Who was William Cowper? William was born 26 November 1731 (My Birthday Too) – and passed 25 April 1800) known as an English poet and hymnodist. One of the most popular poets of his time, Cowper changed the direction of 18th-century nature poetry by writing of everyday life and scenes of the English countryside. William was also considered one of the best letter writers in English, and some of his hymns, such as “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “Oh! For a Closer Walk with God,” have become part of the folk heritage of Protestant England.
GUEST POST BY Author Tony Roberts of Delight in Disorder Ministries
Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalms 37:4)
The Longing of William Cowper in “Heal Us, Emmanuel”
Heal us, Emmanuel, here we are
We wait to feel Thy touch;
Deep wounded souls to Thee repair,
And Savior, we are such.
Our faith is feeble, we confess
We faintly trust Thy Word;
But wilt Thou pity us the less?
Be that far from Thee, Lord!
Remember him who once applied
With trembling for relief
“Lord, I believe,” with tears he cried;
“O help my unbelief!”
She, too, who touched Thee in the press
And healing virtue stole,
Was answered, “Daughter, go in peace;
Thy faith has made thee whole.”
Concealed amid the gathering throng,
She would have shunned Thy view;
And if her faith was firm and strong,
Had strong misgivings too.
Like her, with hopes and fears we come
To touch Thee if we may;
O send us not despairing home;
Send none unhealed away.
Poet and hymn writer William Cowper (1731-1800) was a man of deep longing that greatly affected his mind as well as his spirit. In his thirties, while battling some political factions in his work, he was afflicted with “madness” (as it was then called called) and admitted to Nathaniel Cotton’s Collegium Insanorum at St. Albans. He recovered and moved to the town of Olney in 1768 where he co-authored a book of hymns with the well-respected pastor and hymn-writer John Newton (who wrote “Amazing Grace”).
But all was not well. One biographic source tells it this way –
In 1773, Cowper became engaged to Mary Unwin, but he suffered another attack of madness. He had terrible nightmares, believing that God [had] rejected him. Cowper would never again enter a church or say a prayer. When he recovered his health, he kept busy by gardening, carpentry, and keeping animals. In spite of periods of acute depression, Cowper’s twenty-six years in Olney and later at Weston Underwood were marked by great achievement as poet, hymn-writer, and letter-writer.
Certainly, Cowper continued to fight back despair and may well have stepped aside from public prayer and worship, but the depth of his prayer life and relationship to God in Christ is abundantly evident in hymns that live on through the ages.
Which brings me back to the theme of longing. The longing expressed in this hymn, and also in Cowper’s life, is not evidence of a lack of faith. In fact, faith prompts us to recognize that all is not right within us, among us, or around us. Our faith, though feeble, keeps us crying out in prayer for our children who are hurting, for our bodies that need healing, for our world that is on the brink of collapse.
We come to God not only with “positive thoughts”, but with hopes and fears – hoping for the best, yet fearing the worst and humbly requesting that the Great Healer would touch us, would send not of us away unhealed.
(for an inspiring reflection on the life of William Cowper, link to “Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint” by John Piper)
About the Author: tonyroberts
“I am a man with an unquiet mind who delights in the One who delights in me.”
Tony Roberts is a graduate of Hanover College (Bachelor of Arts; English and theology), and Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Master of Divinity). He served as pastor for churches in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York, while battling bipolar disorder. He is the author of Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission and is the founder and Chief Shepherd of Delight in Disorder Ministries. These ministries include A Way With Words publishing, Revealing Voices podcast, and Faithful Friends mental health support group.
Tony is available to virtually consult ministry leaders on issues of faith and mental illness. You may reach out to him on the contact page or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org