North American Women Hymn Writers -- By: Julia Ann Flora

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 11:3 (Summer 1997)
Article: North American Women Hymn Writers
Author: Julia Ann Flora


North American Women Hymn Writers

Julia Ann Flora

Julia Ann Flora is the author of Suffering and Song: Lives of Hymn Writers, and has contributed, other articles on women hymn writers to Priscilla Papers.

In his book, Women Composers and Hymnists, Gene Claghorn lists 356 women hymn text writers who are North American. A few of the most outstanding are Julia Ward Howe (“Battle Hymn of the Republic”), Annie Sherwood Hawks (“I Need Thee Every Hour”), Mary Ann Thomson (“O Zion Haste”), Katherine Lee Bates (“America, the Beautiful”), Mary Lathbury (“Break Thou the Bread of Life”), and Margaret Clarkson (“So Send I You”).

Julia Ward Howe

Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” lived from 1819 to 1910 in New York. Her talents became apparent when she was still young, for she learned several languages and was musically gifted. She contributed articles in magazines before she was seventeen; by the time she was twenty-one, a volume of her essays and poems had been published.

In 1843 Julia married Dr. Samuel Howe, head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind. During the Civil War, Dr. Howe was an officer of the Sanitary Commission. In the autumn of 1861 Mrs. Howe, her husband and several other officers visited the Army of the Potomac. On the way back to Washington the road was filled with infantry. As their carriage passed among the soldiers, she heard them singing popular songs of the day including “John Brown’s Body.” One of the officers turned to Mrs. Howe and remarked, “Why do you not write some good words to that stirring tune?” In her own words she describes the experience of writing the hymn:

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 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 and old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled me verses almost without looking at the paper—I feared to have recourse to a light lest I should wake the baby, who slept with me.

The Atlantic Monthly published “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in 1862, and in the North it became the greatest of the Civil War songs. The hymn was used again during World War I and has found its way into practically every American hymnal.

Annie Sherwood Hawks

Another American woman w...

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