Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint

Reflections on the Life of William Cowper

1992 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors

There are at least three reasons why I have chosen to tell the story of the 18th century poet William Cowper at this year’s conference.

One is that ever since I was seventeen — maybe before — I have felt the power of poetry. I went to my file recently and found an old copy of Leaves of Grass, my high school’s literary magazine from 1964 and read the poems that I wrote for it almost thirty years ago. Then I looked at the Kodon from my Wheaton days, and remembered the poem, “One of Many Lands” that I wrote in one of my bleaker moments as a college freshman. Then I dug out The Opinion from Fuller Seminary and the Bethel Coeval from when I taught there. It hit me again what a long-time friend poetry-writing has been to me.

The Breach

I think the reason for this is that I live with an almost constant awareness of the breach between the low intensity of my own passion and the staggering realities of the universe around me, heaven, hell, creation, eternity, life, God. Everybody (whether they know it or not) tries to close this breach — between the weakness of our emotions and the wonder of the World. Some of us do it with poetry.

William Cowper did it with poetry. I think I know what he means, for example, when he writes a poem about his mother’s portrait long after her death and says,

And, while that face renews my filial grief,
Fancy shall weave a charm for my relief.

There is a deep release and a relief that comes when we find a way of seeing and saying some precious or stunning reality that comes a little closer to closing the breach between what we’ve glimpsed with our mind and what we’ve grasped with our heart. It shouldn’t be surprising that probably over three hundred pages of the Bible was written as poetry. Because the aim of the Bible is to build a bridge between the deadness of the human heart and the living reality of God. The second reason I am drawn to William Cowper is that I want to know the man behind the hymn, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way.” Over the years it has become very precious to me and to many in our church.

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

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up his bright designs
And works his sovereign will.
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 purpose will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain:
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

This hymn hangs over our mantle at home. It expresses the foundation of my theology and my life so well that I long to know the man who wrote it. Finally, I want to know why this man struggled with depression and despair almost all his life. I want to try to come to terms with insanity and spiritual songs in the same heart of one whom I think was a saint.

The Context of His Life

Let’s begin with a sketch of his life. Who was he and when did he live?

He was born in 1731 and died in 1800. That makes him a contemporary of John Wesley and George Whitefield, the leaders of the Evangelical Revival in England. He embraced Whitefield’s Calvinistic theology rather than Wesley’s Arminianism. It was a warm, evangelical brand of Calvinism, shaped (in Cowper’s case) largely by one of the healthiest men in the 18th century, the “old African blasphemer” John Newton, whom we will see more of in a moment.

Cowper said he could remember how as a child he would see the people at four o’clock in the morning coming to hear Whitefield preach in the open air. “Moorfields (was) as full of the lanterns of the worshippers before daylight as the Haymarket was full of flambeaux on opera nights” (Gilbert Thomas, William Cowper and the Eighteenth Century, Ivor Nocholson and Watson, 1935, 204).

He was 27 years old when Jonathan Edwards died in America. He lived through the American and French revolutions. His poetry was known by Benjamin Franklin who gave Cowper’s first volume a good review (Ibid., 267). But he was not a man of affairs or travel. He was a recluse who spent virtually all his adult life in the rural English country side near Olney and Weston.

From the standpoint of adventure or politics or public engagement his life was utterly uneventful. The kind of life no child would ever choose to read about. But for those of us who are older we have come to see that the events of the soul are probably the most important events in life. And the battles in this man’s soul were of epic proportions.

So let’s sketch his seemingly uneventful life with a view to seeing the battles of the soul.

Deep Despair

He was born November 15, 1731 at Great Berkhampstead near London, a town of about 1500 people. His father was rector of Great Berkhampstead and one of George II’s chaplains. So the family was well to do, but not evangelical, and William grew up without any saving relation to Christ.

His mother died when he was six and his father sent him to Pitman’s boarding school in Bedfordshire. It was a tragic mistake, as we will see from his own testimony later in life. From the age of ten till he was seventeen he attended Westminster private school and learned his French and Latin and Greek well enough to spend the last years of his life fifty years later translating Homer and Madame Guyon.

