At first glance, William Cowper’s life and testimony seem nothing short of an emotional and psychological train wreck.
Cowper struggled in the pits of despair for years and attempted suicide three times, which makes it easy to pass him off as a troubled soul. But dive a little deeper into the life of this man, and we can find a stunning testimony to the mighty hand of the God who promises that no one shall pluck out of his hand those he gives eternal life (John 10:28).
William Cowper was born into a fairly wealthy family in 18th century England, and was tormented by his conscience nearly all his life with “the unshakable conviction that he was eternally damned.” His despair began after law school with the conviction he was not qualified for his government position but was instead given it out of patronage and family influence. This belief led to guilt, self-loathing, and the sense of irrevocable doom. Though familiar with the Gospel and its Savior, Cowper became more familiar with despair to the point that “neither Scripture nor reason could undeceive [him].” Everything preached the curse of the law to him, and blinded by the law, he recalls, “I saw myself as a sinner altogether, and every way a sinner, but I saw not yet a glimpse of the mercy of God in Christ Jesus.”
Cowper was admitted to an asylum in 1763. He spent time there reading the Scriptures daily, and recalls the moment of his conversion like this:
“The first verse I saw was the 25th of the third chapter of Romans, ‘Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for remissions of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.’ Immediately I received strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me.”
Those words of truth from Scripture were sufficient for his salvation, and Cowper became “overwhelmed with love and wonder”! Jesus had saved him; however, life wasn’t rosy from then on. “Oh that the ardor of my first love had continued!” Cowper wrote. “But I have known many a lifeless and unhallowed hour since, long intervals of darkness interrupted by short returns of peace and joy in believing.” His fight was not yet over, but now he knew where to turn in the thick of despair: “Jesus being my strength, I fight against it, and if I am not conqueror, yet I [still] am not overcome.”
Cowper eventually came under the guardianship of John Newton, who became the greatest spiritual influence of Cowper’s life. Newton encouraged Cowper’s interest in expressing his faith in hymns and poetry, and his hymns were eventually published alongside Newton’s. Cowper has been called the Great Poet of the Evangelical Revival, despite his lifelong struggle against despondency and darkness. Glimpses of his heart, however frail, are evident in nearly every stanza of his poetry.
Cowper is best known for penning the beloved hymn “God Moves in A Mysterious Way.” If anyone knows the dreadfulness of dark clouds, it’s surely Cowper, and his words are an encouragement when we find ourselves facing storms in our own heart:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Here are three lessons we can learn from William Cowper’s life.
First, the Word of God is profitable . . . for everything (2 Tim. 3:16). Cowper’s conversion by the power of the Word of God is an example of Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Next time we’re tempted to seek help from something other than God’s truth, let’s remember Cowper and the power of Scripture in his life. We have access to that same power.
Second, John Newton was Cowper’s friend through thick and thin, and he was a great encourager. Let’s be Newton-type friends to our fellow believers by strengthening them with truth and never shying away from their struggles and their pain. Newton wasn’t afraid of Cowper’s depression, but instead he got close enough to encourage him as iron sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17).
Third, Cowper concluded that life is ruled and orchestrated by a sovereign God who can be trusted. Instead of walking by sight, he leaned hard on faith in God’s sovereignty when the clouds of despair rolled in, and so should we. Whether it’s just a gloomy day of Eeyore clouds or full-on depression, God is bigger than all of it. He is not forsaking us in our darkness. And when he seems distant, it’s simply because he’s moving in a mysterious way—too mysterious for our finite brains to understand.
So next time you find yourself saying with the psalmist, “Why are you cast down, O my soul?” (Ps. 42:5a) remember that you will again praise him (Ps. 42:5b), just like Cowper. And until praise returns, trust in Jesus.
Since the dear hour that brought me to thy foot,
And cut up all my follies by the root,
I never trusted in an arm but thine,
Nor hoped, but in thy righteousness divine; …
While struggling in the vale of tears below,
That never fail’d, nor shall it fail me now.
—“Truth” by William Cowper
* All research and quotations gathered from the following book: Jeffrey, David L., William Cowper: Selected Poetry and Prose. Vancouver: Regent College, 2007.
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