Sep 292016

14_c_n_combined-400wWilliam Cowper was born in England in 1731 and died there in 1800. His mother died when William was six years old, and this tragic loss affected him until the end of his life. After her death, William’s father sent him to private schools, where he studied until he was seventeen.

He was a prolific hymn writer and poet, and is regarded as one of Great Britain’s greatest poets.

He wrote the well known hymn “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and created the expression, “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.”

But that is only part of what makes Cowper’s life so noteworthy. What’s remarkable is that God used this man in such a way despite the man’s troubled and tortured mind, for William Cowper suffered from severe mental illness. Despairing of his very life, Cowper even tried to commit suicide several times and was admitted to a mental asylum, which is where he found Christ. His life did change after his salvation, but his bouts with mental illness continued to torment him for the rest of his life. There were many times he thought his soul was damned, though he was a Calvinist, for he could not see His Savior’s grace for himself.He became a close friend of former slave ship Captain turned minister John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace.” Newton was a true friend and pastor to Cowper and the two wrote a book of hymns together, know as “The Olney Hymns,” named after the town where the two men lived.

In 1780 Newton moved from Olney for a new ministry in London, where he served for the next 27 years. He did not forget his friendship with Cowper, and the two continued their correspondence through letters.

They remained close friends until Cowper’s death in 1800. There is no evidence Newton ever chastised Cowper for his infirmities. John Newton accepted and loved Cowper as he was, warts and all. More than a pastor, Newton was kind and patient with his friend.

What lessons can we learn from the lives of William Cowper and John Newton?

What would your reaction have been to a man like Cowper suffering from such deep mental illness? So deep the person was suicidal and attempted suicide? Would you befriend him and accept him, as Newton did, or shun him as unvaluable to the Body of Christ? Would you advise him to just read his Bible more and pray more believing these things would take the mental illness away?

Do you see mentally ill people as valuable to the Body of Christ? Paul gives us an insight in 1 Cor. 12:21-26, where he speaks of the weaker parts of the body as having greater honor.

Do you struggle with mental illness yourself? God sees you as very valuable to Him. His plan for you includes this illness He has allowed you to struggle with. Yes, God can heal us, but He doesn’t always do so as we all know.

Those who are mentally ill are full members of the body if they have believed, and can be used greatly by God to “confound the wise.” I Cor. 1:27. William Cowper was an example of this. Do we really accept people with these infirmities, as Newton did, or do we see them as just another chore we have to put up with?

The next time you deal with a mentally ill person, you might be talking to another William Cowper.

  37 Responses to “Loving Cowper Like Newton Did… Affirming Those With Mental Illness In the Church. A Guest Post From Cash”

  1. Today I am dealing with the reality that sometimes mentally ill people also have bad character. This is a tough reality to parse.

    I have repeatedly posted very compassionate stuff about the mentally ill. Today I am dealing with one I just want to nuke.

    So here is the thing. Mental illness does not mean I cannot have boundaries. If it does I am ready to retire.

    This is a fabulous story. Thanks.

  2. This is an incredibly important post. Mental illness is part of our household, and I have learned much.

    “Do we really accept people with these infirmities, as Newton did, or do we see them as just another chore we have to put up with?”
    — Anyone thinking that way needs to remember how much God puts up with all of our infirmities…..and continues to love on us.

    This post should be distributed widely among churches.

  3. BD,

    I hear you with the boundaries. In fact, sometimes exercising your boundaries with the person actually turns out to be helpful to them, although usually in the long run.

  4. BD, I hear you.

    I agree boundaries are important for all of us.

  5. A woman who was clearly mentally ill would come to our church for the mid week service and another church on Sunday’s. People were very understanding of her as during discussion or prayer time she constantly interrupted or went off on some tangent that had nothing to do about what was taking place.

    She asked if she could attend the marriage conference although she was single. She was told politely that might not be a good idea. Later she wanted to be in the children’s ministry not to teach but to be one of the “students.”

    Again she was told no and then she began cursing the pastor and others out.

    It was a unique experience for me and I’ve experienced a lot. Boundaries were set and finally she exploded. Was a difficult thing to see unfold.

  6. Michael, I might suggest you clarify your definition of mental illness in Cowper’s life as it relates to depression.

    Going strictly on what you’ve written here, it sounds like Cowper suffered from severe depression. One can be mentally ill and not suicidal. One can be suicidal and not (necessarily) be mentally ill. One can also be both.

  7. Reading about Cowper and Newton was so encouraging. Posts like these are what can help reduce the stigma that is unfortunately still alive and well in and out of the church.

    Thanks for sharing this Cash.

