Prayer is the soul's sincere desire (StF 529)

Authors & translators:
Montgomery, James
Composers & arrangers:
Calkin, John Baptiste
Singing the Faith: 529 (CD22 #4)
STF Number:

Ideas for use

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.

You may find this hymn useful as a starting point for small group discussion.

  • Why not compile your own list of the forms that prayer takes for you, each one beginning in the same way as the verses of this hymn: "Prayer is . . ." e.g. Prayer is the ache for those who are hurting; Prayer is the gift of walking on an empty hillside etc. Your list will be personal to your own experiences.

In his own 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.

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).

More information

James Montgomery wrote around 400 hymns altogether. Though he had written poetry of all kinds since boyhood, he once observed that none of them would stand the test of time – except perhaps a few hymns.

He was born in 1771 into a Moravian family. His father was a Moravian minister in Irvine, Ayrshire; he and his wife would both die while working as missionaries in the West Indies while James was still young. He was sent to the Moravian seminary at Fulneck near Leeds, to train for the ministry, but his academic record was poor and abandoned this calling to become an apprentice baker and later a shop assistant.

Aged 21, Montgomery moved to Sheffield and became assistant to 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.

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.

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