Saturday, December 5, 2009

Walter Chalmers Smith

Today is the birthday of Walter Chalmers Smith, born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1824. Following his education in Aberdeen and Edinburgh, he was ordained in the Free Church of Scotland on Christmas Day in 1850. He pastored a number of congregations, including one in London for seven years, but afterward returned to Scotland. In 1893, the jubilee year of the Free Church, Smith was named moderator of the denomination (apparently a year-long term).

He once wrote that his own poetry was “the retreat of his nature from the burden of his labors.” He published several collections, including Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life (1876), from which his most well-known hymn is taken.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most bless├Ęd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice, like mountains, high soaring above
Thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

To all, life thou givest, to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish —- but naught changeth thee.

Great Mother of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendor of light hideth thee.

Walter Chalmers Smith, 1876; alt.
Welsh melody, Caniadan y Cyssegr, 1839

“Immortal, invisible” comes from 1 Timothy 1:17: To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. The hymn as a whole enumerates the multiple attributes of God.

Smith's original hymn was in six stanzas; these four have become the standard version. One stanza, originally the fourth, has been omitted entirely:

Today and tomorrow with thee still are now;
Nor trouble, nor sorrow, nor care, Lord, hast thou;

Nor passion, nor fever, nor age can decay,
The same God forever as on yesterday.

The next stanza was the first two lines of the final one, then:

But of all thy good graces, this grace, Lord, impart --
Take the veil from our faces, the veil from our heart.

Some subsequent hymnals changed that line to “the vile from our heart.” Then the final stanza began with the lines starting “All laud we would render,” then concluded:

And now let thy glory to our gaze unroll,
Through Christ in the story, and Christ in the soul.

Most of those lines do not fit well within the meter of the tune, which is probably at least part of the reason for their omission.

ST.DENIO (sometimes called JOANNA) is a Welsh tune, believed to have been taken from a folk song called Can Mlynnedd i ’nawr (A hundred years from now). The hymn tune in its familiar form was first published in an 1839 collection by John Roberts. The tune was first joined to Smith's text in The English Hymnal (1906) and was gradually accepted as the definitive one over the first half of the twentieth century.

One Year Ago: Christina Georgina Rossetti


Robin said...

Gosh - does the original really say "Great Mother of glory" in verse 4? I find that very surprising, particularly considering the source. I'm fairly sure I've never seen that version in any hymn book.


C.W.S. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Robin.

I make no claim for presenting the "original" version of any hymn. If there is any overarching theme of this blog it is that even the "familiar" words we think we know are not necessarily the original words -- hymnal editors have always made alterations.

For a fuller explanation of what this blog is about, please see the February 5, 2008 entry here.

Leland Bryant Ross said...

This particular maternalistic emendation is one I heartily endorse. If it has not yet been found in a hymnal, it ought to be. Perhaps wishing can make it so. May I use it in my Evergreen Sings project, CWS?

C.W.S. said...

Sorry to have missed this comment - no permission required, it's a simple alteration that I don't believe was altogether ours. I seem to remember seeing it somewhere as

Great Father of glory,
Pure Mother of light

but we preferred it the other way round.

Unknown said...

The apparently original hymn wording from Hymns of Christ and The Christian Life by The Rev. Walter C. Smith (1867) based on a scanned version on google books has 'Great Father of Glory, Father of Light'. Not only with hymn, but in general these things are difficult to verify, but I prefer and think it makes more sense to refer to Father in both senses.
Link to document is: - page 210/211.

C.W.S. said...

Thanks for stopping by, Ben. I'm not exactly sure what your point is, given the comments that already appear under this post.

I will also refer you to the post here on the blog from February 5, 2008 (linked above) for a fuller explanation of what this blog is about, and you can decide whether you want to read more or not.

Anonymous said...

He's my great-great-great grandfather. Immortal Invisible seems to pop up at events for our family without our arranging it, which is a little eerie. My confirmation, if I recall correctly, was one. My father would in later years put the fix in and try to arrange it to be played for special services, but there are at least 3 that were unplanned.

Marge Fiorile said...

To C.W.S.: I came upon your blog when looking for information about Walter Chalmers Smith. Do you have any personal or family information about Mr. Smith? My father's family names are Chalmers and Smith and was interested in research this aspect. Thank you

C.W.S. said...

I have no further information on Smith that can't be found in a standard internet search. No geneological info, if that's what you're looking for.