History of Hymns: "Hail to the Lord's Anointed"
"Hail to the Lord’s Anointed"
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 203
“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed,
Great David’s greater Son!
Hail in the time appointed,
His reign on earth begun!
He comes to break oppression,
To set the captive free;
To take away transgression,
And rule in equity.”
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 hymns in The UM Hymnal.
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.”
Montgomery’s father was a minister, and his parents later served as missionaries to the West Indies. James remained in Yorkshire and was raised from age 6 in a boy’s boarding school administered 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 hymn of the Moravians, the same group that inspired John Wesley. Despite flunking 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 not long after, when the previous editor fled the country fearing persecution for his politics.
At this point, Montgomery changed the name of the paper to the Iris, and served for 31 years as editor, during which he was a tireless supporter of social justice. He was jailed twice for his radical views, using the time in prison to write poetry.
This hymn was originally an eight-stanza poem, a paraphrase of Psalm 72 written in 1821 for a Christmas leaflet, “Moravian Ode.”
Psalm 72:1-4 reads in the Authorized Version (KJV): “Give the king thy judgments, O God, and thy righteousness unto the king’s son. He shall judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with judgment. The mountains shall bring peace to the people, and the little hills, by righteousness. He shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor.”
No doubt, Montgomery knew Isaac Watts’ famous paraphrase of Psalm 72, “Jesus shall reign” (UMH 157). While Watts’ extensive paraphrase of this psalm points explicitly to England’s expansion throughout the world, Montgomery’s paraphrase points to the coming kingdom where the oppressed will be freed and Christ will “rule in equity.”
English literary scholar and hymnologist J.R. Watson would disagree with Bailey’s assessment of Montgomery’s poetic skills, calling him “a considerable poet” who was friends with the great Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Watson suggests that Montgomery was influenced by Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820), in which “the end of Jupiter’s tyranny is accompanied by the revival of life on earth, in the spring, as Prometheus is freed.” Watson continues, “Montgomery here writes a Shelleyan drama in miniature, linking it with the coming of the kingdom of God upon earth.”
Montgomery’s closing line of the final stanza, “that name to us is love,” reminds me of Charles Wesley’s closing line at the end of his great hymn, “Come, O thou Traveler unknown”—a narrative ballad that parallels Jacob’s struggle in Genesis 32 with the angel at Peniel.
Wesley concludes his struggle with the revelation that “thy name is love.” For Montgomery, the world had been struggling long and hard with sin and oppression, a world that could (and can) only be redeemed by the one whose name is Love.