Notes from Dr. Julian's Hymnology:
James Montgomery was born at Irvine, Ayrshire, Nov. 4th. 1771. In 1776 he removed with his parents to the Moravian settlement at Gracehill, near Ballymena, County Antrim. Two years later he was sent to the Fulbeck Seminary, Yorkshire. He left Fulbeck in 1787, and entered a retail shop at Mirfield, near Wakefield. Soon tiring of that, he entered upon a similar situation at Wath near Rotherham, only to find it quite as unsuitable to his taste as the former. A journey to London, with a hope of finding a publisher for his youthful poems, ended in failure; and in 1792, he was glad to leave Wath for Sheffield to join Mr. Gales, an auctioneer, bookseller and printer of the Sheffield Register newspaper, as his assistant. In 1794, Mr. Gales left England to avoid a political prosecution. Montgomery took the Sheffield Register in hand, changed its name to the Sheffield Iris, and continued to edit it for 31 years. During the next two years he was imprisoned twice; first for reprinting therein a song in commemoration of the Fall of the Bastille, and secondly for giving an account of a riot in Sheffield. 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 Institute, London, and the earnest advocacy of Foreign Missions and the Bible Society in many parts of the country, gave great variety, but very little of stirring incident in his life. In 1833 he received a royal pension of £200 a year. He died in his sleep at the Mount, Sheffield, on April 30th. 1854, and was honoured with a public funeral. A statue was erected in his memory in the Sheffield General Cemetery, and a stained glass window in the Parish Church. A Wesleyan Chapel and a public hall are also named in his honour.
Montgomery wrote 400 hymns (including his version of the Psalms) and more than 100 are still in common use. In common with most poets and hymn writers, Montgomery strongly objected to any correction or rearrangement of his compositions. At the same time he did not hesitate to alter, rearrange, and amend the production of others. As a poet, Montgomery stands well to the front; and as a writer of hymns, he ranks in popularity with Wesley, Watts, Doddridge, Newton and Cowper. His best hymns were written in his earlier years. In his old age, he wrote much that was unworthy of his reputation. His finest lyrics are "Angels from the realms of glory", "Go to dark Gethsemane", "Hail to the Lord's Anointed" and "Songs of praise the angels sang". His "Prayer is the soul's sincere desire", is an expanded definition of prayer of great beauty; and his "Forever with the Lord" is full of lyric fire and deep feeling. The secrets of his power as a writer of hymns are manifold. His poetic genius was of a high order, — higher than most who stand with him in the front rank of Christian poets. His ear for rhythm was exceedingly accurate and refined. His knowledge of Holy Scripture was most extensive. His religious views were broad and charitable. His devotional spirit was of the holiest type. With the faith of a strong man, he united the beauty and simplicity of a child. Richly poetic without exuberance, dogmatic without uncharitableness, tender without sentimentality, elaborate without diffusiveness, richly musical without apparent effort, he has bequeathed to the Church of Christ wealth which could only come from a true genius and a sanctified heart.
Anecdotes about Montgomery's hymns from "Great Hymns and Their Stories" W.J. Limmer Sheppard:
The first hymn that Montgomery wrote was a metrical version of Psalm 113, beginning with "Servants of God, His praise proclaim". The curious thing about this hymn is that at the time he wrote it, Montgomery had run away from the Moravian school at Fulbeck at the age of seventeen, and had entered the employ of a man named Lockwood at Mirfield who was known as the "Fine Bread Maker". In his shop Montgomery waited behind the counter for about a year and a half, but there was little to do, and the employment was anything but congenial. He seems, therefore, to have spent a good deal of his time in writing poetry, including a long poem called "Alfred", and it was then that one of the most famous hymn-writers of our land, produced his first hymn.
A well-known hymn of Montgomery's was inspired by the circumstances attending the death of a Methodist preacher, the Rev. Thomas Taylor, who, preaching on Sunday evening, Oct. 14th. 1851, expressed the hope that he would die as an old soldier of Jesus Christ, with his sword in his hand. The following morning he was found dead in his bed. With reference to this, Montgomery wrote the hymn headed "The Christian Soldier" and beginning thus:
"Servant of God, well done!
Rest from thy loved employ;
The battle fought, the victory won,
Enter thy Master's joy".
Montgomery's short but beautiful hymn "Father! Thy will, not mine, be done" was occasioned by the death at the early age of twenty eight, of Mr. William B. Dawson of Wincobank, Sheffield. His widow gave this account of the writing of the hymn. "My beloved husband went to Paradise on July 19th. 1829. When Montgomery was here sometime afterwards, he asked my dear mother about his last hours, and seemed much affected by hearing of his wonderful peace and resignation, for he had everything to make life desirable. My mother put into our friend's hand a short statement of the closing scene, which he took with him when he retired for the night, and the next day we found these lines written in pencil on the fly-leaf of the manuscript:"
"If such be not Thy sovereign will,
Thy wiser purpose to fulfil;
My wishes I resign.
Into Thy hands my soul commend,
On Thee for life and death depend,
Thy will be done, not mine".
Montgomery's hymns in 'Spiritual Songs' are:
131 Praise we to the Father give
161 For ever with the Lord
256 Hail to the Lord's Anointed
323 The Lord Himself shall come [verse 4 by J.N. Darby];
429 To Him who suffered on the Tree
Numbers 161 and 256 are well known favourite hymns — the first one for comfort for the bereaved; the second one the coming Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.