by Al Maxey

Issue #615 ------- April 25, 2014
Habits of close attention, thinking heads,
Become more rare as dissipation spreads,
Till authors hear at length one general cry,
"Tickle and entertain us, or we die!"

William Cowper (1731-1800)

The Depressed Hymnist
Reflecting on the Troubled Life of
the English Poet William Cowper

"There is a pleasure in poetic pains which only poets know." This insightful and very personal statement comes from the pen of William Cowper, and is found within his monumental work "The Task" [The Timepiece, book 2, lines 285-286]. It reflects an experiential truth with which many may well be unfamiliar. Some of the greatest poetry has emerged from the pens of those who suffered the greatest pain, and within this afflicted community there exists a camaraderie that few outsiders could ever fathom. Yes, there can at times be a sense of shared joy in the midst of affliction, especially when those afflicted give voice to their experience in poetic expression. This is beautifully perceived in many of the psalms of the OT canon, and also quite evident in many of our hymns, especially those old southern spirituals that arose from the hearts of our black brethren who suffered the evils of slavery in our own nation's past. Some of our most moving spiritual songs ascended from the depths of their personal and communal misery.

We have all most likely experienced moments of doubt and discouragement, and for some disciples of our Lord these moments may even have deepened into seasons of despair. If left unresolved, these can be very destructive emotionally, physically and spiritually. On the other hand, these times have the potential of affirming and strengthening our faith; perhaps even enabling us to become far more productive in our service to God and others. There is nothing sinful about doubt or discouragement; we have all been there. They can certainly lead to sinful attitudes and actions, but they can also lead to some very positive outcomes. I would encourage the reader to examine the thoughts presented in Reflections #375 -- "When Disciples Doubt: Weathering the Winds and Waves of Storms of Spiritual Uncertainty."

One such disciple of our Lord Jesus struggled most of his life with bouts of deep depression, even having to be institutionalized for a number of years, but through it all his God never abandoned him. Indeed, one of our most beloved hymns arose from the afflictions this troubled man endured during his difficult life. In his ultimate triumph we find encouragement for our own journeys of faith, for there is much to be learned from the lives of those who have gone before us, especially when those persons struggled (as per Hebrews 11). Just two chapters later, the writer declares, "Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7). Yes, we might become discouraged if we focus only on the particulars of their affliction, but how our hearts rejoice when we "consider the outcome of their way of life," for it compels us to "imitate their faith." The disciple of whom I spoke at the beginning of this paragraph, and whose faith ultimately led him to a victorious celebration of God's grace over his struggles, is William Cowper (1731-1800). In this current issue of my weekly Reflections I would like to introduce you to this "depressed hymnist." His story is a remarkable one!

William Cowper (pronounced "Cooper") was born on Nov. 15, 1731 (some sources give the date as Nov. 26) in Berkhampstead, England. His father, John Cowper, was rector of the Church of St. Peter and personal chaplain to King George II. William's mother, Ann Donne Cowper, "was from a well-known family of royalty" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 264]. Tragically, Ann died giving birth to William's brother, John, on Nov. 7, 1737 (just a few days before William's sixth birthday). Several other children, born during those few years between the births of William and John, all died in infancy. Ann's personal maids sought to soften the blow of her death to the young William, who was "a physically frail and emotionally sensitive" child [ibid], by lying to him about what had really happened. They convinced him she had gone away on a long journey and would not return for quite some time. He soon saw through this deception, however, and it had a tremendous negative impact upon his emotional stability. Toward the end of his life he would write that there was never a single day that he didn't think about and grieve over the death of his mother. "Early in life, he developed a chronic melancholia and despondency which plagued him till death" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories, p. 208].

William attended the prestigious Westminster School, where he excelled in his studies (especially Latin). However, being physically frail and emotionally sensitive, he was routinely bullied by several older children. At the age of eighteen, William began studying for a career in law. During this period, he spent much of his time at the home of his uncle, Bob Cowper, where he soon fell madly in love with his cousin, Theodora Cowper. He approached her father (his uncle) and asked permission to marry her, but according to James Croft (who, in 1825, published William's love poems to Theodora), "her father, from an idea that the union of persons so nearly related was improper, refused to accede to the wishes of his daughter and nephew." This refusal devastated both William and Theodora, and neither one of them ever married as a result. After completing his law studies, William was offered a government position in the House of Lords, but before he could be placed in that position he would have to pass a rigorous examination. This prospect so terrified him "that he worked himself into a fit of madness," and even attempted suicide. He was immediately sent to Dr. Nathaniel Cotton's insane asylum at St. Albans, where he would spend almost two years recovering. During that time, Dr. Cotton had a profound impact upon William spiritually, and he became a Christian. After his release he took a room in the home of a retired clergyman by the name of Morley Unwin, and his wife Mary, in Huntingdon. He developed a very close relationship with this couple, and when they decided to move to Olney, they took William with them. It was about this time that William decided he would like to enter the ministry, although that would never fully materialize for him. Not long after, however, Morley Unwin fell from his horse and died. Once again, death had intruded into the life of William Cowper, and it greatly affected him. He and Mary Unwin found comfort in one another, though, and would remain together for the rest of their lives (although they never married).

