Sometimes people can touch our hearts and never leave a mark. We never learn their names. We never know they even existed. In my life, that was almost the case with James Montgomery. I'm glad I learned how many moving moments I owe to him before it was too late.
James Montgomery was a Scottish newspaperman with a knack for penning religious verse. His poem, "Prayer Is the Soul's Sincere Desire" was set to music. So was his version of "The Lord Is My Shepherd." When I was a boy, I'd attend my father's Easter concerts in the Brigham City tabernacle and quake at the words to "Go to Dark Gethsemane." Those were Montgomery's
For members of the LDS faith, however, James Montgomery will forever be known as the poet who wrote one of the most monumental and memorable pieces of verse in Mormondom. Only William Clayton, Eliza R. Snow and a couple of other poets have more claim on Mormon history. But James Montgomery ranks close behind. His words gave comfort, hope and healing at a key moment in Mormon history. And Montgomery wasn't even Mormon.
Born in 1771, he was orphaned when his missionary parents were killed in the West Indies. He never forgot them, or their work. He grew up doing odd jobs - odd in more ways then one. At one point he was an auctioneer's apprentice. At 24, he took on the failing Sheffield Register
newspaper, changed its name to the Sheffield Iris and edited it for 32 years. He was once jailed for writing editorials against the slave trade. And from time to time, he'd pen spiritual poems and print them in his paper. In 1821, one year after Joseph Smith's first vision, Montgomery wrote a lyric about John the Baptist that eventually found its way to New England:
"And you, child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare the way, to give God's people knowledge of salvation."
You have to wonder if the boy Joseph didn't hear those words drifting from the churches of Palmyra and take heart. We do know he took heart from another Montgomery poem. While awaiting death in Carthage Jail, Joseph asked John Taylor to sing "A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief." The words were James Montgomery's words. Many devout Mormon poets would trade
the farm to be the soul who wrote the poem that comforted Joseph Smith in his final moments. But that honor would go to a young Protestant half a world away. God moves in a mysterious way.
After writing "Man of Grief," Montgomery lived the rest of his life unaware of the impact his poem would have on millions and millions of Mormon believers. He grew old, always a champion for Christian missionaries in foreign countries and Bible distribution in the Third World. When he died, the tiny church in Sheffield installed a stained glass in his name. Centuries later, a scholar would write that Montgomery led a life of "great variety" but his tenure on earth produced no "stirring incidents."
The scholar should be forgiven, of course. He never attended one of my father's Easter concerts and felt the hallowed, haunting words of "Go to Dark Gethsemane" drain the marrow from his bones. And he never sang "Prayer Is the Soul's Sincere Desire" with a thousand other voices. But most of all, the scholar who saw nothing "stirring" about James Montgomery, should be forgiven for not digging quite deep enough. If he had, he'd have found a young American religious leader braced for an assassin's bullet, his mind awash in the words: "The flesh was weak, my blood ran chill, but my free spirit cried, I will!"