An A-Z of Hymnwriters: James Montgomery
Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris in Ossory on Wednesday, 17th August 2011
Searching the Internet for details of the life of Scottish hymnwriter James Montgomery, the biographical details on one website are extraordinarily dismissive in their summary of his life’s achievement:
The editing of his paper, the composition and publication of his poems and hymns, the delivery of lectures on poetry in Sheffield and at the Royal Institution, London, and the advocacy of foreign missions and the Bible Society, gave great variety, but very little of stirring incident in his life, though he did find time to write 400 hymns. In 1833, Montgomery received a royal pension of £200 per year.
It seems a strange assessment of a life that seemed to encompass so much—’very little of stirring incident’. Perhaps it is an indication of a dislike of the path that Montgomery followed, an attempt to belittle his work, to suggest, as an aside, ‘though he did find time to write 400 hymns’.
James Montgomery was born in the town of Irvine in Ayrshire, in south-west Scotland, in 1771. His father was a minister of the Moravian Church and it was expected that young James would follow him into the ministry. James was sent to England to a Moravian School, while his parents went to the West Indies as missionaries, where they died within a year of each other.
The Moravians were Protestant a century before the Reformation. Their founding figure, Jan Hus, was burned at the stake in 1415. Hus had been labelled a heretic for his belief that liturgy should be in the language of the people, that lay people should receive communion in both kinds, that priests should be allowed to be married, and that there should be an end to indulgences and the idea of Purgatory.
The Unity of the Brethren as they called themselves held onto their faith through the succeeding centuries, often times of bitter repression and persecution. In the early 18th Century, on the estate of Nicolas von Zinzendorf, a community of the Brethren was established which enjoyed an extraordinary Pentecostal experience that inspired them to constant prayer, the establishment of communities, the growth of hundreds of renewal groups, and being the first church to begin missionary work. It was in this tradition that Montgomery grew up; a life of prayer, a responsibility towards the community, and a belief in mission work.
Montgomery’s studies at the Moravian college near Leeds were intended to exclude secular work, but, as one who would always be a dissenting voice, he found time to read poetry and to aspire to being a writer himself.
The path of ministry was not to be for him and he left the school and was apprenticed to a baker and then to shop keeper before finding his niche in life in Sheffield with Joseph Gales, an auctioneer, bookseller and printer of a newspaper called the Sheffield Register. Gales was a dissident voice in the England of the 1790s and had to leave the country to avoid prosecution for his political views.
James Montgomery took over the newspaper in 1794 and retained control of it until 1825—more than thirty years. He changed the name of the paper from the Register to the Iris, which sounds odd to us two centuries later, but, presumably at the time, when the small minority who could not only read but also afford a newspaper, would have known the classics, would have been recognized as a reference to Iris, the messenger of the gods in Greek mythology.
Iris was a messenger to whom people should listen and, although less radical in his views than Joseph Gales, Montgomery used his newspaper to try to convey a message about the times in which they were living. He was twice sent to prison for printing political opinions that enraged the authorities—for three months in in 1795 for printing a poem on a handbill that celebrated the Fall of the Bastille, a moment that became symbolic of the French Revolution, and for six months in 1796 for a newspaper article that mildly criticized magistrates in Sheffield for banning a protest.
Montgomery had grown up in a spiritual tradition that put the things of God before any loyalty to Crown or state, if he believed things to be wrong, he said so. He was a supporter of the campaign for the abolition of slavery and wrote on behalf of the boy chimney sweeps, whose life was dangerous and wretched.
Montgomery asks questions of us. When we look at Irish history, we tend to see religion and politics as very interwoven, but so much of that interweaving has been particular religious traditions protecting their own interests, both North and South, churches have become involved in political issues to protect their own identity or to further their own influence. How often have we ever seen churches involved in campaigns, particularly unpopular campaigns, for no reason other than it being the right thing to do? Seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness in our society means having political viewpoints, the Bible is very clear about justice; it does not mean tying ourselves to defending our own particular interests or trying to intimidate or even suppress those with whom we disagree. How many of us would be prepared to go to prison for expressing what we believed to be right, expressing it for no reason other than that it was right?
During his years running the newspaper Montgomery was a successful poet, and a very active Christian speaker in support of the Bible Society and overseas missions. Two centuries on from Montgomery’s time, it is hard to imagine someone who was successful newspaper editor and secular writer being also someone who would travel widely to speak on missionary work.
The separation between the sacred and the secular is as much the fault of the churches as it is the fault of those opposed to religion; the churches have become increasingly preoccupied with a smaller and smaller number of issues, mainly concerned with church influence and personal ethics. Christians in public life would rarely be inspired, as Montgomery was, to write and speak on both secular and sacred subjects.
When retiring from his newspaper in 1825, Montgomery devoted much more time to his own writing, including the hymns that have proved his lasting legacy. The Church Hymnal has eleven of his hymns, a significant contribution from a man whose name would not be known to most churchgoers.
Montgomery’s hymns are strongly shaped by Scripture, his two most famous being the Christmas carol, ‘Angels, from the realms of glory’ and a hymn inspired by the words of Psalm 72, ‘Hail to the Lord’s anointed’. In the opening verse of that hymn there is a sense of Montgomery’s firm belief that being a Christian is about public as well as private life; that the Kingdom of God must be something that we seek on Earth as well as something we hope for in Heaven; the reign of Jesus is a reign of justice on Earth. People who may have objected to Montgomery’s political views as expressed in the Sheffield Iris would probably have sung his hymns without raising any objection to the words that expressed strongly his faith in a Lord who would bring justice and righteousness; sometimes we sing without thinking at all about the words.
Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
great David’s greater Son!
Hail, in the time appointed,
his reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
to set the captive free,
to take away transgression,
and rule in equity.
When we sing the hymn, as we often do, do we commit ourselves to seeking the sort of society and the sort of world that Jesus wants? If we do not seek the things Jesus seeks, then what does that say about our faith?
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