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A Friend in the Fire

How John Newton Loved William Cowper Through Depression

Among the mourners gathered in a London church in May of 1800, few would have expected the pastor, John Newton, to open his Bible to the third chapter of Exodus:

The angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. (Exodus 3:2–3 KJV)

It was a strange passage for a funeral sermon. Yet when the 74-year-old Newton looked up from his Bible, he said, “I know of no text in the whole book of God’s word more suited to the case of my dear friend than that I have read. He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed.”

From the winter of 1773 until his death in 1800, William Cowper, the “dear friend” of Newton’s sermon, was indeed a bush in flames. For 27 years, the cold, dark fire of depression burned in Cowper’s bones. For 27 years, despair haunted him, hounded him, and caged him in an emotional and spiritual midnight. For 27 years, suicidal temptations met him at his lowest and spoke with almost overwhelming force.

Yet for 27 years, the flames did not consume him. And why? “Because the Lord was there,” Newton answered. Yes, the Lord was there. And very often, the Lord was there through Newton himself. Because for 27 years, John Newton did not forsake William Cowper, but faithfully stood as a friend in the fire.

Today, their story stands as a testament to the power of God through persevering friendship. And in a day of rising depression and declining loyalties, it is a story many of us need to hear.

Friendship Before the Fire

“One could not imagine two more different personalities than John Newton and William Cowper,” writes biographer George Ella. Newton was exuberant, sociable, and well-balanced; Cowper was shy, reclusive, and melancholic. Newton’s biography would enthrall lovers of adventure; Cowper’s might lull even scholars to sleep.

Yet Cowper would write of Newton near the end of his life, “A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had” (The Hidden Smile of God, 95). And Newton, during Cowper’s funeral sermon, would say, “The Lord has given me many friends but with none have I had so great an intimacy, as with my friend Mr. Cowper.” Theirs was a friendship made for the flames.

Six Bright Years

The friendship began in the summer of 1767, when Cowper moved to Olney, the town where Newton had been pastor since 1764. Despite their strikingly different personalities, the two men found more than enough common ground to build a mutual attachment. Both lost their mothers at age 6. Both were fluent in Latin and Greek, and familiar with classic and contemporary literature. Both became accomplished authors, Cowper as a poet and Newton as a letter writer, autobiographer, and hymn writer. Yet most significantly, the hearts of both beat for Jesus Christ.

“The Lord who had brought us together so knit our hearts and affections,” Newton would write to another friend, “that for nearly twelve years we were seldom separated for seven hours at a time when we were awake and at home” (Life of John Newton, 135). They visited each other’s homes so often, in fact, that they paid one of their neighbors a guinea per year for the right to take a shortcut across her orchard. (The area is known as “Guinea Field” to this day.)

All the while, Newton labored to keep Cowper, so prone to fall into the depths, on bright and stable ground. So, the two collaborated on several projects, including a book of hymns for their congregation. Later published as the Olney Hymns, the project was intended, in part, to be “a monument to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship” (“Olney Hymns Preface”).

The six years following Cowper’s move to Olney were some of the happiest both men had known. Yet on the eve of 1773, their friendship was about to be tested.

Darkness Falls

Historically, January was a dreaded month for Cowper. Paralyzing depressions had seized him in the Januaries of 1752 and 1763, the second of which led to suicide attempts and a stay in an insane asylum. The shadow returned on January 1, 1773 — this time for the rest of his life.

On that first night of the year, Cowper dreamed that God spoke to him in Latin, “Actum est de te periisti,” which he would later translate as, “It is all over with thee, thou hast perished” (John Newton, 219). He also dreamed that God issued a command similar to the one Abraham received in Genesis 22: yet instead of sacrificing Isaac, Cowper was to sacrifice himself.

“I was sent for early this morning, and returned astonished and grieved,” Newton wrote in his diary on January 2 (Life of John Newton, 157). The suicide attempt had failed, leaving Cowper wounded and desperate. Darkness swirled in the days that followed, as Cowper teetered on the edge of insanity. Yet Newton maintained a nearly “constant attendance at his bedside, calming the afflicted poet from the effects of his nightmares, delusions, and hallucinations” (John Newton, 222). For the next fourteen months, Newton and his wife, Mary, would care for Cowper under their own roof.

The suicidal ideation eventually subsided. But the knife edge of Cowper’s misery dulled rather than disappeared, leaving him in a land that felt somewhere between the living and the dead. Despite momentary hopes throughout the next 27 years, Cowper would live the remainder of his life under the imagined (but to him, terrifyingly real) sentence of 1773: Actum est de te periisti. Believing himself condemned by God, he turned from church, turned from prayer, turned from the hope he had expressed so poignantly in so many hymns.

