On this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces us to William Cowper, a man whose sensitive spirit and familiarity with suffering led him to create some of the most beautiful hymns.
William Wilberforce called this man his “favorite poet.” Now, one might think Wilberforce would be referring to John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace” and a personal mentor in his own life, but he wasn't. He was referring to John Newton's hymn-writing colleague, William Cowper. The first thing we need to say about Cowper is how to pronounce his last name. It is not pronounced like it looks. It's spelled “Cowper,” but it's pronounced “Cooper.”
William Cooper was born in 1731. His father was actually one of King George II's chaplains, and his mother was related to the poet John Donne. At one point in his life, Cowper would say, "There is in me, I believe, more of the Donne than of the Cowper." If William Wilberforce is the judge, calling Cowper his favorite poet, then Cowper was right in his assessment.
At just the age of six, Cowper's mother died, and he was sent off to a boarding school. This was not a good experience for him. He was treated badly there and ostracized by his colleagues. It was a difficult time for him, but finally, he was able to leave. By the time he was eighteen, he became a lawyer’s apprentice, and he spent the next decade training to become a lawyer. As he was about to be examined to practice law, it was at that time, after having significant difficulties battling depression, that he had a mental breakdown.
He was sent to a mental hospital. In those days, they were called “asylums.” One day at the asylum, Cowper found a Bible on a bench. He opened it up, and he read it. He turned to the account of Lazarus being raised from the dead, which he said showed him the mercy of the Savior. He then knew that he had to go to the book of Romans, so he turned to Romans 3:25, where he read, "Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness." It was upon reading this verse that Cowper said he was immediately converted. He wrote, "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."
Cowper was able to regain his mental health, and he left the asylum. He ended up in the town of Olney, which was the town where John Newton was a pastor. And John Newton was indeed his pastor. Newton recognized Cowper's gift as a poet, and he encouraged him to write hymns. And that, Cowper did. He wrote sixty-eight hymns in a fairly short period of time.
During this time, Cowper's brother died. At first he took the news well, but then he was not able to cope with his brother’s death and, again, suffered a severe bout of depression. He was able to recover, and it was in this period when he probably wrote some of his most beautiful hymns. He would eventually become ill and pass away on April 25, 1800.
There's something about Cowper's sensitive spirit and his familiarity with suffering that led him to create beautiful hymns and poems, hymns that reflect the mercy and faithfulness of what we might just call the “Godness of God” and hymns that reflect our human frailty. While there are many of Cowper's hymns that I would recommend to you, one is the hymn, "My Soul Thirsteth for God." Here are last few lines from his hymn, "For the Poor": "To Jesus then your trouble bring, nor murmur at your lot; while you are poor and He is King, you shall not be forgot."
What Cowper learned through his difficult life was that, in this life, we are indeed poor. We don't always see it, do we? But we are. However, Jesus is our great King. We must remember, perhaps William Cowper’s greatest line, "Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face."