Theirs was an amazing friendship marked by triumph and tragedy. It was a friendship that produced the most famous, well-loved hymn of all time, and one of my favorite hymns.
After years of seeking a call to a church, and ordination, John Newton was called to pastor the church at Olney. He would become an increasingly influential figure in 18th century England. When they met for the first time in 1767, Cowper (sounds like Cooper) was a troubled young man. He was unstable and unemployed. They shared some common experiences, and helped each other reach greater heights than they could have if they had not met. God, in his providence, brought them together in order to give the church many good gifts..
Cowper was born in a well-established family that was well-connected in image conscious England. There were many expectations upon William. He grandfather, Spencer Cowper, was England’s Lord Chief Justice. Spenser’s brother Earl was Lord Chancellor. William’s mother Ann was a descendent of John Donne, the 17th century poet and Dean of St. Paul’s. His father was a pastor and a fellow of Merton College Oxford.
William, like John, lost his mother when he was six. Where this seemed to harden John it appears to have broken William.
William studied law and a cousin had gotten him an appointment in the office of the Clerk of the Journals in the House of Lords. First he had to make a preliminary before the bar of the House to answer some formal questions. Fear of this exam put him into an emotional tailspin that resulted in 3 attempts at suicide. He would be institutionalized for 2 years as a result.
Leaving the asylum, Cowper moved in with Rev. Unwin and his wife in Huntingdon. He stayed with them for 2 years, receiving instruction from the Rev. Unwin. In 1767, Morley Unwin was thrown from his horse and died. In God’s providence, Newton was visiting Huntingdon at the time. He planned on meeting the Unwins, carrying a letter of introduction for that purpose. Arriving in the midst of the tragedy, Newton comforted the grieving widow and her “adopted son” William. They shared an evangelical faith, and a love for long walks, good books and discussing topics of interest. After learning they would have to leave Huntingdon, Newton offered to help them find a place to live in Olney.
Newton did find a place for them, but one in need of repair. So Mary and William moved in with the Newtons. The displaced William and Mary had a new home. The lonely and isolated Newton had friends who stimulated him intellectually. Cowper, struggling with depression, lack self-motivation. Newton would provide some friendly motivation that helped him be productive as a poet, hymn writer and curate visiting the members of the congregation. But there were setbacks, like the death of his brother Rev. John Cowper in 1770 who affected him for a few years. His brother had recently come to an evangelical faith due to the influence of Newton. The estate was largely debts, adding financial pressure to William’s already fragile mental state.
Hymns were not well-accepted in the Church of England at the time. They were popular among the “enthusiasts” like the Methodists, Baptists and Independents. Newton’s congregation was largely uneducated. He started to use hymns to teach the people theology. He would write hymns to reinforce his sermons and lessons. Soon Cowper joined Newton in writing hymns during 1771-2.
January 1, 1773 was to be a date that changed their lives forever and gave the church 2 incredible hymns. Newton was working on a hymn for his New Year’s Day sermon. He wrote it for a friend who was struggling- most likely William Cowper. That hymn was Amazing Grace.
A few hours after the worship service, Cowper was taking a long walk in the fields when he was struck with a terrible premonition. He believed he was about to enter another major depression.
“Struggling to make a declaration of his faith in poetic form before his mind was enclosed in the darkness of depression, he struggled home, picked up his pen, and wrote a hymn that many regard as a literary and spiritual masterpiece.
That hymn was God Moves in a Mysterious Way. It is a song of God’s providence, and a reminder to trust him for his grace. The hard things that come our way will bring blessings for those who are in Christ.
The one day brought forth 2 profound hymns that have stood the test of time. This would be the last hymn that Cowper is believed to have written. His premonition came true. That very night he had terrible dreams and hallucinations. In a state of hysteria, he believed that God had told him to take his own life. Despite shedding his own blood, he was not successful. Mary Unwin sent for Newton who came immediately. Newton’s journals for January reflect Cowper’s ongoing problems, including the temptation to commit suicide. Eventually, in April, Mary and William would move back in with the Newtons.
Cowper would spend the next few years as a recluse, reading and writing poetry. He continued in the faith, but never entered the church at Olney. He never resumed his duties as curate. His illness continued to be a great trial to him, and his beloved friend John Newton.
Both hymns were published in The Olney Hymns. Amazing Grace never made much of an impact in England. But became quite popular in America. We do not know the original music, for the tunes were not printed in the Olney Hymnal. William Walker, who compiled spiritual songs in America put in The Southern Harmony with the tune now associated with it. It stuck. Amazing Grace became the most recorded song in America. It is loved by people of faith and without faith.
Cowper and Newton remained fast friends, despite Newton’s eventual move to London for a new pastorate. Newton helped Cowper publish a collection of poetry that established him as one of England’s greatest poets. Newton would preach the eulogy for Cowper’s funeral in 1800.
I summarized portions of John Newton: From Disgrace to Amazing Grace by Jonathan Aitken.