Home History of Hymns: "Prayer Is the Soul's Sincere Desire"

History of Hymns: "Prayer Is the Soul's Sincere Desire"

“Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire”
James Montgomery
UM Hymnal, No. 492

James Montgomery

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

While many hymns are in reality sung prayers—prayers of petition, intercession, praise, adoration, thanksgiving and blessing—few hymns address the subject of prayer. Of those that do, British hymnologist J. Richard Watson states that this “is the greatest of all hymns on the difficult subject of prayer.”

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 among British hymn writers before 1850 with six original hymns in the UM Hymnal.

American hymnologist Albert Bailey noted, “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.” However, Dr. Watson states that 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 eventually served as missionaries in the West Indies. James remained in Yorkshire and from age 6 was raised in a boy’s boarding school administered by the Brethren of Fulneck. Of this experience he 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. Montgomery flunked out of school at 14, but in 1792 found a job at a radical weekly newspaper, the Sheffield Register. Not long afterwards 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.

Our hymn, written in 1818, was first published officially as a congregational song in the author’s The Christian Psalmist (1825). However, as UM Hymnal editor, the Rev. Carlton Young points out, the hymn had earlier appeared in broadsheets used by Montgomery in his Sunday school classes in Sheffield. It was included in Treatise on Prayer (1819) and in the section entitled “Hymns Chiefly Intended for Private Use” in Thomas Cotterill’s Selection of Psalms and Hymns for Public and Private Use (1819, 8th edition).

Thus we have here a poem that is as effective for teaching and meditation as for congregational singing. Indeed, the logic that unfolds in this hymn may be more akin to a sermon than a song. Yet, the author succeeds in inspiring the singer at the same time.

In Cotterill’s collection, the hymn appeared with a passage from Ephesians (appropriate section italicized):
“And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” (Ephesians 6:17-19, KJV)

Dr. Watson captures the essence of this hymn well in An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford University Press, 2002). “Montgomery understood that prayer could be spoken or unspoken,” he writes, “and that it came from the heart, often in a sigh or a tear; he also knew that it could be both simple and sublime. It is the breath of life, and the ‘watchword’ at the gate of death. Montgomery, as so often, is wonderfully economical and inclusive: Verse after verse adds to our understanding, until the final verse brings us to the way, and the truth, and the life (from John 14:6), and to the Jesus who was asked by one of His disciples, ‘Lord, teach us to pray.’”

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