Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise


THIS is another hymn I remember as a favourite in daily school assemblies.

The words were written by the Scottish clergyman Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908). He was born in Aberdeen, the son of a cabinet-maker. He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School, Marischal College in the University of Aberdeen and then trained as a Free Church minister at New College, Edinburgh. He was ordained by the Free Church of Scotland in 1850 and sent to minister at the Chad­well Street Scot­tish Church in Pen­ton­ville, north Lon­don, where he was installed on Christ­mas Day, 1850. Postings followed in Milnathort, Kinross-shire, the Roxburgh Church in Edinburgh, the Tron Free Kirk in Glasgow and finally in 1876 the Free High Kirk in Edinburgh. He was honoured by the Free Church of Scot­land when he was elect­ed its mod­er­a­tor, its highest position, dur­ing its Ju­bi­lee year in 1893. He is buried in Warriston Cemetery in Edinburgh.

He wrote a large number of poems, religious works and novels which were successful in their day. Immortal, Invisible is the only hymn that is still used today.

Among the scriptural foundations is I Timothy 1:17: ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (King James Bible). The reference to ‘the Ancient of Days’ in verse one comes from Daniel 7:9, while the third line of verse two echoes Psalm 36:6, ‘Thy righteousness is like the great mountains’.

The original version, with five stanzas, appeared in Smith’s Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life (1867). After a number of revisions, a four-stanza version appeared in the influential English Hymnal (1906). I am not sure who cut it from five verses to four, which involved condensing the last two verses into one. My guess is that it was the writer, because for once the editing has not ruined it.

These are the original verses:

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 nought changeth thee.

Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore Thee, all veiling their sight;
But of all Thy rich graces this grace, Lord, impart
Take the veil from our faces, the vile from our heart.

All laud we would render; O help us to see
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth Thee,
And so let Thy glory, Almighty, impart,
Through Christ in His story, Thy Christ to the heart.

The later last verse is:

Great Father 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 splendour of light hideth thee.

It is a combination of the first two lines of the two verses.

The hymn is almost always sung to the tune St Denio, based on a traditional Welsh ballad Can mlynedd I’nawr (A Hundred Years from Now) which was popular in the early nineteenth century. It was first published as a hymn tune in John Roberts’s Caniadau y Cyssegr (Hymns of the Sanctuary, 1839) under the name Palestina. John Roberts (1822-1877) is also known by his Welsh name, Ieuan Gwyllt (Wild John) to distinguish him from many others called John Roberts. He began conducting choirs at the age of fourteen and was a schoolteacher at sixteen. Ordained in the (Calvinist) Methodist ministry in 1859, he served congregations in Aberdare and Llanberis. The tune was introduced into mainstream hymnody by Gustav Holst in the English Hymnal. I am not sure if it was Holst who renamed it St Denio, but I read that the title refers to the patron saint of France, St Denis. I wonder why?

It was sung at the Commonwealth Day Service in Westminster Abbey on March 9, 2020, the last appearance of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as working royals.

It also featured at the blessing of the marriage of the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles at St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on April 9, 2005.

As far as I am concerned there has been nothing good about the lockdown and other restrictions, but if there were one good thing it would be the way it has inspired so many to make music in novel ways using the wonderful technology now at our disposal. Here is a great version by the Melharmonic Virtual Choir which involves Nigerian performers.

Here is a performance by the Salvation Army.

I think this is brilliant by a terrific talent.

Finally, my favourite version, a great arrangement for string quartet and flute.

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