WILLIAM COWPER (1731–1800)
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm. (Poetical Works, 292)
So begins “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” one of the last hymns William Cowper ever wrote. It appeared in the collection of “Olney Hymns” under the title “Conflict: Light Shining out of Darkness.” Over the years, it has become very precious to me and many in our church. It has carried us through fire.
“Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy.”
For years, an embroidered version of this hymn has hung in our living room. It was created and given to us by a young mother who was sustained by it through great sadness. It expresses the foundation of my theology and my life so well that it made me long to know the man who wrote it. I also wanted to know why the author of this poem struggled with depression and despair almost all his life. I wanted to try to come to terms with insanity and spiritual songs in the same heart of one whom I believe was a genuine Christian.
Prelude to the Asylum
William Cowper was born in 1731 and died in 1800. His father was rector of the village church and one of King George II’s chaplains. So the family was well-to-do but not evangelical, and William grew up without any saving relation to Christ.
His mother died when he was 6, and his father sent him to Pitman’s, a boarding school in Bedfordshire. From the age of 10, until he was 17, he attended Westminster School and learned his French and Latin and Greek well enough to spend the last years of his life, fifty years later, translating the Greek of Homer and the French of Madam Guyon.
From 1749, he was apprenticed to a solicitor with a view to practicing law. At least this was his father’s view. He never really applied himself and had no heart for the public life of a lawyer or a politician. For ten years he did not take his legal career seriously but lived a life of leisure with token involvement in his supposed career.
In 1763, when he was 32 years old, he was about to be made Clerk of Journals in Parliament. What would have been a great career advancement to most men struck fear into William Cowper — so much so that he had a total mental breakdown, tried three different ways to commit suicide, and was put into an asylum.
Awakened at St. Albans
So in December 1763 he was committed to St. Albans Insane Asylum, where the 58-year-old Dr. Nathaniel Cotton tended the patients. Cotton was somewhat of a poet, but most of all, by God’s wonderful design, an evangelical believer and a lover of God and the gospel. He loved Cowper and held out hope to him repeatedly in spite of his insistence, wrought from the guilt he felt over his suicide attempts, that he was damned and beyond hope.
“Let us rehearse the mercies of Jesus often in the presence of discouraged people.”
Six months into his stay, Cowper found a Bible lying (not by accident) on a bench, where he read the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. There he “saw so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men, in our Saviour’s conduct, that I almost shed tears upon the revelation; little thinking that it was an exact type of the mercy which Jesus was on the point of extending towards myself” (William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century, 131–32).
Increasingly he felt he was not utterly forsaken. Again he felt led to turn to the Bible. The first verse he saw was this: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” (Romans 3:25 KJV).
Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel. . . . Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. (William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century, 132)
He had come to love St. Albans and Dr. Cotton so much that he stayed on another twelve months after his conversion. One might wish the story were one of emotional triumph after his conversion. But it did not turn out that way. Far from it.
Friendship with a Former Slave Trader
Two years after Cowper left St. Albans, the most important relationship of his life began — his friendship with John Newton. Newton was the curate at the church in Olney when he met Cowper in 1767. He had lost his mother when he was six, just as Cowper had. But after being sent to school for a few years, he traveled with his father on the high seas, eventually becoming a slave-trading seaman himself. He was powerfully converted, and God called him to the ministry. He had been at Olney since 1764 and would be there till 1780.
We know Newton mainly as the author of “Amazing Grace.” But we should also know him as one of the healthiest, happiest pastors in the eighteenth century. Some said that other pastors were respected by their people, but Newton was loved. For thirteen of those years, Newton was Cowper’s pastor and counselor and friend. Cowper said, “A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had” (William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century, 192).
Newton saw Cowper’s bent to melancholy and reclusiveness, and drew him into the ministry of visitation as much as he could. They would take long walks together between homes, and talk of God and his purposes for the church. Then, in 1769, Newton got the idea of collaborating with Cowper on a book of hymns to be sung by their church. He thought it would be good for Cowper’s poetic bent to be engaged.
