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Shortly before James Montgomery died, a friend asked him, “Which of your poems will live?” He answered, “None, sir; nothing, except perhaps a few of my hymns.”

Montgomery was right. Although he wrote a number of pretentious poems, they have been forgotten. But his hymns live on. A perusal of almost any evangelical hymn-book will probably reveal more hymns by this gifted and consecrated man than by any other author, excepting only Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley.

What a rich legacy was bequeathed to the Christian Church by the man who wrote “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,” “Angels, from the realms of glory,” “In the hour of trial,” “Who are these in bright array?” “According to Thy gracious Word,” “Come to Calvary’s holy mountain,” “Forever with the Lord,” “The Lord is my shepherd, no want shall I know,” “Jerusalem, my happy home,” and “Go to dark Gethsemane!” Montgomery wrote about four hundred hymns in all, and nearly one-fourth of these are still in common use.

Montgomery began writing hymns as a little boy. He was born at Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, November 4, 1771. His father was a Moravian minister, and it had been determined that the son James should also be trained for the same calling. Accordingly he was sent to the Moravian seminary at Fulneck, Yorkshire, England. The parents, however, 264 were sent to the West Indies as missionaries, and their death there made it necessary for James to discontinue his schooling.

For a while he worked as a clerk in a store, but this was entirely distasteful to one who possessed the literary gifts of Montgomery. At the age of nineteen we find him in London with a few of his poems in manuscript form, trying to find a publisher who would print them. In this he was unsuccessful, and two years later we follow him to Sheffield, where he became associated with Robert Gales, editor of the Sheffield Register.

Gales was a radical, and, because he displeased the authorities by some of his articles, he found it convenient in 1794 to leave England for America. Montgomery, then only twenty-three years old, took over the publication of the paper and changed its name to the Sheffield Iris. Montgomery, however, proved as indiscreet as Gales had been, and during the first two years of his editorship he was twice imprisoned by the government, the first time for publishing a poem in commemoration of “The Fall of Bastille,” and the second time for his account of a riot at Sheffield.

In 1797 he published a volume of poems called “Prison Amusements,” so named from the fact that some of them had been written during his imprisonment. In later years the British government granted him a pension of $1,000 per year in recognition of his achievements and perhaps by way of making amends for the indignity offered him by his two imprisonments.

In Montgomery’s hymns we may hear for the first time the missionary note in English hymnody, reflecting the newly-awakened zeal for the evangelization of the world which had gripped the English people. The Baptist Missionary Society had been organized in 1792; Carey had gone 265 to India as its great apostle; and in 1799 the English Church Missionary Society had been formed.

In the fervor aroused for foreign missions in England we may discern a continuation of the impulses which went forth from the Pietistic movement at Halle, Germany, nearly a century earlier, when Bartholomew Ziegenbalg and Henry Plütschau were sent from that cradle of the modern missionary movement as the first missionaries to India. We may also see something of the influences emanating from the great Moravian missionary center at Herrnhut. John Wesley visited both these places before he began his great revival in England, and became deeply imbued with zeal for missions.

Moravian contact with England had resulted in the formation of many Moravian societies, and it was one of these that had sent Montgomery’s parents as missionaries to the West Indies. It was not without reason, therefore, that Montgomery became the first English hymnist to sound the missionary trumpet. He could never forget that his parents had given their lives in bringing the gospel to the wretched blacks of the West Indies. His father’s grave was at Barbadoes and his mother was sleeping on the island of Tobago. And for the same reason, Montgomery was a bitter opponent of slavery.

The first missionary note is heard in Montgomery’s great Advent hymn, “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” written in 1821. One of the stanzas not usually found in hymn-books reads:

Kings shall fall down before Him,

And gold and incense bring;

All nations shall adore Him,

His praise all people sing;


For He shall have dominion

O’er river, sea, and shore,

Far as the eagle’s pinion

Or dove’s light wing can soar.

Two other missionary hymns are “Lift up your heads, ye gates of brass” and “Hark! the song of jubilee.” The latter sweeps along in triumphant measures:

He shall reign from pole to pole,

With illimitable sway;

He shall reign, when like a scroll

Yonder heavens have passed away;

Then the end: beneath His rod

Man’s last enemy shall fall:

Hallelujah! Christ in God,

God in Christ, is all in all!

Although “Jerusalem, my happy home!” ranks highest among the hymns of Montgomery, judged by the standard of popular favor, his hymn on prayer and “Forever with the Lord” have aroused the most enthusiasm on the part of literary critics. Julian says of the latter that “it is full of lyric fire and deep feeling,” and Dr. Theodore Cuyler declares that it contains four lines that are as fine as anything in hymnody. This beautiful verse reads:

Here, in the body pent,

Absent from Thee I roam,

Yet nightly pitch my moving tent

A day’s march nearer home.

Montgomery’s last words were words of prayer. After his usual evening devotion on April 30, 1854, he went to sleep, a sleep from which he never woke on earth. And so 267 was fulfilled in his own experience the beautiful thought contained in his glorious hymn on prayer:

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath,

The Christian’s native air,

His watchword at the gates of death—

He enters heaven with prayer.

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