William Cowper: From Dark and Frowning Providences into the Light of a Smiling Face

[I shared a brief biography about William Cowper before we sang a pair of hymns he wrote. The text below is my manuscript.  I shared this during our Sunday morning service, March 30, 2014.  My sermon text for my morning message was James 1:2-4.]william cowper

James 1:2 says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.”  We are about to sing two hymns written by the same person.  The person’s name is William Cowper (spelled C-o-w-p-e-r but pronounced “Cooper”).  Cowper was born in England on November 26, 1731.  He died on April 25, 1800.  He lived an emotionally and spiritually anguished life.  His poetry and hymns reveal the frowning providences as well as the occasions when light pierced the darkness of emotional and spiritual turmoil.

Cowper was born into an Anglican home, though it was not evangelical.  Cowper’s father, John, was the rector at the Church of St. Peter and also served as chaplain to King George II (November 9, 1683-October 25, 1760).  Cowper was always timid and sensitive child.  This manifested itself at an early age.  When Cowper was six years old, his mother died after giving birth to his brother.  This experience drew out the emotional frailty that would characterize him until the day he died.  After his mother died, his father sent him to a boarding school where he was tormented.  He painfully recalled, “my chief affliction consisted in being singled out from all the other boys, by a lad about fifteen years of age as a proper object upon which he might let loose the cruelty of his temper.”  These painful childhood experiences—the death of his mother, his father sending him off to boarding school, and the beatings he received at boarding school—drew out his emotional volatility.

In 1752, at age 21, he sunk into his first major depression.  He described his condition this way, “Day and night I was on the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair.”  He would eventually come out of this depression.  He developed a relationship with a young lady named Theodora, Theodora Cowper.  They shared a last name because they were cousins.  Their relationship went on for years but was halted by Theodora’s father when they expressed their intent to marry.  Theodora’s father’s stated reason was the familial connection but one wonders if he wasn’t more concerned about what his daughter’s life would have been like with Cowper’s emotional and mental instability.  Neither of them ever married.  This triggered another bout of depression.

Cowper was a lawyer by training but his heart was not in the profession so he never gave himself to it.  In 1763, when he was 32, and with his father’s influence, he received a nomination to serve as a clerk in the House of Commons (England’s parliament).  This nomination, as is so common in the political arena, was not met with unanimity.  There would be a confirmation hearing to determine Cowper’s fitness for this position.  This generated tremendous anxiety in him which led to insanity.  In fact, he attempted suicide three different ways (“laudanum [poison], knife, and cord [hanging]”) but God preserved his life.  He was committed to St. Albans Insane Asylum in December 1763.  He was converted during his time in the insane asylum!  John 11 and Romans 3:25 were key texts which shone the light of Christ into his soul.  He recounts after reading Romans 3:25, “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…”

Cowper’s conversion would not lift the darkness of depression from his soul.  There would be more severe bouts of depression and even more attempts at death by suicide.  I do not have time to detail a series of events that led to this but Cowper ended up at Olney (still in England) where he developed a friendship with the curate (i.e., pastor) of a small rural Anglican church.  The pastor’s name was John Newton—yes, that John Newton; the one who wrote Amazing Grace.  Newton befriended and shepherded the emotionally and spiritually fragile Cowper.  Cowper shared what he called “the fatal dream” with Newton.  In 1773 Cowper had a dream in which he received a word that said something to the effect, “It’s all over for you, you are lost.”  He viewed this as God telling him that he was spiritually condemned without the hope of salvation.  This spiritual despair would be but a whisper in his best moments but it would loudly reverberate in his soul in his extended times of depression.  After his conversion, Cowper did not doubt evangelical truth, rather he perceived this was God’s view of him.  Cowper’s time under the pastoral care of Newton proved to be the best years of his life, though they were still not great years.  Both Newton and Cowper’s nurse, Mary Unwin, encouraged Cowper to write poetry and hymns to keep his mind occupied.  He took eagerly to this endeavor.  His most famous and longest poem, The Task, was published in 1785.  He so excelled at his poetry that he has been identified as “the foremost poet of the generation between Alexander Pope [May 21, 1688-May 30, 1744] and William Wordsworth [April 7, 1770-April 23, 1850].”  Christians continue to profit from Cowper’s work to this day through his hymns.  He lived his final years in deep depression.  He developed dropsy (edema) in the spring of 1800 and died.  He finally entered into the joyous light of the Smiling Face about which he wrote.

Cowper wrote songs in the tumult of utter misery.  He experienced a kind of tyrannical depression that seizes the soul and paralyzes its victim.  Psalm 69:20 was not only a brief season in his life but an unyielding reality for Cowper, “…I looked for pity, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none.”  Yet he would write hymns from under the dark shadows of depression.  And strikingly, Cowper’s hymns had “peace and thankful contemplation” as “their highest note.”  We are going sing two of 68 hymns Cowper contributed during his time at Olney with Newton.  The first one is titled “Sometimes a Light Surprises” (comfort).  It is based on the poignant ending in Habakkuk 3.  It expresses a deep confidence in God in the face of suffering.  The second one emphasizes God’s providences.  We know it as “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” after the first line of the hymn but it was originally called “Light Shining Out of Darkness” (conflict).  Cowper was a man who wrote from the depths of personal despair about trust in the face of, as James 1:2 says, various trials.  As you read Cowper’s other poetic works, his personal anguish is painfully on display but at the same time there is also a profound depth to them—the kind of depth that can only be forged in the furnace of affliction (cf. Isaiah 48:10).  Suffering is painful but profitable.  This truth is behind the hymns we are about to sing.  The letter of James teaches this.  William Cowper lived it.  So as we sing these hymns, they are not hymns written by a person sheltered from trial but one who can testify of the divine smiling face behind numerous frowning providences.

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