Newton, however, did not turn from him.

Friendship in the Fire

Newton pastored in Olney for about six more years after 1773. As he reflected on the twelve years of friendship with Cowper in the same town, he wrote, “The first six I passed in daily admiring and aiming to imitate him: during the second six, I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death” (Life of John Newton, 135). Then in 1780, Newton accepted a call to pastor a church in London, taking him some fifty miles from Cowper’s valley.

Yet even then, when so many others would have gladly moved on from a man so gloomy as Cowper, Newton’s friendship did not fail. For the next 27 years, he prayed. He wrote. He visited. He “did not despair of the despairing,” as John Piper puts it (Hidden Smile, 111). And he thereby proved the truth of the proverb, “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24).

God knows we need more friends like John Newton. So, what lessons can we learn from him about persevering in friendship, especially with friends who walk in darkness?

Appointments in the Valley

We need not imagine that Newton always found Cowper’s troubles easy to manage. His patience may have exceeded our own, but it was not infinite. During Cowper’s fourteen-month stay at his house in 1773–74, Newton wrote to a friend, “Mr. Cowper’s long stay at the vicarage in his present uncomfortable state, has been upon many account[s] inconvenient and trying.” No doubt it was. After a full day of pastoring needy sheep, Newton came home to the neediest of them all.

Yet he went on to write,

I make myself easy by reflecting that the Lord’s hand is concerned. . . . The Lord has numbered the days in which I am appointed to wait upon him in this dark valley, and He has given us such a love to him both as a believer and as a friend, that I am not weary. (“Newton’s Song to Cowper”)

God not only leads us into dark valleys, whether our own or others’; he also determines their distance and the pace with which we walk through them. And while we find ourselves there, he is more than able to sustain us beneath our brother’s burden. The self-sufficient shall faint and be weary, the impatient shall fall exhausted, but friends “who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31).

As Newton took solace from God’s good sovereignty, he searched for ways to share the comfort with his friend. A letter from Cowper to Newton in 1790 suggests that his efforts were not in vain. Cowper wrote, “The only consolation left to me on this subject is that the voice of the Almighty can in one moment cure me of this mental infirmity. That he can, I know by experience, and there are reasons for which I ought to believe that he will” (Man of God’s Stamp, 162). When all consolation had left Cowper, this one lesson from Newton remained.

So, Newton walked with Cowper year after year, decade after decade. And he endured, in part, by leaving his friend in hands far stronger than his own.

Complexity of Sin and Suffering

Those of us little acquainted with mental illness may find Cowper’s darkness bewildering, perhaps even maddening, in its stubborn irrationality. But such is the beast we tamely call “depression.” It shrouds not only the sufferer, but also itself, in darkness.

Newton knew as much, and though he was at times bewildered, he was never maddened. This pastor of souls once likened himself to a physician on a hospital ward, attending to all manner of maladies. Some sicknesses are as simple and curable as a sore throat; others, however, are as complex and intractable as epilepsy or schizophrenia. Some patients’ wounds are self-inflicted; others arise from a medley of causes; still others spring from invisible sources, and cannot be charged to the patient’s folly or negligence.

“We cannot think ourselves worse than we really are,” Newton once wrote to a friend, “yet some things which abate the comfort and alacrity of our Christian profession are rather impediments than properly sinful” (Letters of John Newton, 71). Among these “impediments,” Newton listed “disordered, irregular, or low spirits,” which are often “faults of the constitution” rather than of the will. Such was Cowper’s depression, according to Newton’s best judgment.

This conviction did not keep Newton from speaking truth to his friend, nor even from exhorting him at times. But it did incline Newton to propose an array of possible cures, including medicine. It also added a humility and compassion to all of his dealings with Cowper, such that William Jay could say that Newton had “the tenderest disposition” toward him (Life of John Newton, 163). He knew the instructions of the apostle: “Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). And finding his friend in the second category, he tendered all the courage he could.

All the while, Newton felt that he was far more like his friend than different. Only “a slight alteration in the nervous system may make us a burden and a terror to ourselves and our friends,” he wrote when Cowper died (Letters, 356). So, he carried his friend’s burden gently, and did his best to charm away the terror.

