William Cowper, Poet and Hymn-writer

William Cowper was one of the most popular poets and hymn-writers of the 18th Century. He is credited by some as the fore-father of English Romantic poetry, inspiring work by William Wordsworth, among others.

Cowper was born in 1731. He was a contemporary of John Wesley, George Whitefield, and William Wilberforce. He struggled with depression. Some believe he suffered from manic-depression (bipolar psychosis) due to the alternating periods of emotional highs and lows evident in his life.

After a major depression at age 21, he attempted suicide. At age 28, he had another breakdown caused mainly by the threat of a public examination before Parliament. They were to see if he could be appointed to a government position. He was committed to an insane asylum after more failed suicide attempts.

He became a Christian during his stay in the asylum when he picked up a Bible placed there and read Romans 3:25, where Christ’s sacrifice for us is highlighted. Cowper later wrote, “I saw the sufficiency of the atonement [Christ] 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…”

Over the next few years, he developed a close relationship with his pastor: John Newton. He and Newton worked together on a collection of hymns, including Newton’s “Amazing Grace” and Cowper’s “God Moves In A Mysterious Way” and “There Is A Fountain.”

Cowper, even as a Christian, continued to struggle with depression. Our doctrine must make room for Christians who struggle. Some of his friends were convinced that Cowper’s depression was a physical problem. You see, his depressions seemed to come every January and get worse, then better, in a regular pattern. John Newton was so convinced.

It was spiritual depression. Satan sometimes convinced Cowper that he was not saved and could never be saved. Cowper died in 1800, in deep despair, but he never completely forgot the hope he had in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He had many friends like Newton to remind him, when he needed reminding the most, of God’s grace evident in Christ’s sacrifice.

There is hope for all who struggle with depression. We can often share hope with them by reminding them of Christ’s love and passion. We can let “redeeming love” be our theme, as the verse of the following hymn by Cowper reads.

There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel's veins; and
sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains. Lose all their
guilty stains, lose all their guilty stains; and sinners plunged beneath that
flood lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see that
fountain in his day; and there may I, though vile as he, wash all my sins
away. Wash all my sins away, wash all my sins away; and there may I, though vile
as he, wash all my sins away…

E'er since, by faith, I saw the
stream thy flowing wounds supply, redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be
till I die. And shall be till I die, and shall be till I die; redeeming love has
been my theme, and shall be till I die…


Hymn text excerpted from http://www.hymnsite.com/lyrics/umh622.sht

Information from The Hidden Smile of God, John Piper, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001.

[1/6/11: I am astonished at the popularity of this post.  It seems many readers land here.  Please feel free to comment on this post while you are here.]


J&J said...

Depression is a very complex illness.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like S.A.D.

"It was spiritual depression. Satan sometimes convinced Cowper..."

Wow that's just creepy. Are there any other medical maladies you would like to blame on the imaginary boogey man you call satan?

Perhaps we should try Exorcisms on Schizophrenic people to drive the demons out?

J. K. Jones said...


Yes it is.

I was pleasently surprized to find that they treated it so in the church in the 1700s. Many of them thought it was a physical disease.



I'd be glad to pray for the Schizophrenic person you have in mind, if you have a person in mind. If this is a general grip, then take it elsewhere. I did not say and would not say that Schizophrenia is demon possesion.


Anonymous said...

But according to you S.A.D. is caused by satan. At what point do you stop blaming ghosts and goblins?

J. K. Jones said...

I did not say that Seasonal Affective Disorder was always and only the work of Satan.

I do think that Cowper's dismay over his spiritual condition was demonic in origin.

Anonymous said...

As a fellow sufferer with Cowper, I totally empathise with his situation. There remains much to be understood about Manic depression. I do not know what "Spiritual depression" is. Manic depression is an actual illness, which sufferers continue to bear throughout their lives. It is a genetic condition with no cure. It is no shame to suffer in this way, whether you are a Christian on not. The stigma still continues, even these so-called enlightened times.

J. K. Jones said...

Yes, all of the affective disorders are awful. It is interesting to note how many of the friends of Cowper thought his depression had a physical component. They were quit advanced for their times.

Anonymous said...

Cowper had great friends, none better than the dear John Newton, whom I would dearly love to talk to. Thanks be to our great God, some day I will. I shall also team up with Cowper and reflect on the goodness and power of our Saviour. I shall then worship at His feet and thank him for making me as He did.

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