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The "Battle Hymn of the Republic" contains the following lines:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so my grace shall with you deal."

The plain meaning of the line seems to be something along the lines of "I will deal with you in the same fashion that you deal with those who mock or despise me," which would seem in line with verses like Mark 11:25-26 ("And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.") or particularly Matthew 6:15 ("But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.")

On the one hand, it's an abolitionist song written during the American Civil War, so a line about showing mercy to one's enemies would seem an unlikely inclusion. That suggests the less semantically sensible but perhaps more plausible "Whatever you do those who mock or despise me, I will do the opposite to you" (perhaps as an oblique reference to Psalms 71:13).

In light of all that, what is the meaning of this line in the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"?

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    Showing mercy to enemies is basic Christian philosophy, though the term fiery gospel sets the reader up for fire and brimstone. Commented Nov 12, 2022 at 23:08

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The line has long puzzled readers. In context it is hard to avoid reading “my contemners” as referring to the Confederacy, who have rejected Christian values in taking up arms in defence of slavery. But then the line sets up a parallel between the Union’s treatment of the Confederacy and God’s treatment of the Union, which, if we read it as an allusion to Mark 11:25 or similar passages, as in the question, would seem to recommend that the Union treat the Confederacy with mercy. This is puzzling because the very next line recommends quite the opposite course:

Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel

(This is a reference to Genesis 3:14–15, “And the Lord God said unto the serpent, … I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”)

Edward Snyder noted that the difficult line has the wording “so with you my grace shall deal” (not “so with you I shall deal”) and suggested the following interpretation:

This somewhat cryptic line proves to be anything but a recommendation for mercy, when taken in connection with what follows in line 11. The idea is perhaps this: “Punish without stint those who have scorned me, and I will pour out my grace on you without stint.” The concept grace is peculiarly prominent in the New Testament, but in the sense of free grace, given without bargaining and without reference to man’s deserts. Here, however, Mrs. Howe has a concept more in the mood of Old Testament—a “fiery gospel”.

Edward D. Snyder (1951). ‘The Biblical Background of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”’. In The New England Quarterly 24:2, p. 236.

This locates the difficulty in the line’s first word “as”: the paradoxical interpretation takes it in the sense “in the same manner” but Snyder takes it in the sense “to the same extent”.

Some imprecision of wording is to be expected because of the speed with which Howe composed the song. In her memoir she relates how, after returning from a review of troops near Washington D.C. in late 1861, she awoke early the next morning and composed the song while waiting for the dawn:

To beguile the rather tedious drive, we sang from time to time snatches of the army songs so popular at that time, concluding, I think, with “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the ground; His soul is marching on.” The soldiers seemed to like this, and answered back, “Good for you!” Mr. Clarke said, “Mrs. Howe, why do you not write some good words for that stirring tune?” I replied that I had often wished to do this, but had not as yet found in my mind any leading toward it.

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. I had learned to do this when, on previous occasions, attacks of versification had visited me in the night, and I feared to have recourse to a light lest I should wake the baby, who slept near me. I was always obliged to decipher my scrawl before another night should intervene, as it was only legible while the matter was fresh in my mind. At this time, having completed my writing, I returned to bed and fell asleep, saying to myself, “I like this better than most things that I have written.”

Julia Ward Howe (1899). Reminiscences, 1819–1899, pp. 274–275. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

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I think this interpretation fails to take into account the mentality of those living that war. When at war, you don't acknowledge the other side as fellow Christians deserving of mercy. In order to wage war the state must convince its people that the other side are inhuman monsters, undeserving even of the right to live.

According to these lines, the Confederacy is “contemning” God and, by destroying God's enemies, the Union shall receive God's grace.

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  • Answers are supposed to stand by themselves, not be in discussion with other answers. Could you edit to incorporate an explanation of the interpretation you say is incomplete?
    – bobble
    Commented Jan 16 at 21:40
  • I don't see what this adds to the existing answer.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Jan 17 at 9:30

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