On this day in history : 15th October 1871 – The Church Times publishes Onward Christian Soldiers – originally written for a children’s festival by the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould….

Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould – Engraving from Strand Magazine – Public domain

It was the Monday following Whitsuntide, 1865…. It had been arranged for the children of Horbury village school, near to Wakefield in Yorkshire, to meet up with children from a school in a neighbouring village…. They were to rendezvous at St. Peter’s Church in Horbury where Baring-Gould was curate at the time….

St. Peter’s Church, Horbury – Image credit : Stanley Walker CC BY-SA 2.0

Baring-Gould wanted a suitable rousing song for the children to sing as they marched along but was unable to find anything fitting…. So, he sat up the night before and wrote Onward Christian Soldiers – it reputedly took him 15 minutes to write the words….

He had not ever intended the song to be published – and when it was later added to the hymn books he apologised profusely for his hastily written words…. He allowed the compilers to change some of his lyrics – for example his ‘one in hope and doctrine’ was amended to ‘one in hope and purpose’….

The tune Baring-Gould had originally set his words to was Joseph Haydn’s Symphony in D No.15…. This did not particularly inspire public interest in the hymn – and even after being printed in the Church Times it did not increase in popularity…. Then along came composer Arthur Sullivan – best known for his collaborations with W.S. Gilbert, where together they produced works such as HMS Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance…. Sullivan wrote the tune St. Gertrude to accompany Onward Christian Soldiers – it was first publicly performed in 1902…..

Winston Churchill further helped increase its popularity when in August 1941 he met with Franklin Roosevelt onboard HMS Prince of Wales to agree the Atlantic Charter…. As part of the proceedings a church service was held, for which Churchill chose the hymns…. Onwards Christian Soldiers was one of them….

Public domain

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