The 5th verse of the Battle Hymn of the Republic

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea

With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me

As He died to make men worthy, let us die to make men free

While God is marching on

Often is changed to "As He died to make us worthy, let us live to make men free"

I know what this does (it changes the entire meaning of the verse and is, quite frankly, disrespectful to the thousands of people who died in the Civil War), but I do not know why. I know songs are often changed to remove offensive terms (like "n*****" being changed to "chigger" in Oh Susanna), but I don't see how "let us die to make men free" could be seen as offensive in any sense, other than the sexism not addressed by the change. Can someone enlighten me to the reasoning behind the change, and possibly when it took place?

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  • While I do not think it is disrespectful to change the words, I chuckled a little at "thousands of people who died." So, in the spirit of this originally being posted on History, we should point out that while strictly true (thousands), the actual number is more properly described as hundreds of thousands: about 650,000. A number that shocked the sensibilities of the world at the time. – Yorik Jun 27 '17 at 14:00
  • Julia Ward Howe was inspired by God to use the words in her original text. I would not change the word from die to live because it changes what the meaning of what God said. The many people that died for a nobel cause should be glorified. The change was made for "political correctness" by a passive culture. I always feel uncomfortable when I hear the new rendition. – Harry Gordon Oct 8 '18 at 20:12

It's a philosophical change. The phrase "die to make men free" has an unmistakeably martial connotation, which matches with the song's origins as a literal "battle hymn" of the Civil War.

The modern version is more pacifist, it has more of a social gospel connotation. The core issue is that people love the song, but have become uncomfortable with its military orientation.

  • I don't think its "uncomfortable" as much as simply situational. Those words made perfect sense for soldiers in the Civil War to sing, because they were literally going off to die. They don't make much sense at all for civilians singing the song in church today. They died, but that should be in the past. Its our job today to live so that nobody needs to die for this again. – T.E.D. Jul 10 '17 at 15:13

I don't see it as disrespectful to those who died in the Civil War or people's uneasiness in signing about battle, rather it is a challenge to us who are living and singing it to live lives that make a difference. By doing so we honor the lives of those who died for the cause of freedom and just perhaps help to avoid putting others in harms way in the future.


I have one idea. People are going to live or die for something. While I do not know the motivations of why it was changed from "die to make men free" to "live to make men free," (yes, it does sound less military) I can think, yes sometimes we must die, but perhaps there is a message here that one way or another, we must sacrifice ourselves for others. Our parents sacrifice there lives to raise us (like cops and firefighters). They may not die but they live for us. Some people have jobs that are a sacrifice to serve others. This idea of a person sacrificing their life is very serious and it can be manifested either in "dying to make men free" or "living to make men free." And this may be a reason which causes both to continue to exist side by side. For me, it is important that both versions exist, though I tend to like the historical version most.


Even today, men and women routinely “die to make men free”. The wolf will always be at the door, and the barbarians at the gate. Living to make men free is a nice sentiment, but the willing acceptance of the charter to die, if need be, in the performance of your duties and the defense of your community and nation is still, to this day, necessary for the maintenance of freedom.

The men who fought for the Union understood this. They knew that the American Experiment could not survive the division of the Union nor could an ostensibly free nation long abide the internal cancer of human slavery. They knew a world that had only recently seen democracy and enlightenment, after millennia of darkness, would just as quickly revert to darkness if they failed to defend their newfound freedom and extend the privilege to their fellow man.

Those who have been to combat understand what Jesus understood in the Garden of Gethsemane - that an acceptance of death is sometimes necessary to do the job. Soldiers go to war with the intention of winning, not dying. But those with a fear of death in their heart cannot prevail. A Soldier must embrace death in defense of liberty, knowing their legacy will endure even longer than the anguish of those who live their lost tomorrows.

Those who die in battle are lost to us in the flesh, but are forever woven into the fabric of human liberty.

This Fourth of July, if you have occasion to sing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, sing this line proudly: “let us die to make men free.”

Then take a moment to acknowledge in your heart all those who did.

  • Welcome to the site. This is a good explanation of how the song was originally written, but does not address the change in lyrics, which is the question I asked. Perhaps you could edit your answer to include this? – cat40 Jun 28 at 21:18

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