Angels from the Realms of Glory

From the book "Lead, Kindly Light"  (Reproduced with kind permission of ‘This England’ magazine)

James Montgomery (1771 – 1854)

James Montgomery hailed from a Scottish family who were members of the small body of evangelical Christians known as Moravians. His parents went as missionaries to the West Indies where they both died, while he was still a child. He was left in a Moravian school near Leeds, England in the hope that he would one day be a minister. In this regard, he was a failure. He only found his niche years later when he joined a firm of printers in Sheffield, later becoming the Editor and proprietor for the local newspaper. Through the years he became a leading figure in the growing industrial city in which he was to spend the rest of his life.

Montgomery was a strong radical at a time when such views had become suspect and indeed highly dangerous because of the French Revolution. The forcible expression of his opinions within his newspaper landed him in prison twice, but this did not change his reformist outlook. He actively supported the anti-slavery crusade when it was still a minority cause and championed the young chimney sweeps before it was popular. He was always up to his neck in local politics, concerning himself with education, public health, the police force and the municipal gas supply. Countless good causes were his concern. No wonder that when he died in 1854 he was given a public funeral in Sheffield, the city he had lived in and served so long.

Altogether he wrote 400 hymns in his lifetime and though most are now forgotten a few dozen still survive in hymnals of various denominations. His work is usually objective, manly, strong, bracing, uplifting and always carefully constructed. Strong interest in missionary work pervades his writing. He was England’s first hymnologist of any note, both in collecting hymns and discussing principles of content and style. He gave much sound advice about what makes a good hymn: “It ought to be as regular in its structure as any other poem. It should have a distinct subject and that subject should be simple and not complicated. Too many hymn-writers produce a series of disconnected thoughts driven by the exigencies of rhyming. Too often the meanness of workmanship is dishonouring to the grandeur of the theme. Authors who devote their talents to the glory of God and the salvation of men ought surely to take as much pains to polish and perfect their offerings of this kind as secular and profane poet bestow upon their works”… Advice which could be applied to our speech and behaviour today.

Once at a banquet given in his honour he declared: "I wrote neither to suit the manners, the taste nor the temper of the age. I sang of war - but it was a war of freedom; I sang the love with which man ought to bear his brother; I sang to love of virtue. I sang, too, the love of God who is love."

A verse from his hymn often sung at Christmas time due to its nativity theme:

Angels, from the realms of glory, Wing your flight o'er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation's story, Now proclaim Messiah's birth:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ the new-born King.