From 1749 he was apprenticed to a solicitor with a view to practicing law — at least this was his father’s view. He never really applied himself, and had no heart for the public life of a lawyer or a politician. For ten years he did not take his legal career seriously, but lived a life of leisure with token involvement in his supposed career.

In 1752 he sank into his first paralyzing depression — the first of four major battles with mental breakdown so severe as to set him to staring out of windows for weeks at a time. Struggle with despair came to be the theme of his life. He was 21 years old and not yet a believer. He wrote about the attack of 1752 like this:

(I was struck) with such a dejection of spirits, as none but they who have felt the same, can have the least conception of. Day and night I was upon the rack, lying down in horror, and rising up in despair. I presently lost all relish for those studies, to which before I had been closely attached; the classics had no longer any charms for me; I had need of something more salutary than amusement, but I had not one to direct me where to find it.

He came through this depression with the help of the poems of George Herbert (who lived 150 years earlier). These contained enough beauty and enough hope that Cowper found strength to take several months away from London by the sea in Southampton. What happened there was both merciful and sad. He wrote in his Memoir:

The morning was calm and clear; the sun shone bright upon the sea; and the country on the borders of it was the most beautiful I had ever seen...Here it was, that on a sudden, as if another sun had been kindled that instant in the heavens, on purpose to dispel sorrow and vexation of spirit, I felt the weight of all my weariness taken off; my heart became light and joyful in a moment; I could have wept with transport had I been alone.

That was the mercy. The sadness of it was that he confessed later that instead of giving God the credit for this mercy he formed the habit merely of battling his depression, if at all, by seeking changes of scenery. It was the merciful hand of God in nature. But he did not see him, or give him glory. Not yet.

Shattered on a Brick Wall

Between 1749 and 1756 Cowper was falling in love with his cousin Theodora whose home he would regularly visit on the weekends. She became the Delia of his love poems. They were engaged, but for some mysterious reason her father, Ashley Cowper, forbade the marriage. His apparent reason was the inappropriateness of consanguinity. She was William’s cousin. But it seems strange that the relation was allowed to develop for seven years as well as the engagement only to shatter on a brick wall at the last minute. Probably her father knew things about William that convinced him he would not have been a good husband for his daughter. This is probably true.

But it didn’t turn out the way he hoped. Though they never saw each other again after 1756, Theodora outlived him but never married. She followed the poetic career of William from a distance and sent him money anonymously when he was in need, even a regular stipend at one point.

We know of nineteen poems that he wrote to her under the name Delia. One of them, written some years after their parting, shows the abiding pain:

But now, sole partner in my Delia’s heart,
Yet doomed far off in exile to complain,
Eternal absence cannot ease my smart,
And hope subsists but to prolong my pain.

Accumulated Pain

What we find is that William Cowper’s life seems to be one long accumulation of pain.

In 1759 when he was 28 years old he was appointed, through the influence of his father, Commissioner of Bankrupts in London. Four years later he was about to be made Clerk of Journals in Parliament. What would have been a great career advancement to most men struck fear in William Cowper — so much so that he had a total mental breakdown, tried three different ways to commit suicide, and was put into an asylum.

His father had arranged for the position. But his enemies in parliament decided to require a public interrogation for his son as a prerequisite. Cowper wrote about the dreadful attack of 1763:

All the horrors of my fears and perplexities now returned. A thunderbolt would have been as welcome to me as this intelligence (=interrogation) ... Those whose spirits are formed like mine, to whom a public exhibition of themselves, on any occasion, is mortal poison, may have some idea of the horror of my situation; others can have none (Ibid., 114).

For more than half a year his feelings were those “of a man when he arrives at the place of execution.” At that point something dreadful returned to his memory that causes us to wonder about what kind of father William Cowper had. The 32-year-old Clerk suddenly recalled a “treatise on self-murder” that he read when he was eleven years old.

I well recollect when I was about eleven years of age, my father desired me to read a vindication of self-murder, and give him my sentiments upon the question: I did so, and argued against it. My father heard my reasons, and was silent, neither approving nor disapproving; from whence I inferred that he sided with the author against me (Ibid., 118).

Suicidal Tendencies

In the week before his examination (October 1763) he bought laudanum to use as a poison. He pondered escaping to France to enter a monastery. He had illusions of seeing himself slandered in the newspaper anonymously. He was losing his hold on reality almost entirely.

