James Montgomery helped abolish the state lotteries of England. He
also wrote the popular Christmas carol “Angels from the Realms of
Glory.” Additionally, he had the distinction of going to prison twice
for printing material that was unpopular with the authorities. As the
editor of the Sheffield Iris, he had made “a plain
determination, come wind or sun, come fire or water, to do what was
The first time he went to prison was for dealing some copies of a
poem that glorified the fall of the Bastille in revolutionary France.
England was at war with France, and, although the poem was not his own
and had been printed before England entered the war, he was sentenced to
Later he went to prison for six months and had to pay a substantial
fine. On that occasion, he had reported an event in which soldiers first
precipitated a riot and then fired on and killed two demonstrators and
injured many others. He was charged with libel, although he could prove
Montgomery’s famous carol was by no means his only memorable verse.
In addition to 350 hymns, he wrote several book-length poems, including
one on the Moravian mission to Greenland, and another against slavery.
Webster’s New World Companion to English and American
Literature describes him as “remarkable both as to his range and
power.” He won a paragraph in The Concise Cambridge History of
English Literature which likewise speaks well of him.
Interestingly, his hymns were largely written after the mid-point of
his life, when, following years of tormented conscience, he returned to
the faith of his childhood.
Born in Irvine in 1771, he was reared Moravian. His parents left him
in the care of other Moravians at a young age when they sailed to do
mission work in the West Indies. Both died there without seeing him
again. Placed with a shopkeeper, Montgomery disliked the work so much
that he ran away, leaving a new suit of clothes behind because he felt
he had not earned them. He tried working in another shop and attempted
to publish his poems in London, all without success. Montgomery then
became assistant editor of the Sheffield Register. The owner
fled to America rather than face prosecution for libel and Montgomery
took over the paper renaming it the Sheffield Iris.
None of his success satisfied him. He finally realized that only in
embracing the cross of Christ could he hope for peace. He would express
this well in a hymn: “Shun not suffering, shame, or loss; Learn of
Christ to bear the cross.” He realized he would have to give up some
innocent amusements which were keeping him from submission to the Lord.
At 43 years of age, he asked to be readmitted to the Moravians. For the
first time in 26 years, he felt able to take the Lord’s Supper.
The editor gave time and money to evangelism and missions, supported
a Bible Society, and taught young children. He was a generous donor to
charities and active in their work. And he wrote many hymns. In one, on
our heavenly home, he penned the memorable words: “Tis not the whole of
life to live nor all of death to die.” His strong support for hymns
helped win their acceptance in the Anglican Church, which still
emphasized the Psalms.
Montgomery’s Christianity extended into his critiques of literature.
For example, he reproved Wordsworth for his poem “The
Excursion” in which “the poet forbore sending him [a skeptic] to the only fountain whence refreshment and rest can be found for a
wounded spirit and a heavy-laden soul–the Gospel of Christ…ascribing
to the healing influences of nature through her elementary operations,
effects which nothing but the grace of God can produce upon any
intelligent created being…”
He died during an afternoon nap on this day, April
30, 1854, at Mount Sheffield.
- Brown, Theron and Butterworth, Hezekiah. The Story of the Hymns
and Tunes. New York: Doran, 1905.
- Ellis, Samuel. Life, Times and Character of James Montgomery.
London: Jackson, Walford and Hodder, 1964.
- “James Montgomery.” http://www.cyberhymnal.org.
- “James Montgomery (1771-1854).”
- Little, John. “James Montgomery.”
- “Montgomery, James.” Dictionary of National Biography.
Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University
Press, 1921 – 1996.
- “Montgomery, James.”
- Sampson, George. Concise Cambridge History of English
Literature. Cambridge, 1961.
- Webster’s New World Companion to English and American
Literature; edited by Arthur Pollard. New York: Popular library,
- Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120
leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde
- Various encyclopedia and internet articles.
Last updated May, 2007.