James Montgomery, Newsman with a Conscience

Dan Graves, MSL

James Montgomery, Newsman with a Conscience

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 right."

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 three months.

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 every charge.

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.


  1. Brown, Theron and Butterworth, Hezekiah. The Story of the Hymns and Tunes. New York: Doran, 1905.
  2. Ellis, Samuel. Life, Times and Character of James Montgomery. London: Jackson, Walford and Hodder, 1964.
  3. "James Montgomery." http://www.cyberhymnal.org.
  4. "James Montgomery (1771-1854)." http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/
  5. Little, John. "James Montgomery." http://www.evangelical-times.org/articles/May04/May04a03.htm
  6. "Montgomery, James." Dictionary of National Biography. Edited by Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee. London: Oxford University Press, 1921 - 1996.
  7. "Montgomery, James." http://www.electricscotland.com/history/other/
  8. Sampson, George. Concise Cambridge History of English Literature. Cambridge, 1961.
  9. Webster's New World Companion to English and American Literature; edited by Arthur Pollard. New York: Popular library, 1976.
  10. Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.
  11. Various encyclopedia and internet articles.

Last updated May, 2007.

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