I've been devouring the Winter 2004 issue of Christian History & Biography magazine. This issue highlighted the life, ministry, and hymn writing of slave-trader-turned-preacher John Newton. The entire issue has been stellar, but a particular article highlighting Newton's relationship with William Cowper--the great hymn writer--fascinated me.
William Cowper (pronounced "Cooper") was a man who battled continuous doubts and endured severe bouts of depression (as have many devout believers--including Spurgeon). In fact, his conversion took place while he was being treated at an asylum (many historians attribute the bouts of depression to his childhood and being forced into a career in law).
In 1767, Cowper moved to the village of Olney, Buckinghamshire, and took up residence in a home near Newton's. The two quickly became the best of frineds--often taking walks together and engaging one another in deep theological discussion. Cowper also assisted Newton in ministerial work and accompanied him on many preaching tours. According to Jennifer Trafton's article, "This partnership spawned a prolific period of hymn writing for both men, and they made plans to publish a hymnbook for the Olney congregation as a celebration of their spiritually fruitful camaraderie."
Another deep depression gripped Cowper, and in 1773, the project was interrupted. This bout lasted 14 months and included several suicide attempts. It appears Cowper never completely recovered from this battle; he never again attended public worship.
Newton, who continued to compose hymns during this period, eventually published the hymnbook. Later he described their relationship:
"The Lord who had brought us together had so knit our hearts and affections that for nearly 12 years, we were seldom separated for 12 hours at a time when we were awake and at home. The first six I passed in daily admiring and trying to imitate him; during the second six I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death."So what was at the root of Cowper's lingering depression? Many have ventured a guess, but Trafton is convinced it was solely a spiritual issue:
" ... Cowper interpreted his own feelings solely in religious terms and became convinced that he was experiencing God's rejection. He was an anomaly both to his friends and to himself: a doctrinally orthodox Christian who proclaimed the gospel of grace to others yet believed himself to be uniquely condemned by God. Even in the mids of despair over his own salvation, Cowper firmly believed that there was no possibility of happiness or healing apart from God, and to his dying day he waited for a divine word that would cure his misery."As evidenced in his letters and in a sermon he preached after Cowper's death, Newton was perplexed and bewildered that a man whose virtues were so obvious to his friends could question his own relationship with God. Perhaps the strong exhortations in Newton's hymns could be traced to his relationship with William Cowper. In fact, it appears some of Newton's hymns were intended as exhortations to Cowper himself. Trafton highlights one such hymn ("To the Afflicted, tossed with tempests, and not comforted") in which Jesus speaks to the brokenhearted:
"Though afflicted, tempest-toss'd,
Comfortless a while thou art,
Do not think thou canst be lost,
Thou art graven on my heart:
All thy wastes I will repair,
Thou shalt be rebuilt anew;
And in thee it shall appear
What a God of love can do."
Newton later moved to London (which resulted in an unprecedented strain on the relationship), yet the two apparantly continued to correspond, and as late as 1795 Cowper wrote, "There is no day in which you are excluded from my thoughts."
Although these two were the closest of friends for those years they were neighbors in Olney, a poem Cowper penned to Newton (who faced his own well-documented struggles with his slave-trading past) in 1780 describes their vast differences:
"The ocean you of late survey'd,
Those rocks I too have seen,
But I afflicted and dismay'd,
You, tranquil and serene.
You from the flood-controlling steep,
Saw stretch'd before your view,
With conscious joy, the threat'ning deep,
No longer such to you.
To me, the waves that ceaseless broke
Upon the dang'rous coast
Hoarsely and ominously spoke
Of all my treasure lost.
Your sea of troubles you have past,
And found the peaceful shore;
I, tempest-toss'd, and wrecked at last,
Come home to port no more."
Trafton, a freelance writer from Bowling Green, Kentucky, sums up their unique relationship this way:
"In Cowper, Newton found a living paradox of doubt, assurance, despair, and grace that tested his pastoral skills to their limit. In Newton, Cowper found a spiritual sounding board and an encourager of his literary skills--two things so necessary for keeping his head above the waves as long as possible. Newton was a limited and sometimes fallible guide for the tormented poet, and he never fully understood the dark depths in which his friend lived.
An apt image for their relationship might be that of Newton calling from the shore, 'You'll make it, you'll make it,' while Cowper is sinking deeper and deeper beneath the sea of his own misery. Nevertheless, out of this intense, treasured, and often troubled communion came hymns that are still beloved today, poems that have an important place in the history of English literature, and the incalculable personal impact of two men whose characters were forged int he furnace of a unique Christian friendship."
Perhaps these mens' lives will encourage us to sacrificially invest ourselves in others--even in our (and their) darkest days. And perhaps we will never sing There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood
without the desperation of a man caught in the clutches of depression, separated from all hope apart from that saving blood.**Article Information:
Jennifer M. Trafton, "The Captain & the Castaway," Christian History & Biography
, [Christianity Today International: Carol Stream, IL], Issue 81, Winter 2004, 34-36.**Hymn and Biographical Information:
For a listing of Cowper's hymns, click HERE
. For Cowper's hymns that appeared in the Olney Hymnbook
, click HERE
. For further biographical information on Cowper, click HERE
; Newton, click HERE
Labels: Church History, History, Hymns, John Newton, William Cowper