By all accounts, the author of the hymn O for a closer walk with God
led a tragic life clouded by mental instability. After receiving his education at Westminster School, William Cowper (1731–1800) studied law and was called to The Bar in 1754. During the next few years he suffered spells of severe depression, and though he was offered several prestigious posts, the thought of taking them up induced such terror in his mind that he tried to take his own life three times. After 1765 Cowper went to live with the Reverend John Newton, Curate of Olney, and between them they composed over 350 hymns. O for a closer walk
and God moves in a mysterious way
both date from this time and were included in Cowper and Newton’s Olney Hymns
published in 1779.
The tune ‘Caithness’ derives from a melody in The Scottish Psalter of 1635, also known as ‘The Old Psalter’ or ‘John Knox’s Psalter’. This psalter, an incomplete version of which was published in 1561 for use in the Anglo-Scottish Church, was brought back from Geneva by the Scottish refugees who had fled there to escape the persecutions of the Reformation. The psalter was completed and issued in Edinburgh in 1564; it appeared in many later editions and served the churches for a century. The early editions contained melodies only but 1635 saw the publication of an edition which provided harmonised tunes.
from notes by Sarah Langdon © 1999