Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Great Physician -- William Hunter

What was in the mind of this Irishman turned American when he sat down to compose some words in 1859? William Hunter must have been feeling a vast sense of relief from an illness when he penned the words to “The Great Physician” that year, perhaps like a child getting treated by a doctor with just the right vaccine (see the picture). And, he knew who he could count on repeatedly for help, as he laid his heart open with the words he recorded in the song’s refrain. His words remind the hearer that though his malady might have been only mental or spiritual, the cure was no less essential for his well-being. And, the end product he recommends in his verses lasts a lifetime.    

William Hunter was a 48-year old believer in 1859, with a past that included his birth in Ireland, immigration to the U.S. as a child, and education and work in music editing by the time he reached his later middle aged years. He came to America at just six years of age, leaving his native Ballymoney, Ireland, probably like many others who left the old world for the new in the 19th Century; one suspects his parents or other guardians at his young age were looking for a new beginning, with more economic opportunity. Perhaps they discovered it, since Hunter eventually went to Madison College (Wisconsin?) in 1830, edited Christian journals and several hymnals for many years thereafter, and later became a professor of Hebrew at Allegheny College (Pennsylvania?). He and his family indeed must have found “the land of opportunity”. We know little else of his life, but his words in “The Great Physician”, one of 125 hymns he wrote, tell us he must have known his spiritual condition needed something. The hymn’s first words tell us he had been depressed but lifted by the Divine Healer. Two of the other seven verses (two and six), if indeed they are autobiographical, reveal he’d been healed from his soul’s disease – sin. He doesn’t stop there, however, but in the remaining verses he invites others so restored to join in the devotion and ultimate reward this rescue prompts. He sounds balanced -- someone who most likely had seen difficulties as a child, but came to know a better life, articulating as an adult God’s hand in his life. We don’t know, but it must be true that significant people – perhaps his parents or other relatives – had been believers too, modeling lives of faith overcoming struggle.  

Hunter found his cure was sweet, so much so that he has us sing it over and over again. But, make no mistake, Hunter says with his poetry. You and I must admit we’re sick, in order to savor this unique type of therapy. Maybe it was easier for folks in the 19th Century, when spiritual revival was in vogue. ‘Sin’, ‘forgiven’, and ‘Jesus’ weren’t just punch lines then, Hunter’s hymn reminds us. It’s easy to think old hymns are square, and not really relevant some 160 years later. But, I’m no more immune to disease today than William Hunter was. Providentially, I’m not immune to Him either. How about you?            

For all seven original verses and the chorus-refrain, see the following link:

See the following links for some biographical information on the composer:


kevin armstrong said...

The Hymnary site indicated that several of Hunter's tunes had been translated into 'Indian languages.' Do you have any specific info on this, by chance?

David Cain said...

Sorry Kevin, but no information on Hunter's translated music into Indian.

Unknown said...

This song Great Physician-is translated in Indian language -Tamil-Peyranbar Yeah Nirkirar. I do not have any idea about the other Indian languages. Very beautiful and meaningful song.