William Cowper: Life Lessons

William Cowper’s (pronounced “Cooper”) life rings with lessons for us, about depression, and about moving towards others in love, even when we know not what we should say or do. Cowper lived in the 1700’s, was a friend of John Newton (Newton was his pastor for a time), and wrote poems and hymns that are still valued today. Martin Luther King often quoted Cowper’s abolitionist poem, “The Negroe’s Complaint”, and we still sing in our church Cowper’s hymn, “There Is a Fountain”.

Cowper suffered four debilitating bouts with depression. All of them occurred in January. The first three were ten years apart, the fourth around twenty. Today we might call this “seasonal affective disorder”, but it’s nothing new - the Puritans called it “melancholy”. Whatever one calls it, it’s real, and January for us in Utah is rough. Cowper’s life instructs us for our own “Januaries”.

Recently my son asked about fat - how it appears in our bodies. I thought about Cowper and his January depressions, as I explained that fat serves a good purpose. In many times and places in history, we humans ate less in the winter. We lived in the winter months, in part, on the fat stored up in our bodies from good eating during the harvest season. In the same way, our ability to endure the Januaries of life has much to do with how we spiritually nourish ourselves today. Lesson one: now is the time to store up the “spiritual fat” of the Word for times of trial.

But the Word needed to be applied to Cowper in power. Prior to his conversion, a friend of Cowper’s had shared with him simple gospel truth, which Cowper dismissed - it didn’t apply to him. But later, wrote Cowper, God caused those truths to come to life before him, like the dry bones of Ezekiel 37. Lesson two: share the gospel with the hurting, and pray, even if the words seem to fall dead before the other person. God can bring them to life.

Cowper’s periods of freedom from depression coincided with engagement with the world. He was wealthy enough to not have to work, and this contributed greatly to his depression. But he seems to have found freedom in losing himself in two causes of Christ in the world at the time: abolition and revival. Lesson three: sanity is found by insanely giving ourselves away, by seeking “first the kingdom of God and his righteousness”, trusting that “all these things will be added unto you.”