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 blessèd, 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.
Tune: ST. DENIO (188.8.131.52.)
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