The day before the Parliamentary examination he set out to drown himself and took a cab to Tower Wharf. But at Custom House Quay he found the water too low and “a porter seated upon some goods” as if “a message to prevent” him (Ibid.).

When he got home that evening he tried to take the laudanum but found his fingers “closely contracted” and “entirely useless.” The next morning he tried three times to hang himself with a garter. The third time he became unconscious, but the garter broke. The laundress found him in bed and called his uncle who canceled the examination immediately. And that was the end of Cowper’s brush with public life — but not the end of his brush with death.

Conviction of sin took place, especially of that just committed; the meanness of it, as well as its atrocity, were exhibited to me in colours so inconceivably strong that I despised myself, with a contempt not to be imagined or expressed ... This sense of it secured me from the repetition of a crime which I could not now reflect on without abhorrence ... A sense of God’s wrath, and a deep despair of escaping it, instantly succeeded (Ibid., 119).

Now everything he read condemned him. Sleep would not come, and, when it did, it brought him terrifying dreams. When he awoke he “reeled and staggered like a drunken man.”

The Sun of Righteousness at the Asylum

So in December 1763, he was committed to St. Albans Insane Asylum where the 58-year-old Dr. Nathaniel Cotton tended the patients. He was somewhat of a poet, but most of all, by God’s wonderful design, an evangelical believer and lover of God and the gospel.

He loved Cowper and held out hope to him repeatedly in spite of his insistence that he was damned and beyond hope. Six months into his stay Cowper found a Bible lying (not by accident) on a bench in the garden.

Having found a Bible on the bench in the garden, I opened upon the 11th of St. John, where Lazarus is raised from the dead; and saw so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men, in our Saviour’s conduct, that I almost shed tears upon the relation; little thinking that it was an exact type of the mercy which Jesus was on the point of extending towards myself. I sighed, and said, “Oh, that I had not rejected so good a Redeemer, that I had not forfeited all his favours.” Thus was my heart softened, though not yet enlightened (Ibid., 131–132).

Increasingly he felt he was not utterly doomed. There came another revelation and he turned again to the Bible and the first verse he saw was Romans 3:25: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.”

Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel ... Whatever my friend Madan had said to me, long before, revived in all its clearness, with demonstration of the spirit and power. Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport; I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder (Ibid. 132).

He had come to love the place of Dr. Cotton so much that he stayed on another 12 months after his conversion. One might wish the story were one of emotional triumph after his conversion. But it will not turn out that way. Far from it.

Newton’s Influence

In June 1765, Cowper left St. Albans and moved in with the Unwin family in Huntington. Mary Unwin was only eight years older than Cowper, but she was to become to him like a mother for almost thirty years. In 1767 Mr. Morley Unwin, Mary’s husband, died in a tragic fall from his horse. This set the stage for the most important relationships in Cowper’s life. Not only did he and Mary Unwin live together for the rest of her life, but at the death of her husband, John Newton entered the picture and became the most important influence in Cowper’s life.

John Newton was the curate at the church in Olney not far from the Unwin’s home. He had lost his mother when he was six just like Cowper. But after being sent to school for a few years, he traveled with his father on the high seas, eventually becoming a slave trading seaman himself. He was powerfully converted and God called him to the ministry. He had been at Olney since 1764 and would be there till 1780.

We know him mainly as the author of “Amazing Grace.” But we should also know him as one of the healthiest, happiest pastors in the 18th century. People said that other pastors were respected by their people, but Newton was loved.

To show you the kind of spirit he had, here is a quote that gets at the heart of how he approached the ministry:

Two heaps of human happiness and misery; now if I can take but the smallest bit from one heap and add to the other, I carry a point. If, as I go home, a child has dropped a halfpenny, and if, by giving it another, I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this. When I hear a knock on my study door, I hear a message from God; it may be a lesson of instruction, perhaps a lesson of penitence; but, since it is his message, it must be interesting (Ibid., 202).

