Angels from the Realms of Glory is one of the best-known works of Scottish hymn-writer and poet James Montgomery. Similar to other writers in the 18th and 19th century, Montgomery was passionate about humanitarian causes such as the abolition of slavery. He was also concerned about the exploitation of child chimney sweeps.
Montgomery was born on 4th November 1771 in Irvine, North Ayrshire to a pastor and missionary of the Moravian Brethren. Montgomery followed in his father’s footsteps, training for ministry at a school near Leeds whilst his parents went to the West Indies as missionaries. Unfortunately, both Montgomery’s parents died abroad and he failed to complete his schooling.
For a time, Montgomery was apprenticed to a baker in West Yorkshire followed by a storekeeper in the Dearne Valley, however, what Montgomery desired was a career in literature. In 1792, he moved to Sheffield to work as an auctioneer, bookseller and printer of the Sheffield Register. Later, he became the owner of the newspaper and renamed it the Sheffield Iris. For a time, it was the only newspaper published in Sheffield.
Since school, Montgomery had written poems, however, they were soon getting him into trouble. In 1795, he was arrested for writing a poem about the fall of the Bastille and, in 1796, imprisoned again for his poem that criticised a magistrate. He kept himself amused in prison by continuing to write and published a pamphlet of poems known as Prison Amusements on his release.
Despite enjoying poetry, Montgomery did not think any of them would become timeless classics. He believed the only way his name would be remembered was as a hymn writer. In some ways he was right and a handful of his hymns are still sung today. These include Angels from the Realms of Glory, Hail to the Lord's Anointed, Stand up and Bless the Lord and a version of The Lord is My Shepherd.
Angels from the Realms of Glory, which is sung as a Christmas carol, was first published in the Sheffield Iris in 1816 and began to be sung in churches sometime after 1825.
Montgomery’s success was boosted by the Reverend James Cotterill who preached at St Paul’s Chapel (now demolished), which was once part of Sheffield Cathedral. With Montgomery’s help, Cotterill republished his Selection of Psalms and Hymns Adapted to the Services of the Church of England with the addition of some of Montgomery’s hymns. It is estimated Montgomery wrote around 400 hymns, however, less than 100 are known today.
On 30th April 1854, Montgomery passed away and was honoured by a public funeral. He had remained unmarried but was popular in the city for his religious lifestyle and philanthropy. Several streets in Sheffield were named after Montgomery, as was a pub and theatre.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon