Article

History of Hymns: “Angels from the Realms of Glory”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Angels from the Realms of Glory"
James Montgomery
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 220

James Montgomery

Angels from the realms of glory,
Wing your flight o’er all the earth;
Ye who sang creation’s story
Now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.


James Montgomery (1771-1854) followed in the footsteps of two poetic luminaries—Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. In many hymnals he is well represented, third only to Watts and Wesley for British hymn writers before 1850, with six original hymns in The UM Hymnal.

American hymnologist Albert Bailey notes that “One cannot call him a great poet, but he knew how to express with sincerity, fervor, simplicity and beauty the emotions and aspirations of the common Christian.” But British hymnologist J.R. Watson states, “James Montgomery was a well known poet, highly thought of by his contemporaries such as Shelley and Byron.”

Montgomery’s father was a minister, and his parents later served as missionaries to the West Indies. He remained in Yorkshire, and from age 6 was raised in a boy’s boarding school run by the Brethren of Fulneck. Montgomery later said, “There, whatever we did was done in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ, whom we were taught to regard in the amiable and endearing light of a friend and brother.”

He began writing poetry at age 10, inspired by the hymns of the Moravians, the same group that influenced John Wesley. Though he flunked out of school at age 14, Montgomery found a job in 1792 at a radical weekly newspaper, the Sheffield Register.

He assumed the leadership of the paper when the previous editor, due to his politics, had to flee the country for fear of persecution. Montgomery then changed the name of the paper to the Sheffield Iris and served for 31 years as editor.

“Angels from the realms of glory” was first published on Christmas Eve 1816 in the Sheffield Iris. The hymn has a sense of urgency and excitement, magnified by the use of imperative verbs throughout, especially in the refrain: “Come and worship . . .”

The original final stanza is usually omitted in hymnals:

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes your sentence,
Mercy calls you; break your chains . . .


While such language seems harsh to modern ears, and indeed seems to end the Christmas hymn on a bit of a “downer,” it completes a thoughtful progression from the first to the last stanzas. The Angels song (stanza one) leads to the Shepherds’ adoration (stanza two), and to Sages’ gifts (stanza three), and to Saints’ praise in heaven (stanza four), and finally, to the Sinners’ repentance on earth (stanza five).

Mr. Watson points out that the final original stanza, “appealing to the sinners, is highly appropriate because it echoes the Psalm for Christmas morning, Psalm 85, especially verse 10: ‘Mercy and truth are met together: righteousness and peace have kissed each other.’”

The themes of justice and mercy as well as the image of broken chains are also appropriate in the context of the poet’s life. His newspaper denounced the social evils of his day, especially the slave trade. Montgomery was even jailed for his radical views: once for publishing a poem that celebrated the fall of the Bastille, and another time for denouncing the actions of the Sheffield police during a riot. He used the time in prison to write poetry.

Even though the original final stanza may seem to put a damper on unbridled Christmas joy, Montgomery reminds us that the Nativity was more than a sweet manger scene.

As many texts from Isaiah and the prophets remind us, the Incarnation was an event celebrating the liberation of oppressed peoples by a just and merciful God taking on human form. Let us celebrate, in the words of Montgomery, that God’s “justice now revokes [our] sentence” and that God’s “mercy . . . break[s] [our] chains”! 
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns, Reflections/Articles