b Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland 1771, d Sheffield 1854. His father John was converted through the ministry of John Cennick qv. James, the eldest son, was educated first at the Moravian centre at Fulneck nr Leeds, which expelled him in 1787 for wasting time writing poetry. By this time his parents had left England for mission work in the West Indies. In later life he regularly revisited the school; but having run away from a Mirfield bakery apprenticeship, failed to find a publisher in London, and lost both parents, he served in a chandler’s shop at Doncaster before moving to Sheffield, where from 1792 onwards he worked in journalism. Initially a contributor to the Sheffield Register and clerk to its radical editor, he soon became Asst Editor and (in 1796) Editor, changing its name to the Sheffield Iris. Imprisoned twice in York for his political articles, he was condemned by one jury as ‘a wicked, malicious and seditious person who has attempted to stir up discontent among his Majesty’s subjects’. In his 40s he found a renewed Christian commitment through restored links with the Moravians; championed the Bible Society, Sunday schools, overseas missions, the anti-slavery campaign and help for boy chimney-sweeps, refusing to advertise state lotteries which he called ‘a national nuisance’. He later moved from the Wesleyans to St George’s church and supported Thos Cotterill’s campaign to legalise hymns in the CofE. He wrote some 400, in familiar metres, published in Cotterill’s 1819 Selection and his own Songs of Zion, 1822; Christian Psalmist, or Hymns Selected and Original, in 1825—355 texts plus 5 doxologies, with a seminal ‘Introductory Essay’ on hymnology—and Original Hymns for Public, Private and Social Devotion, 1853. 1833 saw the publication of his Royal Institution lectures on Poetry and General Literature.
In the 1825 Essay he comments on many authors, notably commending ‘the piety of Watts, the ardour of Wesley, and the tenderness of Doddridge’. Like many contemporary editors he was not averse to making textual changes in the hymns of others. He produced several books of verse, from juvenilia (aged 10–13) to Prison Amusements from York and The World before the Flood. Asked which poems would last, he said, ‘None, sir, nothing— except perhaps a few of my hymns’. He wrote that he ‘would rather be the anonymous author of a few hymns, which should thus become an imperishable inheritance to the people of God, than bequeath another epic poem to the world’ on a par with Homer, Virgil or Milton. John Ellerton called him ‘our first hymnologist’; many see him as the 19th century’s finest hymn-writer, while Julian regards his earlier work very highly, the later hymns less so. 20 of his texts including Psalm versions are in the 1916 Congregational Hymnary, and 22 in its 1951 successor Congregational Praise; there are 17 in the 1965 Anglican Hymn Book and 26 in CH. In 2004, Alan Gaunt found 64 of them in current books, and drew attention to one not in use: the vivid account of Christ’s suffering and death in The morning dawns upon the place where Jesus spent the night in prayer. See also Peter Masters in Men of Purpose (1980); Bernard Braley in Hymnwriters 3 (1991) and Alan Gaunt in HSB242 (Jan 2005). Nos.152, 197, 198, 350*, 418, 484, 507, 534, 544, 610, 612, 641, 657*, 897, 959.