Heather Sorenson arranged a song called, “Lord, Most High,” that the East Valley Chorale has been singing for several years. This song quotes a portion of the hymn, “Immortal, Invisible.” I was interested in learning a bit about the origin and history of the familiar hymn.
I found that Immortal, Invisible was composed by Walter Smith (born in Scotland, 1824), and it is based on 1 Timothy 1:17 which says: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever.” This hymn has from 4 to 7 verses, depending on which hymnal you use.
I was reminded that not many of today’s popular praise songs have more than 2-3 verses. I recall, growing up in a Methodist Church, where we sang all the verses of three or four hymns each Sunday. As a kid, these hymns seemed to go on forever. Occasionally, the pastor would say, “let’s sing verses 1-3, and 5.”
As I thought more about, “Immortal, Invisible,” I began to wonder, “What’s the longest hymn ever sung in church?” I came across an article by Simon Potamos, the pastor of a Lutheran church in Fareham, Hampshire, UK. I’ll let him take over for a bit…
So if you engaged in a bit of time travel and went to church in Leipzig in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, when Johann Sebastian Bach was serving as the director of music to the main churches of that city, even if you are a lifelong Lutheran, I suspect that you would be quite vulnerable to a good dose of culture shock—precisely in the area where the differences are small but significant. The powdered wigs, the body odors, the strange language—those you would expect. But the three-hour service with its one-hour sermon? That might be harder to take.
But it wasn’t only the sermon that made the services last so long. There was, of course, the church cantata for the day, which would usually last between 15 and 30 minutes.
And then, there were the hymns! Lutheran hymn singing is rarely done these days as it was then. I mean, a first-time visitor to a Lutheran church in England may have a look through our hymnal and think that some of our longer hymns with, say 10 stanzas, are a bit on the long side, not to say heavy in their content. But consider this: many of those 10-verse hymns were originally much longer. Some of the longer ones have been split into two separate hymns with, say 6 or 8 verses each. And some others fell out of use altogether as people grew impatient with three-hour services and 30-minute hymns. The longest hymn I have quoted in Sunday Cantata in the course of the past church year had 32 verses. The longest Lutheran hymn I’ve ever sung has 41 verses of eight lines each.
Can you imagine attending one of today’s churches and having the music pastor say, we will now stand and sing verses 1-39, and verse 41? Talk about standing a long time for the singing…
You may ask, ‘Why would there ever be a hymn with that many verses?” The answer is quite simple: The hymns were designed to instruct. Music has power to teach, and it provides way to memorize the words…which are often taken directly from Scripture.
How many of us can read a portion of the Bible, like Isaiah 40:5 “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it,” and not think of that chorus from Handel’s Messiah? Or Lamentations 3:22-23, “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness,” and not start singing, Great is Thy Faithfulness?
Pastor Potamos continues:
There’s a very good reason for this phenomenon. In Lutheran theology, hymns serve a wider range of purposes than perhaps in most of the rest of Christendom. All Christians sing hymns that praise God and hymns that are prayers addressed to Him. One of the distinctive features of Lutheran hymnody is that much of it is catechetical, which is to say that it is designed to teach God’s word to the congregation. And teaching takes words, and it takes time. And so, we have long hymns—but we also had congregations who were immersed in biblical doctrine through singing it repeatedly, without a hurry. It’s hard to deny that we have lost out when we have opted to spend our time differently as a church.
This idea of music be a form of catechism has become a foreign idea to most of today’s churches. In fact, the very term “catechism,” scares us. Isn’t that some kind of Catholic invention? I remember attending grade school and my Catholic friends talked about attending Catechism in the afternoons. ‘Catechism’ actually comes from a Greek word that means, ‘Oral teaching.”
Many who have grown up singing hymns, can still sing most of the verses, years after learning the songs. Can you sing all the verses of It Is Well? Or, How Great Thou Art? Or, Amazing Grace? Probably so. Unfortunately, that can’t be said for many contemporary choruses. It has something to do with the structure of the lyrics and the music. After leaving a contemporary church service, I find myself working hard to remember any of the tunes or words from the songs.
The next time you’re singing hymns or choruses in your church, ask yourself, “What am I being taught by this song?” Walter Smith was teaching us about God’s nature and character when he wrote:
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.