John Newton was told that a family near his parish had lost their father and husband, the Unwins. He made the trip to the Unwins and was such a help to them that they decided to move to Olney and sit under his ministry. So in September 1767 they moved from Huntington to Olney and lived in a place called Orchard Side for almost 20 years. For 13 of those years Newton was Cowper’s pastor and counselor and friend. Cowper said, “A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had” (Ibid., 192).

The Dream

Newton saw Cowper’s bent to melancholy and reclusiveness and drew him into the ministry of visitation as much as he could. They would take long walks together between homes and talk of God and his purposes for the church. Then in 1769 Newton got the idea of collaborating with Cowper on a book of hymns to be sung by their church. He thought it would be good for Cowper’s poetic bent to be engaged.

In the end Newton wrote about 208 hymns and Cowper wrote 68. The hymnal was published in 1779. Besides “Amazing Grace,” Newton wrote “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “Come, My Soul Thy Suit Prepare.” Cowper wrote “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “O for a Closer Walk with God.”

But before Cowper could complete his share he had what he called “the fatal dream.” January had come again. His breakdowns had always been their worse in January. And it was now ten years since “the dreadful ‘63.” They came virtually every ten years in their worst form. He does not say precisely what the dream was but only that a “word” was spoken that reduced him to spiritual despair, something to the effect of “It is all over with you, you are lost” (Ibid., 225).

Twelve years later he still shuddered at the dream. He wrote to Newton in 1785, “I had a dream twelve years ago before the recollection of which all consolation vanishes, and, it seems to me, must always vanish.” Not long before his death he told Lady Hesketh, “In one day, in one minute I should rather have said, she (Nature) became a universal blank to me; and though from a different cause, yet with an effect as difficult to remove, as blindness itself” (Ibid., 226).

Providentially Protected

Again there were repeated attempts at suicide, and each time God providentially prevented him. Newton stood by him all the way through this, even sacrificing at least one vacation so as not to leave Cowper alone.

In 1780 Newton leaves Olney for a new pastorate in Lombard Street, London where he served for the next 27 years. It is a great tribute to him that he did not abandon his friendship with Cowper, though this would have been emotionally easy to do no doubt. Instead there is an earnest exchange of letters for twenty years. Cowper poured out his soul to Newton as to no one else.

Perhaps it was good for Newton to go away, because when he left, Cowper poured himself into his major poetic projects between 1780 and 1786. You have probably never heard of any of these. His most famous and lengthy was called The Task, a one-hundred-page poem in blank verse. Even though he saw himself in his blackest moods as reprobate and hopeless, he never stopped believing in the truth of the Evangelical Revival. All his poems are meant to teach as well as to entertain. He wrote about himself:

... I, who scribble rhyme
To catch the triflers of the time,
And tell them truths divine and clear
Which, couched in prose, they would not hear. (Ibid., 265)

His first volume of poems was published in 1782 when he was 51. Three years later came The Task which established his fame. The great usefulness of these poems is that they “helped to spread (the Revival’s) ideas among the educated of all classes ... because of his formal alliance with the (Evangelical) movement and the practical effects of his work, (Cowper) remains its (poet) laureate” (Ibid., 183).

Perhaps his productivity staved off the threatened breakdown of 1783, the next ten-year interval. But the reprieve did not last. In 1786 Cowper entered his fourth deep depression and again tried unsuccessfully to commit suicide. He and Mary move from Olney to Weston that year and the long decline of both of them begins. He cares for her as for a dying Mother from 1790 to 1796, filling what moments he can with work on his translations of Homer and other Greek and French works. He writes his last original poem in 1799, called The Castaway, and then dies apparently in utter despair in 1800.

Reflections on his Depression

William Cowper’s melancholy is disturbing. We need to come to terms with it in the framework of God’s sovereign power and grace to save and sanctify his people. What are we to make of this man’s life long battle with depression, and indeed his apparent surrender to despair and hopelessness in his own life?