  8. Thank you all for the kind remarks. I appreciate the encouragement.

  9. today we have so much evidence garnered from new nervous system researching capabilities… one who isn’t thinking/processing well should be regarded just the same as anyone else who has a physical component that is not working up to par…

    IMHO – the one who loves/seeks the Lord with a paralyzed arm is no different than the one who has trouble with a brain handicap … conversely the one who hates the Lord, irregardless of the handicap, should we not deal with them just as we would anyone else?
    Newton is a saint to be honored for many reasons; this is one that i wasn’t aware of… thank you
    sadly, today, i believe that Olney’s claim to fame is a pancake race 🙂

  10. BrianD,

    I see what you’re saying, you are correct in your points. ***”I might suggest you clarify your definition of mental illness in Cowper’s life as it relates to depression.*** Truth is, I do not know what his specific diagnosis was.

  11. Em,

    Your words are true. Tell us about the “pancake race” in Olney 🙂

  12. This is good Cash. Thanks!

    I will kind of add to BD’s qualification there. I think working with mentally ill people requires strict boundaries. Many of them do not have boundaries and they will bleed you dry, too, if you aren’t careful. I say that not to be callous, but to remind us that we can’t help others when our own tank is on empty.

  13. BrianD,
    It’s hard to be too precise three hundred plus years down the road. Most historians think he suffered from deep clinical depression at the least.
    Good to see you here again…

  14. I have a question for those with experience with people with mental illness.

    I have the hypothesis that there is a continuum of mental health that all of us exist on. And during different seasons of life, we can move to a degree on that continuum. Most of us can control or discipline our mental disposition from getting to the extreme, but many, most or all of us may at times experience the seeds of mental illness, even if at a very low level. Some people go to the extreme due to chemical or environmental factors. Is this the way modern psychology sees mental health?

  15. Cash, i wish i could, but i’ve never understood it … i became aware of it when we lived in Kansas where there is an Olney sister city which also has the pancake race… women (housewives they were called back then) put pancake batter in a skillet and, then race (cooking and flipping it somewhere along the route)… it celebrates (?) Shrove Tuesday
    according to Wikipedia: “Shrove Tuesday (known in some countries as Pancake Tuesday or Pancake day) is a day in February or March preceding Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent), which is celebrated in some countries by consuming pancakes.”

    I’ll remember this Newton story – truly appreciate it and the lesson it brings 200 years later

  16. Jean, somewhere i have a book, recently written, by a doctor named Gazzaniga – that is all the real information i have, but it is fascinating… i’ve had family members that i’m sure were nutty as fruitcakes (not me, of course 🙂 ), but i’ll chalk their behaviors up to pride and old sin natures

  17. Jean,

    ***Some people go to the extreme due to chemical or environmental factors. Is this the way modern psychology sees mental health?***

    Well I am in no way a professional but I’ve been around a lot of mentally ill people. And I’d say the key term would be “disorder” which is just as you described. When folks go way off from normal, exhibiting symptoms.

  18. Michael S. Gazzaniga – “Free Will and the Science of the Brain…”

  19. Cash, this is so VERY beautiful. Thank you SOO much for writing this. My wife suffers, and I do also to a lesser extent. The stresses of life exacerbate the symptoms, no matter how much bible and prayer is incorporated (those are important, but not a cure-all).

    I will the Cowper story could be required reading for all believers.

    Thanks again!

  20. DanfromGeorgia I’m so glad you found the article helpful. And that required reading would be great. 🙂

  21. Jean,

    I am far from being a mental health professional, I’ve just done a lot of reading over the years, have lived with a mentally ill person (still do), also have long experience with several others. But I hope this will help…

    ” Most of us can control or discipline our mental disposition from getting to the extreme….”

    My read, based solely on my own experience, is that the word “control” is kind of the crux of the thing. Cash touched on it when he mentioned disorder. The disorder causes the person to lose control. Sometimes it is a chemical imbalance, sometimes environmental, I’m sure there are other factors as well.
    Those without the disorder generally can, as you said, “.. control or discipline our mental disposition from getting to the extreme”. The disorder has a tendency to take over.

    I’m sure others here could shed more light than myself.

  22. Newton and Cowper were to do a hymnal together. But Cowper had another breakdown. He mentions it in the preface of the Olney Hymnal. He refers to him only as C, I guess to spare him any shame.

  23. Owen and Jean,

    My EXPERIENCE in 6 years of marriage to someone with mental illness is that there is some loss of control when symptoms get out of hand. Like y’all, I am not a professional as well, but my wife can attest that she remembers her episodes and she loses control. Again, this is our experience.

  24. Newton and Cowper were to do an Hymnal together. But Cowper had a breakdown. Newton mentions it in the preface yo the Olney Hymnal. He refers to him only a C.

  25. This felt so good to read. Thank you.

    My mom died when I was six.

    The Lord has had mercy on me. And I still need it.

