The Captain & the Castaway
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.
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 ...