Hymns - Jewels From William Cowper
May 29, 2024
David Cloud, Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061
The following is excerpted from Transforming Congregational Singing in the 21st Century, https://www.wayoflife.org/bc/course.php


William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) (1731-1800) was one of the most prolific of British poets and hymn writers.

The son of an Anglican pastor who was chaplain to King George II, William began to show signs of severe depression during his student years studying for law. When faced with the bar examination for a position in the House of Lords at age 23, he was plagued by fear and became suicidal. He had to be confined for 18 months. This deep melancholy appeared off and on to the end of his life.

While living with a pastor friend, Morley Unwin, in the area of Olney, Cowper was converted and befriended by Pastor John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace.” Newton lived next door to the Unwins. With Newton, Cowper was involved in the abolitionist movement, and wrote poems in support of the cause, including “The Negro’s Complaint.” From 1767 to 1770, Cowper was in good spirits, but upon the death of his brother that year, he descended into despondency.

He was haunted by thoughts that he was not predestined to salvation according to Calvinist “sovereign election” theology. At times he could trust God, and it was during these times that he wrote his famous hymns. He said that of all the gifts God gives to us, God, Himself, is the greatest. But at other times he was crippled by the fear of being among the non-elect and abandoned by God. His final poem, “The Castaway,” reflected this mindset. Consider the first two stanzas:

Obscurest night involv'd the sky,
         Th' Atlantic billows roar'd,
When such a destin'd wretch as I,
         Wash'd headlong from on board,
Of friends, of hope, of all bereft,
His floating home for ever left.

No braver chief could Albion boast
         Than he with whom he went,
Nor ever ship left Albion's coast,
         With warmer wishes sent.
He lov'd them both, but both in vain,
Nor him beheld, nor her again.

How different this terribly gloomy poem is to faith-filled hymns such as “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “O For a Closer Walk with God”!

Partly to help his friend, Newton suggested that they collaborate on a collection of hymns. Called
Olney Hymns, it was published in 1779. Cowper contributed 68 of the 348 hymns, including “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” “O For a Closer Walk with God,” and “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”

In 1772, Cowper descended yet again into dark depression. “He now sunk into an apparently hopeless state of gloom and wretched despondency, that continued, without a ray of sunshine, for five long years. ... The few remaining years of Cowper were sad enough. Deeper and deeper fell the shadows, with intervals—grow­ing shorter and fewer—of glimmering light” (“William Cowper,” Hymnologyarchive.com).

“There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” 1772
William Cowper

1 There is a fountain filled with blood, Drawn from Immanuel’s veins, And sinners plunged beneath that flood Lose all their guilty stains: Lose all their guilty stains, Lose all their guilty stains; And sinners plunged beneath that flood Lose all their guilty stains.

2 The dying thief rejoiced to see That fountain in His day; And there have I, though vile as he, Washed all my sins away: Washed all my sins away, Washed all my sins away; And there have I, though vile as he, Washed all my sins away.

3 Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood Shall never lose its pow’r, Till all the ransomed church of God Are safe, to sin no more: Are safe, to sin no more, Are safe, to sin no more; Till all the ransomed church of God Are safe, to sin no more.

4 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.

5 When this poor, lisping, stamm’ring tongue Lies silent in the grave, Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save: I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save, I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save; Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save.

Music score

“God Moves in a Mysterious Way” 1774
William Cowper
Tune arranged by William Ravenscroft

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

Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill He treasures up His bright designs And works His sov’reign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds ye so much dread Are big with mercy and shall break In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for His grace; Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, Unfolding every hour; The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flow’r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err And scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, And He will make it plain.

Sheet music

“Sometimes a Light Surprises,” 1779
William Cowper

1 Sometimes a light surprises The Christian while he sings; It is the Lord, who rises With healing in His wings: When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

2 In holy contemplation We sweetly then pursue The theme of God’s salvation, And find it ever new; Set free from present sorrow, We cheerfully can say, Let the unknown tomorrow Bring with it what it may.

3 It can bring with it nothing But He will bear us through; Who gives the lilies clothing Will clothe His people, too; Beneath the spreading heavens, No creature but is fed; And He who feeds the ravens Will give His children bread.

4 Though vine nor fig tree neither Their wonted fruit should bear, Though all the field should wither, Nor flocks nor herds be there; Yet God the same abiding, His praise shall tune my voice, For while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.

Music score

“Christ My Song: (“Ere God Had Built the Mountains”) 1853
William Cowper

This hymn is based on Proverbs 8:22–31.

Ere God had built the mountains,
Or raised the fruitful hills;
Before He filled the fountains
that feed the running rills;
In Thee, from everlasting
The wonderful I AM
Found pleasures never wasting,
And Wisdom is Thy Name.

When like a tent to dwell in,
He spread the skies abroad,
And swathed about the swelling
Of ocean’s mighty flood,
He wrought by weight and measure;
And Thou wast with Him then:
Thyself the Father’s pleasure,
And Thine, the sons of men.

Thus Wisdom’s words discover

Thy glory and Thy grace,
Thou everlasting Lover
Of our unworthy race!
Thy gracious eye surveyed us
Ere stars were seen above;
In wisdom Thou hast made us,
And died for us in love.

And could’st Thou be delighted
With creatures such as we,
Who, when we saw Thee, slighted
And nailed Thee to a tree?
Unfathomable wonder?
And mystery divine?
The voice that speaks in thunder
Says, “Sinner, I am thine!”

The meter is 76.76 D and can be sung to the tune “Chenies.”

This report is excerpted from Transforming Congregational Singing in the 21st Century, https://www.wayoflife.org/bc/course.php

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