Walter Chalmers Smith
Opening Voluntary: Meditation – Gerhardt Krapf (1924-2008)
Choral Introit: Iustus es Domine – H. Alexander Matthews (1879-1973)
Hymn Spotlight – “Immortal, invisible, God only wise”
In the fortuitous pairing of the text by Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908) with the tune, ST. DENIO, a Welsh song of uncertain origin, we find one of those lasting and inspired matchings that sprang from the musical genius of the great English composer and hymnologist, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) and his collaborator the Reverend Percy Dearmer (1867-1936). Indeed, it is not at all an overstatement to assert that their collaborative work in the preparation of The English Hymnal (1906), has left the Anglican and Episcopal churches of the later 20th and 21st centuries in their perpetual debt.
Although time constraints allow us to sing only a selection of the stanzas of this great hymn (as our entrance hymn, #423, today), the entire text and tune are worthy of more extended study. Musically, the tune is of uncertain origin, although it first appeared in Welsh hymnal Caniadau y Cysseger in the year 1839. It is felt, most likely, to have had its origins in the folk ballad and carol traditions of Welsh music.
The text is adapted from an original hymn written by Walter Chalmers Smith, a hymnist, poet and minister of the Free Church of Scotland. Although originally published in 1867, it is the edited version prepared by the Reverend Percy Dearmer for The English Hymnal for which Smith is chiefly remembered. Dearmer selected the first three stanzas of Smith’s text and paired them with the first two lines of the original fifth and six stanzas to create the standard hymn known today. Taking as his inspiration a doxology from the pseudo-Pauline letter of 1 Timothy, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever,” Smith creates a hymn of strong praise to God who creates and sustains the lives of all his creatures. The text focuses on the creator of the universe whose visible works in nature testify to his majesty and glory and juxtaposes this with the nearly-apophatic notion of God’s invisible and unknowable essence hidden by the divine light which blinds the senses of mortal beings. To Smith, however, this “hiddenness” of God was not the final word on the subject, as is evidenced by the now-omitted, concluding lines from his original 5th and 6th stanzas:
“But of all thy good graces this grace, Lord, impart –
Take the veil from our faces, the veil from our heart…
And now let thy glory to our gaze unroll;
Through Christ in the story, and Christ in the soul.”