Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Source: Singing the Faith: 529
Words: James Montgomery
Music: “Nox praecessit” by John Baptiste Calkin
Metre: 86.86. Common Metre
What exactly is prayer? How do we know if we’re praying in the right way? James Montgomery’s “Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire” engages with these questions that exercise many Christians at some point in their faith journey.
In his attempt to describe what actually happens when we pray, Montgomery offers a range of answers, as if he is mulling the question over and viewing it from different angles. Prayer is “the soul’s sincere desire, / uttered or unexpressed” (v.1), he concludes. It may be formed in words that are very simple or in “the sublimest strains” but prayer is not only an expression of words: it is “the falling of a tear” or simply the sound, the emotion, of “the contrite sinner’s voice”. Words, in other words, are not always required, and God understands that.
Compare this response with Joy Webb’s I should like to speak to you, for I know you’re there (StF 522). Also see You hear us when we cannot speak.
Four hymns by James Montgomery are included in Singing the Faith, amongst them two hardy perennials associated with the Christmas season: Angels, from the realms of glory (StF 190) and Hail to the Lord’s anointed (StF 228). He wrote around 400 more.
James Montgomery was born in 1771 into a Moravian family (his father was a Moravian minister in Irvine, Ayshire). He was sent to the Moraivan seminary at Fulneck near Leeds, to train for the minsitry, but abandoned this and became an apprentice baker and later a shop assistant. Aged 21, he moved to Sheffield and became assistant to as Mr Gales, editor and owner of the Sheffield Register, a radical newspaper. Gales fled the country in 1794 to avoid a political prosecution, and Montgomery took over the paper, renaming it the Sheffield Iris. He was subsequently imprisoned twice in York Castle, once for printing a song celebrating the Fall of the Bastille, and once for printing an account of a political riot in Sheffield. Less controversially, “Angels, from the realms of glory” also made its first appearance in the Iris.
Montgomery became a well-known figure in Sheffield (a memorial statue stands in the cathedral grounds); he was outspoken in his support for foreign missions and the Bible Society, and fearless in his denunciation of the slave trade, child chimney-sweeps and state lotteries. In 1809, he wrote an epic anti-slavery poem called ‘The West Indies’. He also associated himself with the Wesleyan Methodists, particularly in their Sunday School work.
Read more about James Montgomery.