This distinguished poet and hymn writer was born at Great Berkhampstead, in Hertfordshire, England, November 26, 1731. He came of an excellent family, his father being a clergyman, and his grand-uncle, Lord Chancellor of the Realm. He lost his mother when only six years old; and at the early age of ten was sent to a boarding-school, where the older boys were rough and cruel towards him; being of a very sensitive and timid disposition, he suffered much from the hands of these thoughtless bullies. He says, speaking of this time, "Day and night I was upon the rack; lying down in horror and rising up in despair." And when he became a man he wrote a poem called Tirocinium (Review of Schools), in which he described what children like himself often have to endure in these private boarding-schools; and the cruelties practiced on him by the older boys probably helped later to unbalance his mind at times, for "when grown to manhood, he tried to hang himself," the account says; but the rope broke, and he was saved. After that, in his insanity, he supposed that he had committed the unpardonable sin.
How sad that thoughtless school-mates, by their cruel sport, should have helped to unbalance the mind of this timid and sensitive boy. Let it be a lesson to all boys to be kind and gentle to those younger than themselves, especially to the motherless and timid.
Handicapped by his great diffidence, no doubt, Cowper had no success in the law profession which he negligently pursued for nine years: "He neither sought business, nor business sought him." Then an influential friend obtained for him a clerkship in the House of Lords, but learning that he must appear before them for examination, he became so despondent that he attempted suicide.
For a long time dear Wm. Cowper thought it was impossible for him to be saved. But in July, 1764, sitting in his garden one day with the blessed Book of God before him, he was arrested by the words in Romans 3:24, 25; "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; 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." The light of the gospel, contained in these wonderful words, entered into his soul, and he there and then "believed to the saving of his soul." We shall let him tell us in his own words what he felt and experienced at that happy moment.
"Immediately I received strength to believe," he says, "and the full beams of the Sun of Righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement that Christ had made, my pardon in His blood, the fulness and completeness of my justification. In a moment I believed and received the gospel."
Yes! It is the moment we believe the "gospel of our salvation" that we pass from death unto life. It does not take years, or months, or days to be saved; one look of faith in Christ, and you are made a child of God. (Read it for yourself in John 1:12). Reader, if you are anxious to be saved, you may receive Christ by faith just now; He has suffered for your sins on the cross to put them away for ever. This will bring both peace and joy to your soul, as it did to William Cowper.
When 34 years of age, being largely restored in mind, his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Unwin, took him in their home, near Olney, where lived the devoted John Newton, who was of much help to Cowper. They became close friends, and oftentimes "took sweet counsel together" over the preciousness of Christ and the fulness of His salvation. Together, they composed or compiled the celebrated Olney Hymns. Besides his sixty-four Olney Hymns, Cowper wrote many other pieces by which he ranks among the first of English poets. He boldly pleaded the cause of the poor and the slave with his pen; even the dumb animals came in for a share of his poetic pleas. He was also greatly interested in Christian missions, as every follower of our Lord should be.
Among his best-known hymns are the following:
"Oh, for a closer walk with God."
"Ere God had built the mountains."
"There is a fountain filled with blood."
"Hark, my soul! it is the Lord."
"I thirst, but not as once I did."
"Of all the gifts Thy love bestows."
"God moves in a mysterious way."
The last mentioned was the last but one of his many and beautiful compositions.
A large part of Cowper's life was spent in the gloom of melancholy in which he experienced at times impulses to suicide. There is a story that it was after he had providentially been prevented from drowning himself in the river Ouse, that he wrote the sublime hymn on Divine Providence,
"God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm."
But the hymn from Cowper that has made more history than any other is,
"There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel's veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Washed all my sins away.
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved 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 power to save,
When this poor lisping, stamm'ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave."
Critics have found much fault with the first stanza's simile. The hymn, however, is hallowed by many precious and notable occurrences in connection with it. An author gives the following incident among others:
"A Mr. Cross had a notorious infidel neighbor. He took great interest in this man's spiritual welfare, and several times endeavored to reach his bedside; but his wife, obeying her husband's command, refused to allow any one to converse with him on the subject of religion. But the good man was not discouraged, and he soon solved the difficulty.
"In the neighborhood was a little girl whose voice in song was sweet and impressive. Mr. Cross said to her, 'Mabel, would you mind singing the hymn, 'There is a fountain filled with blood,' in the room of yonder window where a poor man is very sick?' Mabel was glad to do so kind a service, and Mr. Cross then gave her a handful of beautiful flowers, and in a few minutes she was admitted into the room; and laying the flowers on a table near the bed, she began the hymn. Line after line was sung tenderly and touchingly. Presently the sick man was overcome with emotion, and in a trembling voice asked: 'Where, my child, did you get that song?' When he learned that Mabel was a member of Mr. Cross's Bible Class, he made the request that the teacher should call to see him. The sequel can be told in a single line—'A brand was plucked from the burning.'"
Dear Cowper passed away "to be with Christ," April 25, 1800, in his 69th year, and his memory, as that "of the just," is "blessed for ever!"
Prayer for Children
by William Cowper
Gracious Lord, our children see.
By Thy mercy we are free,
But shall these, alas, remain
Subjects still of Satan's reign?
Israel's young ones, when of old
Pharaoh threatened to withhold,
Then Thy messenger said, "No:
Let the children also go."
When the angel of the Lord,
Drawing forth his dreadful sword,
Slew with an avenging hand
All the first-born of the land,
Then Thy people's doors he passed,
Where the bloody sign was placed.
Hear us, now, upon our knees,
Plead the blood of Christ for these!
Lord, we tremble, for we know
How the fierce malicious foe,
Wheeling round his watchful flight,
Keeps them ever in his sight.
Spread Thy pinions, King of kings;
Hide them safe beneath Thy wings;
Lest the rav'nous bird of prey
Swoop and bear these young away.
A Closer Walk with God
by William Cowper
O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate'er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.
From Who Wrote Our Hymns by Christopher Knapp. New York: Loizeaux Brothers, [1925?].
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