The Lone Exception

One thing to notice is that there is some inconsistency in the way he reports his misery and hopelessness. For example, in a letter to John Newton on January (!) 13, 1784 he wrote,

Loaded as my life is with despair, I have no such comfort as would result from a supposed probability of better things to come, were it once ended ... You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavour to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it — but it will be lost labour. Nature revives again; but a soul once slain lives no more ... My friends, I now expect that I shall see yet again. They think it necessary to the existence of divine truth, that he who once had possession of it should never finally lose it. I admit the solidity of this reasoning in every case but my own. And why not in my own? ... I forestall the answer: — God’s ways are mysterious, and He giveth no account of His matters: — an answer that would serve my purpose as well as theirs that use it. There is a mystery in my destruction, and in time it shall be explained. (Ibid., 281–282)

Notice that he affirms the truth of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and does not even quarrel with the reality of his own conversion at St. Albans. What he disputes is that the general truth applies to him. He is the lone exception in the universe. He is reprobate though once he was elect. Ask not why. God gives no account. This is his bleakest way of talking.

Healed and Bade Live

But notice something else. In that same year he was writing The Task. In it he recounts what Christ meant to him in a way that makes it very hard to believe there are not times now when this is still real for him:

I was stricken deer, that left the herd
Long since; with many an arrow deep infixt
My panting side was charg’d, when I withdrew
To seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I found by one who had himself
Been hurt by th’ archers. In his side he bore,
And in his hands and feet, the cruel scars.
With gentle force soliciting the darts,
He drew them forth, and heal’d, and bade me live.
Since then, with few associates, in remote
And silent woods I wonder, far from those
My former partners of the peopled scene;
With few associates, and not wishing more.

What would he mean in 1784, twelve years after the “fatal dream” that Jesus had drawn the arrows out and healed him and bade him live? Were there not moments when he truly felt this and affirmed it against the constitutional gloom of his own mind?

Even in the 1790’s there were expressions of hope. From time to time he gave evidence, for example, that he was permitted by God “once more to approach Him in prayer.” His earliest biographer and friend said that in the days of the last decade God had once more opened a passage for him but that “spiritual hounds” haunted him at night (Ibid., 368, 374).

Scrambling in the Dark

But there was horrible blackness for him much of the time. He wrote to John Newton (friend to the end!) in 1792 that he always seemed to be “scrambling in the dark, among rocks and precipices, without a guide. Thus I have spent 20 years, but thus I shall not spend twenty years more. Long ere that period arrives, the grand question concerning my everlasting weal or woe will be decided” (Ibid., 376). This is bleak but it is not the settled reprobation we read in 1786.

The last days of his life brought no relief. No happy ending. In March of 1800 he said to visiting Dr. Lubbock, “I feel unutterable despair.” On April 24 Miss Perowne offered some refreshment to him, to which he replied, “What can it signify?” He never spoke again and died the next afternoon (Ibid., 384).

What were the roots of such overwhelming and intractable gloom? No doubt there are secrets that God only knows. But we can see some reasons why he may have struggled the way he did. Consider the home into which he was born. His father John married his mother Ann in 1728. Between the wedding in 1728 and his birth in 1731 three children had already been born and lost! He lives. But between 1731 and 1736 when his brother John was born, two more children enter the family then die. Then the mother dies a few days after John’s birth. William is six years old. The marriage is one sustained heartache.

The pain and emotional trauma of the death of his mother can probably not be calculated. It’s true that John Newton lost his mother at the age of six, the very year Cowper was born. But there is a difference, as we will see in a moment.

The Portrait

In 1790 at the age of 59 Cowper received a portrait of his mother in the post that swept him away with the emotion of years. He had not laid eyes on her face for 53 years. He wrote a poem to capture and release the pain and the pleasure of that “meeting.” We catch a glimpse of what it was for him at age 6 to lose his mother. And perhaps why he took so to Mrs. Mary Unwin.

Oh that those lips had language! Life has passed With me but roughly since I heard thee last.
My mother! when I learned that thou wast dead,
Say, wast thou conscious of the tears I shed?
Hovered thy spirit o’er thy sorrowing son,
Wretch even then, life’s journey just begun?
... I heard the bell tolled on thy burial day,
I saw the hearses that bore thee slow away,
And turning from my nursery window, drew
A long, long sigh, and wept a last adieu!
Thy maidens, grieved themselves at my concern,
Oft gave me promise of thy quick return.
What ardently I wished, I long believed,
And disappointed still, was still deceived;
By expectation every day beguiled,
Dupe of to-morrow even from a child.
But the record fair,
That memory keeps of all thy kindness there,
Still outlives many a storm, that has effaced
A thousand other themes less deeply traced.
Thy nightly visits to my chamber made
That thou mightst know me safe and warmly laid;
Thy morning bounties ere I left my home,
Thy biscuit, or confectionery plum;
The fragrant waters on my cheeks bestowed
By thy own hand, till fresh they shone and glowed:
All this, and more endearing still than all,
Thy constant flow of love, that knew no fall,
Ne’er roughened by those cataracts and breaks,
That humour interposed too often makes:
All this still legible in memory’s page
And still to be so to my latest age.