While living in the country town of Olney, William soon became very close friends with the pastor of the church there: a former slave trader by the name of John Newton (who wrote one of the most beloved hymns of all time: "Amazing Grace"). See my tribute to the life of this great man in Reflections #265. William Cowper and John Newton soon began holding weekly "prayer meetings" at which they would present hymns they had written. Newton decided this might be a good way to divert William's mind from all that sought to undermine his mental stability (which was quite fragile). Both men were quite good at writing these hymns, so they decided to try and have a new hymn at each weekly prayer meeting. Most historians feel that it was during this period of time that John Newton most likely produced his most famous hymn ("Amazing Grace"), although no one knows for sure exactly when it was written. The most frequently given date is 1772. In 1779 a collection of their hymns was produced under the title "Olney Hymns," which contained 348 selections (67 by Cowper, 281 by Newton). It was in this first edition of "Olney Hymns" that "Amazing Grace" first appeared, although it was not originally known by this title, but rather: "Faith's Review and Expectation." This collection of hymns, penned by Cowper and Newton, remains to this day as "one of the most important single contributions made to the field of evangelical hymnody" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 More Hymn Stories, p. 209].

It was during this time that William experienced a very severe "attack of insanity" that incapacitated him for quite a while. In 1773 he had a nightmare that was so bad he began to question his salvation. Believing he was doomed to eternal damnation in hell, he lost touch with reality. He became convinced that God was telling him the only way he could be saved was to offer himself as a sacrifice, which led to a number of suicide attempts. With the help of John Newton and Mary Unwin he recovered somewhat, but for the remainder of his life he would drift in and out of sanity. He also never attended another church service, doubting whether God even desired his salvation. Strangely, however, it was also during this time that he wrote some of his greatest hymns (usually following seasons of deep depression and despair). Though he showed no interest in religious services, he nevertheless excelled in spiritual service to others, often visiting the poor and sick, and praying with them. Samuel Teedon, the village schoolmaster, wrote, "Of all the men I ever heard pray, no one equaled Mr. Cowper." John Newton, in his memoirs, stated, "He loved the poor. He often visited them in their cottages, conversed with them in the most obliging manner, sympathized with them, counseled and comforted them in their distresses; and those who were seriously disposed were often cheered and animated by his prayers." Newton, who would later preach William Cowper's funeral, said in that funeral sermon, "He could give comfort, though he could not receive any himself. He was not only a comfort to me, but a blessing to the affectionate poor people among whom I then lived. He used to frequently visit them and pray with them."

Perhaps the two hymns for which William Cowper is best known are: "O For A Closer Walk With God" and "There Is A Fountain." In the first hymn, we perceive the doubts with which he struggled. "Where is the blessedness I knew, When first I saw the Lord? Where is the soul-refreshing view, Of Jesus and His Word?" He longed for that blessed assurance that his mental state had swept away during his fits of insanity. "O for a closer walk with God, A calm and heav'nly frame." He sought a serenity that kept eluding him, causing him to doubt if he ever would or could be saved, which only served to plunge him ever deeper into despair. In his poem "Light Shining Out Of Darkness" he gave us the following familiar phrase: "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." In many ways, God was a mystery to Cowper. Yet, in his moments of mental clarity he seemed to grasp that the way to salvation was by God's grace, and through our faith in that gift. This is depicted beautifully in the hymn "There Is A Fountain," which was originally titled "Peace For The Fountain." "It is undoubtedly one of Cowper's best loved hymns. Only eternity will reveal the hosts who, through the singing of this hymn, have been made aware of the efficacy of Christ's complete atonement. The text, with its vivid imagery, is based on the OT text: Zechariah 13:1, 'In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and uncleanness.' The tune for this text is borrowed from an American folk melody, probably one of the typical tunes used in the camp meetings of the early nineteenth century" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 265]. Notice the words of this hymn:

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel's veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.

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.

When this poor lisping, stamm'ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then, in a nobler, sweeter song,
I'll sing Thy pow'r to save.

Mary Unwin died in 1796, and this death was the last straw for Cowper. He fell into a depression from which he never truly recovered. On April 25, 1800 (214 years ago today) William Cowper passed from this life. Many who knew him feel that at the very end he had a final moment of clarity during which he perceived anew the "amazing grace" of God. "On his death bed it is said that his face lit up as he uttered these last words, 'I am not shut out of heaven after all!'" [Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 265]. He is buried in the chapel of St. Thomas of Canterbury, at St. Nicholas Church, in East Dereham, England. There is also a window in Westminster Abbey that honors the life and work of this great man, who is considered one of the founders of the English Romantic movement in literature/poetry. His funeral was preached by his dear friend John Newton, who, in the course of his sermon, said the following: "The Lord has given me many friends, but with none have I had so great an intimacy as with my friend Mr. Cowper. But he is gone. I was glad when I heard it. ... Mr. Cowper was afflicted with what is called a nervous complaint to such a degree as might justly be called insanity. ... I have had hopes the Lord would remove his malady a little time before his death, but it continued. ... He was one of those who came out of great tribulation. He suffered much here for twenty-seven years, but eternity is long enough to make amends for all. For what is all he endured in this life when compared with that rest which remaineth for the children of God?" Amen! May we take courage and comfort from the life of William Cowper, for his difficult journey reflects anew that God loves and embraces His children even when we are afflicted with doubt, discouragement and despair. God's Love and Grace conquer all.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Reader in California:

I haven't written in a while, but I still enjoy your Reflections very much. Though I preached 30+ years in "our tribe," I am no longer worshipping within that tribe for various reasons, mostly logistical. I am, however, very encouraged by your comment in your last article: "There are many of us in my faith-heritage, and that number is growing, who have abandoned religion in order to embrace relationship." I see this especially in the sermons delivered to the church in Franklin, TN by Dr. Patrick Mead. I grew up in north Alabama, have family and friends all over Tennessee (I am a graduate of Lipscomb), and am the son-in-law of a very conservative preacher (now deceased) in Churches of Christ who preached all over that area. I never thought I would see the day when anyone would preach the sermons Patrick is preaching there!! PRAISE GOD!! In some ways, I wish I were still preaching "among us," for there is HOPE for our tribe because of people like you two! Thanks for your efforts in the Kingdom.

From an Elder in Wyoming:

It was great to finally be able to meet you at the 2014 Tulsa Workshop after conversing through email for quite awhile. Please keep up the good work, brother! Yesterday, as I was driving, I was listening to a minister from the Presbyterian Church. He made a statement I thought was very enlightening. He said, "Just because the Bible describes something doesn't mean it is prescribing it." I thought that was an interesting idea! When we boil down Christianity to a "this plus this" mentality, it's amazing how long the "pluses" get. We start with the "five steps" of salvation plus one cup plus no Bible classes plus no instruments plus no eating in the building plus etc, etc. and THEN you are saved. That list of pluses obviously changes from congregation to congregation. How limiting to God!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

AMEN!! You are right on target with what you wrote in Reflections #614 -- "Definitive Salvation Equation: Obsession Over A Formulaic Process."

From a Reader in North Carolina:

I really enjoyed your article today on the "Definitive Salvation Equation." Your Reflections have been a blessing to my personal growth and faith-walk with Christ. I was especially intrigued by your statement in paragraph four of your latest article. You wrote: "We are free, but we look back and behold our beloved brethren still in bondage. This has motivated me, as well as others, to dedicate myself to exposing the System, so as to lead others to the joys of relationship with the Savior; sharing with them the truth of a salvation that is a free gift of grace. Simply trust/believe; forget the formulas. Love is not limited by law." AMEN to that, brother! Your statement reminded me of a favorite quote from Nelson Mandela: "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Al, you are helping so many who are casting off the chains of legalism for freedom in a loving, living, breathing relationship with Christ. Keep up the good work, and may God continue to bless your ministry. I have long considered Cecil Hook, Carl Ketcherside, Dallas Burdette, Edward Fudge and Al Maxey to be some of the most dedicated "freedom fighters" in the Churches of Christ.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

It would be great if we could know the number of men and women around the world who have found release from bondage and relief from their religious anxieties as a result of your teachings about our freedom in Christ Jesus. I only know that I am one of them, and I can't thank you enough! May God extend His richest blessings to you and your family.

From a Reader in Oklahoma:

I wonder from time to time what to say to an author or a preacher over something they have presented and how it has affected me. It just seems like "enjoy" is not exactly the appropriate term. Perhaps "encouraged" or "corrected," or even "rebuked," would work at times. Your recent article ("Definitive Salvation Equation") was many things, but most of all it was "inspiring." Thank you!

From a Reader in Alaska:

I read Jim McGuiggan's writings less often than I should, but I wanted to share this one with you. It is really well done! It is titled The Profound Power of Truth. Notice this quote from Jim McGuiggan's article (which is similar to what you have been teaching): "Life with God is a gift; always, ceaselessly a gift. ... If there's a single hair in our head that claims we earn life with God, or that He called us to earn it, we ought to pluck it out and burn it! Life with God begins with grace, is sustained by grace, and is completed by grace!"

From a Minister in Wyoming:

Thanks for your latest Reflections article: "Definitive Salvation Equation." In my opinion, Churches of Christ have tried to make passages like Acts 2:38 normative/FORMulative. God never intended such! We have wanted to make everything "line up" exactly when it comes to conversion. Why? Because we have not understood that it is about relationship, and not about religious ritual.

From a Reader in Texas:

I just read your study titled "Definitive Salvation Equation." Praise the Lord for your understanding and perception shown in this simple, yet wonderful, explanation of relationship vs. religion! I try to tell people of the gospel (yes, it is good news), but I am just not as articulate as you, and usually falter in frustration. If you don't mind, I am going to forward this issue of Reflections to a great many people, as I believe it is exactly what I have been trying to explain to them. Thanks, and may God bless you!

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