Read an Excerpt
ANGELS, FROM THE REALMS OF GLORY
Angels, from the Realms of Glory'---possibly the best-written, sacred Christmas carol of all time---helped launch a revolution that continues to impact millions of lives today. At its heart is its writer, an Irishman born in November of 1771.
James Montgomery was born in Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland. Montgomery's father, John, was an Irish Moravian missionary. When his parents were called to evangelistic work in the West Indies, the child was sent to a Moravian community in Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland. By the time he was seven, James was at Fulneck Seminary, Yorkshire, England. Five years later, the parents James hardly knew died on the mission field.
Perhaps because of the distance from and the tragic loss of his parents, Montgomery never was very interested in his schooling. Flunking out of seminary, he became a baker's assistant for a short time. By the age of twenty, the young man was little more than a vagrant, moving from job to job, often unemployed, and homeless for weeks at a time.
Montgomery's only interest was writing. He spent what little money he had on pencils and paper, taking hours to com-pose poetic odes on everything from loneliness to faith. Though no publisher was interested in his work, the radical editor of the Sheffield Register saw something in the young man's raw talent. For the next two years Montgomery got paid to do what he most loved to do---write stories. He also learned firsthand about the hardships of being an Irishman under English rule. At the age of twenty-three, when the newspaper's owner was run out of town for writing radical editorials concerning Irish freedom, the missionary's son took over the Register.
In an attempt to quell the British government's wrath, Montgomery changed the paper's name to the Sheffield Iris. Yet he didn't change its editorial stance. Just as his parents had strongly rebelled against the strict rules and rituals of England's official church, James was bent on carrying on a written war for Ireland's freedom. At about that time, he also became an active leader in the abolitionist movement. His fiery editorial stance twice landed him in prison. Yet each time he was released, he returned to the Iris and continued his printed war for freedom on all fronts.
When Montgomery was not waging an editorial crusade against English rule and slavery, he was reading his Bible in an attempt to understand the power that motivated his parents' lives and ultimately led to their deaths. In time, his Scripture study and rebellious zeal would blend and send the young man on a new mission. One of the first hints of this change was revealed on Christmas Eve 1816.
Irishmen, who hated all things British, probably carefully studied the newspaper each day, hoping to find some Montgomery- penned passage that would inspire more to join their revolution. It is certain that local government officials who read the Iris often wished to nail the man who was so often a thorn in their side. Yet on December 24, 1816, readers discovered a different stance from the fiery editor. On that day, his editorial did not divide Irish from English, but rather brought everyone who read the Iris closer together.
Written in the same poetic verse that Montgomery had employed during the aimless wanderings of his youth, 'Nativity'--- what would eventually become the carol 'Angels, from the Realms of Glory'---told the story of angels proclaiming the birth of a Savior for all people, English and Irish, rich and poor, Anglican and Moravian. Eloquent, beautiful, and scripturally sound, Montgomery soon touched more lives for Christ with the stroke of his pen than his parents did in all their years of missionary work.
Still, when read between the lines, there was a bit of social commentary in 'Nativity.' A verse long-deleted from the carol speaks of a society that needs to right some wrongs. That lost stanza also reveals the writer's personal journey in finding purpose and meaning in his own life:
Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence;
Mercy calls you. Break your chain.
As Montgomery would soon find out, his poem would break chains, but not those he had envisioned. The impact of 'Nativity' would actually foreshadow the writer's future, since he would come to revolutionize music and thinking in the English church.
As often is the case with inspired work, irony stepped in and took an important role in revealing 'Nativity' to a mass audience.
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.
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ the newborn King.
Shepherds in the fields abiding,
Watching o'er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant Light.
Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations,
Ye have seen His natal star.
Saints before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear.