Feast of William Cowper (April 26)   2 comments

Above:  William Cowper

Image in the Public Domain

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WILLIAM COWPER (NOVEMBER 15, 1731-APRIL 25, 1800)

Anglican Hymn Writer

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Of all the men that I ever heard pray, no one equaled Mr. Cowper.

–Andrew Fuller of Olney, England, 1776

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Wiliam Cowper, great English poet and hymn writer, struggled with depression throughout his life.  Our saint, born at Hertfordshire, on November 15, 1731, was the son of John C. Cowper, the Anglican rector there and a chaplain to King George III.  Our saint, attached to his mother, lost her to death when he was six years old.  Young William, a shy boy, suffered due to bullies as he grew up.

Cowper honored his family’s wishes and went into the legal profession.  He became an apprentice at age 18 and studied law at Westminster.  Cowper gained admission to the bar in 1754.  He proposed marriage to cousin Theodora Cowper, but her father prevented the union.  From 1759 to 1763 our saint served as the Commissioner of Bankrupts.  In 1763 Cowper served briefly as the Clerk of Journals for the House of Lords, but could not bear to speak in public.  Our saint’s first attempted suicide ended that job and led to about a year at the asylum at St. Albans.

At this point I step aside from the narrative of Cowper’s life to make some comments.  Sources I have consulted indicate that he, citing his at least two suicide attempts, considered himself damned.  At least, according to my sources, had long periods of time during which he thought he was bound for Hell.  I know that the reason tor this was the traditional heresy that suicide leads to damnation.  Suicide and attempted suicide are difficult topics.  Those acts result from hopelessness.  I do not suffer, as Cowper did, but I do know what it is to be suicidal and to think that going on with life is not a feasible option.  I am grateful that I was able to push through those circumstances.  I also sympathize with Cowper.

Cowper rebuilt his life after his release from the asylum.  The Reverend Morely Unwin and his family took our saint into their household at Huntingdon.  Cowper met John Newton (1725-1807), the Curate of Olney, in 1767 when the famous priest came to express his condolences after Morely had died.  Afterward Mary Unwin (Morely’s widow) and Cowper moved to Olney.  Our saint became Newton’s lay assistant and visited parishioners.  Cowper also contributed 67 texts to Olney Hymns (1779), which he and Newton edited.

Cowper, a skilled writer, created great art out of his distress.  For example, the great hymn “O For a Closer Walk With God” (December 9, 1769), originally six stanzas, came from a time when Mary Unwin, his friend, was critically ill.  At that time Cowper wrote a friend:

Oh for no will but the will of my heavenly Father!…She is the chief of blessings I have met with in my journeys since the Lord was pleased to call me…Her illness has been a sharp trial to me.  Oh, that it may have a sanctified effect, that I may rejoice to surrender up to the Lord my dearest comforts, the moment He may require them….I began to compose the verses yesterday morning before daybreak, but fell asleep at the end of the first two lines; when I waked again, the third and fourth were whispered to my heart in a way which I have often experienced.

–Quoted in Armin Haeussler, The Story of Our Hymns:  The Handbook to the Hymnal of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (St. Louis, MO:  Eden Publishing House, 1952), page 356

Mary recovered and went on to live for many more years.  In 1773 they planned to become husband and wife, but his mental distress ended the engagement.  This prompted Cowper’s second attempt at suicide.  He recovered, took up gardening as a hobby, and began to keep pets.  In 1795 Mary became an invalid.  Cowper served as her caregiver until she died the following year.

Cowper wrote hymns (at least 67 of them), translated works of Homer, and wrote several original volumes.  In 1791 he began to collect an annual pension of 300 pounds.  He remained a withdrawn man, one who required hours of preparation before praying in public.  Perhaps being so withdrawn helped with his writing.

One text, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” (1774), which he wrote a few months after a suicide attempt, has earned a reputation as the greatest hymn on the topic of providence.

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

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Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will.

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Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

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Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

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His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

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Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

–Quoted in The Hymnal (1895), Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.

Cowper, who would have benefited from better therapy, had he lived during later times, died on April 25, 1800.  He was 68 years old.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 19, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINT POEMEN, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT; AND SAINT JOHN THE DWARF AND ARSENIUS THE GREAT; ROMAN CATHOLIC MONKS

THE FEAST OF SAINT AMBROSE AUTPERT, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT

THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN PLESSINGTON, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND MARTYR

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Dear God of beauty,

you have granted literary ability and spiritual sensitivity to

William Cowper and others, who have composed hymn texts.

May we, as you guide us,

find worthy hymn texts to be icons,

through which we see you.

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sirach/Ecclesiasticus 44:1-3a, 5-15

Psalm 147

Revelation 5:11-14

Luke 2:8-20

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

APRIL 20, 2013 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF SAINTS AMATOR OF AUXERRE AND GERMANUS OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOPS; SAINT MAMERTINUS OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT; AND SAINT MARCIAN OF AUXERRE, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONK

THE FEAST OF JOHANNES BUGENHAGEN, GERMAN LUTHERAN PASTOR

THE FEAST OF SAINT MARCELLINUS OF EMBRUN, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP

THE FEAST OF OLAVUS AND LAURENTIUS PETRI, RENEWERS OF THE CHURCH

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2 responses to “Feast of William Cowper (April 26)

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  1. Pingback: Feast of John Newton (July 24) | SUNDRY THOUGHTS

  2. Pingback: William Cowper | GATHERED PRAYERS

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