James Montgomery was almost six when he travelled with his father from the Moravian Settlement at Gracehill, Co. Antrim, to the Moravian school at Fulneck – which would be his home for the next ten years. During the voyage a violent storm struck fear into the boy, but he was comforted as his father encouraged him to trust in God’s providence and the Saviour’s love. The ship’s master, observing this, remarked, ‘I would give a hundred guineas for the faith of that child’.
James was born on 4 November 1771 in Irvine, Ayrshire, where his father was a minister. John Montgomery, a land steward, had been converted in 1754 through the preaching of Moravian evangelist John Cennick, and later taught at Gracehill Academy. He married Mary Blackley there in 1768.
At Fulneck, aged 12, James wrote his first poems, despite being discouraged from reading secular poetry. These were happy times. Many years later he wrote, ‘I steal a few days once a year to visit Fulneck where I was educated — the dearest place to me on earth’.
James left there in 1787 to work for a Moravian baker. Unsettled, he left with little more than the clothes on his back and worked for a shopkeeper near Rotherham, away from any strong Christian influence.
Three years later came news of his mother’s death in the West Indies, where his parents had worked as pioneer missionaries since 1783. Less than a year later his father succumbed to a fever and died in Barbados.
In 1792 James moved to Sheffield as assistant to Joseph Gales, editor of The Sheffield Register. Gales’ strong reformist views were clearly expressed in his paper — so much so that in 1794 he fled to America to avoid prosecution for seditious libel.
Montgomery, then 23, received backing to take over the newspaper, renaming it The Sheffield Iris and editing it for the next 31 years.
Throwing himself into the work, he continued to move away from the faith of his childhood. His closest friends had no time for biblical Christianity, his church attendance lapsed, and his work became increasingly secular, including writing for the theatre.
Even so, his upbringing and conscience restrained him from excess. He wrote, ‘Though with every pulse of my heart beating in favour of the popular doctrines, my retired and religious education had laid restraints upon my conscience, which … long kept me back from personally engaging in the civil war of words’.
Nevertheless, he was still imprisoned twice in the next two years. Reprinting a song on ‘The fall of the Bastille’, seen as dangerously unpatriotic in the aftermath of the French Revolution, led to a three-month sentence in York Castle.
Subsequently he wrote critically of an incident in Sheffield, where several people were killed when soldiers fired into a crowd of mainly women and children to disperse them. This time Montgomery was jailed for six months and fined £30.
Sense of right and wrong
Nevertheless he determined ‘come wind or sun, come fire or water, to do what was right’. He had a keen sense of right and wrong and was prepared to suffer the consequences. From these experiences came one of his first poetical works, ‘Prison amusements’ (1797).
Although increasingly successful as a journalist, he was not happy and a letter to his brother Ignatius seems to indicate that he was suffering from depression. He wrote, ‘I am seldom, so very seldom, cheerful’.
He saw three reasons for this — ‘the cares of life, ambition for fame and — worst of all — religious horrors’. Concerning religion he wrote, ‘My hopes of returning to the harbour I have left are diminishing’.
His conscience troubled him deeply and his desire for fame brought nothing but emptiness. He remained in this sorry state for years, unable and unwilling to take up the cross of discipleship which, he believed, required him to ‘renounce the world and all those pleasures which the world deems innocent’.
Fame came with his epic poem, ‘The wanderer of Switzerland’ (1806), which was followed by ‘The West Indies’, a poem on the slave trade. But literary success brought him no contentment.
Patterns of mercy
Eventually, at his brother’s request, he began to attend a Methodist chapel where he heard Dr Adam Clarke and later William Carey, the Baptist missionary to India, with whom he began a regular correspondence.
One Sunday evening, turning to a book of John Cennick’s sermons, he read ‘The Patterns of Mercy’, a message on 1 Timothy 1:15-16. The sermon concluded with Cennick’s own experience.
Though ‘taught religion from my childhood’, said Cennick, ‘[the Saviour] had more trouble in bending my poor heart to his free salvation, and conquering my self-righteous spirit, than in saving some hundreds of sinners besides.
‘But I have obtained mercy, and I set my seal to this true saying, “that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief”. May you all happily experience the same mercy.’
Montgomery could identify fully with this experience and records, ‘I read it over most eagerly and was very much moved and comforted by it’.
Although he continued to lack the assurance of his younger days, changes in his behaviour ensued — he severed his links with the theatre and found joy in meeting with ‘some of the poorest of Christ’s flock’.
His inner struggles continued for another eight years before he fully found peace in his Saviour. An elderly Moravian minister wrote to him, ‘Convinced I was a sinner and stood in need of a Saviour, I flew to Jesus — simply and childlike. O my friend, do the same, and there you will find rest for your weary soul’.
James found that rest at the age of 43. For the first time in 26 years, he felt able to take part in the Lord’s Supper.
Montgomery now turned his attentions to writing hymns, penning over 400, including versions of many of the Psalms. Many of them reflect his own experiences.
Learn of Christ
In ‘Go to dark Gethsemane’ he urges Christians to:
See him at the judgment hall,
Beaten, bound, reviled, arraigned;
O the wormwood and the gall!
O the pangs his soul sustained!
Shun not suffering, shame, or loss;
Learn of Christ to bear the cross.
In another hymn he asks:
In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial I depart from thee.
When thou seest me waver, with a look recall,
Nor for fear or favour suffer me to fall.
Fame and folly
The folly of desiring fame is outlined in another hymn:
People of the living God
Tell me not of gain and loss,
Ease, enjoyment, pomp, and pow’r;
Welcome poverty and cross,
Shame reproach, affliction’s hour.
‘Follow me’ — I know thy voice;
Jesus, Lord, thy steps I see;
Now I take thy yoke by choice,
Light thy burden now to me.
Another theme is that of the need for patience. In his ‘Lord, teach us how to pray aright’ (1818) he asks for:
Patience to watch, and wait, and weep,
Though mercy long delay;
Courage our fainting souls to keep,
And trust thee though thou slay.
A sanctified heart
Montgomery played his part in the development of hymn-singing in the Anglican Church. He contributed over 50 hymns and revised the work of others for the Selection of Psalms and Hymns (1819) compiled by Thomas Cotterill, curate of St Paul’s Sheffield.
Though suppressed, this collection formed the basis for future legally recognised hymnbooks in the Church of England. John Julian wrote: ‘[Montgomery] has bequeathed to the Church of Christ wealth which could only have come from a true genius and a sanctified heart’.
Some of his best-known hymns include ‘Angels from the realms of glory’ (which appeared in the Iris on 24 December 1816), ‘Be known to us in breaking bread’, ‘For ever with the Lord’, ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’, ‘Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire’ (which he called ‘the most attractive hymn I ever wrote’), and ‘Stand up and bless the Lord’.
Hymns that survive
Montgomery gave much of his time to evangelistic and missionary support. He promoted Moravian missions, vigorously supported the Bible Society, and spent Sunday afternoons teaching a class of young children in Sheffield’s Red Hill Sunday school.
A lifelong opponent of slavery, Montgomery also denounced national lotteries in his ‘Thoughts on wheels’, and contributed towards their abolition. He achieved success as a poet, lecturing in Sheffield and London, and his geographical writings became standard educational texts.
However, it is as a hymn-writer that he is best remembered. Once, asked which of his poems would survive, he replied, ‘None, sir, nothing except perhaps a few of my hymns’.
In 1833 he received a Royal pension of £200 a year and, when he died in his sleep at his home in Sheffield in 1854, he was honoured with a public funeral.
The story of James Montgomery is a testimony to the grace of God — not only in salvation, but also in restoration and preservation.