Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
by Anthony Esolen
One of the ironies of our faith must surely be that saints have fought not only for God but also, at times, against one another, and we hope that God in his mercy will forgive us our short-sightedness and ineptitude and, as the poet Herbert says, "make up our defects with His sweet art."
It is the deep middle of the night, in the Shenandoah Valley. The year is 1862, and a young Confederate private huddled in his blanket wakes to a strange sound. It is not an owl or a nighthawk, but the General himself, Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, who has himself taken the watch over his men, and who is singing, or attempting to sing, because he had not the ear for it, though he always had the heart. He is singing one of his favorite hymns, "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," not to our well-known melody Austria, but to Harwell, a melody just as joyful and just as inauspicious for someone who could not sing. General Jackson loved hymns, held regular religious and prayer services for his army, was a man of deep Christian humility, and believed fervently in the justice of his cause.
In that same campaign he came upon a Confederate chaplain and his servant, a black lad named John. When the chaplain, one James Power Smith, approached nearer, he heard Jackson exclaim with pleased surprise, "Why, is that you, John?" The boy had been one of Jackson's Sunday scholars back home, to whom he had given the Westminster Shorter Catechism. That Catechism, said Reverend Smith, might have gone a way toward explaining why the boy John, alone among his servants, could not resist riding out on his mare to behold the action, "and seemed most happy in the fire and smoke of battle."
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Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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