Posts tagged with: hymns

The English poet and hymn writer William Cowper (1731-1800, pronounced Cooper) was afflicted with severe bouts of depression and haunting despair for virtually all of his life. While he was a contemporary of George Whitefield and John Wesley, and Rev. John Newton served as a mentor, many have not heard of this 18th century English writer.

Much of Cowper’s depression and anguish stems from the death of his mother and four of his siblings all by the age of six. Cowper was then sent away to boarding school and terrorized for a number of years by an older bully. Later, he fell in love with a cousin only to have her father abruptly end the relationship. The refusal left a young Cowper deeply troubled and distraught. Cowper was pressured into law by his own father, an Anglican minister who was also the chaplain for George II. He buckled under the pressure and made several suicide attempts in the coming days. After several failed attempts by various methods he tried to hang himself with a garter, but it broke while he was unconscious on his third attempt.

His friends then intervened, and he was sent to an insane asylum run by a poet and committed Christian, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton. Under the guidance of Cotton he read Scripture and withdrew for a time from the misery inside his mind. Cowper read a passage from Romans 3:25: “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.” Cowper declared:

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. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport; I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.

Cowper would continue to struggle in life with mental illness and a general melancholy. Often, he would withdraw into fits of despair because of dreams he had of God rejecting him. However, he became friends with John Newton and they compiled a work of writings in 1779 called the Olney Hymns. It produced many popular English hymns including Newton’s “Amazing Grace.” Another popular tune came from Cowper titled, “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” The first verse reads:

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.

Cowper wrote many popular poems and was ahead of his time with his focus on a new sensitivity to nature and his surroundings, which greatly influenced the Romantic poets. Samuel Taylor Coleridge praised him as the “the best modern poet.”

Cowper also translated Homer and John Milton’s Greek and Latin poems. In addition, he became involved in the abolition movement, which was gaining greater concern from evangelical Christians during his life. However, perhaps his greatest legacy is how God used him mightily through his years of affliction and mental anguish. Cowper’s words and life speak to the very sovereignty, grace, and mystery of a God that saves, uplifts, and enlivens the troubled soul.