William Cowper (pronounced ‘Cooper”) was born November 15th, 1731. Rendered motherless at the age of 6, and raised by a father unsuited to his needs, Cowper was a nervous, weak child. When he was 18 he began to study law, something for which he was not suited, and the study proved disastrous as his mind broke under the stress and strain. He so despaired of passing the bar at the House of Lords that the night before his examination he attempted suicide 20 times. Each time he either lost courage, or was thwarted in some other way, and by the end of the night “other means failing, the half-dead man now began to turn his eyes away from the bar of the House of Lords, to the bar of the King of Kings. (Illustrated…Pg92)”
The thought of his vileness before God further disturbed the mind of the young man, and he sunk deeper into despair. At this time in his life his cousin Martin Madan, whom he normally avoided, came to tell him of Jesus, and a ray of hope entered his heart, but he did not act on it. Sadly, e’er long Cowper was afflicted by a brain disease and for two years was made resident of the infamous insane asylum of St. Albans. Six months into his stay in July of 1764, he happened upon a Bible and in reading Romans 3:25:
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;”
God brought back to his mind the words of his cousin, and he at last believed on Christ for salvation. The period following his conversion was a period of intense joy for Cowper. Though he would continue vacillate between suicidal depression and service to God, immediately following his salvation was a time of great rejoicing as he spent the days in praise and thanksgiving to God. It was here, recovering in an insane asylum that he first began writing hymns. His hymns from this period indicate the incredible joy he was experiencing as a new and grateful believer and serve as a testament to those who follow that one’s circumstances do not have to dictate one’s joy, when Christ is the source.
In 1767, Cowper’s close friend John Newton and author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” invited him to move to Olney, near his own home. Newton said that during the period of 12 years that they lived near unto each other that there was seldom 12 hours in which they were apart if they were both awake and at home. As pastor to a flock of 1,000, Newton found that he had need of hymns to sing at the many prayer meetings held throughout the week, and he convinced his friend to write some for publication. After six years of work, they produced together the “Olney Hymn Book.”
The quotation can be found on page 92 in the “Illustrated History of Hymns and their Authors” by Edward McKean Long, published in 1875.
Melody Publications is an organization focused on reawakening the melody of truth in the hearts and minds of believers at home and abroad. Our prayer is that our work would aid churches and families as they sing “Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs” in praise and in worship to our God.