William Cowper was born in England on November 26, 1731. His father was a minister and his mother died when he was six years old. As a child, Cowper rarely lived at home except for a brief stint of nine months when he was eighteen. His early years were spent at Westminster School, where he cultivated a love for literature, the Latin and Greek classics, and writing. Eventually, he decided to study law and entered into an apprenticeship for a brief period of time, but abandoned this career at the onset of a severe depression when he was twenty-one years old, “I was struck,” he says, “with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.”
During this time his repeated attempts at suicide led to his admittance in a local insane asylum. It was in this asylum that he experienced a conversion to Christianity. Sitting by a window after breakfast, he picked up a Bible and read about Christ’s atonement in Romans 3. Cowper writes,
“Immediately I received strength to believe it. Immediately 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 my justification. In a moment I believed and received the Gospel.”
His conversion brought new light into his experience; however, depression would still plague his soul. The death of his brother in 1770 did little to help this reoccurring dark night of the soul. In 1775, he came to live with some friends. The Unwin family were active evangelicals and quickly became attached to Cowper. He, in turn, felt great support from these new friends, especially Mrs. Mary Unwin, and continued to live in their household even after the death of Mr. Unwin in 1767. The news of Mr. Unwin’s death reached the ears of the Rev. John Newton, converted slave trader, author of Amazing Grace, and pastor of the Anglican parish in Olney. Rev. Newton invited the widow’s family, along with Cowper, to move to the town of Olney and live in a house next door to the Newton family. Newton and Cowper began a close friendship which culminated in the joint production of the Olney Hymns, published in 1779. As a spiritual counselor, Newton was invaluable to Cowper. The strong relationship between these two friends continued to grow in spite of the radical differences between their respective temperaments. Their common commitment to evangelical Christianity, and its expression in worship, was the catalyst for their joint production of the Olney hymns. These hymns, along with a few poems, are almost the only known poetical writings Cowper produced between 1749 and 1780. The writing of the hymns began in 1771, but, due to Cowper’s fits of depression, was not completed until 1779. Because of Cowper’s reoccurring depressions, Newton authored most of the hymns, but the contributions of Cowper’s 67 hymns provide an excellent glimpse into the ideals Cowper had set for his own relationship with God.
Both Cowper and Newton embraced the moderate Calvinist evangelicalism associated with the preaching and teaching of individuals like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. As such, Cowper’s hymns reflect a solid focus on atonement, the sovereignty of God, and sanctification. Their friendship was, no doubt, aided by their common commitment to this faith and its expression. However, it was at the point when their beliefs were translated into personal experience that the differences were distinct. Cowper was never able to experience the emotional reality of his faith to the degree that Newton was able. Thus, his heart may be most genuinely expressed in hymns which convey this tension. Cowper’s lack of assurance stands in contrast to the prevailing ideals of the Evangelical Christianity of his age and, perhaps, in ours. A decisive (and ongoing) experience of salvation and emotional joy was a landmark in many evangelical testimonies during this time, as in ours. Also, the Enlightenment had brought a rational aspect into the way many evangelicals conceived of their faith during this time. Cowper found it difficult to reconcile a clear cut and “rational” understanding of the holiness and nearness of God. The same understanding that provided comfort to so many other evangelicals during this time. G.K. Chesterton speaks of this in the first chapter of Orthodoxy, “…only one great English poet went mad, Cowper. And he was definitely driven mad by logic, by the ugly and alien logic of predestination. Poetry was not the disease, but the medicine; poetry partly kept him in health.”
And it is at this point in Cowper’s story that we can thank God for poetry, mystery, and friendship. These graces clearly sustained him and culminate in the the friendship between Newton and Cowper. It is unique and inspiring. Newton most often played the role of spiritual advisor and was often a comfort to Cowper’s troubled soul. In regard to Cowper’s depression, Newton was sympathetic and tolerant. His letters to Cowper convey warmth and patience. It was this encouraging pastoral concern that helped lead to Cowper’s contributions to the Olney Hymns. These contributions reflect a focus on the depravity of man, the mystery of the gospel, the pain of guilt, the joy of faith, and the paradox of sin and grace. In Cowper’s hymns, the lost condition of man and the value of the cross are painted in stark contrasts. The hymns exalt the relief found for man in the mercy and forgiveness of God. All this was written in the midst of many personal battles with the, “certain conviction that he himself was damned. In fact, he wrote the hymn ‘God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform’ on the eve of his second suicide attempt.” To read these hymns set against the backdrop of his experience is a powerful exercise. How is it that Cowper’s confession of evangelical faith would stay intact, even as he himself would never rest on a solid assurance of his salvation?
Many modern critics have found this difficult to understand. Those who have sought to analyze Cowper using psychological paradigms, more often than not, have excluded the perspective that his “illness” may have had anything to do with genuine religious experience and struggle. These kinds of writings about Cowper are never short on descriptions and definitions devoted to describing the poet’s madness. Those that attempt an explanation for Cowper’s depression often point the finger at Cowper’s faith as the cause of the madness. One critic has gone as far as to say, “Cowper’s anguish might have been less had he lost all belief in God. Then there would have been no one to damn him. Or if he shifted his belief to the coolly remote Supreme Being of the eighteenth-century rationalists.” But he did not. Amazingly, it is also true that Cowper’s evangelical faith and his poetry were the source of his greatest comfort. His struggles, set against the sincere and heart-felt content of his hymns, provide the story of a modern-day Job. It is his struggle with clearly defined concepts of assurance that remind us that relief from this tension is also a gift of grace that is given and not achieved.
For those of us who believe in God’s revelation through Christ, saints like Cowper remind us that every inch of wholeness and emotional security is a gift. Like Cowper, we often do not feel what we are told we should feel. This can become a real predicament, especially over time. We begin to doubt. If Christian faith is based primarily in experience and feeling, then what we often experience and feel does not add up. In spite of personal sin, or whatever may be clouding our vision at the time, the spiritual depression can remain–even if temporarily patched with drugs or addictions. So we wait. Sometimes in silence, sometimes beating our fists, but always in hope and knowledge that one day we will be healed. Until then, may God give us grace to serve and suffer for others.
On April 25, 1800 William Cowper was laid to rest. During the last years of his life he continued to struggle with the melancholy that he had known throughout the course of his life. There were momentary intervals in which a ray of hope gleamed, but the majority was spent in struggle. He even ceased attending church in his last years. Yet we still count this saint as loved by God, and through the example of Cowper are silenced by the fact that, “God is His own interpreter, and he will make it plain.”