Back to main magazine page now!!
mother from a cousin in Norfolk.
Memories flooded his mind. The
years had been traumatic and
threatening. His mind wandered
back to the only time in his life
that he had known complete
safety. He studied the picture of his
He mediated on every feature of her
face—loving her, adoring her, and
remembering the gentle touch of
so long ago.
Westminster, then one of
the foremost public schools in
England. Here he excelled in the
classics and general academics.
When he left Westminster, he
could write as easily in Latin as
he could in English.
At eighteen Cowper became the
apprentice to an attorney and in
1754 was called to the Bar. Two
years later he was appointed to
the post of Commissioner of
Bankrupts with a salary of £60 a
oon after his mother’s death,
year. Cowper was sent to a boarding
school in the nearby village of That lifestyle came to an abrupt end
Market Street. The little boy, in 1763 when Cowper was 32 years
grappling with the death of his old. There is no clear explanation
mother, now had to experience as to what happened to Cowper’s
the absence of his father in a health in 1763. He became very
strange place. One of the older melancholic and at times greatly
boys bullied young William depressed. Some writers have
into a complete state of terror. suggested that he could not stand
Years later, William recalled the the pressures of his law profession.
Many causes have been suggested
experience in complete detail.
such as psychological, religious,
and even nutritional. 1 No
one can speak with absolute
The examination loomed over
him like the incoming clouds of a
storm. As the date drew near, the
pressure increased. Now the seeds
of all of William Cowper’s fears
and insecurities germinated. The
death of his mother, the brutal
treatment in his early school days,
and the upcoming examination
now all met in one emotional
moment. Cowper had reached
the breaking point. Growing up
without the guiding hand of his
mother he struggled between the
extreme Calvinism of the day
and the reality and assurance of
personal faith. Inside of the great
man was a doctrine that said, “You
might be cursed and damned as
the non-elect” and another voice
of personal faith and experience.
T here seemingly was no one
in his life to steady him from
the depths of despair. One foggy
night he called for a horse-drawn
carriage and asked to be taken to
the London Bridge on the Thames
River. He was so overcome by
depression that he intended to
commit suicide. But after two
hours of driving through the mist,
Modern terminology would Cowper’s coachman reluctantly
describe Cowper’s dilemma confessed that he was lost.
as a “complete nervous
Disgusted by the delay, Cowper
left the carriage and decided
the happy, carefree face of
to find the London Bridge on
William Cowper was a storm
foot. After walking only a short
ready to break. The breaking
distance though, he discovered
point came when he faced an
that he was at his own doorstep!
examination before a public
The carriage had been going
panel as a candidate for the
in circles. Immediately, he
Clerkship of the Journals for
recognized the restraining hand
the House of Lords.
of God in it all. Convicted by the
Spirit, he realized that the way
1 William Cowper, Selected Poem,
out of his troubles was to look to
Nick Rhodes, Carcanet Press LtD.,
12 Manchester, England.
God, not to jump into the river. As
he cast his burden on the Savior,
his heart was comforted. With
gratitude he sat down and penned
these reassuring words:
“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.”
Under the kind attention of Dr.
Nathanael Cotton, an evangelical
believer, Cowper began his
Pastor John Newton
journey back. It was a beautiful
od sent along helpers.
morning in July of 1764 when
When he moved to Olney
Cowper picked up a Bible and
began reading from Romans. Nick in 1774, he was visited by Rev.
Rhodes in his book describes the John Newton. John Newton was
a great help to Cowper and a
event: calming, assuring voice in his life
“Suddenly, for the first time when he needed it most. Together
in many months, he began to they published the Olney Hymns,
experience an in-rush of hope, containing some of the greatest
an almost hysterical joy. This was, hymns ever written. Of these
in true Evangelical tradition, the hymns, 280 were written by
moment of his conversion, the Newton and 68 by Cowper.
turning point in his life.” 2
Newton’s hymns include
owper had lived a moral
and honorable life.
His “How Sweet the Name
father had been a minister. His
of Jesus Sounds”
mother an honorable, righteous
“Glorious Things of
woman. All of his life had
Thee Are Spoken”
been, in a sense, “religious,” but
until this moment there had
“May the Grace of
been no personal experience.
Christ Our Saviour”
From this moment onward,
Cowper was a new man. His world
How Sweet the Sound”
changed and he changed the world.
Among those written by
However, he was a damaged man.
William Cowper are the
Still at times he would be plunged
following: into despondency.
“O for a Closer
The Olney Church
Walk with God”
“Hark My Soul
It Is the Lord”
“God Moves in a
Thy People Meet”
“There Is a Fountain
Filled with Blood”
The publication of the Olney
Hymns propelled Cowper into
fame. His influence, along with
Newton, spread throughout
Great Britain into the vast
Commonwealth of Nations,
As I sat on a bench in the beautiful
little park across from his home,
I thought of the words of one of
his hymns. Feeling that he had
strayed from Christ, Cowper
wrote the following:
“Where is the blessedness
When first I saw the Lord?