Article

History of Hymns: “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”

by C. Michael Hawn

"Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise"
Walter Chalmers Smith
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 103

Walter Chalmers Smith

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.


How do you express the inexpressible mystery of the Creator whose name was unutterable in Hebrew Scriptures, save the self-described "I AM"? How do you put into words what cannot be known? How do you sing about the One who is ineffable -- beyond all words? 

Walter Chalmers Smith (1824-1908) attempted this in his classic hymn, "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise." 

A Scottish Free Church minister educated at the Universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, Smith served congregations in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Perhaps his highest tribute came when he was elected moderator of the General Assembly in 1893 for the church's 50th Jubilee celebration. 

This hymn is the only one of his volumes of poetry that remains in common use. Hymnologist Albert Bailey says composing poetry was for Smith "the retreat of his nature from the burden of his labors." 

The original version in six stanzas appeared in Smith's Hymns of Christ and the Christian Life (1867). After a number of revisions, the four-stanza version was included in the influential The English Hymnal (1906), assuring its fame to the present day. 

The obvious scriptural foundation for stanza one is I Timothy 1:17: "Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen." (KJV) 

The central metaphor of light suggests the transcendence of the One who was known as I AM. Stanza one refers to this One as "light inaccessible hid from our eyes." In stanza two the metaphor is elaborated by describing the Holy One as "silent as light." Stanza four has two references to light: "thou dwellest in light" and "'tis only the splendor of light hideth thee." 

In spite of this "invisible" one whose identity is obscured by brightness, our attention is called to the actions and attributes of the I AM, giving us some indication of who this being is. 

In stanza two we find that this unseen One "rulest in might." This One also is a being of "justice like mountains high soaring above" and "goodness and love" reflected in the "clouds like fountains" that sustain life on earth. 

It is stanza three that reveals even more of the Holy One's nature: the source of all life "to both great and small." The Holy One's unchanging nature is the antithesis of living creatures that "blossom and flourish" and then "wither and perish." 

Stanza four reveals that the Holy One is adored by angels -- suggesting not only that the Creator is a cosmic being but that we should follow the angels' example and render our praise. 

This classic expression of faith that acknowledges human finiteness in the face of the One hidden by the "splendor of light" contrasts with more evangelical hymns that express a desire for an intimate relationship with Jesus. Perhaps this indicates a need for balance between the intimate and ineffable. 

The Jewish tradition expresses this balance well in the prayer book, The Gates of Prayer: "O God, how can we know You? Where can we find You? You are as close to us as breathing, yet You are farther than the farthermost star."
 

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns