And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
— Luke 2.13-14
In November 1771, James Montgomery was born in Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland. His parents were Irish Moravian missionaries, who died when James was only five years old. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he had no interest in school. By the age of twenty, he spent his time largely unemployed and frequently homeless for weeks at a time.
He was interested, however, in writing. The radical editor of the Sheffield Register hired James to write stories. When he was twenty-three, he became the owner of the Register, when the past owner was run out of town for writing radical editorials about Irish freedom under English rule. Although James changed the name to the Sheffield Iris, he did not change the editorial posture. Between his continuing to publish radical editorials and being a leader in the abolitionist movement, James twice landed in prison. Each time he was released, however, he continued to point to freedom for all.
When he was not fighting for Irish freedom or against English slavery, James was reading his Bible. He wanted to understand the motivation behind the lives (and deaths) of his parents. In time, his studies and zeal blended and sent the Irishman on a new mission. One of the early hints of his change was revealed on Christmas Eve 1816. On that day, his editorial did not divide the Irish from the English. Instead, it unified all of its readers.
“Nativity,” which later came to be known as, “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” told the story of angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior for all people—Irish and English. Reading between the lines, the hymn has a bit of social commentary. Montgomery eventually returned to the Moravian church and, inspired by his parents, became a missionary. He continued writing hymns until the day he died in 1854. By that time, he had been twice imprisoned for his beliefs and had heard “Nativity” sung in the Anglican churches in London.
Angels from the Realms of Glory (The Choir of St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle – 4:33)
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:
Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you—break your chains:
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:
All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising,
To th’ eternal Three in One: