How could William Cowper write hymns extolling the goodness of God while on the edge of suicide?
Christians everywhere sing the words he wrote—“O for a closer walk with God’ and “Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings”—but few know that the author of those words suffered deep depressions and even periods of stark-staring madness. The British poet William Cowper, one of the principal writers for the evangelical revival during the eighteenth century, produced works extolling the mercy and forgiveness of God while laboring under the certain conviction that he himself was damned. He wrote the hymn “God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform” on the eve of his second suicide attempt.
I first became acquainted with Cowper’s poetry as a graduate student in English literature. I paid little attention then either to his religion or his mental state. Only years later, when I was considering using a phrase from one of his hymns for a book title, did I learn about the poet’s madness. Cowper’s predicament intrigued me. None of his friends doubted his religious conversion. All were appalled by his psychosis. Both seemed genuine. I found myself unsettled by a dark question: What does it profit a man if he gain the kingdom of God but lose his own mind?
The dilemma of William Cowper has been difficult to sort out because our secular age shies away from that part of human experience we call religious. Whereas in the sixteenth century Philip Melanchthon, the Reformation theologian, used psychologia to mean the study of the human soul, we now translate the Greek root psyche as mind. For us, psychology is the study of mental states with emotional overtones. For even though mind (as distinct from brain) eludes definition, ...1
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