Immortal Invisable

During this time whilst we can’t sing together in worship we are aiming to post a different hymn each week. For some Sundays it will be the obvious hymn in Common Praise for a particular Sunday and a brief commentary – partly with reference to The Penguin Book of Hymns edited by Ian Bradley, The Nation’s Favourite Hymns by Andrew Barr or research on the internet – will be published with our hymn choice for the week. The words of the hymn will be provided alongside a recording of the hymn, courtesy of Lucy Colbourne at home whilst Lancaster University is in lockdown. This will have been recorded by Billy Colbourne (Assistant Organist) and includes use of his Hauptwerk organ also at home, with the sounds of Salisbury Cathedral’s organ.

Charles Pavey – Organist & Choirmaster

Immortal, Invisable

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, 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;
All laud we would render: O help us to see:
'Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.

W Chalmers Smith
1 Timothy 1. 17

Tune: St Denio
Music: Adapted by John Roberts

CCLI - 1073121





Hymn Commentary 

In Immortal, invisible, we have a hymn that is positive from start to finish, well nearly.  You could argue that a God who is invisible may not be such a good thing but the hymn is, to put it bluntly, a list of compliments from beginning to end. Or to put it another way, the hymn as we know it today is a seemingly (see final paragraph) unadulterated song of praise to God.  The only downside – you will hear this one quiet moment on the recording – is that whilst we ‘blossom and flourish’ in one line of the third verse, we ‘wither and perish’ in the next.  But it’s only half a line and we get back to the adoration with ‘but naught changeth thee’ straight after.  Then into the climatic fourth verse which, for the technically minded, we have raised a semitone; the higher key underlining ‘Great Father of Glory…’

The writer of the words was Revd Dr Walter Chalmers Smith.  He was born in 1824 in Aberdeen where he attended both the Grammar School and the University.  He was educated further at New College, Edinburgh before being ordained (in 1850) and posted to the Scottish Church in Islington, North London.  He returned to Scotland and became minister of Free Church Congregations in Milnathort, Glasgow and Edinburgh.  The culmination of his career was in 1893 when he became Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland.  He died in Kinbuck, near Dunblane in 1908.  As well as a minister and hymn writer, he was an author and poet, but it is for Immortal, Invisible that he is remembered most.  The principal biblical text is 1 Timothy 1, v.17: ‘Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever’.  The reference to ‘Ancient of Days’ in the third line of the hymn’s first verse comes from Daniel 7, v.9, whilst the third line of verse two is based on Psalm 36, v.6.  

St Denio is the hymn tune sung to Immortal Invisible.  The tune is based on the Welsh folksong Can Mlynedd I’nawr (translated, according to Google, as One hundred years now).  It first appeared as a hymn tune in 1839 in a collection of John Roberts (1807-1876) entitled Caniadau y Cyssegre.  

However, Immortal, Invisible is not all that it originally was.  The original hymn had five verses but, in 1884, William Garrett Holder (1841-1922; also a prominent congregational minister) included the hymn in his Congregational Hymns in which he omitted the last two lines of both verses four and five to give us a new hybrid final verse.  The original fourth and fifth verses, however, change the character of the hymn by making it more personal, even briefly confessional: 

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.

It’s enough to make us re-think our approach to this hymn but would this hymn’s use be so widespread as a result?  As it is, its popularity as a hymn has only been relatively recent as far as more ‘traditional’ hymns go.  However there are times when being totally positive is necessary so, for that reason, I’d be happy to say that as far as ‘traditional’ hymns go, Immortal Invisible (even in its altered but better known existence) is a really singable example.  The Holy Trinity organ gets a good workout too!

Charles Pavey - Organist & Choirmaster

Anthem for the Week