That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:10
Yesterday when listening in worship to the text of the old hymn, “there is a fountain,” I found myself profoundly moved as I thought about the story of the man who wrote the hymn as I realized the deep sinking of the reality of the words which he had penned so long ago. The author, well-celebrated poet William Cowper (1731 – 1800), was actually a “best friend”, if you will, of John Newton (1725 – 1807), his pastor, and author of Amazing Grace.
Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was born to a well known 18th century family. His family sent him to law school, where he would eventually find himself embittered. He suffered from horrid bouts of depression. He was taken in by a pastor and his family, until the pastor died. As it would happen, John Newton visited the family during the death, and the family, along with Mr. Cowper moved to Olney where Newton pastored. During these years that the two shared neighboring addresses (and on more than one occasion, the same address!), they grew deeply in friendship as they composed many songs together (culminating the in the Olney Hymnbook), talked theology, and general levity of life. Still, Cowper suffered from his depression episodes. One was so intense that he attempted to take his own life (not the only time), and he never quite recovered. He would scarcely darken a church door again. His last known church attendance was a day in January when Amazing Grace was sang publicly for the first time. It is thought that Newton had not only himself, but Cowper in mind when he wrote the hymn, knowing he planned to be there. Perhaps reminding his friend of the beauty of the gospel, and that we are “saved wretches,” would prevail upon his return to active faith. Still, Newton attests that Cowper never lost his faith and would later preach his friend’s funeral.
So here are lessons from a man who truly saw the depths in life, who walked with sorrow, and knew the gloominess of the soul, yet profoundly proclaimed,
“There is a fountain filled with blood/ drawn from Emmanuel’s veins/ and sinners plunged beneath that flood/ loose all their guilty stains/”
“The dying thief rejoiced to see/ that fountain in His day/ and there may I/ though vile as he/ wash all my sins away”
What an impenetrable depth are these lyrics knowing the plight of the author!
Cowper would also write what could be the most piercing though sobering poetic couplet regarding the Sovereignty of God outside scripture itself,
“Behind a frowning Providence/ He hides a smiling face”
This lyric, I think, is sometimes the only refuge we have when things happen that we do not want to accept, and certainly cannot understand. This line was written by someone who knows what pain is all about. We, along with Mr. Newton, can thank his friend for showing us what a wave tossed faith looks like.