  26. Dan,

    I agree with you. I’ve been married to same for 21 years, and my wife has found the same. It’s like someone else takes over.

  27. Owen (26). That’s pretty much been my observation exactly. She loves the Lord and prays A LOT, and when her symptoms get out of control, like you said, she’s different.

  28. I’m close to completing “Hinds’ Feet On High Places.” If ever a book connected more with me I don’t know.” It’s almost as if Hannah Hunard (the author) wrote this book for me. I can say without hesitation this book will be a source of comfort as the story unfolds. Many who deal with anxiety, depression, etc. will find this book to be a godsend.

    Sadly the author slipped into many false beliefs after this book so I can’t recommend any of her other books.

    In a little over a week we will mark forty years of marriage and for at least 20 of those years I am the one who has lived with mental illness. Before that I struggled with all sorts of not what I would call fear but more of terror. This goes back to my earliest memories.

    My struggles have impacted my family as they’ve seen what my illness and my response(s) have been and how our lives changed as a result. More than anyone my wife has been impacted. In ways that some of you may know yourselves as being the spouse of one who lives with mental illness.

    I’ve lost complete control more than I care to admit. It’s a terrifying thing and can cause you to look only inward as you see yourself as a victim of some grand mistake. Maybe God really doesn’t love me. What have I done to warrant this?

    In my experience I failed to comprehend the enormous impact this had on my wife as she watched me lose total control many times. She often had to talk me down as I was so out of control. The toll on her has been enormous.

    Like all of us I’m a work in progress. God loves me as He does you. He hears my cries. He has not abandoned me.

    Like the main character in the book I mentioned I’m at a point where I want to know God more and to trust Him with everything. I can’t dwell on the past. It hurts too much. Quite often when I wrote on my blog I closed with this from the book of Romans. I’ll end here. God bless and keep each of you who may be in the valley. He’s there with you.

    Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

    Romans 8:36 As it is written, “For Your sake we are killed all the day long. We are counted as sheep of slaughter.”

    Romans 8:37 But in all these things we more than conquer through Him who loved us.

    Romans 8:38 For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

    Romans 8:39 nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  29. Erunner,

    I love that book. It is definitely a great source of comfort.

    Thanks for once again sharing your pain and struggles – and most of all your hope.

    Question – are you no longer keeping up your blog?

  30. Owen, right now I’m not sure what I’m going to do with it. People are still dropping by and for quite some time the most popular article is the one about Martin Luther and depression. From what I see that seems to be the topic most people are interested in as far as my blog goes.

    It’s so good to see you here contributing as you do. You have much to offer.

  31. Thanks, E – and so do you.

    I offer what I can – mostly listen.

  32. I’ve visited the little museum that is in Cowper’s house, in Olney. The folks who run the museum spoke of how Cowper lost his mother at a young age and also how he loved a woman but was rejected. He was a sad and lonely man.

    Newton came along and spoke life, peace, comfort, and above all, the grace of Christ into the man’s life. Still he suffered horribly from times of deep depression, but he had a friend in Newton who walked alongside him and pointed him to Jesus.

  33. Cash…this is a wonderful article. Beautifully written, and most gracious.

    Fore me, more than any other thread in recent memory, the comments on this thread have been wonderfully thought provoking and edifying.

    I love that you discussed how we, the Church, can respond to mental illness, as individuals and as a body. I love that Dread gave us a different perspective and that several talked about good boundaries. I love the stories that were shared in hopes of building up others. I loved learning about the pancake race 😉

    E…I always loved you blog, but haven’t stopped in lately. Thank you for the reminder that you still maintain it– I’ll be by.

    I think this topic is a wonderful one for discussion. Recent police-involved shootings seem to have been with mentally ill or mentally challenged people or those with PTSD. We so lack perspective in mental illness and comprehensive training for how to respond. Likewise, in our own families, we sometimes lack the training and perspective to be a friend to those who are different.

    William Wurmbrand, in his book, Tortured for Christ, describes losing his mind while being imprisoned and tortured. I tend to agree with Jean’s statement @14…I think additional stress (the perception of which can be different for all of us based on our lives and experiences) and our ability to cope with stress play into that spectrum.

    Finally, I’m always amazed (and I shouldn’t be) that some of the most faith-filled people I’ve met are homeless folks who are mentally ill. They amaze me that they carry and read their Bibles, ask for and offer prayer, and share generously with others. To me, they are God’s emissaries who do more to minister to the ministers than the other way around.

  34. That would be Richard Wurmbrand, not William.

  35. Thanks once again for the kind remarks, friends. And E-Runner…you were the one who encouraged me to write about mental illness on your blog some years ago. Thank you for being a friend to me.

  36. Cash,

    Thank you for stepping out and up…people need to hear your voice.

  37. This is an important and profound post. Thank you Cash.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.