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The Forsakenness of William Cowper

July 20, 2007

William Cowper was a famous hymn writer, poet, and satirist from the 18th century. He was brilliant in the eyes of many and had a promising career at the in The House of Lords at a fairly young age. But Cowper also battled with insanity, spending portions of his life in asylums. The bright spots in his life were the periods where he lived with the Unwin family in recovery and John Newton – a converted slave trader and pastor in London. Newton and Cowper would write many famous hymns together in order to place Cowper’s mind on great and glorious things rather than leave his mind to the darkness that lingered. Cowper would write powerful words such as this:

GOD moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Olney Hymns (1779)–‘Light Shining out of Darkness’

Sadly, the death of his close friend Mary Unwin would send Cowper into a darkness that he could never recover from. He would spend the rest of his life in torment until dropsy finally seized him and killed him in the Spring of 1800.

The story of William Cowper is sad in the eyes of many because despite his great affection and passion for the glory of God and a high dependence on the accomplishments of the cross of Christ, it seemed as if God forsook his child and left him to his own darkness of mind. Many churches, today, do not sing his hymns because “dying in depression” displays a child who has forsaken his Savior.

But these assessments are not true. In fact, the story should bring hope and encouragement to saints who struggle with depression and fears of hell. The theme of William Cowper’s life was this:

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.

There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood, 1772

D. A. Carson said this about the apparently sad ending of William Cowper’s life: “Jesus cried on the cross,’My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?’, so that William Cowper would never have to. That is substitution. That is the grounding for new birth. Nothing less.”

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