalizations? Why did they not capitalize “his bosom?” and “he died?” Perhaps that was an oversight.

The salient point offered by White here is that born=borne and it was used in this song to indicate the transfiguration of Christ or John Brown from earth to heaven.

Source. http://www.abbevilleinstitute.org/review/understanding-the-battle-hymn-of-the-republic/

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    In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, is the verse. Been singing this song since I was about 5. (Mom and Dad were both Yankees). Not sure why the author you cited references the pronoun he or He rather than Christ, the noun/name used in the verse. Interesting answer, but puzzling analysis by your source. PS: Christ died to make men Holy, John Brown did not. I don't think Howe would blashpeme like that. (But I am guessing). – KorvinStarmast Apr 12 '16 at 20:33
  • I doubt this is a serious scholarly piece. In fact, it almost reads like a parody—especially in the final lines. Or perhaps like a piece of revisionist history attempting to inject an entirely different meaning than the song originally carried. – Lee Woofenden Apr 12 '16 at 20:50
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    On reading a little more of the website, it's clear that this is not so much a "history" of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" as an attack piece against it, written from a Southern, secessionist point of view, complete with charged language and ridicule aimed at its author, Julia Ward Howe. Even a cursory reading shows basic errors, such as making much of "he" vs. "He." The King James Version does not capitalize pronouns that refer to God/Christ, so using this as evidence that the song is not referring to Christ simply holds no water. – Lee Woofenden Apr 12 '16 at 22:17
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    @Kris When reading such articles, you must keep in mind that while Howe was a hero for the North, she was a villain for the South. That will heavily color accounts of her life from both sides. Also, Unitarianism in the 1800s was quite different than it is today. Doctrinally they did reject the divinity of Christ, but they were still very Christian in orientation, and looked to Christ as a man who was especially holy and close to God. I make no particular judgments about Howe's level of "Christianity." But the Christian symbolism in the song is very clear and striking. – Lee Woofenden Apr 14 '16 at 17:15
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    @Kris The lyrics are speaking poetically. Also, there are many legends about Jesus' birth that have made it into popular culture even though they are not in the Gospels. For example, he is commonly depicted in Christian art with a halo around his head even as a newborn, although no such thing is mentioned in the Gospels. – Lee Woofenden Apr 14 '16 at 22:01

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