Sabine Baring-Gould: “Onward Christian Soldiers”
One of the most prodigious examples of Christian ministry is found in the legacy of the Anglican priest who gave the world the much-loved song, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Generations of Christian children were raised singing the verses of this song with wide-eye enthusiasm and even more gusto as they sang its refrain. The life and ministry of this song’s author is a legacy of both articulated Christian principles and ardent Christian practice. For this reason, believers of every generation will be greatly edified with even a brief understanding of the life and ministry of Sabine Baring-Gould.
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Sabine Baring-Gould was born in 1834, the eldest son of Edward and Sophie Baring-Gould. As an Anglican priest, Sabine spent most of his life as the Squire and Parson of Lewtrenchard, a parish and village in west Devon, England.
Endowed with a photographic memory and mental aptitude to learn languages, he spent many of his early years and much of his education traveling the European continent with his family.
Against the wishes of his parents, Sabine set out to take on holy orders and enter life as a minister in the Anglican Church. Studying the classics at Clare College, Cambridge, he did not excel as a scholar in the university. As early as seventeen, Baring-Gould resolved to restore the deteriorated manor house and St. Peter Church at Lewtrenchard and rouse the spiritual interest of the people. He was granted this wish in the latter part of his life.
Moving to Ripon to become Deacon, he became the curate of Rev. John Sharp, rector of Horbury in Yorkshire. In 1865, he was ordained priest in the Anglican tradition and was sent to Horbury Brig to organize a church mission there.
A great story-teller, Baring-Gould used his talents at the evening school (Sunday School) he established, and the hymns he wrote, including Onward Christian Soldiers, quickly became favorites.
In his second year at Horbury, a challenge was placed before him. It was the custom of the county of Yorkshire to observe a day of festivity the day after Whitsunday (Pentecost), on Whitmonday. Baring-Gould was deeply troubled because he believed that the scholars of his Sunday school did not have an appropriate song to accompany them in their march from their village to where the Sunday school rally was being held. This faithful minister toiled throughout Sunday night until he had composed a new song for the momentous occasion. The next day, Whitmonday, he and his children marched to the neighboring village, singing for the first time, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
In 1866, he met a young factory girl by the name of Grace Taylor. Against the disapproval of both sets of parents, Sabine and Grace determined to marry, and Sabine sent Grace to York to live with the family of Rev. John Sharp, under whom he had been curate, for the purpose of completing Grace’s education. Two years later, on May 24, 1868 Sabine and Grace were married. Together they were married 48 years and had fifteen children, fourteen of whom lived to adulthood.
In 1867, he became curate in the town of Dalton in Yorkshire and began to write to supplement his parish income. Not all of his works were entirely spiritual in nature. About 1870, he was offered the Anglican church of East Mersea which he accepted and to which he moved his family.
When his father died in 1872, Sabine received the 3,000-acre family estate of Lew Trenchard (Lewtrenchard) and its accompanying title of squire, but because an elderly uncle was the incumbent minister of the parish, Sabine and his family remained at East Mersea another nine years. In 1881, Sabine Baring-Gould appointed himself parson to the living that had become open on the estate and returned to Devon to be both the parish Parson and Squire at Lewtrenchard.
Much of the money received for his writing was invested directly in the life of his parish, where he assisted parishioners with the repair of houses and farmers and the construction of new cottages. In addition, revenues were also used to restore the parish church of St. Peter and the manor house, which, today, serves as a hotel. Lew House (or Lewtrenchard Manor) was built in the early seventeenth century but it was greatly altered. Sabine resided there for many years.
Baring-Gould died in January 1924, and is buried in Lewtrenchard churchyard, next to his wife, Grace.
Baring-Gould was one of the most remarkable men of his age. From 1854 to 1906, he published eighty-five books on religion, travel, folk-lore, mythology, history, sermons, popular theology, fiction, and biography. His fifteen-volumes Lives of the Saints are perhaps his most well-known work. In addition to his published books, he contributed to the life of the English Church as the editor of The Sacristy, a quarterly review of ecclesiastical art and literature. The literary catalog of the British Museum is said to list more titles by Baring-Gould than any other writer of his generation. When discussing the measure of his accomplishments, he said, “The secret is simply that I stick to a task when I begin it.” He once said that he did his best work when he felt least inclined to apply himself to the task at hand. He did not wait for inspiration, but plunged into the task until it was finished.
Like Pastor Baring-Gould, the importance of the Sunday school was shared and advanced by outstanding Christian leaders, including Bushrod Washington (nephew of President George Washington), John Pollock (who inscribed our currency with the motto, “In God We Trust,” when director of the US mint in Philadelphia), Dr. Benjamin Rush (“Surgeon General” of the American Continental Army), Francis Scott Key (composer of the our National Anthem), and many others. They were deeply convinced that if America was to be great, the Republic must be continually established upon the Word of God.
Above all other legacies stands the hymn for which he is remembered around the world. In a nation of extensive moral decay and a world nearly at war with the followers of Islam, believers need to hear again the plea of this faithful pastor: “Onward Christian Soldier! Onward Christian Soldier!”
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;
Forward into battle see His banners go!
At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee;
On then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!
Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;
Brothers lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.
Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng,
Blend with ours your voices in the triumph song.
Glory, laud and honor unto Christ the King,
This through countless ages men and angels sing.
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus going on before.
America deserves to know its true heritage.
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 In addition to the novels he wrote, he also penned the Book of Were-wolves and Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. In 1870, he outraged some Protestants, Anglicans, and Catholics alike with his Origin and Development of Religious Belief. For this work he was offered the living of East Mersea in Essex by W. E. Gladstone.
 A datestone on the house indicates that the work was begun in 1620.
Bailey, The Gospel in Tunes, 370.