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 and a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery.
Montgomery was inspired to write this hymn when he read the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus (Mark 14:66-72). The story is familiar. Peter, along with the other disciples, had promised to follow Jesus even to death—but Jesus warned that Peter would deny him three times (Mark 14:29-31).
After Jesus was arrested, a servant of the high priest saw Peter warming himself, and said, “You were also with the Nazarene, Jesus!” But Peter denied it. The servant persisted, however, leading Peter to deny his relationship to Jesus twice again. Then a rooster crowed, causing Peter to remember Jesus saying, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” At that reminder, Peter broke down and wept.
This hymn is a prayer to Jesus—a prayer that pleads with Jesus, in our hour of trial, to help us. It doesn’t pray that Jesus will make life easy, but rather than he will stiffen our spines and keep us from wavering.
At the end, it prays that Jesus will accompany us through the ultimate trial. It prays, “Jesus, take me, dying, to eternal life.”
This is an old hymn, written almost three centuries ago—but its message is timeless. We all suffer temptation and other adversities. We all live near the knife-edge, where one more inch would send us over the precipice. At the end, all of us will die. So we all need to acknowledge our need—and pray for grace to remain faithful—and pray for God’s grace to redeem us.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014, Richard Niell Donovan