Posted by: rcottrill | December 6, 2010

Today in 1769 – O for a Closer Walk written

The usually reliable Robert McCutchan gives December 9th for the date of writing, but it may be the song was begun today, and edited or completed then.

We have become accustomed to thinking of an “idol” as some kind of statue before which the heathen bow down in worship. But the Bible greatly expands this narrow definition. We learn that idolatry is actually an attitude, or a state of mind. That it need not be associated with a figure of wood or stone. For example, the Bible states that “covetousness…is idolatry” (Col. 3:5). The life-controlling lust and craving for anything means it has become an idol to us. It could be a car, or another man’s wife. Or it could be something more abstract and intangible, such as power or popularity.

In 1769, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) published a hymn about the need for a consistent walk with the Lord that avoids all idolatry. Cowper was troubled throughout his life with chronic depression. But at one point he moved to the little English village of Olney, where he became friends with the pastor of the local church, John Newton (the man who gave us the hymn Amazing Grace). Cowper boarded in the village with a Rev. and Mrs. Morley Unwin, and Mrs. Unwin also became his friend and counselor. (For more about Mr. Cowper and his hymns, see the second item under Today in 1792.)

In the Unwin’s back garden, John Newton and William Cowper met, nearly every day, to work together on a project that greatly encouraged and helped the latter. They produced a new hymn book, creating nearly 350 of the hymns between them. I have an exact reproduction of Olney Hymns near me as I write. One of these songs Cowper called Walking with God. It is now commonly known as O for a Closer Walk with God. Of writing these lines of verse, Cowper commented the next day:

I began to compose them yesterday morning before daybreak, but I fell asleep at the end of the first two lines. When I awaked again, the third and fourth verses were whispered to my heart in a way I have often experienced.

The Bible text Cowper put with his song is Gen. 5:24, “And Enoch walked with God.” It means he lived in close fellowship with the Lord, in consistent faith and obedience toward Him. But William Cowper’s words reflect the experience of times of dryness and coldness in our spiritual lives that sometimes come. We may long for the early vigour and passion of the time when we first trusted Christ as Saviour. He recognizes that sometimes the problem may be a divided allegiance–that we have allowed other things to come between us and the Lord.

Above is the hymn, exactly as it was originally published. You will notice that 240 years ago, the letter “s” was sometimes printed much like our “f”–except when it was found at the end of a word. (In the second stanza we have the word blessedness which Olney Hymns has rendered bleffednefs!)

(2) Today in 1821 – Dorothy Greenwell Born
Dora (Dorothy) Greenwell was born into a wealthy family, but circumstances made it necessary for her father to sell the family estate, Greenwell Ford. This began a life of hardship for Dora herself. Ongoing health problems complicated what hymn historian J. R. Watson calls a sad and unfulfilled life. Dora lived for 18 years with her widowed mother, who discouraged her friendships and did not understand her longing for a fuller, freer existence. There is a possibility that she struggled later with an addiction to opium–possibly administered because of the physical pain she endured.

Dora Greenwell may have been physically frail, but she had a keen mind and a loving heart. She took a particular interest in helping mentally handicapped children. And she was an able author whose devotional writings and poetry fill many volumes. The hymn that is most commonly associated with her is I Am Not Skilled to Understand, published in her book Songs of Salvation, in 1873. Ira Sankey included it in his Sacred Songs and Solos, under the title My Refuge, My Saviour, with the text, “The God of my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, My stronghold and my refuge; My Saviour” (II Sam. 22:3).

I am not skilled to understand
What God hath willed, what God hath planned;
I only know at His right hand
Is One who is my Saviour!

I take Him at His word indeed;
“Christ died for sinners”–this I read;
For in my heart I find a need
Of Him to be my Saviour!

That He should leave His place on high
And come for sinful man to die,
You count it strange? So once did I,
Before I knew my Saviour!


  1. Thank you for your visit today to my post on Cowper’s wonderful hymn, “O for a Closer Walk with God.” you invited me to come here and I am so glad you did. This is a wonderful blog and I am about to include it in my Favorites blog folder, as I know I will enjoy coming to visit in the future. Next to the Scriptures, I absolutely love the old hymns and have always enjoyed reading the stories behind them. I believe the men and women who write these beautiful words touch at the very core of the Christian faith.

    Of all worship services, I love best the congregational singing of hymns. I also love hearing choirs singing them. It is so nice to meet someone who is attempting to keep the value of these hymns alive and well. I am going to send a link to this blog to my pastor; I am sure he’ll appreciate what you are doing here.

    God bless you!

    • Your kind words are greatly appreciated. Since I started writing this blog about 7 months ago, I’ve found there are like-minded people all over the world. Sadly, some attend churches that have virtually ceased to sing the old hymns. It is not that none of the contemporary songs has any merit. But there is a richness of theology, and a depth of insight into human experience in our traditional hymns that is seldom if ever matched today. Include the best of the new if you want to, but don’t abandon the heritage of the past. That is my message. God bless you, as you and your congregation sing His praises!

  2. […] For the story behind Cowper’s hymn God Moves in a Mysterious Way, see Today in 1731, and for his hymn O for a Closer Walk with God, see Today in 1769. […]

  3. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  4. […] 1882) Music: Greenwell, by William James Kirkpatrick (b. Feb. 27, 1838; d. Sept. 20, 1921) Links: Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]


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