Mraching to Zion(Robert Lowry, 1826-1897, & Isaac Watts, 1674-1738)
MARCHING TO ZION (1867), inspires an energy that fits its American revival context perfectly. Robert Lowry adapted this hymn text and composed an original tune for it. Lowry was a Baptist preacher in the United States ministering and teaching during the critical time of the Civil War, a time coinciding with the rise of revivalism. He is widely recognized for his compositions, and was noted for adding refrains to popular hymns.
The repetitive nature of the text in Lowry’s version reflects the energy of a revival atmosphere, making the text more easily sung in cultural settings where not all present were literate. The refrain of Lowry’s version changed the focus from a reverent recognition of “Heavenly Joy on Earth,” to a proclamation to a community setting out on a journey. The addition of Lowry’s refrain increased the popularity of Watts’ text and enhanced the joyful message of the original text:
We’re marching to Zion,
beautiful, beautiful Zion.
We’re marching upward to Zion,
the beautiful city of God.
According to the hymnologist Ann V. Smith, the Scriptural references for this hymn come from Revelation 14:1-3, 21:21, and 7:17. These passages address the joys of the saints, singing as they “surround the throne.” In stanzas eight and nine of the original poem (omitted in most hymnals today), we hear Watts describe the presence of joy that can be found not just in heaven, but also on earth: The men of grace have found glory begun below:
celestial fruits on earthly ground
from faith and hope may grow.
The hill of Zion yields
a thousand sacred sweets
before we reach the heav’nly fields,
or walk the golden streets.
From these stanzas, we can see how Watts not only wanted the singer to communicate the joy of what was to come through eternal life in heaven, but also the blessings of God on earth. An allusion to John Bunyan’s popular devotional classic The Pilgrims Progress (1678) is found in the final stanza calling attention to the Christian journey toward Zion and a triumphant entry into “Immanuel’s ground.”
The inclusion of both settings in The United Methodist Hymnal reflects the broad range of piety found in [Christians] in the United States, a piety that ranges from the stately solemnity to the revival spirit. Lowry’s refrain actually adds a Wesleyan tone to Watts’ text that may be sung in light of the doctrine of sanctification – “marching” toward perfection that will ultimately culminate in heaven (“Zion”). The hymn found in our hymnals today proclaims a simple, straightforward biblical truth.