“Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war. With the cross of Jesus going on before.”
– Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865
We don’t sing songs like "Onward, Christian Soldiers" anymore.
The hymn—once the beloved anthem of the Salvation Army, and a fixture of Sunday morning worship services across America—seems to strike an off-note with modern sensibilities.The title alone is enough to make many of the current generation smirk and roll their eyes toward heaven.
Many of our fellow citizens, sad to say, hold little memory and less regard for those who bought our freedom with their blood and “the best years of their lives.”
But the men and women whom we train to point our guns are also the men and women most likely to find themselves in the gunsights of others. Those moments can bring into instant, sharp relief one’s sense of mortality, expectations for eternity, and beliefs about God. “There are no atheists in foxholes,” the army chaplains used to say.
Nor, once upon a time, in the commanding general’s quarters. Seventy-five years ago this week, Dwight Eisenhower—then Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces fighting in World War II—gave an order launching the invasion of Europe. It was the turning point of the war, the greatest military offensive of Western Civilization, and one of the most decisive events of human history.
If it failed, Eisenhower planned to assume full responsibility for the disaster.
That risk of failure—of vainly throwing away tens of thousands of lives as a result of that one command—was an extraordinarily crushing burden for one man to carry. Undoubtedly Eisenhower, awaiting reports from the beaches of Normandy, felt again what he’d expressed in a letter to his wife at the start of another critical battle, the year before. “There was nothing we could do but pray, desperately.”
The general did not let his own burdens blind him to the fears and questions plaguing the legions of Allied soldiers, sailors, and pilots compelled to carry out his orders. The content of his fervent prayers is perhaps best gauged by a statement Eisenhower issued his fighting men on the eve of that D-Day attack:
“You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.”
The general did not play down the extraordinarily formidable challenges his men were facing. But he did encourage them that things had changed dramatically over the last two years, and the Allies now had the resources, weapons, and men to turn the tide. Their commander had supreme faith in their skills and their courage—and in the final victory. He wished them luck, and added, “let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
Optimistic, but realistic, Eisenhower’s words were not those of a “holy Joe” blinded by all-consuming religious fervor. Raised in a home where the Scriptures were read regularly, his faith had largely run silent in the years before the war. But it still ran deep—and the unrelenting pressures of leading a global conflict plumbed those depths … not only for Eisenhower, but for other leaders bearing the burdens of command.
As the “eyes of the world” turned on them, their eyes turned increasingly toward God.
President Franklin Roosevelt—ordinarily no one’s idea of a religious man—led his fellow Americans in an astonishingly straightforward D-Day prayer for protection and victory. “Help us, Almighty God,” he said, “to rededicate ourselves in renewed faith in Thee in this hour of great sacrifice … with Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy.”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill conceded he “could hardly be considered a pillar of the church.” But, after singing "Onward Christian Soldiers" with Allied sailors during the prayer service he organized for his 1941 meeting on the high seas with Roosevelt, he wrote:
“We sang ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ … and I felt that this was no vain presumption, but that we had the right to feel that we were serving a cause for the sake of which a trumpet has sounded from on high. When I looked upon that densely packed congregation of fighting men of the same language, of the same faith, of the same fundamental laws, of the same ideals ... it swept across me that here was the only hope, but also the sure hope, of saving the world from measureless degradation.”
Save it they did—soldiers and sailors, presidents and generals—by virtue of an amazing grace they were not too overwhelmed (or were too overwhelmed not) to realize, respect, and proclaim.
“Onward, Christian Soldiers” was one of the songs played, more than a half-century later, at Eisenhower’s funeral. The great general rests today in a hard-earned peace, his personal sacrifices mostly forgotten, but his desperate prayer—like those of Roosevelt, Churchill, and so many millions of others in those pivotal days—abundantly answered.
He did not find love of God and love of country mutually exclusive, or anything to be ashamed of. He served his country ably as a soldier, general, president, and a Christian. And like all Christian soldiers, he found the things worth praying for to be things worth fighting for.
Americans today—whatever their faith, or lack of it—are the beneficiaries of that love. And the prayers. And the fight.
Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor in the Reagan administration, served as president, CEO, and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom from 1993 to 2017. He continues to serve as founder. He is the co-author with Craig Osten and Ryan Cole of The Soul of an American President: The Untold Story of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Faith, by Baker Books.