William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), one of England’s most beloved and revered poet laureates, struggled throughout his life in the deep sea of mental illness. His literary achievements as a poet, translator, and letter writer brought him worldly fame, but his contributions as a hymn writer brought glory to the God whom he loved and served.
Cowper was born in 1731 in Hertfordshire, England. His father was a pastor and chaplain to King George II. When William was six years old his mother died, leaving him traumatized and ill prepared to face the rough experiences awaiting him at boarding school.
Cowper excelled in areas of scholarship. Though Cowper attended Westminster School, he accumulated little knowledge of true Christianity. Adark cloud of depression punctuated the pessimism with which he struggled during his academic career.
Cowper’s father pushed him into a law career, and Cowper later remarked, “I was bred to the law, a profession to which I never had much inclination.” Soon after his 21st birthday, violent attacks of melancholia set in. Then his father died; his stepmother died; his best friend drowned. Standing on the precipice of complete despair, Cowper plunged headlong into full insanity caused by an impending public examination prior to his taking a position as Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords. The dread of this procedure overtook him, and he tried several times to take his own life. The failed suicide attempts heightened his sense of guilt and oppression, and Cowper found himself in darkness, overcome with feelings of being under God’s wrath.
Following William’s mental collapse, his brother entrusted him to the care of a private mental asylum in London for 18 months. During his stay at the asylum, Cowper began reading the Bible for comfort. On one such occasion, sitting down in a chair and picking up the Word, he read the first verses that the pages opened to—Romans 3:25, 26: “Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”
Upon reading these words, Cowper understood that Christ’s atoning sacrifice sufficiently covered his own sin. He recalled the moment—“I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.”
Following his release from the asylum, Cowper resolved to leave London and the corrupting influence of society which he felt had contributed to his illness. He made the acquaintance of Morley Unwin in Huntingdon and took up residence with this minister and his family in 1765. Two years later, Mr. Unwin died, and Cowper and the Unwin family moved to the village of Olney at the request of John Newton.
Cowper gained Newton’s devoted friendship during his years at Olney. Because the Olney parish was a large one, Newton took on Cowper as his assistant to help him meet the needs of his parishioners, and Cowper delighted in visiting the sick and poor and in helping with village prayer meetings. While Cowper enjoyed the healing power of Newton’s friendship, it was not enough to keep him from slipping back into mental darkness. To help bring his friend out of the gloom, Newton suggested they collaborate on hymn writing.
In 1770, Cowper wrote a hymn based on of Zechariah 13:1: “In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.” “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” paints a vivid picture of Christ’s atoning blood and God’s forgiveness. The words of this edifying hymn are sung today by believers who find assurance and comfort in the cleansing fountain springing forth from Calvary—as did William Cowper.
THERE IS A FOUNTAIN FILLED WITH BLOOD
(as found in Olney Hymns)
There is a fountain fill’d with blood
Drawn from EMMANUEL’S veins;
And sinners, plung’d beneath that flood,
Loose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoic’d to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Wash’d all my sins away.
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its pow’r;
Till all the ransom’d church of God
Be sav’d, to sin no more.
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.
Then in a nobler sweeter song
I’ll sing thy pow’r to save;
When this poor lisping, stamm’ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave.
LORD, I believe thou hast prepar’d
(Unworthy tho’ I be)
For me a blood-bought free reward,
A golden harp for me!
’Tis strung, and tun’d, for endless years,
And form’d by pow’r divine;
To sound, in GOD the Father’s ears,
No other name but Thine.
At the time of original publication, Vicki Johnson was a freelance writer living in Madison, Alabama.
(Originally published in FrontLine • September / October 2000. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)