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Christian History Home > 2004 > Issue 81 > The Captain & the Castaway

The Captain & the Castaway
The tempest-tossed friendship of John Newton and William Cowper
Jennifer M. Trafton | posted 1/01/2004 12:00AM

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In his preface to the Olney Hymns (1779), John Newton explained the larger purpose of the collection: "A desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere Christians, though the principal, was not the only motive to this undertaking. It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship." This friend and co-author of the hymnbook was the poet William Cowper (1731-1800).

At first, Newton was in awe of this sophisticated gentleman who would later become known as one of the great English poets of the eighteenth century. But the author of such well-known hymns as "God moves in a mysterious way" and "There is a fountain filled with blood" was also a man of deep struggles.

Newton witnessed his role model undergo an emotional collapse that left Cowper completely dependent for a time upon him. The former sea captain who had braved his own storms faced the difficult—perhaps impossible—task of steering his dear friend through an even fiercer tempest of the soul.

Inner turmoil

Unlike Newton's own turbulent past, full of literal "dangers, toils, and snares," William Cowper's trials were almost entirely interior. Pushed by his family into a law career in London, the intensely shy Cowper had tried to escape the terror of a public bar examination by committing suicide. Though his attempt failed, he became obsessed with the fear that he was guilty of the unpardonable sin.

While being treated at an asylum, Cowper came gradually to a belief in the mercy of Jesus and converted to an evangelical faith. His new religious fervor kept him from capsizing again into mental illness for another ten years.

Cowper moved to the village of Olney in 1767, with only a garden and an orchard separating his house from Newton's. The two became inseparable companions, taking walks together and engaging in theological discussion. Newton also urged Cowper to help conduct weekly prayer services, visit the poor, and accompany Newton on preaching tours. This partnership spawned a prolific period of hymn writing for both men, and they made plans to publish a hymnbook for the Olney congregation as a celebration of their spiritually fruitful camaraderie.

The project was interrupted, however, when Cowper sank into another debilitating depression in 1773. Wracked by terrifying nightmares prompting more suicide attempts, he moved into the vicarage under the vigilant care of Newton. After 14 months Cowper recovered and returned to his own house, but depression plagued him for the rest of his life, and he never again attended public worship.

Newton continued to write hymns during this period and eventually published the hymnbook, despite having fewer hymns from Cowper's pen than he wished. He described the relationship later: "The Lord who had brought us together had so knit our hearts and affections that for nearly 12 years, we were seldom separated for 12 hours at a time when we were awake and at home. The first six I passed in daily admiring and trying to imitate him; during the second six I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death."

Though the exact nature and causes of Cowper's condition have been long debated, Cowper interpreted his own feelings solely in religious terms and became convinced that he was experiencing God's rejection. He was an anomaly both to his friends and to himself: a doctrinally orthodox Christian who proclaimed the gospel of grace to others yet believed himself to be uniquely condemned by God. Even in the midst of despair over his own salvation, Cowper firmly believed that there was no possibility of happiness or healing apart from God, and to his dying day he waited for a divine word that would cure his misery.

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