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Cowper's Conversion to Christ

William CowperDuring the period of Cowper's seclusion at St. Albans [Insane Asylum], the tenderest and most skillful discipline, both for mind and body, was brought to bear upon him, but for many months to no apparent purpose. It was not that reason was dethroned, as in the first access of his insanity, but an immoveable, impenetrable, awful gloom surrounded him, out of which it seemed as if he never would emerge. All this while, Cowper says, conviction of sin and expectation of instant judgment never left him, from the 7th of December, 1763, till the middle of July following; and for eight months all that passed might be classed under two heads, conviction of sin and despair of mercy. Over the secrets of the prison-house he draws the veil, if indeed he remembered them; but even when he had so far regained his reason as to enter into conversation with Dr. Cotton, putting on the aspect of smiles and merriment, he still carried the sentence of irrecoverable doom in his heart. The gloom continued, till a visit from his brother in July, 1764, seemed attended with a faint breaking of the cloud; and something like a ray of hope, in the midst of their conversation, shot into his heart.

And now, for the first time in a long while, he took up the Bible, which he found upon a bench in the garden where he was walking, but which he had long thrown aside, as having no more any interest or portion in it. The eleventh chapter of John, to which he opened, deeply affected him; and though as yet the way of salvation was not beheld by him, still the cloud of horror seemed every moment passing away, and every moment came fraught with hope. It seemed at length like a spring time in his soul, when the voice of the singing of birds might once more be heard, and a resurrection from death be experienced.

And, indeed, God's time of mercy in Christ Jesus had now come. Seating himself in a chair near the window, and seeing a Bible there, Cowper once more took it up and opened it for comfort and instruction. And now the very first verse he fell upon was that most remarkable passage in the third chapter of Romans, that blessed third of Paul, as Bunyan would have called it, "Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness through the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God." Immediately on reading this verse, the scales fell from his eyes, as in another case from Paul's, and, in his own language, he received strength to believe, and the full beams of the Sun of righteousness shone upon him ."I saw," says he, "the sufficiency of the atonement he had made, my pardon sealed in his blood, and all the fullness and completeness of his justification. In a moment I believed, and received the gospel. Whatever my friend Madan had said to me so long before, revived with all its clearness, with demonstration of the Spirit, and with power."

Now this was a most complete and wondrous cure. Not more wondrous was that of the poor wild man of the mountains in Judea, of old possessed with devils, when brought to sit, clothed and in his right mind, at the feet of his Redeemer. The fever of the brain was quenched; those spectres with dragon wings that had brooded over the chaos of his soul, were fled for ever; the ignorance and darkness of an understanding blinded by the god of this world had been driven away before the mild, calm, holy light of a regenerated, illuminated, sanctified reason, in her white robe of humility and faith; and the anxious, restless, gloomy unbelief and despair of heart had given place to a sweet and rapturous confidence in Jesus. Oh, it were worth going mad many years to be the subject of such a heavenly deliverance! The Hand Divine of the Great Physician, gentle and invisible, was in all this; the veil was taken from Cowper's heart, and the Lord of Life and Glory stood revealed before him; and when his soul took in the meaning of that grand passage in God's word, it was a flood of heaven's light over his whole being. It was as sudden and complete an illumination as when the light shineth from one side of heaven to the other; and it was as permanent, through a long and blissful season of unclouded Christian experience, as when the sun shineth at noon-day, or in that other and more lovely image in the word of God, as the sun's clear shining after rain. It was creative energy and beauty in the spiritual world, transcending the glory of the scene when God said, "Let there be light " in the material world.

But what was this sudden revelation? Assuredly Cowper had seen, had heard, had read, this passage before. Undoubtedly Mr. Madan, himself an enlightened and rejoicing Christian, must have presented it to him, and dwelt upon its meaning. Indeed, it had always been, in the speculation of the theological, and the experience of the Christian world, as marked a fixture and feature of truth and proof in Christian doctrine, as the sun is a radiant and reigning luminary in the heavens. And yet, Cowper had never beheld it before! But now, on the verge of a region of darkness that can be felt, through which he had been struggling, he saw it suddenly, transportingly, permanently. How can this be accounted for? What invisible influence or agent was busy in the recesses of Cowper's mind, arranging its scenery, withdrawing its clouds, preparing its powers of vision, and at the same time moving in the recesses of that profound passage, shining behind the letter of its phrases, as behind a vast transparency, and pouring through it like a sudden creation, the imagery of heaven? There is but one answer; and this experience of Cowper's mind and heart is one of the most marked and wondrous instances on record, illustrative of his own exquisitely beautiful hymn, beginning,

"The Spirit breathes upon the word,
And brings the truth to light."

It is one of the most precious demonstrations ever known of that passage in which the apostle Paul describes his own similar experience, and that of all who are ever truly converted—"For God, who caused the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." It was one of the most marvellous and interesting cases of this divine illumination in the whole history of redemption.

Why had not Cowper seen all this before? Because, according to God's own answer, "the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned." These truths were as clearly truths, and as well known in speculation, before that hour, that moment, of the shining of heaven in his soul, as they ever were afterwards. But as yet they had not been revealed by the Spirit. But the instant God thus interposed, then could Cowper exclaim with Paul, "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God, that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God." First, the revelation of the things that are given, then the Spirit, that we might know them. And the reason why this divine illumination did not take place years before, was just because the veil was on the heart, and it had not turned to the Lord, that the veil might be taken away; and it pleased the sovereign blessed will and infinite wisdom and love of God to lead the subject of this mighty experience out of darkness into light by a gradual preparatory discipline. And yet, when the light came, it was as now, as surprising, as ecstatic, as the light of day to a man blind from his birth.

"Unless the Almighty arm had been under me," says he, "I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport, I could only look to heaven in silence, overwhelmed with love and wonder. But the work of the Holy Spirit is best described in his own words—it was joy unspeakable and full of glory. Thus was my Heavenly Father in Christ Jesus pleased to give me full assurance of faith; and out of a strong unbelieving heart to raise up a child unto Abraham. How glad should I now have been to have spent every moment in prayer and thanksgiving! I lost no opportunity of repairing to a throne of grace, but flew to it with an eagerness irresistible, and never to be satisfied. Could I help it? Could I do otherwise than love and rejoice in my reconciled Father in Christ Jesus? The Lord had enlarged my heart, and I ran in the ways of his commandments. For many succeeding weeks, tears were ready to flow if I did but speak of the gospel or mention the name of Jesus. To rejoice day and night was my employment; too happy to sleep much, I thought it was lost time that was spent in slumber. Oh that the ardour of my first love had continued!"

It was such a change, so bright, so sudden, so complete, so joyful, that at first his kind, Christian, and watchful physician, Dr. Cotton, was alarmed lest it might terminate in frenzy, but he soon became convinced of the sacred soundness and permanent blissfulness of the cure. Every morning of the year he visited his interesting and beloved patient; and ever, in sweet communion, the gospel was the delightful theme of their conversation.

From The Sunday at Home: Family Magazine for Sabbath Reading. London: Religious Tract Society, 1859.

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