William Cowper, Depressed Hymn Writer
William Cowper is known to many only as the author of the words of the hymn “Praise for the Fountain Opened,” based on Zechariah 13:1. But he wrote a significant number of hymns and religious poems, and even his secular poetry frequently reveals his personal faith in Christ’s redemptive power. The gentle piety and humanitarianism of his poetry appealed to many readers among the Anglican evangelicals and the Methodists of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the quiet warmth of his verse was a marked contrast to the inner turmoil of his life. Obsessed by fears of failure, Cowper suffered a mental breakdown that terminated his preparation for a legal career in London. He was forced to spend the rest of his life in rural retirement.
During the period following his collapse, he was slowly able to gain a sense of inward confidence and hope under the guidance of his Christian physician.
William Cowper (1731-1800), one of the greatest hymnal writers in the history of the church, was born in London and lived during the time of the Great Awakening of George Whitfield, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, and most influential of all in his life, John Newton. Cowper’s life, which was riddled with severe depression, was relatively uneventful. His mother died at a very young age, and his father remained very distant and cold, sending William away to boarding school at the age of ten. William, though in a fairly Christian culture, had no saving relationship with Christ growing up. After graduating from college, his father coerced him into practicing law, though William had no desire for it, nor felt adequate enough to do it. He puttered through this career, lacking purpose, or happiness in it.
On the eve of a public examination he would have to undergo to accept a position as a Clerk in the House of Lords, Cowper wrought with feelings of deep shame and self-doubt, decided that ending his miserable life was the only solution. He attempted suicide several times, through various methods, but felt as if something was stopping him each time, only to feel as if he was being a coward and try again later.
Eventually, exhausted from his continual attempts throughout the day, he fell asleep. He awoke around three in the morning in a terror of self-loathing and reached for a pen knife and attempted to thrust it into his chest – but the blade broke. He then tried to hang himself from his bed frame – but the bed frame broke. Finally, he was able to successfully hang himself from his door frame till he lost consciousness – but then, the rope broke. He hit the ground, and convulsed into an unknown, deeper sense of self-hatred, unable to even kill himself. A narrator describes his experience the next day, “He felt for himself a contempt not to be expressed or imagined; whenever he went into the street, it seemed as if every eye flashed upon him with indignation and scorn; he felt as if he had offended God so deeply that his guilt could never be forgiven, and his whole heart was filled with tumultuous pangs of despair. Madness was not far off, or rather madness was already come.”
Though Cowper was not a Christian, he felt the sense that he was nothing more than “a dirty little thing” in the eyes of God and felt that even more so after his marathon of failed suicide attempts. Cowper was then admitted into a mental asylum by his father, where the presiding doctor was a Christian, and presented the gospel to Cowper and often prayed with him. One day, upon reading the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead in John 11 and then Romans 3:25, God opened Cowper’s eyes to the beauty of the grace offered him in the gospel. Here is what Cowper wrote in his journal about the experience, “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…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 realised the ocean of grace that was given to dirty sinners like him, leaving him in awe and wonder. He stayed at the asylum for another 12 months after his conversion, becoming very close friends with the doctor there. And it would be great to say that Cowper walked out of that asylum free from the struggle of depression, but he did not. Twice more after leaving the asylum, Cowper had a remarkable low point in his battle with depression, and twice more attempted to kill himself, both being unsuccessful.
Cowper did, however, begin attending John Newton’s church soon after leaving the asylum and developed a very close friendship with Newton. Newton, aware of the deep sadness that seemed to hang over Cowper, would frequently spend times visiting Cowper, go on long walks and discuss matters of the church with him. This was deeply helpful to the health of Cowper’s soul, though he still wrestled with depression to the day he died. But Newton stayed by his side, continually through it, never abandoning him as a lost cause or succumbing to Cowper’s gloomy pessimism that would manifest from time to time.
Eventually, Newton suggested that Cowper should help him with compiling a book of hymns together, seeing as Cowper was a very talented poet. Cowper poured out his heart into the hymns, writing 68 in total, some of which are “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”, “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood” and “O for a Closer Walk With God”.
Cowper’s life is a great lesson for us on the particular struggle of dealing with depression. The combination of losing his mother, virtually losing his father, and nearly all of his siblings dying as infants, was a powerful cocktail of sadness that William had to drink at a young age. Many biographers upon examining much of his work strongly believe that there was a good chance that William was sexually abused at the boarding school he was sent to. As a young adult, William was hoping to marry, but after seven years of courting and engagement, was forced to call off the wedding by his soon-to-be father-in-law, who deemed William unfit to marry his daughter – after this blow, William never remarried. William also inherited a great amount of wealth, which gave him no reason to go out looking for a job, leaving him to spend an inordinate amount of time sitting inside, doing nothing with no real ambitions. All of this, and only God knows what other demons William wrestled with, created an atmosphere of despair that clung tightly to William, and stayed there till the day he died.
After his conversion in the asylum, William did have a remarkably different outlook on life. Though still plagued with sadness, he no longer clung to his certain damnation. He would falter, and at times snap at Newton that he was beyond help but would always come back to that sense of awe that God still loved and accepted him. And Newton, his pastor and friend, was there, affectionately present, and always eager to remind William of the joy to be had in Christ. William died in 1800, still gloomy and at times questioning God’s goodness. William’s depression would wax and wane throughout life and having Newton and his church ever present in his life was monumentally important in providing health and stability.
His life did not end in cheerfulness- he died in 1800, apparently in deep despair.
The Olney Hymns first introduced Cowper to the world. Cowper kept writing poetry and became famous. He is considered one of the founders of the English Romantic movement. His "John Gilpin" is a children's favourite. In his best work, "The Task" Cowper continues to praise his Creator. He once said that of all the gifts God gives to us, God, Himself, is the greatest. However, as he neared death, his melancholic mental state reasserted itself and he became convinced that he was one of the souls that his rigorous Calvinist upbringing had taught were predestined to damnation. A poem titled "The Castaway" vividly illustrates his apprehensions.
William Cowper is an example of someone who God has worked through, even in the darkest times. Hopefully you can see the work of light that God did through his life of darkness and I hope and pray that it gives you hope of the things God can do through you.
Lives of the Poets - Louis Untermeyer
Cowper's Poetic Works – J. Bruce