This is part 23 of an Advent/Christmas series titled “Songs of Christmas.” For other parts of the series see the index. The index also contains the introduction for the series.
Our lives can talk a lot of twists and turns. Such would be the case for James Montgomery, an Irishman who spent most of his life living in England. Such was no small task in the England of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Montgomery was born in Scotland to an Irish Moravian pastor and his wife. By the time Montgomery was seven, his parents had left England, and him, to head to the mission field where they would die in the mission service.
When his parents left for the mission field, they left him in a boarding school. By the time Montgomery was 10 he was writing poetry, but that was the only thing he was interested in doing. He left school by the time he was 14 for academic reasons.
For the next several years Montgomery worked at times and was unemployed and homeless at times. He used much of his money to purchase pencil and paper.
Though no publisher was interested in his writing, the editor of the radical Sheffield Register could see Montgomery’s raw talent. Montgomery spent the next two years writing stories for the paper. The paper used much of its content to bring forward the struggle the Irish faced with the English. When the radical editor had to flee England under threat of persecution, Montgomery took over leadership of the paper and changed the name to the Sheffield Iris. But, if anyone thought the paper would change with the masthead change would be wrong. Montgomery continued to press on the Irish-English issue and also brought forward the evils of the slave trade in the paper. His writing resulted in two prison terms.
Those who supported Montgomery’s stands continued to scour the paper for more of his fiery editorials. On Christmas Eve 1816 Montgomery surprised his readers with his poem “Nativity.” The words of the poem sought more to unite than divide in saying that Jesus Christ came for everyone. Though the poem didn’t say as much, the implication was, Irish and English alike.
As Montgomery’s life continued he began to understand his parent’s calling to the mission field. He returned to his roots in the Moravian church and working hard in the support of missions.
Though “Nativity” was popular, it would have most likely faded away if not for the English composer Henry Smart. Smart was at odds with the Anglican Church clergy who saw the people in the pews as spectators in worship. Smart believed worship was something in which everyone should participate. The chants that were church music of the day did little to encourage this. Smart, following in the footsteps of the likes of Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley helped to make great strides in church music. The common Christian loved the new music and began to demand it be part of worship.
By the time Smart was eighteen years old, he was going blind. By the time Montgomery published “Nativity” in the Iris Christmas Even of 1816, Smart probably was unable to read it. Yet years later, someone read him the poem and he put it to music. He gave it a new title and the world had a new Christmas carol to use in celebration of the days of Christmas.
For the England of the early 19th century, the alliance of Montgomery and Smart, an Irishman and an Englishman was an unlikely combination. There is little or no evidence indicating that the two actually collaborated together on the piece. Still God brought together these two men in an unlikely partnership.
How has God done the unlikely in you?
Have a blessed day in the Lord.
Joy and Peace,
Copyright 2016, J. Keith Broyles, All Rights Reserved
Collins, Ace, Stories Behind the Best Loved Songs of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Collins, Andrew, Stories Behind the Greatest Hits of Christmas, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Gant, Andrew, The Carols of Christmas: A Celebration of the Surprising Stories Behind Your Favorite Holiday Songs, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015.
Osbeck, Kenneth W. Joy to the World: The Stories Behind Your Favorite Christmas Carols, Grand Rapids: Kregal, 1999.