Angels, from the realms of glory
Source: Singing the Faith: 190
Words: James Montgomery
Music: “Iris” Trad French harmonised Martin Shaw
Metre: 87.87. and refrain
Ideas for use
The hymn as a whole draws upon all the familiar players in the nativity story – angels, shepherds, and wise men (“sages”). At the same time, by inviting us to identify with these different groups – and by writing in the present tense – Montgomery subtly overlays past with present. In verse 2, for example, we picture the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillside; but then we sing “God with us is now residing, / yonder shines the Infant Light” – both seeing through the eyes of the shepherds but also proclaiming God’s presence in the here and now. Similarly, in verse 3 – it is a “here and now” task, Montgomery suggests, to “seek the great Desire of nations” because we, as well as the wise men, have seen “his natal star”.
The shift from “then” to “now” is completed by the final verse (“Though an infant now we view him”) – even though this verse has been borrowed from another carol altogether (see below)!
If your congregation is large enough, and especially if you’re fortunate enough to have a choir to turn to, consider using different groups of voices to “dramatise” the verses, reinforcing the sense of seeing through the eyes of those who participated in the original nativity events. Which voices will sing of the angels (a choir?); the shepherds (a group of men?) etc.
“Angels, from the realms of glory” made its first appearance in Montgomery’s newspaper, the Iris –whose name was also attached to the traditional French melody now associated with these words. Initially, Montgomery named the hymn “Nativity” but he altered the text slightly for his publication The Christian Psalmist (1825) and gave it the title “Good tidings of great joy to all people”.
There is a challenging radicalism underpinning Montgomery’s writing, which nowadays is often lost to us, though it was certainly present in Montgomery’s own life and activities (see below). In this particular hymn, Montgomery echoes the radical teachings of the first Christians whose proclamation of the incarnation was often held against them. As N.T. Wright points out, “no second-Temple Jews known to us were expecting the one god to appear in human form”.*
However, in verse 4, Montgomery combines Old Testament prophecy (“the Lord, whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple”, Malachi 3:1) with Christmas joy and apocalyptic hope. The effect is striking:
suddenly the Lord, descending,
in his temple shall appear:
(Other hymn writers who take up this theme include John Mason Neale: “To this temple, where we call thee, come, O Lord of Hosts, today” (StF 677, v.2); and Charles Wesley: “Come, almighty to deliver, let us all thy life receive; suddenly return, and never, never more thy temples leave.” (StF 503, v.2).)
Montgomery’s original fifth verse (with a strong message of mercy for “sinners, wrung with true repentance”) was replaced in the twentieth century by the present verse, which is in fact taken from another Montgomery hymn, “Come, behold the Virgin Mother”.
James Montgomery wrote around 400 hymns altogether. Though he had written poetry of all kinds since boyhood, he once observed that none of them would stand the test of time – except perhaps a few hymns.
He was born in 1771 into a Moravian family. His father was a Moravian minister in Irvine, Ayrshire; he and his wife would both die while working as missionaries in the West Indies while James was still young. He was sent to the Moravian seminary at Fulneck near Leeds, to train for the ministry, but his academic record was poor and abandoned this calling to become an apprentice baker and later a shop assistant.
Aged 21, Montgomery moved to Sheffield and became assistant to Mr Gales, editor and owner of the Sheffield Register, a radical newspaper. Gales fled the country in 1794 to avoid a political prosecution, and Montgomery took over the paper, renaming it the Sheffield Iris. He was subsequently imprisoned twice in York Castle, once for printing a song celebrating the Fall of the Bastille, and once for printing an account of a political riot in Sheffield.
Montgomery became a well-known figure in Sheffield (a memorial statue stands in the cathedral grounds); he was outspoken in his support for foreign missions and the Bible Society, and fearless in his denunciation of the slave trade, child chimney-sweeps and state lotteries. In 1809, he wrote an epic anti-slavery poem called ‘The West Indies’. He also associated himself with the Wesleyan Methodists, particularly in their Sunday School work.
Read more about James Montgomery. The above notes also draw upon the Revd Mark Lawson-Jones’s enjoyable (though selective) history of Christmas carols, Why was the Partridge in the Pear Tree? (2011: The History Press).
* N.T. Wright The Resurrection Of The Son Of God (2003: Augsburg Fortress Press)