In his discussion on “O for a closer walk with God” in The Book of Hymns, editor Ian Bradley tells us that William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote it “during one of the comparatively rare periods of sanity that punctuated his almost continuous mental torment.” Cowper had attempted suicide three times and twice had been hospitalized for insanity. He later became a Christian and was a friend of John Newton (1725-1807), author of “Amazing Grace,” a former slave ship captain who eventually became a celebrated preacher in England. Cowper’s hymn “O for a closer walk with God” is a fervent expression of his deep personal faith in God.
In 1769 Mary Unwin, Cowper’s housekeeper, became seriously ill. She was considerably older than Cowper and had become like a mother to him. He relied heavily on her and was terribly worried about what would happen to him if she died. His anxiety and depression returned, and it was during that time that he wrote “O for a closer walk with God.” He prayed for Mary Unwin and examined his own spiritual condition. “Mary is the chief of blessings I have met with in my journey since the Lord was pleased to call me...Her illness has been a sharp trial to me. Oh, that it may have a sanctified effect.” God heard William Cowper’s prayers, and Mary Unwin recovered.
The original version of the hymn had six stanzas, but the third stanza is usually omitted from modern hymnals because of its feeling of great loss and sadness:
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed! How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void the world can never fill.
“O for a closer walk with God” was published first in Richard Conyers’s hymnal A Collection of Psalms and Hymns (London, 1772).
The tune for “O for a closer walk with God” was written by the Victorian composer John Bacchus Dykes (1823-1876) for a different hymn, “How bright those glorious spirits shine,” probably in the early 1870’s. Dykes composed music for many hymns, ten of which appear in The Hymnal 1982. Two of his best known tunes are for “Holy, holy, holy” (hymn 362) and “Eternal Father, strong to save” (hymn 608). “O for a closer walk with God” appears in our hymnal with an alternate tune called CAITHNESS at hymn 684.
What is it like to walk with God? For most of us, our walk with God in 2020 has been very different, often difficult and challenging. With an emphasis on stewardship during this month at St. Paul’s, we are also encouraged to consider what our walk with God will be like in 2021, as individuals and as a community of believers. One thing that is certain and reassuring is that Christ walks with us every day, every step of the way. Thanks be to God!
O for a closer walk with God, a calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road that leads me to the Lamb!
Where is the blessedness I knew when first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view of Jesus and his word?
Return, O holy Dove, return, sweet messenger of rest;
I hate the sins that made thee mourn, and drove thee from my breast.
The dearest idol I have known, whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne, and worship only thee.
So shall my walk be close with God, calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road that leads me to the Lamb.