Montgomery, James

Journalist, poet and hymnwriter, the son of a Moravian minister who later became a missionary in Barbados. He was born at Irvine, Ayrshire on 4 November 1771 and was educated at the Moravian settlement of Fulneck, Leeds. Deciding that he was not suited for the Moravian ministry or for teaching, he became an apprentice baker and then a shop assistant. Moving to Sheffield in 1792, he maintained a close association with Methodism, worshipping at Norfolk Street, Carver Street and and Garden Street chapels, but also with Baptists and his fellow Moravians, and in his later years was a communicant member of St. George's parish church. In 1792 he joined the staff of a radical newspaper, the Sheffield Register, took it over in 1794, renamed it the Sheffield Irisand edited it for the next 31 years. Imprisoned twice for publishing radical material, he became well-known as a critic of the slave trade, the employment of child chimney sweeps and lotteries, and as a supporter of the Bible Society, foreign missions and WM Sunday Schools.

He wrote over 400 hymns and published Songs of Zion (1822), The Christian Psalmist (1825) and Hymns for Public, Private and Social Devotion (1853). Thirteen of his hymns are in Hymns and Psalms, but only four survive into Singing the Faith. These including 'Angels from the realms of glory' (HP 92; SF 190), 'Hail to the Lord's anointed' (HP 125; SF 228) and 'Be known to us in breaking bread' (HP 59; SF 573). Erik Routley judged him to be 'the greatest English lay hymnwriter'. His work appeared in the <span class="font-italic">Methodist Magazine</span>. His extensive poetical output, now largely forgotten, included a political poem The Wanderer of Switzerland (1806) and an epic on The World before the Flood (1812). He was on close friendly terms with Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Scott and other poets. He was granted a government pension of £200 p.a. in 1835, but was passed over in the appointment of Southey's successor as poet laureate in 1843.

He died in Sheffield on 30 April 1854. A memorial statue stands in the grounds of Sheffield cathedral, where the east window is in his memory; and a city hall is named after him.


'In doctrine, Montgomery's surviving hymns hold the balance, in their congregational and churchmanlike emphasis, between the cosmic impersonality of Watts and the fiery experience of Wesley. Even his literary style owes something to both and strikes a mean between them. In his psalm-versions he has something of the gaucherie of Watts, in his hymns of experience he has not a little of Wesley's intimacy… Perhaps he never wrote anything so stirring to the imagination as "Our God, our help in ages past" or "Jesu, lover of my soul", or "Rock of ages". His name would not appear in anybody's list of the half-dozen greatest hymns. But it is just this touch of the commonplace, this avoidance of the extreme, this solidity of doctrine and catholicity of experience that gives Montgomery this pivotal place in hymnody. His work is good, sound, hard-wearing stuff with a touch of the genuinely inspired here and there that makes us able to regard him as the typical English hymn-writer.'

Eric Routley, Hymns and Human Life (1952) p.124


  • J. Holland & J. Everett (eds.), Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery (1854-1856)
  • H.C.Knight, Life of James Montgomery (1857)
  • J.W. King, James Montgomery: a memoir, political and poetical (1858)
  • J. Marratt, James Montgomery: Christian poet and philanthropist (1879)
  • Arthur S. Holbrook, 'The Life and Work of James Montgomery', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, April 1954 pp.134-38
  • J. Alan Kay, 'The poetry and Hymns of James Montgomery', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, April 1954, pp. 138-45
  • Neil Dixon, 'James Montgomery in Methodist Hymnals', in WHS Proceedings, 38 pp.75-80
  • Bernard Braley, Hymnwriters, 2 (1989)
  • J.R. Watson, The English Hymn (1997) pp.304-320