Angels From The Realms Of Glory

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:
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!

Shepherds, in the fields abiding,
Watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing,
Yonder shines the infant light:
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!

Sages, leave your contemplations,
Brighter visions beam afar;
Seek the great Desire of nations,
Ye have seen his natal star:
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!

Saints before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In his temple shall appear.
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!

Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you, break your chains:
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!

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:
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!

All creation, join in praising
God the Father, Spirit, Son,
Evermore your voices raising,
To the eternal Three in One:
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!
Gloria – in excelsis Deo!

Angels From The Realms Of Glory has, on paper, a more orthodox provenance than Away In A Manger in that it can be directly attributed to James Montgomery (1771-1854), a writer and poet born in Scotland but who spent most of his professional life in and around Sheffield. The hymn was first published on Christmas Eve in 1816 in a local newspaper, and then later included with others of his in a new hymn book approved by the Archbishop of York in 1820. The carol was sung with growing frequency from the mid 1820s onwards.

Montgomery wrote about 400 hymns in total, and a fair proportion are still sung from time to time. The most well known of these is The Lord Is My Shepherd, an arrangement of Psalm 23. After his death in 1854, the east window of the parish church of St Peter and St Paul was dedicated to his memory, and later a statue funded by public subscription was erected in the cemetery in 1861. The parish church became Sheffield Cathedral in 1916, and his statue was moved to the cathedral grounds in 1971. This honour however was for much more than writing a well known carol.

As a writer, James Montgomery was also a social reformer and championed radical causes on behalf of the working poor of Sheffield. He became editor of the local newspaper to publicise and promote his views, and his writings included essays and poems campaigning for the abolition of slavery, the use of children as chimney sweeps, in support of the French revolution and the fall of the Bastille, and against those magistrates using force to break up peaceful political protests. He was a thorn in the side of the establishment, and was imprisoned for sedition twice, in 1795 and again in 1796.

I’d suggest that these carols aren’t always as sentimental as they might appear on the surface. When Montgomery writes, or we sing, “Sinners, wrung with true repentance, Doomed for guilt to endless pains, Justice now revokes the sentence, Mercy calls you, break your chains” you can imagine he’s addressing the plantation owners in the Caribbean and the industrialists exploiting child labour in the factories, mines, steelworks and mills rather than Fagin’s pickpockets and petty thieves. And make sure you sing the Gloria with gusto.

Merry Christmas

Stone Angels photo by Gavin Allanwood on Unsplash