“Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great desire of nations,
Ye have seen His natal star;
Come and worship,
Come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!”
Angels from the Realms of Glory, 3rd Stanza
When I was still in my teens, I started collecting angels. Good angels, naturally, of all sorts. Big angels with glorious costumes of velvet and fur, satin and feathers, beads and jewels. Treetop angels that lit up brightly. Angels all in white. Angels in various shades of blue, gold, silver, lavender, and pink. Little angels with cheery faces. Somber angels with musical instruments.
After awhile, I found I had no room for any more, nor the finances, for that matter, so I stopped collecting them about 15 or 20 years ago, although now and then I’ll see an angel that turns my head. I would always go shopping for them the Day After Christmas, at the half-price sales. So today, I shall pay tribute to my angel collection and all the real angels who’ve been watching over me these many years.
“Angels from the Realms of Glory” is a Christmas carol written by poet James Montgomery, born in 1771.
According to Wikipedia: His parents were missionaries who died spreading The Word. His poem was first printed in the Sheffield Iris on Christmas Eve 1816, though it only began to be sung in churches after its 1825 reprinting in the Montgomery collection The Christian Psalmist and in the Religious Tract Society’s The Christmas Box or New Year’s Gift.
Before 1928, the hymn was sung to a variety of tunes, including “Regent Square,” “Lewes” by John Randall, and “Wildersmouth” or “Feniton Court” by Edward Hopkins. In the United States, the hymn is today most commonly sung to the tune of “Regent Square” by Henry Smart. In the United Kingdom, however, the hymn came to be sung to the French carol tune “Iris” (Les anges dans nos campagnes, the tune used for “Angels We Have Heard on High”) after this setting was published in the Oxford Book of Carols, except that the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” refrain is sung in place of Montgomery’s original “Come and worship Christ the new-born King” refrain.
Montgomery, who was particularly associated with humanitarian causes such as the campaigns to abolish slavery and to end the exploitation of child chimney sweeps, was born at Irvine in Ayrshire, England. His father was the pastor and missionary of the Moravian Brethren. James was sent to be trained for the ministry at the Moravian School at Fulneck, near Leeds, while his parents left for the West Indies, where both died within a year of each other. At Fulneck, secular studies were banned, but James nevertheless found means of borrowing and reading a good deal of poetry and made ambitious plans to write epics of his own. Failing school, he was apprenticed to a baker in Mirfield, then to a store-keeper at Wath-upon-Dearne.
After further adventures, including an unsuccessful attempt to launch himself into a literary career in London, he moved to Sheffield in 1792 as assistant to Joseph Gales, auctioneer, bookseller and printer of the Sheffield Register, who introduced Montgomery into the local Lodge of Oddfellows. In 1794, Gales left England to avoid political prosecution and Montgomery took the paper in hand, changing its name to the Sheffield Iris.
These were times of political repression and he was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition. The first time was in 1795 for printing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille; the second in 1796 was for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield. (Clearly, the Crown did not regard Montgomery as an angel, nor he, them.) Turning the experience to some profit, in 1797 he published a pamphlet of poems written during his captivity as Prison Amusements. For some time, The Iris was the only newspaper in Sheffield; but beyond the ability to produce fairly creditable articles from week to week, Montgomery was devoid of the journalistic faculties which would have enabled him to take advantage of his position. Other newspapers arose to fill the place which his might have occupied and in 1825 he sold it to local bookseller John Blackwell.
Meanwhile, Montgomery was continuing to write poetry and achieved some fame with The Wanderer of Switzerland in 1806. The poem addressed the French annexation of Switzerland and quickly went through two editions. When it was denounced the following year in the conservative Edinburgh Review as a poem that would be speedily forgotten, Lord Byron came to its defense in the satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. Nevertheless, within 18 months, a fourth impression of 1,500 copies was issued from the very presses that had printed the critique and several more were to follow.
This success brought Montgomery a commission from the printer Bowyer to write a poem on the abolition of the slave trade, to be published along with other poems on the subject in a handsome illustrated volume. The subject appealed at once to the poet’s philanthropic enthusiasm and to his own touching associations with the West Indies. The four-part poem in heroic couplets appeared in 1809 as The West Indies.
Montgomery also used heroic couplets for The World Before the Flood (1812). Following this he turned to attacking the lottery in Thoughts on Wheels (1817) and taking up the cause of the chimney sweeps’ apprentices in The Climbing Boys’ Soliloquies. His next major poem was Greenland (1819). This piece was prefaced by a description of the ancient Moravian church, its 18th century revival and mission to Greenland in 1733. The poem was noted for the beauty of its descriptions.
After retiring from newspaper editorship, Montgomery’s only other long poem was The Pelican Island (1828). But Montgomery himself expected that his name would live, if at all, in his hymns. Some of these, such as “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,” “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire” and the carol “Angels from the Realms of Glory,”, are still sung. The earliest of his hymns dates from his days in Wath on Dearne and he added to their number over the years. The main boost came when the Rev. James Cotterill arrived at the parish church (now the cathedral) in 1817. He had compiled and published “A Selection of Psalms and Hymns Adapted to the Services of the Church of England” in 1810. But to his disappointment and concern, he found that his new parishioners did not take kindly to using it. He therefore enlisted the help of James Montgomery to help him revise the collection and improved it by adding some hymns of the poet’s own composition.
This new edition, meeting with the approval of the Archbishop of York (and eventually of the parishioners of St Paul’s), was finally published in 1820. In 1822, Montgomery published his own “Songs of Zion: Being Imitations of Psalms,” the first of several more collections of hymns. During his life he composed some 400, although less than a hundred are current today.
From 1835 until his death, Montgomery lived at The Mount on Glossop Road in Sheffield. He was very well regarded in the city and played an active part in its philanthropic and religious life. Following his death in 1854, he was honored by a public funeral and in 1861 a monument was erected over his grave in the Sheffield cemetery at the cost of £1,000, raised the Sheffield Sunday School Union, of which he was among the founding members. On its granite pedestal is inscribed ‘Here lies interred, beloved by all who knew him, the Christian poet, patriot, and philanthropist. Wherever poetry is read, or Christian hymns sung, in the English language, ‘he being dead, yet speaketh’ by the genius, piety and taste embodied in his writings.’
May the Angels watch over you and yours this Christmas season!