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.
“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” is based on Psalm 72—the King James Version, of course. The KJV ascribes authorship of Psalm 72 to David, so that is where Montgomery got “Great David’s greater Son!” in verse 1 of this song.
This song celebrates Christ’s work in behalf of those who are weak and vulnerable. It also celebrates the promise that Christ will come again in glory. Montgomery wrote it originally as a Christmas hymn, and introduced it at a large Mennonite convocation on Christmas Day, 1821.
Montgomery wrote nearly 400 hymns during his lifetime. Some of those that are still found in recent hymnals include:
• According to Thy Gracious Word
• Be Known to Us in Breaking Bread
• Go to Dark Gethsemane
• God Is My Strong Salvation
• Hail to the Lord’s Anointed
• In the Hour of Trial
• Prayer Is the Soul’s Sincere Desire
Copyright, 2014, Richard Niell Donovan