James Montgomery Returns to the Fold to Teach Hymnody

James Montgomery was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on November 4th, 1771.

This son of a Moravian minister “wrote more hymns in common use today than any writer except Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts”.

His early years were spent in a Moravian settlement and when he was twelve his parents went as Moravian missionaries to the West Indies. Both died in their first year.

James was reared in a Christian boys’ boarding school in Yorkshire, England but was not a successful student. The school prohibited secular poems but somehow James borrowed and read a good deal of poetry. He then decided to write his own boyhood verse.

He was apprenticed to a baker, but at the age of 16 he ran away to London to find a publisher for some poems he had penned. But to no avail.

He finally found employment in a bookshop and then, in London, working for a radical newspaper, The Sheffield Register. When his boss left England to avoid political persecution Montgomery took over the Register and renamed it the Sheffield Iris. Twice he was imprisoned for “seditious libel” against the government!

By this point James had abandoned the faith which he first professed when he was seven. He spent many years seeking success and meaning in his writings. At the age of 43 he came back to the Moravian church and reaffirmed his faith.

He expressed his penitence in a poem.
People of the living God, I have sought the world around,
Paths of sin and sorrow trod, Peace and comfort nowhere found.
Now to you my spirit turns– Turns a fugitive unblest;
Brethren, where your altar burns, O receive me into rest.

Firmly back in the Christian fold Montgomery made a huge contribution in verse and hymn. It is said that his book, The Christian Psalmist, he laid the foundations of modern scientific hymnology. He spurned the practice of his predecessors who threw a collection of dispirit ideas together in their hymns and his own hymns were characterised by “one central creative thought, shaping for itself melodious utterance, and with every detail subordinate to its harmonious presentation”.

John Telford wrote of Montgomery: “His father had been a disciple of John Cennick, and it is said that a volume of Cennick’s sermons was the means of James Montgomery’s conversion. He lived a busy life as editor, lecturer and advocate of Foreign Missions and of the Bible Society” (Methodist Hymnal Illustrated, page 101).

Montgomery wrote over 400 hymns – many of which are still sung. Among his most popular are:
Hail to the Lord’s anointed –

Great David’s greater Son…
and
Stand up and bless the Lord, Ye people of His choice …

And the Christmas carol, penned on Christmas Eve, 1816:
Angels from the realms of glory

Unlike most male hymnists, James Montgomery was not a clergyman. Nor did he ever marry. He died in his sleep on 30 April, 1854, aged 83.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.

Isaac Watts the Compulsive Poet

This is the day that … Isaac Watts was born in Southampton, England, in 1674.

Little Isaac Watts showed a passion for poetry from his earliest years. It irritated his father … So much so that, when Isaac saw the mouse run up the bell rope during prayer time he really upset his father when he exclaimed:
“There was a mouse for want of stairs
Ran up the rope to say his prayers.”

The remainder of the story may just be apocryphal … Dad came with his cane ready to give your Isaac a hiding and demanding that his son speak like a normal child, instead of always “spouting poetry”. So Isaac said:
“Father, father, mercy take,
And I will no more verses make.”
(Let the People Sing, by G. Clarke, page 16).

Fortunately Isaac’s poetic genius did not desert him, nor was his enthusiasm quenched by father’s threats. He was 20 years of age and returning home from the morning service in Girdler’s Hall when he commented to his father concerning the poor quality of the hymns. “Well, give us something better, young man,” was his father’s reply (Gospel in Hymns, by A. Bailey, page 48).

Isaac did. The result …
Behold the glories of the Lamb
Amidst the Father’s throne;
Prepare new honours for His Name
And songs before unknown!

The non-conformist congregation sang it the following week.

Thus began the revolution in hymn-singing … new hymns – hymns that were not paraphrases from the Book of Psalms, but expressing the praise and worship of those who rejoice in Christ Jesus as Saviour and risen Lord.

Of course, there were the critics who roundly denounced the singing of man-made hymns. Churches even split over the issue.

