4 November 1771–30 April 1854
The name of James Montgomery is known and cherished by the lovers of sacred song throughout the Christian world. His Sacred Lyrics are among the best of his productions. Some of them are found in nearly all the compilations of Hymns now used in Great Britain and America; and not a few of them have been translated into foreign tongues. Many of them will live forever.
Grace Hill is a Moravian settlement, about one mile to the west of Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland. It was founded in 1765, and was the result, mainly, of the preaching, in those parts, some twenty years before, of the Rev. John Cennick. John Montgomery, of a family residing in that neighborhood, had become a convert to the doctrines of the United Brethren, and joined the paternity of Grace Hill. Being a man of good address, as well as sincere piety, he was designated as a preacher. After awhile, he married a young woman, connected with the Society, named Mary Blackley, and the young couple were sent as missionaries, across the North Channel, to assist the Rev. John Caldwell. They fixed their abode in the humble town of Irvine, Ayrshire, on the Frith of Clyde; and there, November 4, 1771, James, their eldest son, was born. It was a romantic spot, and well fitted for poetic impressions on the mind of the fair-haired child.
In 1776, the Moravian preacher, with his family, returned to Grace Hill. In 1777, at the age of six years, James was sent to the Moravian settlement which, in 1748, had been founded on Benjamin Ingham’s estate, near Leeds, Yorkshire, and named Fulneck. Here, for nine years, he remained under the care and tuition of “The Brethren,” and was inducted into the sciences, ancient and modern. Designed for the Moravian ministry, he was taught German and French, as well as Latin and Greek, besides the ordinary studies of an English grammar-school. In the meantime, his parents, having, in 1779, brought their two remaining sons, Ignatius and Robert, to Fulneck, were sent forth, in 1783, as missionaries to Barbados, in the West Indies; whence in 1789 they removed to Tobago, where his mother died, October 23, 1790, followed soon after by his father, who died at Barbados, June 27, 1791.
James was but an indifferent scholar. His teachers made unfavorable reports of his progress. One of them, on a summer day, took a few boys to a shady spot in the fields, and read to them Blair’s “Grave.” Young Montgomery was delighted with what he heard, and the poetic fervor was evoked. He, too, could make verses; and, before he had finished his tenth year, he had filled a volume with verses of his own. Thence forward he was ever at it—versifying on all manner of subjects, writing hymns after the pattern of the Moravian Hymn-Book, and attempting poems, also, of considerable length. As his teachers despaired of making him a scholar, they put him, at fifteen, to serve in a huckster’s shop, at Mirfield, a small hamlet in the vicinity. Here, too, he found time to write verses. His paraphrase of the 113th Psalm, “Servants of God! in joyful lays,” etc., is said to have been written at this period.
On a Sunday morning, June 19, 1789, he took abrupt leave of Mirfield, and, Abraham-like, “went out not knowing whither he went.” He trudged along, that day and the next, through Doncaster to Wentworth. At Wath, on the river Dearne, near the latter place, he found employment in a country store—still filling up his spare moments with verse-making. The village bookseller encouraged him to make a careful selection of his poetry for publication, and forwarded it himself to a London publisher. Montgomery, well recommended, made his way, soon after, to the metropolis. Harrison, to whom his volume had been sent, declined to publish it, but gave its author employment as a clerk in his store. Here he remained a year, well provided for, but thwarted continually in his repeated attempts to appear in print. Disgusted at length with the great world of London, he returned to Wath, and was gladly reinstated in his old position.
He was now of full age, and desirous to get into some profitable business. A clerk was wanted at Sheffield. His eye lighted on the advertisement. He applied, by letter, for the situation, and obtained it, and entered on his new vocation, April 2, 1792. His employer was Joseph Gales, printer, bookseller, auctioneer, and editor of The Sheffield Register. He soon found himself in full sympathy with his radical employer, and espoused the cause of popular rights. The French Revolution had created a great ferment in Great Britain. The Government took the alarm, and sought to repress the agitation. Persecution and imprisonment were resorted to. Mr. Gales sought safety in flight. He found his way to Philadelphia, in 1794, and, for five years, edited there the Independent Gazette; removing thence, he edited, for forty years, The Raleigh (N.C.) Register.
