William 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.