On July 1, 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia of 75,000 men and the 97,000 men of the Union Army of The Potomac under General George G. Meade met in an unplanned confrontation at a place called Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Neither side was properly prepared for what was about to happen. For 3 days, more men actually fought and died than in any other battle on North American soil. In three days of brutal fighting, 172,000 troops battled with over 634 cannon, firing an estimated 569 tons of ammunition, leaving over 8,000 dead soldiers, 5,000 horses killed, 27,000 wounded soldiers, and over 11,000 captured or missing. Historians believe that, despite two more terrible years of warfare, the Confederacy never recovered from its losses at Gettysburg.
Four months later, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the cemetery where the thousands of soldiers were buried. In his dedication speech – the Gettysburg Address – Lincoln started with the words, “Fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…” He concluded his epic speech, saying, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Those veterans who have served in the American Revolution, the War Between the States, two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, the Iraqi War, and the continuing War on Terrorism should never be forgotten. It has been said it was veterans, not the preacher, who preserved the freedom of religion. The veteran, not the reporters, preserved the freedom of the press. Veterans, not the poet, preserved our freedom of speech. It is veterans, not politicians, who preserved our right to vote.
Some years ago, a major Protestant denomination struggled with its new version of its hymnal because it failed to include the hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” The reason the people were given was that the words sounded to militaristic and could be construed as a reminder of the Christian Crusades of the 200 years between 1096 and 1291. We should not become too naïve to misunderstand the meaning of this great hymn: “Onward Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus Going on before. Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle, see, His banners go! Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, Going on before.”
However, this lyric poem, according to Sabine Baring-Gould, its author, was written in about 15 minutes in 1865. His original words are used in most modern hymnals – at least 400 years after the conclusion of the Christian Crusades. His final verse is, “Onward, then, ye people! Join our happy throng; Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song. Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ, the King; This through countless ages men and angels sing. Onward, Christian soldiers! Marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, Going on before.”
It’s clear, in the context of world history at that time Baring-Gould’s intention was not about Crusades, nor was it about the Battle of Gettysburg, Vietnam, Korea, World Wars, or Desert Storm. He wrote about the greatest, largest, and deadliest war of all of human history – Satan’s war against humanity. It is very clear that Baring-Gould’s words pointed to the battle that was won for us when Christ Jesus was wounded for our transgressions, but rose victorious – having defeated our evil foe. It is fairly obvious that we are veterans in this war.
Yet, the history of mankind since the time of Cain and Abel, demonstrates the plight of humanity that led to thousands of years of war and millions of casualties. St Paul wrote to his young friend, Timothy saying, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him.” (II Timothy 2:1-4, ESV)
Let us never forget: We stand in honor and salute our veterans who have battled to keep us a strong and free nation under God. But, we bend our knees and bow before our Captain who has won the ultimate victory for us now and on to life everlasting, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Your servant and follower of our Leader, Jesus,
Rev. Dr. Roger Paavola