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…
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.