The American Revolution had just begun when six year-old James and his parents left home in England to be missionaries in the West Indies. James’ experience in boarding school was not pleasant, but life went from bad to worse when word came that both of his parents had been killed at their mission post. Sent back to England, James was shuffled from place to place until his teenage years when he set out on his own. After trying to sell his poetry, working various jobs, and spending some time being homeless, he eventually got a job for a radical newspaper. When the editor had to flee the country for publishing material the British government didn’t like, James took over the job. Following in the footsteps of the previous editor, James was later charged with writing an article inciting British people to take sides in the French Revolution. James was sentenced to do jail time.
When he got out, James had still not learned his lesson. Two years later he was again in trouble with the law for writing about a riot by workers in a local mill. The government thought this was contrary to the public interest and sent him back to jail. While in jail this time, he wrote a book called “Prison Amusements.” Much to his surprise, when he got out six months later, his book had become a best seller and he was something of a celebrity. As a devout Christian, he used his paper and new influence to advocate for causes like the plight of chimney sweeps and the abolition of slavery.
He also began using his paper to publish his poems and hymns, which received enthusiastic response. So, in 1816, after re-reading Luke chapter 2 in preparation for writing a Christmas article for his paper, James sat down and began to write,
“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 new-born king.”
And that, as Paul Harvey would have said, is the rest of the story about how James Montgomery, an orphaned, once homeless “jailbird” used his talents to write one of the most beloved hymns of the Christmas season.
This Christmas season, while we share in the joy of Christmas greetings and gifts, feasting and family, lights and music--Don’t forget to “Come and worship Christ the new-born king.”
(Re-written based on Stories of Christmas Carols by Ernest Emurian, Baker, 1958)