Amazing Grace in Deep Despair

The Rare Friendship of Newton and Cowper

Just over 250 years have passed since John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” and introduced it for his congregation for New Year’s Day 1773. He had been a pastor in the quiet market town of Olney for almost a decade, but his earlier life had been anything but quiet.

He had passed through many dangers, toils, and snares: reckless decisions and a reckless love affair; trauma and kidnapping; near shipwreck, near starvation, and near-death illness; enslaved and then a slave trader. But by the end, he was a transformed man. He became a wise spiritual counselor, a powerful preacher, a popular hymn-writer, and in due course a courageous abolitionist. When his autobiography was published, shortly after he was ordained, the people of the town used to stare at him when they saw him in the street. Amazing grace, indeed.

Of the many surprising stories behind the song, one of the most poignant concerns Newton’s friendship with the troubled poet William Cowper. The day the congregation sang “Amazing Grace” was Cowper’s last day in church.

Golden Years of Friendship

William Cowper had suffered great mental anguish and had even been suicidal ten years earlier. At an asylum just outside London, he recovered, by the grace of God, right around the time when Newton arrived at Olney as a pastor. The two met three years later and became fast friends.

Indeed, Newton invited Cowper to move to Olney, and for about twelve years they were pretty much neighbors, with just a small orchard between the vicarage and Cowper’s home on the market square. Cowper had been living in Cambridgeshire with the widow Mary Unwin and her household, and they all moved together into the home they called “Orchardside,” pleased to think they would be in a place where the gospel was preached and loved.

Cowper and Newton had much in common. Both men had lost their mothers when only six years old, both had suffered abuse at boarding school, and both were “men of letters” with literary interests. But most of all, they were both serious about their faith in Christ.

For six years, their friendship grew. Newton, about six years older, encouraged the bashful Cowper to share in the work of pastoral care, prayer meetings, and hymn-writing. These were the golden years of their friendship. Newton admired his friend’s poetic gifts, and one or the other wrote hymns each week for the parish services. Olney knew something of a local revival. When a new building was opened for prayer meetings, Cowper wrote with a real sense of God’s presence,

Jesus, where’er thy people meet,
There they behold thy mercy-seat;
Where’er they seek thee thou art found,
And ev’ry place is hallow’d ground.

There were hints, though, that Cowper still struggled with soul distress from time to time. When Mrs. Unwin, like a mother to him, was seriously ill, he wrote with some melancholy of an “aching void” in his spirit, compared to just after his conversion:

What peaceful hours I then enjoy’d,
How sweet their Mem’ry still!
But they have left an Aching Void
The World can never fill.

Still, remarkably, he could turn this spiritual melancholy into an exemplary hymn of prayer for a closer walk with God. This was a prayer for all of us.

A Chasm Opens

Writing this way would become more difficult later. In 1771, he felt a profound disquiet and told Newton, “My Soul is among Lions.” A year later, Newton observed, “Cowper is in the depths as much as ever.” But truth be told, none of these troubles predicted what would happen on the second day of January 1773. This was altogether unexpected.

The day after “Amazing Grace” was sung in church, Newton was called urgently to Orchardside. Cowper had collapsed back into a dark depression and was suicidal. It was a complete breakdown. Three weeks later, the same thing. Newton and his wife Mary went to Orchardside at four in the morning and stayed for four hours. And then at some point in February, Cowper claimed to hear a divine voice announcing his own damnation: he was uniquely cursed by God.

A chasm of spiritual despair had opened. Cowper expressed this most horribly in a poem the next year called, “Hatred and Vengeance, My Eternal Portion,” in which he described himself as “damn’d below Judas; more abhorr’d than he.” And whereas the biblical sons of Korah were swallowed by an earthquake in God’s judgment, it was Cowper’s fate to be “in a fleshly tomb . . . Buried above ground.” Newton would continue as his friend, but he could no longer be Cowper’s spiritual advisor in the same way.

Newton and Mary took Cowper and Mrs. Unwin into their own home in April for fourteen months and were on constant suicide watch. Newton sought medicines for his friend. He would even try one of the new electrotherapy machines, in case anything might help. In the end, nothing did. Cowper would find his way to a kind of sanity through his poetry, his classical scholarship, his letter-writing, and his contemplation of nature. Indeed, he became one of the great poets of his era. But the spiritual despair never lifted, and at times, he nearly sank beneath the waves. This was the image for his last poem, in 1799, where he describes a castaway, lost at sea, but concludes,

We perish’d, each, alone;
But I, beneath a rougher sea,
And whelm’d in greater gulphs than he.

Candle in the Window

Newton left Olney for London in 1780, and we can trace the course of the two men’s friendship in their letters. They maintained a genuine mutual affection and even conviviality in their correspondence, though there were moments of tension as Cowper moved into different social circles that were less spiritually earnest than Newton would have hoped. It was hard for Newton to let go of his role as mentor, jealous for his friend’s spiritual well-being. He also found it difficult to be sidelined or kept in the dark about some of Cowper’s literary projects.

Nevertheless, the friendship endured to the end. It seems to me that this is sometimes what happens over the years with friends, as you work through irritations, reconcile, learn to let love cover a multitude of sins (on both sides), and just stand vigil. I am reminded of ways I have tried to stay in loving relationship with friends who have departed from the faith or drifted away for unknown reasons. Even if it hurts to lose some intimacy, one keeps a candle in the window.

I find it very moving to see how Newton never gave up on Cowper spiritually but encircled his friend’s mental illness within a larger faith perspective. It was like he held on for him. In 1780, Newton wrote from London to his friend, “How strange that your judgement should be so clouded in one point only, and that a point so obvious and strikingly clear to everybody who knows you!” He wasn’t about to share in Cowper’s spiritual despair.

No, he added, “Though your comforts have been so long suspended, I know not that I ever saw you for a single day since your calamity came upon you, in which I could not perceive as clear and satisfactory evidence, that the grace of God was with you, as I could in your brighter and happier times.”

Cowper’s last letter was to Newton, and he couldn’t help but look back to those times when faith had seemed secure. “But I was little aware of what I had to expect, and that a storm was at hand which in one terrible moment would darken, and in another still more terrible, blot out that prospect for ever.” And then he closed his letter, saying goodbye: “Adieu Dear Sir, whom in those days I call’d Dear friend, with feelings that justified the appellation.”

Mercy in the Storm

Often, for both men, the image of the storm seemed most fitting. If Newton’s storms had been faced so often on the North Atlantic itself, Cowper’s were internal. It was near the beginning of his troubles that he had written in faith,

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

I think Newton continued to believe this for his friend, to the end. As Cowper had written in this same hymn:

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Cowper had also written earlier of the blood of Christ “drawn from Emmanuel’s veins,” and in one of the stanzas he looked ahead to his own death. One day, this poet would sing again:

Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing thy pow’r to save;
When this poor lisping, stamm’ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave.

This was the strong thread of faith that Newton held for his friend. We cannot make sense of all the suffering of this life, but we can trust in a mercy beyond the grave. As the Song of Solomon says, “Love is strong as death” (8:6).

Cowper’s case had to be the most difficult pastoral challenge of Newton’s life. And it must have broken his heart. He wrote, “Next to the duties of my ministry, it was the business of my life to attend to him.” He was by no means a perfect friend, but Newton offers a good example of what it might mean to walk with friends who go through the valley of the shadow of death. God’s “amazing grace” is deep enough for all this and more.