‘The Fatal Dream’
In the end, Newton wrote about two hundred of the hymns, and Cowper wrote sixty-eight. But before Cowper could complete his share, he had what he called “the fatal dream.” It was January 1773, ten years since the dreadful breakdown that led him to St. Albans. He does not say precisely what the dream was, but only that a “word” was spoken that reduced him to spiritual despair, something to the effect of “It is all over with you; you are lost” (William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century, 225).
“God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”
Again there were repeated attempts at suicide, and each time God providentially prevented him. Newton stood by him all the way through this, even sacrificing at least one vacation so as not to leave Cowper alone.
In 1780, Newton left Olney for a new pastorate in Lombard Street, London, where he served for the next 27 years. It is a great tribute to him that he did not abandon his friendship with Cowper, though this would, no doubt, have been emotionally easy to do. Instead, there was an earnest exchange of letters for twenty years. Cowper poured out his soul to Newton as to no one else.
Perhaps it was good for Newton to go away, because when he left, Cowper poured himself into his major poetic projects (between 1780 and 1786), which may have prevented potential breakdowns. But the reprieve did not last. In 1786, Cowper entered his fourth deep depression and again tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. He moved from Olney to Weston that year, and the long decline began. He wrote his last original poem in 1799, called “The Castaway,” and then died, apparently in utter despair, in 1800.
Distrust the Certainties of Despair
What shall we learn from the life of William Cowper? The first lesson is this: We fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair. Despair is relentless in the certainties of his pessimism. But even Cowper was not consistent throughout his letters and poems. Some years after his absolute statements of being cut off from God, he again expressed some hope. His certainties were not sureties. So it will always be with the deceptions of darkness. Let us now, while we have the light, cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.
Second, may the Lord raise up many John Newtons among us, for the joy of our churches and for the survival of the William Cowpers in our midst. Newton remained Cowper’s pastor and friend the rest of his life, writing and visiting again and again. He did not despair of the despairing. After one of these visits in 1788, Cowper wrote,
I found those comforts in your visit, which have formerly sweetened all our interviews, in part restored. I knew you; knew you for the same shepherd who was sent to lead me out of the wilderness into the pasture where the Chief Shepherd feeds His flock, and felt my sentiments of affectionate friendship for you the same as ever. But one thing was still wanting, and that the crown of all. I shall find it in God’s time, if it be not lost forever. (William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century, 356)
That is not utter hopelessness. And the reason it is not is because the shepherd had drawn near again. Those were the times when Cowper felt a ray of hope.
Sing the Gospel to the Deaf
One final, all-important lesson: Let us rehearse the mercies of Jesus often in the presence of discouraged people. Let us point them again and again to the blood of Jesus. These were the two things that brought Cowper to faith in 1764. Remember how he said that in John 11 he “saw so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men, in our Saviour’s conduct, that I almost shed tears.” And remember how on the decisive day of awakening he said, “I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification.”
In Cowper’s most famous hymn, this is what he sings — the preciousness of the blood of Christ to the worst of sinners.
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.
Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power;
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.
E’er since, by faith, I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die. (Poetical Works, 280)
Don’t make your mercy to the downcast contingent on quick results. You cannot persuade a person that he is not reprobate if he is utterly persuaded that he is. He will tell you he is deaf. No matter. Keep soaking him in the “benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy” of Jesus and “the sufficiency of the atonement” and “the fullness and completeness of [Christ’s] justification.”
“Let us now, while we have the light, cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.”
Yes, he may say that these are all wonderful in themselves, but that they do not belong to him. To this you say, “Doubt your despairing thoughts. If you have no ability for faith in the love of God for you, make no pretense to have such certainty of faith in your damnation. This is not yours to know. Rather, yours is to listen to Jesus.” Then go on telling him the glories of Christ and his all-sufficient sacrifice for sin. Pray that in God’s time these truths may yet be given the power to awaken hope and beget a spirit of adoption.
We have good reason to hope that if we make redeeming love our theme until we die, and if we promote the love and patience of John Newton in our own souls and in our churches, then the William Cowpers among us will not be given over to the enemy in the end.