But Isaac kept on writing … No wonder he is known as the “Father of English Hymnody”, for from his pen came such great hymns as :

When I survey the wondrous cross

Jesus shall reign where’er the sun …

Joy to the world, the Lord is come …

O God, our help in ages past …

Come ye that love the Lord …

I’m not ashamed to own my Lord …

and a host of others.

During his lifetime he also pastored Mark Lane Congregational Church and wrote numerous volumes on a great variety of themes. But it is for his hymns that he is best remembered.

Isaac Watts died on 26 November, 1748.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Samuel Medley Finds His Harbour

This is the day that … Samuel Medley was born in Hertfordshire, England, in 1738.

By the age of 14 he was apprenticed to an oilman in London, but disliking this work, at the age of 17, he became a midshipman in the Royal Navy. Despite a godly heritage, young Samuel Medley now descended into the quagmire of sin.

But during naval action between England and France in 1759 he received a severe leg wound. “I am afraid,” said the surgeon, “that amputation is the only thing that will save your life. I can tell tomorrow morning.” As he lay there, wounded, his mind turned to spiritual things. We are told that he spent the night “in prayers and penitence”, and next morning the surgeon held up his hands in amazement at what he called “a miracle”.

But alas, before long, Samuel Medley was back to his sinful ways.

It was three years later, back in London, that his pious grandfather, William Tonge, read him a sermon by Dr Isaac Watts on Isaiah 42:6-7. Samuel’s thoughts were turned to the things of eternity. He was soundly converted, and it is believed that it was to commemorate this experience that he penned his first hymn:
Awake, my soul, in joyful lays,

To sing thy great Redeemer’s praise;
He justly claims a song from thee;
His loving kindness, oh, how free.

He saw us ruined in the Fall,
Yet loved us notwithstanding all.
He saved us from our lost estate;
His loving kindness, oh, how great.

Samuel Medley joined the Particular Baptist Church, married, taught school for four years, and then became pastor of a Baptist Church in Liverpool, where he stayed for the next 27 years. His ministry there “was one of remarkable and increasing popularity and soon a much larger building had to be erected” (Christian Hymn Writers, by E. Houghton, page 138). He was “especially successful in reaching sailors.”

Among his 150 hymns we still find in our hymnals such favourites as:

I know that my Redeemer lives –
What comfort this assurance gives …

and

Oh, could I speak the matchless worth,
Oh, could I sound the glories forth
Which in my Saviour shine …

Shortly before he died, 17 July, 1799, he remarked, “I am now a poor, shattered barque about to gain the blissful harbour.”

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Timothy Dwight

This is the day that … Timothy Dwight was born in Massachusetts, in 1752.

He is remembered for his hymn …
I love Thy Kingdom, Lord,
The house of Thine abode,
The church our blest Redeemer saved
with His own precious blood.

I love Thy Church, O God!
Her walls before Thee stand
Dear as the apple of Thine eye,
and graven on Thy hand.

But Timothy Dwight was more than a hymn writer. He was one of the theological giants of the 18th century. His grandfather was Jonathan Edwards, whose ministry sparked off America’s first Great Awakening.

Young Timothy entered Yale University at the age of 13 and studied so much by candlelight that he permanently injured his eyesight. In later life he could not read more than 15 minutes a day without “intense pain”.

Despite this he became pastor of a Congregational church in Connecticut (1783), and was eventually elected President of Yale University in 1795. Here he inspired the godless students by his piety and chaplaincy work. A revival ensued in 1802 resulting in a third of the student body being converted.

He lectured on “ethics, metaphysics, logic, theology, literature and oratory,” revised the Psalmody of Isaac Watts, and added 33 of his own hymns.

He was a personal friend of George Washington, and he wrote four volumes of travels in New England and New York.

“He was,” writes Albert Bailey, “one of the outstanding men of colonial America … and without question the best known and most influential in his day on education, theology and literature!” (The Gospel in Hymns, pages 478-9).

Timothy Dwight died in Connecticut on 11 January, 1817.

Note: Much has been said of the special grace seen on the descendents of Jonathan Edwards. Timothy Dwight, as a grandson to that great evangelist, is a clear example of the quality found in that family line.