Songs Wrought in Sorrow: The Life of William Cowper

| Time: 5 Minutes

“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.” 

These words from the song “Light Shining out of Darkness” were penned by a man who wrote nearly 70 Christian hymns. He was one of the greatest songwriters and poets of 18th-century England 

Would it surprise you to learn that he suffered from severe bouts of depression, was institutionalized in a mental hospital, and tried to end his life three times? 

William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was born in 1731 in Hertfordshire, England. His father was a pastor and his mother came from a prominent family of English royalty. He pursued education in the finest private schools and eventually earned a law degree. Cowper was an intelligent lad. He had a knack for Latin translation. He spent his time voraciously reading classic literaturewhich inspired his love for writing. 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, important poets in the Romantic movement, considered Cowper to be among the greatest poets of their day. Cowper received constant accolades for his writing. Everything about his life speaks of privilege, renown, and happiness.

Cowper’s Sorrows

Yet Cowper’s mother died when he was just six years old. He was sent to boarding school which had a largely negative effect on his sensitive personality. Despite the privileges that should’ve come from earning a law degree, Cowper had a mental breakdown when standing for his bar exam. 

Coupled at the same time with a failed relationship in his early 30s, the pressure from all these events became too much for Cowper to bear. He attempted suicide three times. He was institutionalized in an “insane asylum” for eighteen months.

Cowper’s Salvation

In the asylum, Cowper found a Bible and began to read it. This brought to mind his father’s ministry. Cowper eagerly consumed God’s Word. Cowper experienced a genuine conversion to Christ, sparked by this passage in the book of Romans:For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25 NIV).

The clouds lifted from Cowper’s countenance. He learned that God offered him favor despite his sinfulness because God’s Son Jesus had given his life as an atoning sacrifice for Cowper’s sins. William Cowper could stand righteous before God as God’s child because of Jesus’ death and resurrection on his behalf if he received God’s gift of salvation by faith.  

Jesus redeemed Cowper’s life. He brought him out of captivity to sin and self-destruction. Jesus gave Cowper a new identity as God’s child. Cowper had a new purpose.

After leaving the mental institution, Cowper moved to another part of England and attended a church pastored by John Newton, the great hymn-writer of classics like “Amazing Grace.” Newton suggested that Cowper turn his literary talents into hymn writing, and the two of them produced the Olney Hymns hymnal.

Cowper’s Songs Wrought in Sorrow

If you are suffering from severe depression, maybe even to the point of contemplating suicide, please consider Cowper’s life 

True, it would be wrong to say Cowper never again experienced dark thoughts after his conversion. Near the end of his life, Cowper again fell into a deep depression. The deaths of his brother and a love interest plunged him again into thoughts of suicide. 

But it was during this time that he wrote what is perhaps his best-known hymn, “Praise for the Fountain Opened.”

Here’s the first verse:

There is a fountain filled with blood
  Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
  Lose all their guilty stains 

For over 200 years this hymn has comforted countless people, reminding them of the forgiveness and hope they have in Jesus, the promised Immanuel, or “God with us. Cowper got his idea for this poem from an Old Testament prophecy written 500 years before Jesus, where the prophet writes: “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity” (Zechariah 13:1 NIV). 

Cowper’s greatest writing flowed from his experience of deep suffering. His emotional angst was the wellspring from which so much hope and comfort have been given. 

Cowper’s Significance

Cowper understood that by submitting himself to God and trusting in the hope that God offers in his Son Jesus, he could persevere in his suffering.  

Have you understood your sinfulness and asked God for the gift of salvation he offers in Jesus, asking him to give you new life in Jesus’ name? 

Those who belong to Jesus and submit their life to him “are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 ESV). God has specific work for each of his children to do. 

Because Cowper never took his own life but instead gave it to Jesus, God mightily used his writing skills as an instrument of encouragement and inspiration for those similarly thrust into despair, for centuries to come! 

Do you have a hobby, a talent, or something you’re good at? God has made you with talents and abilities for a reason. Why don’t you ask God to use that talent for the good of others and for his glory?  

The last verse of his hymn “There Is a Fountain” almost prophesies Cowper’s living influence. 

When this poor lisping, stammering tongue
  Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
  I’ll sing Thy power to save.

William Cowper died in 1800 at age 68, but his hymns continue to sing on. His life will forever be a testament to God’s kindness and ability to bring something wonderful out of anguish.  

May you believe today that God has been kind to you in Jesus Christ and he can bring something wonderful out of your anguish if you’ll seek him and submit your life to him. 

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What Is My Purpose?
There is meaning behind all our love, laughter, and longing. We matter. We exist for a reason. In the Bible, we discover why.