One begins to ponder the strange relations Cowper had all his life with older women, wanting them in his life, and yet confusing them with the love poems he would write when he had no romantic intentions. Lady Austen in particular was bewildered by the way Cowper wrote to her. This kind of behavior may have its roots not only in the loss of his mother but in the virtual loss of his father and his horrible experience in boarding school between the ages of six and eight. He hated boarding school and longed for his father:

But my chief affliction consisted in my being singled out from all the other boys, by a lad about fifteen years of age as a proper object upon which he might let loose the cruelty of his temper. I choose to forbear a particular recital of the many acts of barbarity, with which he made it his business continually to persecute me: it will be sufficient to say, that he had, by his savage treatment of me, impressed such a dread of his figure upon my mind, that I well remember being afraid to lift up my eyes upon him, higher than his knees; and that I knew him by his shoe-buckles, better than any other part of his dress. May the Lord pardon him, and may we meet in glory! (Ibid., 69–70)

One would never say it in the eighteenth century. But knowing what we know today about its effects and what we know about boys at that age, it is hard not to raise the specter of sexual abuse. What horrors a little six-year-old boy may have experienced combined with the loss of his mother and the virtual loss of his father!

Be There

Perhaps the most poignant lines Cowper ever wrote are hidden away in a poem called Tirocinium (Latin for the state of a new recruit, inexperience, rawness) in which he pleads for a private education rather than one at boarding school. What comes through here is a loud cry for his father to have been there for him, and a powerful plea to fathers even in the 20th century to be there for our children. Listen to these lines:

Would you your son should be a sot or dunce,
Lascivious, headstrong, or all these at once,
That in good time, the stripling’s finished taste
For loose expense and fashionable waste
Should prove your ruin, and his own at last,
Train him in public with a mob of boys,
Childish in mischief only and in noise,
Else of a mannish growth, and five in ten
In infidelity and lewdness, men.
There shall he learn, ere sixteen winters old,
That authors are most useful, pawned or sold,
That pedantry is all that schools impart,
But taverns teach the knowledge of the heart.
And seems it nothing in a father’s eye
that unimproved those many moments fly?
And is he well content, his son should find
No nourishment to feed his growing mind
But conjugated verbs, and nouns declined?
For such is all the mental food purveyed
by public hackneys in the schooling trade.
Who feed a pupil’s intellect with store
Of syntax truly, but with little more,
Dismiss their cares when they dismiss their flock,
Machines themselves, and governed by a clock.
Perhaps a father blest with any brains
Would deem it no abuse or waste of pains,
To improve this diet at no great expense,
With savoury truth and wholesome common sense,
To lead his son for prospects of delight
To some not steep though philosophic height,
Thence to exhibit to his wondering eyes
Yon circling worlds, their distance, and their size
To show him in an insect of a flower
Such microscopic proofs of skill and power,
As hid from ages past, God now displays
To combat atheists with in modern days.
Canst thou, the tear just trembling on thy lids,
And while the dreadful risk foreseen, forbids,
Free too, and under no constraining force,
Unless the sway of custom warp thy course,
Lay such a stake upon the losing side,
Merely to gratify so blind a guide?
Thou canst not: Nature pulling at thine heart,
Condemns the unfatherly, the imprudent part.
Thou wouldst not, deaf to nature’s tenderest plea,
Turn him adrift upon a rolling sea,
Nor say, go thither, conscious that there lay
A brood of asps, or quicksands in his way;
Then only governed by the self-same rule
Of natural pity, send him not to school
No! — guard him better: Is he not thine own,
Thyself in miniature, thy flesh, thy bone?
And hopest thou not (‘tis every father’s hope)
That since thy strength must with thy years elope,
And thou wilt need some comfort to assuage
Health’s last farewell, as staff of thine old age,
That then, in recompense of all thy cares
Thy child shall show respect to thy gray hairs.

