Scottish-born James Montgomery (1771-1854) wrote “HAIL TO THE LORD’S ANOINTED” after contemplating the words of Psalm 72: “[The Promised One] has pity on the poor and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life.”
REBEL, POET, JOURNALIST, PRISONER
Orphaned when his missionary parents died in the West Indies, Montgomery was sent to a boys’ boarding school near Leeds. There, he learned to love both poetry and Moravian hymns. When he spent a little too much time writing poems, he flunked his other classes and was sent to work as a baker’s assistant. At age 16, he ran away from the baker and headed for London, taking nothing but his poems, a change of clothes, and a few coins. He found odd jobs along the way.
In London, he failed to find a publisher for his poems, but secured a job working in a bookstore. His big break came when he answered an ad to work at a radical newspaper in Sheffield, a manufacturing town north of London.
This was a time of political repression throughout England. Across the Channel in France, the poor, workers, and women had led the Revolution and overthrown the monarchy. Napoleon was expanding the French Empire. British monarchs and aristocrats feared the new ideas erupting across Europe and the foreigners who might rouse the masses in working class towns like Sheffield.
There was no freedom of the press. When the editor of the radical newspaper was forced to flee England, Montgomery, age 21, took over the responsibilities. He changed the name of the paper to the Sheffield Iris but continued publishing it as an outlet for radical writings.
Twice, Montgomery was jailed for sedition — once for reprinting a song celebrating the fall of the Bastille, another time for challenging the authorities’ use of unnecessary force in quelling a political protest. While in his cell, he wrote poems and later published a collection titled Prison Amusements. One poem, addressed to a robin who visited his windowsill, began:
Welcome, pretty little stranger.
Welcome to my lone retreat.
Here, secure from every danger,
Hop about, and chirp, and eat:
Robin, how I envy thee,
Happy child of Liberty!
Another from this collection addressed moonlight. It began:
Gentle Moon! a captive calls;
Gentle Moon! awake, arise;
Gild the prison’s sullen walls;
Gild the tears that drown his eyes.
When he was 54, Montgomery left the newspaper. He remained unmarried, devoting his life to poetry, activism, and philanthropy. He worked for the abolition of slavery and swore off the use of sugar until it was ended. He also spoke up for chimney sweeps, poor, hard-working boys whose lives were harsh and bleak.
“SONGS FOR SIGHING” — THEN AND NOW
In addition to advocating for the oppressed, James Montgomery wrote the lyrics to over 400 hymns. His ear was tuned to the moans and sighs of the poor and exploited. His passion for justice lives on in his powerful Advent hymn.
He comes with succor speedy
to those who suffer wrong;
to help the poor and needy,
and bid the weak be strong;
to give them songs for sighing,
their darkness turn to light,
whose souls, condemned and dying,
are precious in his sight.
This year, as we approach Christmas, social media is abuzz with memes pointing to the hypocrisy of some fearful “Christians,” presidential candidates, and state governors who would close our national borders to refugees, especially those fleeing Syria.
Facebook memes point to the end of the Christmas story — the Holy Family, Mary clutching baby Jesus, in search of asylum in Egypt, fleeing Herod’s evil regime and the massacre of the innocents. Another illustrates Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan with comments intended to mock those who claim to follow Christ yet warn against welcoming foreigners.
‘Tis the season. We are bombarded with brash and blaring Christmas jingles urging us to buy! buy! buy! Our landscape is littered with tinsel and credit card bills. Tempers flare across family dinner tables. Distracted, we struggle to recall the reason for the season: hope, peace, joy, love.
Montgomery’s timeless Advent hymn reminds us that God can hear our sighing above the din of canned carols, forced cheer, and political frenzy. With joyful anticipation, we greet the birth of Jesus singing, “His name shall stand forever; that name to us is Love.”
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’” by C. Michael Hawn, UMCDiscipleship Ministries
Captive Faith: Prison Experience in Christian History — James Montgomery
Poetical Works of James Montgomery (e-book)
“The Bible Is Crystal Clear About Refugees” by Candida Moss, The Daily Beast, 11/22/15
“Beyond Bethlehem — Christmas Hope for Refugee Families” by Global Ministries, UMC (8 mins.)