There are multiple versions of the Civil War marching song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The original words to the song include this line:
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.
It’s easy to see why this would be inspiring to the Union soldiers singing it to build morale. They were imitating the example of their Lord, who gave His life to free humanity from the bonds of sin and death. This same Lord said, memorably, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). The North must have been encouraged by seeing themselves in the role of temporal saviors, risking and often giving their lives to free black Southerners from the bonds of slavery. (The famous “grapes of wrath” from the first verse refers to God’s righteous indignation at the evil of the slaveholders, which was in immediate need of retribution, through the instrument of the Northern army.)
Such an analogy was uplifting and appropriate for the soldiers of the time (and, indeed, for soldiers of any time). However, as much as I like the injunction in the hymn to “die to make men free,” I also like the way those words are modified in the hymn book of my church, the LDS Church. In our hymnal, that line reads:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free.
This, too, is inspiring and appropriate, and in harmony with the philosophy of Latter-day Saints for daily life. The shift in meaning here is consistent with, for example, our iconography focusing less on the cross of Jesus’s death and more on things like the spires of our temples, representing our sanctifying movement closer to Him, through the grace of an eternally living Christ.
Though Jesus may be said to have given his life by always submitting to His Father’s will and spending his time and effort in teaching, healing, and comforting others, certainly His mission was focused on the sacrifice at the end of His mortal life. Conversely, unless we engage in combat for the military, our mode of service is expected to be of the teaching, healing, and comforting kind. Willingness to give up one’s life on the battlefield is noble, but for those of us not called upon to serve in such a capacity, there is still a noble function to fulfill.
All Americans, then, have the same faithful and patriotic duty: not to look for opportunities to die in the service of God and neighbor (though such may come and often have), but to consecrate all of one’s self, daily, to live in the service of others. Such service may well be poetically phrased as “making men free,” from ignorance, from poverty, from sickness, from sadness, and from whatever else may afflict the world, through the work we get to do on the spiritual battlefields of life.
On this Independence Day, let me express my profound gratitude to all who have lived and died, in war and in peace, to make men free. May we all so live and die. God bless America.