THE writer of this carol was considered in his day to be the equal of Charles Wesley, but of his 400 hymns and carols this is just about the sole survivor.
James Montgomery (1771-1854) was born in Irvine in Ayrshire, the son of Moravian missionaries. They sent him to boarding school in Yorkshire when he was six so that they could work in the West Indies, where they died within a year of each other.
Montgomery had dreams of being an epic poet, but 16 he was apprenticed to a baker in Mirfield, West Yorkshire. He not like it, so he got a job with a storekeeper at Wath-upon-Dearne, near Rotherham. He did not like that either, and set off for London to try to sell his youthful poems to a publisher. That ended in failure too. Apparently undaunted, in 1792 at the age of 21 he became the assistant to Joseph Gales, an auctioneer, bookseller, and printer and editor of the Sheffield Register newspaper.
Gales held radical views. In 1794 he feared he was about to be arrested on political grounds and fled to Hamburg, leaving his wife to sell the Register to Montgomery, then aged 23, who was funded by a Unitarian minister.
Montgomery relaunched the paper as the Sheffield Iris and adopted a less radical editorial line. Despite this, he was jailed for three months the following year for sedition after publishing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille. A few months after his release he wrote a critical report about a militia attack on protesters in Sheffield which resulted in two deaths. This time he got six months for malicious libel. He put his time in prison to good use by writing poetry which was published in 1797 in a pamphlet called Prison Amusements.
On Christmas Eve 1816 the paper published Montgomery’s carol, Angels from the Realms of Glory, which he based partly on a French carol called Angels We Have Heard on High. These are the words:
1 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:
There are alternative refrains:
(This is the one written by Montgomery)
Come and worship, come and worship
Worship Christ, the newborn King.
(This is from the French carol)
Gloria in excelsis deo
Gloria in excelsis deo.
2 Shepherds, in the fields abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant light:
3 Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations,
Ye have seen his natal star:
4 Saints before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In his temple shall appear.
5 Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you – break your chains:
6 Though an infant now we view him,
He shall fill his Father’s throne,
Gather all the nations to him;
Every knee shall then bow down:
7 All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising,
To th’eternal Three in One:
Verse 5 is often omitted these days.
Montgomery was editor of the Iris for 31 years, selling it in 1825. He was a committed campaigner for humanitarian causes such as the abolition of slavery and the exploitation of child chimney sweeps, and he continued to write poems and hymns.
I found this lovely extract from one of his poems, called Greenland:
The moon is watching in the sky; the stars
Are swiftly wheeling on their golden cars;
Ocean, outstretcht with infinite expanse,
Serenely slumbers in a glorious trance;
The tide, o’er which no troubled spirits breathe,
Reflects a cloudless firmament beneath,
Where poised as in the centre of a sphere
A ship above and ship below appear;
A double image pictured on the deep,
The vessel o’er its shadow seems to sleep;
Yet, like the host of heaven, that never rest,
With evanescent motion to the west,
The pageant glides through loneliness and night,
And leaves behind a rippling wake of light.
He died in Sheffield in 1854 at the age of 83 and was honoured with a civic funeral.
The hymn is sung to several tunes, including Regent Square by the English organist and composer Henry Smart (1813-1879). This is the most commonly used version in America. Here is a robust version from Alabama:
This is an arrangement by Dan Forrest (b 1978):
In Britain it is usually sung to the melody of the French carol Angels We Have Heard on High. The tune is called Gloria but when sung with Angels from the Realms of Glory it is sometimes called Iris after James Montgomery’s newspaper. It is with this tune that the original refrain is used.
Here it is by the choir of King’s College, Cambridge.
This is a performance by Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band.
Finally, a Salvation Army band in Australia.