Baritones Begone

Consider the first two stanzas of the following hymn-poem:


Soldiers of Christ, arise,
And put your armor on,
Strong in the strength which God supplies
Through His eternal Son.


Strong in the Lord of hosts,
And in His mighty power:
Who in the strength of Jesus trusts
Is more than conqueror.

 Or this verse from the middle of another hymn, as the soul is beset by those malignant spirits that prowl about the earth, seeking the ruin of souls:

Christian, dost thou hear them,
How they speak thee fair?
“Always fast and vigil?
Always watch and prayer?”
Christian, answer boldly:
“While I breathe I pray!”
Peace shall follow battle,
Night shall end in day.

 Or this, the final verse of a third hymn, a petition for chastisement and for the strength that we can never have without it:

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation,
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to Thee.

Think about all these lines. What do they have in common? The first was written by the Methodist, Charles Wesley, in 1749, and is sung to a jaunty march, Silver Street. The second is an English translation from a Greek text, ascribed to Saint Andrew of Crete (660-732). The melody, named for the saint, was composed specifically for the text, moving from an ominous C minor key in the first half of each stanza, to a triumphant C major in the second half, the half that urges us on to triumph over the tempters. The third was written by the Catholic, G.K. Chesterton, in 1906, and was set to a muscular D-minor melody, King’s Lynn, by the incomparable Ralph Vaughan Williams.

A Greek, an English Protestant, and an English Catholic, from the seventh century, the eighteenth, and the twentieth; and of course we could provide plenty of similar lyrics from Christian hymnody, from every age and every nation and, since the days of Luther, every denomination.

What did a Greek monk have in common with the itinerant Methodist, traveling across the ocean to evangelize his cousins in the New World? What did the Roman poet Venantius Fortunatus (The Royal Banners Forward Go) have in common with Chesterton, that bluff journalist and warrior of wit and pen?

They were all Christian men writing about the Church militant in such a way as to stir the hearts of other Christian men, to take action, to put on the full armor of God, to fight the good fight, to follow Christ into battle and victory.

They have one more thing in common. None of them is to be found in Gather, Glory and Praise, or the last two editions of Worship, the most frequently used collections of hymns in Catholic churches in the United States.

"The Chorus" by Edgar Degas, c. 1876
“The Chorus” by Edgar Degas, c. 1876

Plenty of modish-deity-ditties are to be found therein, serenades of Jesus le debonair, and exhortations to be kind to our four-footed friends. There’s a lot of garble (“the vault of heaven springs mute witness”), side-stitches (“loud boiling test tubes”), wobbly grammar (“Thy strong word didst cleave the darkness”), misused words (“A single unmatched stone the builders hurled aside”), unhappy near-rhymes (“Lose your shyness, find your tongue, Tell the world what God has d—”), echoes of Sinatra (“Poet, painter, music maker”), bathos (“publicize his great name”), bowdlerized texts (“born to raise us from the earth”), kazoo Christianity (“his breath makes music in our hearts and mouths”), and lines that are saved from heresy only by meaninglessness (“the rain and the snow are the robes of his choice”).

What’s not there? Other than For All the Saints, and at most two other such for that holy day of obligation, there are no hymns, none at all, that appeal to a man’s desire to give himself wholly in the fight for Christ.

None of the ancient ascesis, that spiritual and physical drill to put you in trim for the battle. Nothing that hints of danger, of a world that hangs in the balance. Nothing for baritones.

And of course, the word “man,” as if it were some vocable scrawled on the wall of a bathroom stall in a seedy diner, scrubbed out.

The hymnal from which I gathered the three texts, the 1940 Episcopal, has about 45-50 such hymns, out of a total of 600. It’s by no means the predominant theme, this of the fighting church, but the hymns are there, as well they should be.

Why then have they been expelled from our Catholic songeries? We can speculate about that. What we shouldn’t speculate about, though, is that we are in dire need of the baritones.

The hymns in those execrable hymnals are, so to speak, all soprano, soprano in harmony with soprano, and maybe a little falsetto now and then.

Let us not fool ourselves. The battle is upon us. We are beset roundabout by a world quickly degenerating into complete insanity, with the most ambitious and unscrupulous among us looking forward to the time when the race will be engineered – to the abolition of man.

We need priests, and plenty of them, and fast. We need fathers, not sperm donors or porn-using begetters of children out of wedlock. We need bands of brothers who will be to one another’s courage as steel sharpening steel. We need quick infusions of courage, that unfashionable virtue without which none of the other virtues have any strength at all. We need true men. We’ll be hard put to get them by consigning manhood to oblivion.

Those who deny this are either living in a feminist fantasyland, or they do not actually want us to win – or even engage – the battle. They should have the honesty to say so.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is Distinguished Professor at Thales College. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.