– David McCullough, American historian and author
There is considerable disagreement among experts concerning this carol. Several give it as a loose translation or paraphrase of an 18th century French noel, Les Anges dans nos Campanges (including both Elizabeth Poston and William Studwell). The editors of The Oxford Book of Carols merely note the similarity between the first lines of the two texts, but don’t actually claim a connection. The editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols seem to give credit entirely to Montgomery, as does Ian Bradley in The Penguin Book of Carols and Erik Routley in The English Carol.
However, James Montgomery’s poem first appeared on December 24, 1816 as a five-stanza poem under the title of “Nativity” in his newspaper, The Sheffield Iris. Its first appearance in a hymnal was in Thomas Cotterill’s Selection of Psalms and Hymns, 1819.
In 1825 it was printed in the Religious Tract Society’s book The Christmas Box, as one of “Three New Carols.”
Montgomery revised it several times for publication in his Christian Psalmist, 1825, (under the new title of “Good tidings of great joy to all people”) and Original Hymns, 1853.
The poem was joined in 1867 to the tune “Regent Square” by Henry Thomas Smart (1813-1879) who was blinded in 1865. The tune got its name from London’s Regent Square Presbyterian Church. It was later published in the English Presbyterian hymnal Psalms and Hymns for Divine Worship, 1867.
It is considered both a Christmas and Epiphany carol.
Note: James Montgomery, hymn writer and originally a member of the Moravian Brethren (the Protestant Church which stems from Bohemia, closely linked with the Lutheran Church), was born in Ayshire in 1771. He was the son of Moravian missionaries, and was educated at the Brethren at Fulneck, Yorkshire, seminary.
Unsuccessful at school, he was apprenticed as a baker, but ran away and was taken in by a Mr. Gales, a publisher. Gales, however, fled to France in 1794, fearful of his published eulogies of the French Revolution. Montgomery took over the paper, changed its name, and assumed it publication. He was twice jailed jailed for libel (the first because of his predecessor’s actions). He took advantage of his jail time by writing a little book, Prison Amusements, which he published on his release. The popularity of the book lead him on the road to such popularity that he soon became a leading citizen of Sheffield. A rival took over the paper in 1825, and thereafter, Montgomery devoted his time to religious verse. He produced over 400 hymns, and skillfully adapted many more. He died in Sheffield in 1854.
Excerpted from: HymnsandCarolsofChristmas.com