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History of Hymns: "Heal Us, Emmanuel, Hear Our Prayer"

"Heal Us, Emmanuel, Hear Our Prayer"
William Cowper
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 266

William Cowper

Heal us, Emmanuel, hear our prayer;
we wait to feel thy touch;
deep-wounded souls to thee repair,
and Savior, we are such.

The Olney Hymns (1779) is one of the most important of the 18th-century collections. It includes 67 hymns by William Cowper (1731-1800) and 281 by the famous slave trader turned Anglican rector, John Newton (1725-1807).

According to hymnologist Albert Bailey, Newton took a bold step when appointed to the Olney parish by “begg[ing] from Lord Dartmouth the use of a large old manor house, the former residence of the Earl’s family, to teach children the Bible and religion, in the evenings to teach the older people. No orthodox rector ever did a thing like that! And worse still, he used hymns instead of singing Psalms from Sternhold and Hopkins!”

When the collection appeared, it was seen as a modern collection because rhymed metrical psalm singing with Sternhold and Hopkins’ “Old Version,” first published in 1549, was the main source of congregational song for the Anglican Church. Hymn singing—metrical texts that explored poetic ideas and biblical texts beyond metrical settings of the psalter—was quite controversial in its early days.

The Olney Hymns had the primary purpose of “promoting the faith and comfort[ing] . . . sincere Christians,” or as Dr. Bailey contends, “religious education took first place over the conversion of sinners.”

Cowper was a gifted poet of his day, but also suffered depression, delusions and attempted suicide on several occasions. Cowper began the Olney Hymns when he was relatively well, but John Newton finished the collection alone as Cowper became increasingly incapacitated by his illness.

“Heal us, Emmanuel, hear our prayer” was included in the Olney Hymns under the title of “Jehovah-Raphi, I am the Lord that healeth thee, Exod. xv.” The text draws upon different healing narratives found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In Mark 9:14-27, Jesus encounters a boy “who is possessed by a spirit that makes him mute. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams at the mouth, grinds his teeth, and becomes rigid” (verses 17-18, NET).

The father of the young boy describes the manifestations of the illness and requests, “if you are able to do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (verse 22). Jesus responds, “‘If you are able?’ All things are possible for the one who believes” (verse 23).

Given the poet’s struggle with his own mental health, it is likely that this hymn is in part autobiographical; indeed, we know that Cowper was among the “deeply wounded souls” alluded to in stanza one.

In stanza two, the poet acknowledges that though “Our faith is feeble,” he asks if the Lord would “pity us the less?” Stanza three virtually quotes Mark 9:24, “Lord, I believe. . . . O help my unbelief.” Stanza four is based on Luke 8:43-48 and the faith of the woman with the issue of blood. Stanza five invites us to place ourselves in the narrative in place of the woman, and have the faith that Christ would “send none unhealed away.”

It is likely that the hymn would have been used in conjunction with a sermon on the theme of healing with, as UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young states, “a stanza of the hymn sung and scripture read before, during, and after preaching.”

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

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