William Cowper, the author of this hymn, experienced a number of tragic events in his life, beginning with the death of his mother when he was six years old, and he suffered from depression all of his life.
Born the son of an Anglican clergyman, Cowper studied for the law, but was so intimidated at the prospect of the law exam that he attempted suicide.
The story is told that Cowper determined to commit suicide by drowning himself in the Ouse River. He called a taxi to take him to the place on the river where he had determined to do the deed, but the taxi driver couldn’t find it and eventually returned Cowper to his home. It seems possible that the driver sensed something amiss and drove aimlessly for awhile as a way of thwarting Cowper’s plan. It also seems possible that God intervened to save Cowper—perhaps using an incompetent driver as a saving grace.
Cowper was institutionalized in Cotton’s mental asylum for a time. Upon his release, he went to church where he met the Reverend Morely Unwin and his wife, Mary. The Unwins took Cowper under their wing, and Cowper lived with them for more than two decades. When Rev. Unwin fell from a horse and was killed, John Newton (best known as the author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace”) came to the Unwin home to pay his respects. He persuaded Cowper and Mrs. Unwin to move to Olney, where Newton served as the pastor of a church.
Then Mary Unwin became seriously ill, and it appeared that she would die. Cowper began to experience severe depression again, because Mary had been a mother figure to him and his best friend. That crisis inspired him to write the verse for “O for a Closer Walk with God”—verse that comforted him in his distress. Fortunately, Mary recovered from her illness.
Cowper, who had written poetry for most of his life, worked with Newton on a collection of hymns that they entitled Olney Hymns. That collection included 280 of Newton’s hymns and 68 of Cowper’s hymns, including this one.
Copyright 2008, Richard Niell Donovan