William Cowper (1731-1800), the celebrated British poet, knew himself to be a “deep wounded soul.” He spent a lifetime struggling with doubt and faith, exile and acceptance, mental torment and sanity. It makes sense that, in 1779, he would pen a hymn of petition, “HEAL US, EMMANUEL, HEAR OUR PRAYER.”
A Life of Dread and Delight
The son of the Anglican chaplain to King George II, William was a fragile, sensitive child, devastated at age six by the death of his mother, then bullied at boarding school.
At Westminster School he happily studied poetry, but, at his father’s urging, spent a decade preparing to become a lawyer. Unfortunately, he became so anxious before taking the bar exam that he had a breakdown and was sent to an insane asylum.
For the rest of his life, Cowper (pronounced Cooper) struggled with severe depression. He heard voices and saw visions. He tried to kill himself with poison, rope, and knife. Once, so the story goes, he hired a driver to take him to the river Ouse, three miles outside of Olney, so he could drown himself. The driver, no doubt recognizing his famous passenger, drove around until he pulled the reins, claiming that he and his horse were hopelessly lost. Cowper stumbled out into the night, only to find himself at his own door.
For all his suffering, Cowper was a lucky man. He lived comfortably, and his poetry was admired by other poets, including Coleridge and Wordsworth.
He was fortunate in friendship. After his discharge from the asylum, he met Rev. Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. They invited him to visit for a couple weeks. William ended up staying 22 years. Even after Morley fell off his horse and died, Cowper continued to live with the widow in the village of Olney. They enjoyed lively conversations with another widow, Lady Anne Austen.
In Olney, Cowper had the good fortune to deepen his friendship with pastor John Newton, the “wretch” of “Amazing Grace” fame, who had gone from being the captain of a slave ship to an anti-slavery preacher. Newton knew about shame, healing, transformation, and forgiveness. He encouraged Cowper to turn his poet’s pen to writing hymns of faith and poems of justice. Over sixty of Cowper’s sacred verses were eventually published in the Olney Hymns (1779), including his most famous hymn, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way.”
At Newton’s urging, Cowper wrote verses for the Abolitionist cause. Greatly admired by William Wilberforce, the leader of the anti-slavery movement, Cowper’s impassioned poems were widely distributed in pamphlet form. They were quoted in the 20th century by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Can You Find the Rabbit?
Our hymnist-poet is almost always depicted with rabbits, even in his memorial window in the church where he’s buried in East Dereham and in the window at Westminster Abbey in London.
He loved his spaniel named Marquis who got along just fine with his three rabbits, Bess (“a hare of great humor and drollery”), Tiney (surly but entertaining), and Puss (who liked to be held, carried about, and allowed to nibble the hair at Cowper’s temples).
Having rabbit companions turned Cowper against hunting. He wrote:
[The sportsman] little knows what amiable creatures he persecutes, of what gratitude they are capable, how cheerful they are in their spirits, what enjoyment they have of life…”
The rabbits had the run of the house by night and, in good weather, could be seen hopping around Cowper’s lush garden and summer house, nicknamed the “verse manufactury.”
A little hare leaps in the logo of the Cowper & Newton Museum, once the home of the two inspired men.
Cowper’s Hymn of Healing
In “Heal Us, Emmanuel, Hear Our Prayer,” Cowper considers two Biblical stories. In one verse, he recounts the story of the father who begs Jesus to heal his son of convulsions (Mark 9: 14-27). The Savior, after confessing to frustration, heals the boy, at which the father cries, “Lord, I believe! Help Thou my unbelief!”
In two other verses, he celebrates the faith of the Bible’s bleeding woman, a story told in three gospel lessons: Matthew 9:20-22, Mark 5: 25-34, and Luke 8: 43-48.
It is the story of an exiled woman, physically weakened, desperate for healing, who dares defy the rules of her era to push through the crowd and touch the hem of Jesus’ robe.
What the others see is an outrageous woman crawling on her hands and knees, an outcast, unclean, exiled from family and community for twelve long years of bleeding. She’s breaking the law. That’s what they see.
What Jesus sees is a woman of profound faith, courage, and persistence. She is reaching out, believing, believing, believing against all the odds. Jesus tells her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.”
In Cowper’s hands, this story is told in two verses:
She, too, who touched thee in the press
and healing virtue stole,
was answered, “Daughter, go in peace;
Thy faith has made thee whole.”
Like her, with hopes and fears we come
to touch thee if we may;
O send us not despairing home;
Send none unhealed away.
Recognizing a kindred spirit, Cowper pleads: “O send us not despairing home; send none unhealed away.” And we pray with him, to the one who breathes fog into our plans of self destruction. Christ knows what is in our darkness and will not abandon us to despair. Singing this hymn we are reminded of the courage to reach out for help, past our fears and the scorn of others. By our faith are we made whole.
TO GO DEEPER
Hymn music, lyrics, and background information at the Hymnary. org website
BOOK: The Gospel in Hymns: Background and Interpretations by Albert Edward Bailey, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1950, pages 131-135.
BOOK: William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century by Gilbert Thomas, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, (2nd edition)1948
William Cowper, text and audio, on 5 Minutes in Church History
Website of the Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney, England
“Brother William — The Poet Cowper” at The Way We Were blog by Olney historian John Taylor
William Cowper Memorial Window
“Nevertheless, They Persisted” by Katherine A. Greiner on (DT) Daily Theology website, Feb. 8, 2017
“If I Just Touch His Clothes, I Will Be Healed” at Magdala website (Crossroads of Jewish and Christian History) with information about the Holy Land painting “Encounter” by Daniel Cariola