He never wrote a tribute to his father that we know of. He says almost nothing about him. But this is a powerful plea for fathers to love their sons and give them special attention in their education. This is what he missed from the age of six onward.

Lessons from the Depressed Life

1. We should all fortify ourselves against the dark hours of depression by cultivating a deep distrust of the certainties of despair.

Despair is relentless in the certainties of his pessimism. But we have seen that Cowper is not consistent. Some years after his absolute statements of being cut off from God, he is again expressing some hope in being heard. His certainties were not sureties. So it will always be with the deceptions of darkness. Let us now, while we have the light, cultivate distrust of the certainties of despair.

2. We must love our children and keep them close to us and secure with us.

John Newton lost his mother just like Cowper. But he did not lose his father in the same way. In spite of all the sin and misery of those early years of Newton’s life, there was a father, and who can say what deep roots of later health were preserved because of that. Let us be there for our sons and daughters. We are the crucial link in their normal sexual development and that is so crucial in their emotional wholeness.

3. May the Lord raise up many John Newtons for us, for the joy of our churches and for the survival of the William Cowpers among us and in our churches.

Newton remained Cowper’s pastor and friend the rest of his life, writing and visiting again and again. He did not despair of the despairing. After one of these visits in 1788 Cowper wrote:

I found those comforts in your visit, which have formerly sweetened all our interviews, in part restored. I knew you; knew you for the same shepherd who was sent to lead me out of the wilderness into the pasture where the Chief Shepherd feeds His flock, and felt my sentiments of affectionate friendship for you the same as ever. But one thing was still wanting, and that the crown of all. I shall find it in God’s time, if it be not lost for ever. (Ibid., 356)

That is not utter hopelessness. And the reason it is not is because the shepherd had drawn near again. Those were the times when Cowper held out hope.

4. Let’s use our mind to focus on greater realities outside of ourselves.

In the very research and writing of this lecture I experienced something that may be a crucial lesson for those of us given to too much self-absorption and analysis. I devoted about three days from waking till sleeping to William Cowper, besides leisurely reading of his poetry up till that time. Those three days I was almost entirely outside myself as it were. Now and then I “came to” and became aware that I had been absorbed wholly in the life of another. But most of the time I was not self-conscious. I was not thinking about me at all. I was the one thinking, not the one thought about. This experience, when I “came to” and thought about it, seemed to me extremely healthy. That is the way I experienced it. In other words, I felt best when I was not aware of being a feeling one at all. I was feeling and thinking the life of William Cowper.

I think this is the way most of our life should be. Periodic self-examination is needed and wise and biblical. But for the most part mental health is the use of the mind to focus on worthy reality outside ourselves.

5. Let’s encourage our people to continue on in hope and faith.

The first version of this lecture was given in an evening service at Bethlehem Baptist Church. It proved to be one of the most encouraging things I have done in a long time. This bleak life was felt by many as hope-giving. There are no doubt different reasons for this in the cases of different people. But the lesson is surely that those of us who teach and preach and want to encourage our people to press on in hope and faith must not limit ourselves to success stories. The life of William Cowper had a hope-giving effect on my people. That is a very important lesson.

6. Let us rehearse the mercies of Jesus often for our people, and point them again and again to the blood of Jesus.

These were the two things that brought Cowper to faith in 1764. Remember how in John 11 he “saw so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men, in our Saviour’s conduct, that I almost shed tears.” And remember how on the decisive day he said, “I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification.”

You cannot persuade a person that he is not reprobate if he is utterly persuaded that he is. All you can do is keep soaking him in the “benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy” of Jesus and “the sufficiency of the atonement” and “the fullness and completeness of Christ’s justification.” He will say that they are wonderful in themselves but that they do not belong to him. But in God’s time these truths may yet be given the power to awaken hope and beget a spirit of adoption.

We have good reason to hope that if we nourish the love and patience of John Newton in our church and the sufficiency of Jesus’ atonement, the William Cowpers among us will not be given over to the enemy in the end.