This hymn was written by James Montgomery (1771-1854), who was born in Scotland of Irish parents. His father, John Montgomery, was a Moravian pastor—apparently the only Moravian pastor serving in Scotland at the time.
Montgomery’s parents felt a call to serve as missionaries on the island of Barbados, West Indies, in the Caribbean. When James was only five years old, his parents departed for the West Indies, leaving James with a Moravian group in County Antrim, Ireland. His parents died in the West Indies a few years later, so James never saw them again. One wonders how well he remembered his parents—and whether he resented them for abandoning him at such an early age.
The Moravians made it possible for James to enter Fulneck Seminary in Yorkshire, but that turned out to be a bad fit. James had the soul of a poet, and poetry was banned at Fulneck. In 1787, he apprenticed himself to a baker, which also proved unsuitable. He bounced from pillar to post during his late teens.
But in 1792 he began working for Joseph Gales, who published the Sheffield Register, a local newspaper. Gales supported a number of radical causes, and in 1794 was forced to flee to Germany to avoid prosecution. Montgomery, although still in his early 20s, was able to gain control of the newspaper, and changed its name to Sheffield Iris. Under his leadership, the paper continued its radical bent for more than three decades—advocating such seditious causes as abolition. Montgomery was twice imprisoned for his editorials, but his imprisonments only added to his popularity.
As a young man, Montgomery drifted from the faith, but as he matured he returned to the Moravian church and became an advocate for Christian missions.
Montgomery knew what it meant to suffer adversity, but he also knew what it meant to trust God. He was inspired to write this hymn came when he read Psalm 27, which says:
The inspiration for this hymn came from Psalm 27, which says:
(God) is my light and my salvation.
Whom shall I fear?
(God) is the strength of my life.
Of whom shall I be afraid?
The psalm goes on to express full confidence in God. “Though an army should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.” In singing this hymn, notice how closely Montgomery hewed to the original.
The hymn goes on to encourage us to “place on the Lord reliance.” It ends with the promise, “Mercy my days shall lengthen; the Lord will give me peace.”
(NOTE: Check these words against the words in your hymnal. Adjust for differences.)
One of the controversies in which Montgomery was involved had to do with hymns—an effort to introduce hymn singing to the Church of England. In 1820, the archbishop finally approved a hymnal edited by Thomas Cotterill. Montgomery wrote this hymn in 1822, and it was soon published with other hymns inspired by the Psalms.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan