In a few weeks I’m going to be giving a “lecture” to aspiring worship leaders going through the Austin Stone Worship Leader Development program. One of the focuses of this talk is going to explore the relationship between John Newton and William Cowper, specifically how their relationship helped to birth the magisterial Olney hymnbook. The collaboration between Newton & Cowper for the Olney hymns has produced some of the most glorious hymns the church has ever known like, “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood,” “I Asked the Lord,” “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” and more. However, the Olney hymnbook is best known for a hymn that has turned out to be one of the most popular songs of all time: “Amazing Grace.”
I’ve long been curious about Cowper & Newton’s relationship. It seems that without their friendship the Olney hymns would never have come to fruition, as Cowper & Newton were muses to one another in a particular way: Cowper for his poetical skills, Newton for his lucid writing. It’s also known that Cowper struggled his whole life with bouts of dark depression and one antidote that apparently prevented him from descent was his work in Newton’s parish ministry. In a very real way, Cowper’s friendship to Newton preserved his life and helped him cultivate some of his finest work. I’m sure there is a lesson here for artists (there is), but I digress.
My favorite of Cowper’s hymns, though, is probably a hymn called “God Moves In a Mysterious Way.” I was first introduced to this hymn, and Cowper, from John Piper’s book The Hidden Smile of God, which explores some of Cowper’s life, specifically dealing with his depressive and suicidal tendencies. (As an aside, Jeremy Casella has recorded a wonderful version of this hymn on the latest Indelible Grace record Joy Beyond the Sorrow which I highly encourage you to look into.)
Recently, I came across a passage about the writing of “God Moves…” and Cowper’s final descent to madness in Jonathan Aitken’s biography of John Newton that I found to be particularly striking.
Aitken recounts how, after attending morning worship at Newton’s church, Cowper went for a walk in a nearby field when “he was struck by a terrible premonition that the curse of madness was about to fall on him again. Struggling to make a declaration of his faith in poetic form before his mind was enclosed in the darkness of depression, he struggled home, picked up his pen, and wrote a hymn that many regard as a literary and spiritual masterpiece.” (Jonathan Aitken, John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace, p. 217)
What came from Cowper’s pen that day included powerful lines like:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ever hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower
During the night of January 1-2, he had terrible dreams and hallucinations. In the middle of these nocturnal terrors he came to the insane conclusion that God had commanded him to take his own life in the manner of Abraham wielding his knife against his son Isaac. Apparently ignoring the point that in the Bible God intervened to prevent the fatal blow from being struck, Cowper attempted to obey this imaginary command. . . The scene involved bloodshed, presumably by self-inflicted wounds, and may well have included hysteria. Newton must have tried to calm his friend, but to no long-term avail. In the ensuing days Cowper was tormented by repeated hallucinations and panic attacks. Newton’s diary entries for January 1773 are terse and circumspect, but as these selections show, the pattern of Cowper’s downward spiral into tragic depression is clear. (Aitken, Amazing Grace, p. 218)
Cowper had made his final descent into madness. Perhaps most tragically though, while Cowper continued the rest of his days as a Christian believer, he never returned to church after this episode. Since he had failed to take his life through many hallucinations he perceived as a “divine command” he felt that he had been separated from God — even dreaming that God had pronounced these words to him on his deathbed: “Actum est de te periisti,” which roughly translates to “It is all over with thee, thou has perished.” His local ministry, pastoral visits, and hymn-writing ended.
Newton would ultimately carry the burden of composing the rest of the Olney hymns, but without this friendship we would never have hymns like “There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood” or even “Amazing Grace.” I guess God really does move in a mysterious way.
There are numerous things we can learn from this friendship and Cowper’s madness: how to pastor those with mental illness, the seriousness and gravity of mental illness, the role of friendship in discipleship, the need for personal pastoral care, etc. However, I simply want to point out what a disservice we do to ourselves and others whenever we don’t dive into the riches of Christian history and classic hymnody. While the Christian life is full of joys unspeakable, we must also make room for sorrow. The Christian life is holistic, enveloping the happiness, and the sadness, of each pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City. The grace in the gospel of God is wide enough for the joyful and the depressive, and our sermons, prayers, and songs — especially our songs — should make room for the Christian to come to Lord’s Day worship with sorrow in their hearts and lamentations on their lips.
After all, as another hymn so beautiful communicates, “Oh lift up your heads, for the day is near; we have no abiding city here.” The church’s songbook is the soundtrack for the Christian life. The songs we sing shape us and minister to us such that the word of Christ may dwell richly in life of believers (Col. 3:16). May the next generation of Christian songwriters desire for their songs to take that shape.
E‘er since, by faith, I saw the stream Thy flowing wound supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
And shall be til I die, and shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.
-William Cowper, There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood