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.
On Christmas Eve, 1816, Montgomery was reading the second chapter of Luke, when these verses captured his attention:
"And suddenly there was with the angel
a multitude of the heavenly host
praising God, and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace,
good will toward men’"
(Luke 2:13-14, KJV).
Montgomery was inspired to write this hymn, which he wrote quickly and printed in the Christmas Eve edition of his newspaper. Each verse of this hymn speaks to the nativity from the perspective of a different group of people.
• Verse 1 is about the angels, who are urged to "proclaim the Messiah’s birth."
• Verse 2 is about "Shepherds in the fields abiding." It includes the phrase, "God with man is now residing" –– an allusion to Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23, which speak of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son whose name will be Emmanuel, which means "God with us."
• Verse 3 is about "Sages," the Magi or Wise Men, who are urged to "Seek the great Desire of nations" –– an allusion to Haggai 2:7, which in the King James Version reads:
"And I will shake all nations,
and the desire of all nations shall come:
and I will fill this house with glory,
saith the Lord of hosts."
• Verse 4 expands the vision to "Saints" –– a word that in the New Testament applies to all Christians.
• Verse 5 further expands the vision by urging "All creation" to praise "God, the Father, Spirit, Son."