The Sheffield Register was changed, July 14, 1794, to The Sheffield Iris, with James Montgomery as its editor. Twice within a year (1795-96) on some flimsy pretence, he was prosecuted, fined, and imprisoned, but all the more he advocated the people’s cause, and his paper was increasingly patronized. It was continued under his editorship more than thirty years.
During his incarceration in York Castle, he occupied himself considerably with the composition of short poems, which were published, in 1797, under the title of Prison Amusements. The Ocean, and other Poems, was issued in 1805; followed, early in January, 1806, by The Wanderer of Switzerland, which, in spite of the savage criticism of Jeffrey, in the Edinburgh Review, was received with marked favor, 12,000 copies having been disposed of in twenty years (besides several editions in America), at a profit of $4,000 to the author. It resulted, also, in his connection with the Eclectic Review.
The African Slave Trade was, in 1807, abolished by the British Parliament. At the request of Mr. Bowyer, of Pall Mall, who was about to publish a set of engravings commemorative of the grand event, he wrote, the same year, The West Indies, but it was not brought out until 1810. Early in the latter year, he had completed his World before the Flood, which appeared “with other Occasional Pieces,” in 1813.
Montgomery had, for years, been deeply interested in religion and its enterprises. He now determined to identify himself openly and fully with the disciples of Christ. At the close of the year 1814, he was publicly recognized, at Fulneck, as a brother in the Lord, and a member of the Society. It was, in all probability, on this occasion that he wrote his beautiful and popular hymn, beginning with “People of the living God!”
He now took an active part in the promotion of Sunday Schools, Bible and Tract Societies, and the work of Missions. An appeal in behalf of the Moravian missions in Greenland appeared (1818) in the columns of his paper. So deeply had he become interested in this enterprise, as to be impelled to write and publish, in 1819, his “Greenland,” a missionary poem.
He had published, in 1817, his “Thoughts on Wheels,” a philippic against lotteries; and the “Climbing Boy’s Soliloquies,” an appeal for the Chimney Sweepers. His Songs of Zion, being Imitations of the Psalms, came out in 1822, containing 72 versions, among which are some of the sweetest and best sacred lyrics in the language. They had been composed at intervals during the previous thirty years, but more particularly since 1807, about which time, being in deep distress for sin, he is supposed to have written the hymn, “Oh! where shall rest be found,” etc.
In the latter part of 1825, he published The Christian Psalmist; or Hymns Selected and Original, and, in 1826 The Christian Poet; Selections in Verse—both of which were “compiled by him for Mr. [Wm.] Collins, of Glasgow.” The Psalmist contained 562 hymns, 103 of which are from his own pen. A seventh edition had been called for in 1832. The Christian Poet “comprehended pieces of a higher order, … laying claim to the genuine honors of verse, as the noblest vehicle of the noblest thoughts.” To each of these was prefixed an “Introductory Essay,” of peculiar value. Prose by a Poet, taken mainly from his editorials in The Sheffield Iris, was issued in 1824.
At the close of the year 1825, Montgomery retired from the editorship of The Iris. He had now a sufficient income from his various publications, and was glad to be relieved from the incessant pressure of thirty years, that he might give himself to those ministrations of mercy in which he so much delighted. “The Pelican Island,” a poem, in blank verse, one of the most original, imaginative, philosophical, and truly poetic of his larger pieces, appeared in 1827. At the solicitation of the London Missionary Society, he undertook to recompose, from journals and other memoranda, a Journal of the Voyages and Travels of the Rev. Daniel Tyerman, and George Bennet, Esq., as a Deputation of the Society to their various Missions in the East (1821–1829). The work, which cost the editor great labor, was published June 1, 1831, in two volumes, and republished the next year, at Boston, Mass.
In May, 1830, he delivered a course of Lectures on English Literature, before the Royal Institution, and another course on General Literature, Poetry, etc., the year following. These were given to the press, both in London and New York, in 1833, and were received with great favor. Two years later, he sent forth A Poet’s Portfolio ; or Minor Poems—In Three Books. The same year, Sir Robert Peel placed his name on the pension list of the Literary Fund, for £150 a year, as a reward for literary services. He now gathered, revised, and arranged his Poetical Works, which he published (1836) in three volumes—an edition of which not long after appeared in America.
