The life of William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) presents a quandary for Christians. The man who wrote touching poetry and beautiful hymns (God Moves in Mysterious Ways; There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood) struggled with despair and depression for most of his Christian life. How do we reconcile spiritual songs and insanity?

Cowper was born in 1731 near London, England. His mother died when William was six years old, and his father sent him to boarding school, which was an exceedingly traumatic experience for the young boy. “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” (see footnote).

He began to be depressed in 1752, at the age of 21. He had not yet trusted Christ. He wrote about his first bout with depression thus:

“(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 fell in love with his cousin Theodora. They became engaged, but her father forbade the marriage at the end of seven years. This broke Cowper’s heart.
Cowper had been trained as a lawyer, and that was his profession. In 1759, he was to be made the Clerk of Journals in the British Parliament. He was required to pass an interrogation, which prospect struck him with terror; so much so that he went insane under the strain. He tried to commit suicide in three different ways, and was committed to a mental asylum.

After his third suicide attempt, he wrote:

“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.”

A Dr. Nathaniel Cotton took care of the patients at that asylum. He was a believer in Christ, and God, in His mercy, was pleased to use him in Cowper’s conversion. Cowper found a Bible lying on a bench in the garden, about six months after he came to the asylum. He read John 11, and then 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”). Of this experience h
e wrote:

“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.”

We could stop here, and think that this was the end of William’s struggles with despair. Surely, looking back through the many dim years that have passed, this seems to be a true conversion. Sadly, William’s “life seems to be one long accumulation of pain” (see footnote) as well as depression and insanity.

In 1767, having been out of the asylum for about two years, Cowper met John Newton, the curate of the church in Olney. This was the most important relationship in Cowper’s life, as far as spiritual influence is concerned. Newton was a warm and happy man, and was loved by his people. Cowper moved to Olney, and remained there for the remaining 19 years of his life.

In 1769 Newton asked Cowper to help him in writing a hymnbook. Cowper only wrote 68 of the over 250 hymns in the hymnbook. It was at this time that There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood was written. In 1773, Cowper had another attack of insanity. He tried again, more than once, to commit suicide, but God did not allow this. Yet this was not the end, for in 1786 he again fell into despair, and attempted suicide.

He wrote this in 1784:

“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.”

In 1792, he told John Newton that he often felt as if he were “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.”

“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" (see footnote).

His life, as full as it was of darkness and despair, has been used by God. There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood has been a blessing to untold thousands of hearts. It seems to me to be nearly impossible to reconcile his depression and his doubts of being accepted by God with his wonderful hymns and poetry. We need to remember, however, that God knows the heart. An unstable mind can misrepresent God and His Word to itself; God, however, always remains faithful: “Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed.”

Let us also be merciful and compassionate in our evaluation. It is easy to be hard and judgemental, removed as we are so many years from his life. John Newton was a great lover of God, and a faithful pastor, and he treated Cowper with compassion, and remained his friend through all of the darkness, until Cowper’s death. Perhaps the words of J.C. Ryle will help here:
“Let us never set down men in a low place, as graceless and godless, because their faith is feeble and their love is cold. Let us remember the case of Thomas, and be very pitiful and of tender mercy. Our Lord has many weak children in His family, many dull pupils in His school, many raw soldiers in His army, many lame sheep in His school. Yet He bears with them all, and casts none away.

“Happy is that Christian who has learned to deal likewise with his brethren. There are many in the Church, who, like Thomas, are dull and slow, but for all that, like Thomas, are real and true believers.”

Let us close with the words of the hymn There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood. When we sing it in church, let us remember that God can use even the weakest of us for His glory.

1.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.

2.The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.
Washed all my sins away, washed all my sins away;
And there have I, though vile as he, washed all my sins away.

3.Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more, be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed church of God be saved, to sin no more.

4.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.

5.Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy power to save,
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave, lies silent in the grave;
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave.

6.Lord, I believe Thou hast prepared, unworthy though I be,
For me a blood bought free reward, a golden harp for me!
’Tis strung and tuned for endless years, and formed by power divine,
To sound in God the Father’s ears no other name but Thine.

Footnote: The quotes in this article were taken from an excellent account of Cowper's life, which can be found here.

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