Political activist and humanitarian, James Montgomery has become one of the most well known and respected Scottish poets and hymn writers. Born November 4, 1771 in Irvine, Montgomery was raised and taught under the Moravian religion, a small sect of Protestantism. Montgomery’s father was a very devout Moravian, and the religion had a large influence on some of Montgomery’s writing. Montgomery was sent to Fulnick, England, for education and to become a missionary, while his parents went to the Indies. His parents fell ill and Montgomery and two siblings were left without parents, Montgomery writing “ my father-mother-parents, are no more! Beneath the Lion star they sleep beyond the Western deep.” Montgomery was given a classical education at the monastery, where he had little to no contact with the outside world and was banned from secular study. However, Montgomery was introduced to poetry and loved the craft, producing poems of his own. After ten years in the monastery, Montgomery left to pursue a career in writing and poetry. Falling upon odd jobs to make ends meet, he eventually landed a true literary job in 1792 at the Sheffield Register in Sheffield, England, as an assistant to Joseph Gales. In 1794, Gales left Sheffield to avoid political persecution, giving the newspaper to Montgomery, who renamed it the Sheffield Iris.
After becoming the head of the Sheffield Iris, Montgomery had his own experience with political persecution caused by his writing. He was arrested both in 1795 and 1796, the first for praising the fall of the Bastille and the second for a narrative on two men murdered in a riot. Montgomery’s time in prison led to him writing a set of poems called “Prison Amusements,” though he did not publish them until 1797. Montgomery continued to publish his poetry and hymns in his newspaper and in other newspapers and magazines. In 1806, he published “The Wanderer of Switzerland,” a collection of poems following the French annexation of Scotland. This poem was the turning point for Montgomery, giving him relative fame despite criticism from conservative magazines such as the Edinburgh Review. He continued to write poetry on commission on controversial topics, such as the abolition of slavery and the end of child labor, including his poem “The West Indies,” an epic poem on the treatment of slaves and abolition of slavery. He gave lectures on poetry at Sheffield and the Royal Institute. Montgomery wrote poetry on all topics in addition to editing and publishing in the Sheffield Iris for thirty-one years.
Montgomery is primarily known for his hymns in the modern day. Publishing 400 hymns during his lifetime, Montgomery’s hymns still last to this day, and are sung in all Christian churches across the world. His combination of high poetic genius and devout faith helped him create works that outshone most hymns at the time. Some of his famous hymns include “Praise we to the Father Give,” and “Forever with the Lord.” Montgomery wrote hymns starting from his time at the monastery all the way to his last days.
Due to his trouble competing journalistically with other newspapers, Montgomery eventually sold the Sheffield Iris to a local bookstore in 1825. After receiving his royal pension in 1833, Montgomery moved to The Mount in Sheffield, England, living out the rest of his life while remaining heavily involved in religious life and philanthropy, always vocal about his beliefs. Montgomery never married or had children, becoming an individual who solely looked out for his community. Montgomery died on April 20, 1854 at eighty two years old. There is a statue in Sheffield, England, dedicated to Montgomery with quotes from “The Grave” and “The Prayer.”
Hodgett, Les. “James Montgomery, 1771-1854.” Biography of James Montgomery, 1771-1854 (Spiritual Songsters), Stem Publishing. stempublishing.com/hymns/biographies/montgomery.html
Montgomery, James. The Poems of James Montgomery with a Memoir. Philadelphia, Uriah Hunt and Son, 1846. Hathitrust,babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433112192897;view=1up;seq=1
“South Yorkshire - History - James Montgomery and 'The West Indies'.” BBC Sheffield and Yorkshire, BBC, 22 Apr. 2008. bbc.co.uk/southyorkshire/content/articles/2007/02/14/abolition_james_montgomery__feature.shtml