Posted by: rcottrill | May 16, 2012

Angels from the Realms of Glory

Words: James Montgomery (b. Nov. 4, 1771; d. Apr. 30, 1854)
Music: Regent Square, by Henry Thomas Smart (b. Oct. 26, 1813; d. July 6, 1879)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: James Montgomery was recognized as a gifted poet, highly esteemed by contemporaries such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. In my view, his carol ranks near the pinnacle of our Christmas hymns and carols, perhaps second only to Charles Wesley’s Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. Hymn historians James King and Robert McCutchan both quote an unnamed and effusive commentator saying:

“For comprehensiveness, appropriateness of expression, force, and elevation of sentiment, this hymn may challenge comparison with any hymn that was ever written in any language or country.”

While I might not go quite that far, it is indeed a magnificent hymn. When it was printed in his newspaper on Christmas Eve, 1816, Montgomery called it simply “Nativity.” In later publications he changed the title to “Good Tidings of Great Joy to All People.” Currently, the song takes the opening line as its title.

Most editors now omit the seemingly stern words of CH-5 (see below), but it simply identifies another group that ought to be praising the Lord for the coming of the Saviour. Most hymnals use only CH-1 to 4. A few add one of two Trinitarian doxologies (both given in the Cyber Hymnal link). Even so, though it’s rarely used now, the fifth stanza fits the careful structure of the hymn.

CH-5) Sinners, wrung with true repentance,
Doomed for guilt to endless pains,
Justice now revokes the sentence,
Mercy calls you; break your chains.

I have called Angels from the Realms of Glory a hymn, as I often use that term generically in these blogs. However, strictly speaking, it is not praise addressed to God, nor is it a prayer to Him. Therefore, it’s more of an early gospel song (or what the Bible calls a “spiritual song,” Col. 3:16).

The author begins in CH-1 by calling our attention to the announcement of Christ’s birth by the angels (Lk. 2:10-14). The angels’ song of celebration at creation refers to the poetic words of Job 38:4-7, where “morning stars” is poetic imagery for the angels, called in the parallel line “the [heavenly] sons of God.”

CH-1) 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.

Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Next, we see a pair of visiting companies come to the Child: the lowly shepherds (CH-2), and the more socially elite magi (CH-3). Then comes another pairing: the saints of God, elevated to sonship through grace (CH-4), and condemned sinners who turn to Christ for salvation (CH-5). This last fits the church liturgy followed by some for Christmas morning, which calls for Psalm 85 to be read. Sinners can rejoice that “mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” in the saving work of Calvary (Ps. 85:10).

Having presented the rationale for the way Mr. Montgomery conceived the structure of the song, I recognize that few today will likely include stanza CH-5. Further, the fourth stanza, appealing as it does to the saints gathered for worship at the Christmas season, does make a fitting conclusion to the hymn. While calling us to celebrate the incarnation, it also points us forward to the return of Christ.

CH-4) Saints, before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear;
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear.

Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King.

1) What others joined in praise at this wonderful event (see Lk. 1:46-55; 2:25-38)? What do their words add to our understanding of Christ’s coming?

2) For what things are you specifically praising the Lord today?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


  1. I just read your comments on the Christmas song “Angels from the Realms of Glory.” I have been focusing on this song because as a family group (my grandchildren and daughter and me (Grandpa) are singing this song at a Christmas eve service. We are singing it to the tune Zion by Thomas Hastings. We have a CD by a Mennonite choir singing this tune acappella. and use it as a guide. We are also doing it acappella. Have you ever heard this song sung to the tune Zion?
    I appreciate the info on your site God Bless!

    • Good morning “Grandpa,” and Merry Christmas. And, quick answer, No, I’ve never heard Angels from the Realms of Glory sung to Hastings’ tune Zion. I sang it here at my desk, and also reviewed three other tunes suggested as alternates by the Cyber Hymnal. My conclusion (a personal opinion) is that none comes even close to Hastings’ brilliant tune Regent Square (named after the street in London on which the church he attended was situated).

      One hymn historian after another has labelled James Montgomery’s Christmas hymn as among the greatest in the English language. Robert McCutchen says, “For comprehensiveness, appropriateness of expression, force and elevation of sentiment, it may challenge comparison with any hymn that was ever written, in any language or country.” And such a magnificent hymn deserves the best musical setting we can give it.

      In some ways, this comes down to personal preference, influenced by experience and cultural background. But not entirely. Some tunes enhance the message of the words. Others tend to get in the way of it, or may outright contradict it. Regent Square fits this hymn–which on the Cyber Hymnal page has seven stanzas, with an eighth that provides a glorious Trinitarian benediction to it–fits it like a glove.

      Notice how each stanza sets a scene, in the first two lines. Then, Montgomery makes a significant comment on the scene in the last two lines of each. Hastings’ tune repeats its first two lines so we get the connection. Then, in the chorus the tune mounts to a climax with “Worship Christ, the newborn King.” As I said earlier, some personal opinion does come into this, but Regent Square has been matched with Montgomery’s hymn since 1873, and I do think it’s a wonderful pairing.


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