Need for Normal Friends

Newton’s and Cowper’s friendship lasted, in part, because depression was not the tie that bound them together, neither at the first nor the last. Cowper’s darkness always featured in their friendship, and sometimes it took center stage in their conversations, but Newton resisted the temptation to make healer and patient more significant identities than friend and friend. In the process, both discovered that friendship itself is one of depression’s best balms.

Well before the dreadful ’73, Newton sought to brighten Cowper’s melancholy by simply befriending him. He hosted Cowper in his home for tea and meals, took Cowper along on pastoral visits, and as we saw above, partnered with him in writing hymns. Yet even after darkness fell on Cowper, when we might expect Newton’s letters to constantly discuss his friend’s depression, the latter showed a tender reserve, opting more often to touch the threads that had originally formed the fabric of their friendship.

In a letter from 1780, for example, Newton asked Cowper to send “letters, essays, thoughts, bons mots, tales, fables, in a word, miscellanies of all kinds, in prose or verse. Whatever bears the signature of your hand, or of your manner, will be welcome” (Letters, 155–56). Requests like this one carried a twofold purpose: Newton genuinely enjoyed Cowper’s literary talents, and he also knew that his sanity depended in part on hobbies such as these.

Cowper did not take these efforts for granted. He wrote in a 1781 letter to Newton, “I doubt not that Nebuchadnezzar had friends in his prosperity; all kings have many. But when his nails became like eagle’s claws, and he ate grass like an ox, I suppose he had few to pity him” (William Cowper: Selected Poetry and Prose, 180). In the analogy, Cowper is Nebuchadnezzar, and Newton the unlikely companion of the beastly king. Few remain friends with a man so transformed, and those who do often focus all their attention on the unfortunate feathers and claws. Newton did neither. In response, Cowper wrote, “I shall undoubtedly love those who have continued to love me” — not only as a depressed man, but also simply as a friend.

Stubborn Anthem of Stunning Grace

In a strange yet fitting providence, something else of significance happened in Olney on January 1, 1773, the day Cowper plunged into darkness. On that New Year’s morning, Newton introduced to his congregation a hymn titled “Faith’s Review and Expectation,” known to us today under a different name: “Amazing Grace.” The providence seems strange from one angle, because Cowper, after singing of God’s triumphant grace in the morning, lost sight of it almost completely in the evening. Yet it is also fitting, because in the midst of Cowper’s depression, Newton found a hundred ways to sing this song again.

“Though sin has abounded in us, grace has superabounded in him,” Newton wrote to Cowper. “Though our enemies are mighty, Jesus is above them all; though He may hide himself from us at times for a moment, He has given us warrant to trust Him, even while we walk in darkness, and has promised to return, and gather us with everlasting mercies” (Letters, 152). The letter dates from 1767, six years before Cowper’s deepest darkness. Yet it gives a sense of how Newton sought to fortify the walls of Cowper’s fragile hope, which often tottered and threatened to fall.

Newton’s song takes on a slightly softer tone after 1773. Rarely did he shine the floodlight of God’s truth directly into Cowper’s soul; far more often, he stood like a faithful lighthouse on the shore, reminding his storm-tossed friend of a harbor he could not see. In 1780, for example, he wrote to Cowper,

In his favour is life. His smile would amply overbalance the frown of the whole creation. Yes, my friend, when the Lord shall break the fetters that have so long entangled your spirit (and of this happy event you have yourself conceived and expressed a hope) you will rejoice, and I shall rejoice with you. (Letters, 165–66)

Against Cowper’s fears, temptations, and despair, Newton held out God’s promises, kindness, and favor in Christ. None of these gracious reminders served as the final key to unloose Cowper’s fetters, but we have good reason to think that they eased the tightness and, at times, gave him hope of final release.

Nobler, Sweeter Song

John Piper, commenting on Newton’s care of Cowper, writes, “Don’t make your mercy to the downcast contingent on quick results. You cannot persuade a person that he is not reprobate if he is utterly persuaded that he is. He will tell you he is deaf. No matter.” In the face of such hopelessness, “Never cease to sing the gospel to the deaf” (Hidden Smile, 117, 119).

For 27 years, Newton sang without ceasing. Often, the song of God’s grace landed against the deaf ears of Cowper’s depression. Often, Cowper listened to the song like a man eavesdropping outside a church window: this grace was for others, but not for him. Yet sometimes, even if for fleeting moments, the song found a way into his heart, reminding this bush in the flames that “the Lord was there.” Perhaps it also reminded him of lyrics he himself had written so long before:

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

In May of 1800, Newton had no doubt that Cowper’s words found their fulfillment. Having heard the song from Newton for so long, Cowper once again sang God’s power to save.