In the hour of trial, Jesus, plead for me,
Lest by base denial I depart from Thee.
When Thou seest me waver, with a look
Nor for fear or favor suffer me to fall.
With forbidden pleasures would this vain
Or its sordid treasures spread to work me
Bring to my remembrance sad Gethsemane,
Or, in darker semblance, cross-crowned
Should Thy mercy send me sorrow, toil
Or should pain attend me on my path below,
Grant that I may never fail Thy hand to
Grant that I may ever cast my care on
When my last hour cometh, fraught with
strife and pain,
When my dust returneth to the dust again,
On Thy truth relying, through that mortal
Jesus, take me, dying, to eternal life.
James Montgomery was born November 4, 1771 in Irvine, Ayrshire,
Scotland where his father John was a minister in the Moravian Church.
When Montgomery was five years old, his family moved to the Moravian
settlement at Gracehill, near Ballymena, County Antrim. In 1783, his
parents were sent off to the West Indies as missionaries leaving him
at the Moravian settlement at Bracehill near Ballymena, County Antrim,
Ireland where his education started.
At the age of seven, he was sent off to begin his seminary training at
Fulneck Seminary, Yorkshire, and while there made a public profession
of religion by uniting with the Moravian Church. Not long after they
had gone, his parents died; his father is buried in Barbados, and his
mother in Tobago.
At Fulneck, secular poetry and fiction were banned, but James
nevertheless found means of borrowing and reading a good deal of
poetry, including Burns' "Lines To A Mountain Daisy." He began to
write his own poetry, and as a boy planned to write two epics in the
His scholastic record at Fulneck was insufficient and in 1787 he was
then apprenticed to a bakerin a shop in Mirfield, near Wakefield, a
work that did not suit him at all. However, he stuck it out for 18
months in Muirfield. A similar position in Wath near Rotherham,
convinced him to look elsewhere for livelihood and fulfillment.
A trip to London, hoping to find a publisher for his youthful poems,
ended in failure. He supported himself precariously and dubiously
until 1792 when he became assistant to Mr. Gales, auctioneer,
bookseller, and printer of the Sheffield Register. In 1794, Gales left
England to avoid political prosecution. Montgomery took the Sheffield
Register in hand, changed its name to the Sheffield Iris, and
continued to edit it for 32 years.
During the next two years he was imprisoned twice in the Castle of
York. He was first imprisoned for six months for reporting on a riot
in Sheffield and again for three months for commemorating the fall of
the Bastille with a poem entitled the Fall of the Bastille (which he
only published, and did not write). In 1797 he published a volume of
poems, Prison Amusements, so named because some were written during
his prison stay.
In 1825, he lost The Sheffield Iris and founded and became contributor
to The Eclectic Review; Montgomery was also a a strong Abolitionist.
In his youth, he had strayed from the church, but at his own request
he was readmitted into the Moravian congregation at Fulneck when
forty-three years of age. He expressed his feelings at the time in the
People of the living God,
I have sought the world around,
Paths of sin and sorrow trod,
Peace and comfort nowhere found.
Now to you my spirit turns--
Turns a fugitive unblest;
Brethren, where your altar burns,
O receive me into rest.
Thereafter he became an avid worker for missions and an active member
of the Bible Society.
About the same time, the English Church Missionary Society and the
Baptist Mission Society had formed, evangelism in England was an idea
whose time had come and it is apparent in Montgomery's hymns. Moreover
the English Moravian church traces its roots back to the Moravian
Missionary center in Hernnhut, Germany (Moravians were also known as
Hernnhuters or the Bohemian Brethren); it was a Moravian society that
sent James' parents to the West Indies.
He wrote 400 hymns in his career, approximately 100 are still in use;
the more recognizable, in addition to Hail To the Lord's Anointed
might be Angels From the Realms of Glory, Come to Calvary's Holy
Mountain,. Go to Dark Gethsemane, Prayer is the Souls' Sincere Desire,
In the Hour of Trial, Lift Up Your Heads, Ye Gates of Brass and For
Ever with the Lord.
His hymns were published in three volumes: Songs of Zion: Being
Imitations of Psalms, 1822; The Christian Psalmist, 1825 (103 of his
hymns) and Original Hymns for Public, Private and Social Devotion,
In The Christian Psalmist, he is said to have laid the foundations of
modern scientific hymnology, when he discussed with considerable
insight the characteristics of the great English hymn writers who had
preceded him. Although he was described as a generally kindly person,
he could exhibit occasional sarcasm, as was the case in the following
descriptions of some of his predecessors:
They have begun apparently with the only idea in their mind at the
time; another with little relationship to the former has been forced
upon them by a refractory rhyme; a third, because necessary to eke out
a verse; a fourth, to begin one; and so on.
By contrast, Montgomery's hymns are described as "one central creative
thought, shaping for itself melodious utterance, and with every detail
subordinate to its harmonious presentation."
Montgomery also wrote secular poetry, lecturing at the Royal
Institution. The lectures were then published under the title Lectures
on Poetry and General Literature in 1833; later in life, 1883, he was
awarded a Royal Pension of £200 per annum [one source gives the figure
of $1,000 per year], presumably to atone for his earlier
imprisonments. Montgomery also published a volume of poems, many of
which denounced the practice of slavery.
His poems brought him considerable popularity, especially his Wanderer
of Switzerland, which contains one of his finished productions: The
Grave. The Edinburgh Review severely criticized it, but Blackwood gave
it a favorable review, as did the poet Byron.
He was once asked which of his poems would live. He replied: "None,
sir, nothing except perhaps a few of my hymns."
In his later years, he occupied himself with the promotion of
philanthropic and religious movements, earning the almost universal
esteem of the citizens of Sheffield. He never married and died quietly
in his sleep, a day after he had written his last hymn, April 30, 1854
at age 83, at his home in Sheffield where his career and works
accorded him the honor of a public funeral in that city. In his
memory, a statue was erected in the Sheffield cemetery, a stained
glass window was installed in the parish church, and a public hall was
named after him.
James Montgomery is the hymn writer who sounded the "first...
missionary note in English hymnody" (Ryden, p. 316). The poetry of
Montgomery's hymns is simple in vocabulary and structure and uses
imagery in a very powerful way. In his hymn, "Prayer is the Soul's
Sincere Desire," (The Methodist Hymnal, 1966), he uses imagery of
fire, sigh, tear; he contrasts "infant speech" and "sublimest strain."
In an ironic twist, prayer is the "breath" of the dying one, by which
he is ushered into the presence of God.
- I will keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come.
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