In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
Angels, from the Realms of Glory by James Montgomery first appeared as a poem, “Nativity,” on Christmas Eve 1816 in his paper The Sheffield Iris.1 In his Original Hymns published in 1853, it was subtitled, Good Tidings of Great Joy to all People.2 I really like that because that was the message of the angel to the shepherds. Ace Collins has written it is, “possibly the best-written, sacred Christmas carol of all time.”3 Kenneth Osbeck agreed, “Many students of hymnody have acclaimed this as one of our finest Advent hymns.”4
James Montgomery has had a deep and lasting influence on our English hymns not only through one Christmas song, but as The Hymns And Carols of Christmas notes:
“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…Montgomery’s hymns are described as “one central creative thought, shaping for itself melodious utterance, and with every detail subordinate to its harmonious presentation.”5
“Next to these two spiritual leaders [Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley]…it is commonly agreed by students of hymnology that no writer has made a greater contribution to English hymnody than has James Montgomery.”6
Rev. John H. Johansen quoted Canon Ellerton as saying:
“He was our first hymnologist; the first Englishman who collected and criticized hymns, and who made people that had lost all recollection of ancient models understand something of what a hymn meant, and what it ought to be.”7
The music commonly used today for the hymn is the tune known as Regent Square, composed by Henry Smart, an organist who wrote it in the last fifteen years of his life after he had become blind.8He was another major contributor to English church music. David Hill has called him a “champion of congregational singing,”9 and Ace Collins wrote,
“…his cause was bringing new and beautiful music to English congregations, something that often involved bitter conflicts. Many traditionalists…often argued that the members of the congregation were merely spectators and should not be involved in the important facets of worship. Smart, however, felt that God spoke to every man and woman and that worship should be a joyful, corporate experience.
“In the face of ridicule, Smart published new songbooks with harmonized melodies. When people heard his harmonies, they demanded his work be used by the church…It is no exaggeration to say that Smart is to harmonized church music what Bach is to the German chorale.”10
Collins cites a music critic who commented:
“For comprehensiveness, appropriateness of expression, force and elevation of sentiment, ‘Angels, From the Realms of Glory’ may challenge comparison with any hymn that was ever written, in any language or country.”11
Angels, From the Realms of Glory is a hymn written for robust, joyful congregational singing.
Image: Schwerin Cathedral (Mecklenburg). Stained glass windows (1847) showing the annunciation to the shepherds. Design by Gaston Lenthe, work by Ernst Gillmeister. Source: Wolfgang Sauber. Image rotated, filled, and cropped. (CC BY-SA 4.0)
1“Angels From the Realms of Glory,” hymnary.org
2Original Hymns via Edwin Hatfield, The Poets of the Church (1884) “James Montgomery, 4 November 1771—30 April 1854.”
3, 10, 11Ace Collings, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI: 2001) 11, 16 15,.
4, 6, 8Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids MI: 1982) 33, 32 33.
5James Montgomery, The Hymns and Carols of Christmas.
7John H. Johansen “The Hymns of James Montgomery.” Transactions of the Moravian Historical Society 16, no. 1 (1954): 14-29. Accessed December 18, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41179335.
9David G. Hill, “Henry Smart’s Contribution to Victorian Hymnody.” The Musical Times 130, no. 1754 (1989): 237-41. Accessed December 18, 2020. doi:10.2307/966486. https://www.jstor.org/stable/966486
The first four stanzas from Original Hymns are sung in the video. Other stanzas have been added from various sources. This is the fifth stanza from Original Hymns:
Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doom’d for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you—break your chains
Come and worship,
Worship CHRIST, the newborn King.
Copyright ©2020–2021 Iwana Carpenter