James Montgomery: Hymn Writer


James Montgomery (1771-1854) was a British poet and hymn writer.

Born in Ayrshire, Scotland, Montgomery was the son of a pastor and missionary of the Moravian Brethren. Young James was sent to be trained for the ministry at the Moravian School at Fulneck, near Leeds, England. While he was in school there, his parents left England to serve as missionaries in the West Indies, where both died soon afterward.

Montgomery was a lifelong lover of poetry and dreamed of writing epics of his own, but he struggled to begin his career as a writer. He worked as a baker's apprentice, then as a helper to a shopkeeper, and finally as the assistant of Joseph Gales, an auctioneer, bookseller, and publisher of the Sheffield Register. In 1794, Gales turned the Register over to Montgomery, who changed the paper's name to the Sheffield Iris and steered it for 31 years.

During the Napoleonic Wars, fears of foreign infiltration and internal subversion led to significant political repression. Montgomery was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition. The first time was in 1795 for printing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille; the second in 1796 was for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield.

When he sold the Iris in 1825, he received public honors. In 1830 he delivered a series of lectures on poetry and literature before the Royal Institution, London. An earnest advocate of foreign missions and of the Bible Society, he also wrote many books on poetry and literature. He also was highly involved in the efforts to end slavery in Britain in the early 1800s and the reform of child labor laws.

His reputation rests mainly on 400 hymns, nearly 100 of which are still in use. "In English hymnody he stands next to Isaac Watts add Charles Wesley."

Among his great hymns are "Spirit of the Living God," "Hail to the Lord's Anointed," "Angels from the Realms of Glory," "Forever with the Lord," "Songs of Praise the Angels Sing," "Come Ye That Fear the Lord," and "Prayer Is the Soul's Sincere Desire."

He published two volumes of poems, Prison Amusements (which recounted his experience in prison in the 1790s) and the Wanderer of Switzerland. In 1831 he compiled from the original documents the journals of D. Tyerman and G. Bennet, who had been sent by the London Missionary Society to visit their stations in the South Sea Islands, China, and India.

Strangely enough, his first recorded public profession of faith was when he joined the Moravian Church in his 43rd year.

Montgomery was well regarded in his chosen hometown of Sheffield, and always played an active part in civic life. He was honored with a public funeral at his death in 1854. Many streets there still bear his name, and in 1861, a monument was erected over his grave (since moved to Sheffield Cathedral) by the Sheffield Sunday School Union.

On the granite pedestal of the monument is inscribed a fitting tribute to Montgomery. "Here lies interred, beloved by all who knew him, the Christian poet, patriot, and philanthropist. Wherever poetry is read, or Christian hymns sung, in the English language, he being dead, yet speaketh' by the genius, piety and taste embodied in his writings."

Bernard R. DeRemer chronicled the lives of dozens of heroes of the faith in more than a decade of writing for Pulpit Helps Magazine. He continues to serve in this capacity as a volunteer contributor to Disciple. He lives in West Liberty, Ohio.

References: Who Was Who in Church History, by Elgin S. Moyer, 1962; Wikipedia, "James Montgomery".

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