He had lived forty-three years in the central part of Sheffield, in a locality known as “Hartshead,” over the book-store kept by the Misses Gales, sisters of Joseph, and the place of publication of The Iris; the sisters had been members of his household. He now removed, with the two surviving sisters (1836), to “a new home at ‘The Mount,’” a block of newly erected houses, beautifully situated on a swell of land skirting the south side of the city.
The next year, he again lectured at the Royal Institution, and delivered a course on The Principal British Poets. In 1838, he repeated the lectures before the Philosophical Society at Bristol; also, at Birmingham, and at Worcester. In 1849, he published a new edition, thoroughly revised, of the Moravian Hymn-Book, containing 1,260 hymns. His last work was the publication, February 1, 1853, of his Original Hymns for Public, Social, and Private Devotion.
A slight paralytic stroke early in 1849, followed by an illness of three months, had greatly reduced his strength and impaired his vitality. A second stroke, on the night of the 29th of April, 1854, deprived him of all consciousness, and, on the afternoon of Sunday, the 30th, of life itself. He was spared the pains and terrors of death:
Heard ye the sobs of parting breath?
Marked ye the eye’s last ray?
No! life so sweetly ceased to be,
It lapsed in immortality.
He died in his eighty-third year, and was honored with a public funeral, the whole town, as it were, taking part in the ceremonial, and testifying thus to the greatness of their loss. Like Watts and Cowper, both of whom he greatly admired as Christian lyricists, he never married.
by Edwin Hatfield
The Poets of the Church (1884)
Collections of Hymns and Poems:
Eckington Collection (ca. 1794)
Prison Amusements and Other Trifles (1797): PDF
Psalms and Hymns for Public or Private Devotion (1802): PDF
The Ocean, and Other Poems (1805)
The Wanderer of Switzerland and Other Poems (1806): PDF
The West Indies and Other Poems
1st ed. (1807)
2nd ed. (1810)
3rd ed. (1810): PDF
The World Before the Flood: A Poem (1813): PDF
Greenland and Other Poems (1819): PDF
A Selection of Psalms and Hymns for the Use of St. Paul’s and St. James’s Churches, Sheffield (1819)
Songs of Zion; Being Imitations of Psalms
Prose by a Poet (1824)
The Christian Psalmist
The Christian Poet (1827): PDF
The Pelican Island and Other Poems (1827): PDF
A Poet’s Portfolio (1835): PDF
Liturgy and Hymns for the use of the Protestant Church of the United Brethren (1849): WorldCat
Original Hymns (1853): PDF
1821 — vol. 1: PDF | vol. 2: HathiTrust | vol. 3: PDF
1825 — vol. 1: PDF | vol. 2: PDF | vol. 3: PDF | vol. 4: PDF
1836 — vol. 1: HathiTrust | vol. 2: HathiTrust | vol. 3: PDF
1841 — vol. 1: PDF | vol. 2: PDF | vol. 3: PDF | vol. 4: PDF
1850 — vol. 1: PDF | vol. 2: PDF | vol. 3: PDF | vol. 4: PDF
1853 — vol. 1: PDF | vol. 2: PDF
1854 — Complete: PDF
William Collyer, Hymns Partly Collected and Partly Original (1812: PDF)
William Gardiner, Sacred Melodies (1812: WorldCat)
Thomas Cotterill, A Selection of Psalms and Hymns (8th ed, 1819)
Edward Parsons, et al., A Selection of Hymns … for the Use of the Protestant Dissenting Congregations … in Leeds (1822): PDF
John Holland & James Everett, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, 7 vols. (London: Longman, et al. 1854-56: HathiTrust).
Samuel Ellis, The Life, Times, and Character of James Montgomery (London: Jackson, Walford & Hodder, 1864: PDF).
Edwin Hatfield, “James Montgomery,” Poets of the Church (NY, 1884), pp. 437-444: HathiTrust
John Julian, “James Montgomery,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 763-765: Google Books
James Montgomery, Hymnary.org:
J.R. Watson and Kenneth Trickett, “James Montgomery,” Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:
G. Tolley, “James Montgomery,” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: