There is a fountain filled with blood, drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood…lose all their guilty stains.
The writer of the hymn There is a Fountain was one of the most popular poets and hymnodist of his time. He is accredited with changing the direction of 18th century poetry and with being a forerunner of Romantic poetry. Fellow poets such as Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth greatly admired his work and John Newton (author of Amazing Grace) was his near and dear friend.
Popularity, notoriety, and giftedness were attributes that William Cowper possessed and one would think that the author of such beloved and deeply spiritual hymns walked a secure and bright path. However, he did not. William Cowper often struggled with depression, attempted suicides, and bouts of insanity.
William Cowper – an example of perseverance and undying faith while traveling through the darkness of life.
William Cowper, was born (November 26, 1731) into a religious family where his father served as the rector of the prestigious Church of St. Peter in Berkhamsted, England. For decades the Church of St. Peter had been associated with Royalty and during the time that Williams father served as rector the Prince of Wales, George II (future king of England), along with many prominent individuals of the Royal household, were members of the church and attended regularly. Due to the immense responsibilities that a rector of a royal church would have, it is recorded that William had little interaction with his father.
Early Years (1-10)
William started life out in pain, discomfort and grief. As a baby, William suffered from inflammation of the eyes. He was placed under the care of an oculist where it took several years before he would find relief. At the age of six, William’s mother died after giving birth to his only surviving sibling. Shortly after her death, he was sent to the boarding-school at Markyate, six miles away from Berkhamsted, where he would endure constant bullying and very few visits from his father or family. William became known to those around him as having a nervous and melancholy personality.
Middle Years (11 -18)
At eleven, William finally found relief from ridicule. In 1742, William became of age to transfer from the boarding school to The Royal College of St. Peter in Westminster. It was here that he would enjoy school and the company of his schoolmates for the first time. In spite of his delicate emotional state, Williams’ progression through school was realitively smooth and steady. As he entered into the higher grades and young adulthood Cowper began to study law with ambitions to join the House of Lords.
During his time in Westminster, William spent his leisure time at his uncle’s home where eventually he and his cousin Theodora fell in love. However, due to the couple being closely related, his Uncle disapproved and refused their request to marry and ended their relationship leaving William emotionally distraught.
William struggles with debilitating depression. In 1763 Cowper was offered a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords, but broke under the strain of the approaching examination and experienced a period of insanity.
History records that William had many instances where he dealt with debilitating depression and during the years 1763-65 he was institutionalized at Nathaniel Cotton‘s asylum for insanity after he attempted to commit suicide three times. It was while he was at the asylum that William found refuge in evangelical Christianity.
The dying thief rejoiced to see that fountain in His day; And there have I, though vile as he…Washed all my sins away.
After his recovery, William moved to Olney to lived with a retired clergyman and his wife, Morley and Mary Unwin. While in Olney, Cowper’s relationship with the Unwin’s grew close and he began attending their church where John Newton was curate. It was during this time that William and John Newton became close friends. However, shortly after Cowper moved in with the Unwin’s, Morley was killed in a fall from his horse, but William continued to live in the Unwin home and became greatly attached to Mary Unwin.
While in Olney John Newton invited Cowper to join him in writing hymns which resulted in the volume known as the Olney Hymns (published in 1779). Their friendship remained close throughout each others lifetime and John was instrumental in helping Cower through many depressive episodes.
Spiritual crisis – insanity ensued. In 1773, Cowper experienced an attack of insanity brought on by a spiritual crisis. He imagined not only that he was eternally condemned to hell, but that God was commanding him to make a sacrifice of his own life. Mary Unwin,with great devotion, took care of him and after a year he began again to recover.
Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood, Shall never lose its power…Till all the ransomed church of God Are safe, to sin no more.
In 1779, after John Newton moved to London, William returned to writing poetry. Mary Unwin wanted to keep his mind occupied and suggested that he write on the subject of The Progress of Error, and after writing his satire he went on to write seven additional poems. All of them were published in 1782 under the title Poems by William Cowper, of the Inner Temple, Esq..
In 1786 Cowper and Mary Unwin moved to Weston and during their time there he began a large undertaking by translating Homer’s Iliad and Odyseey into English (Homers Iliad tells of the battles and events during the Trojan War and the Odyssey is its sequel). In 1795 they moved to East Dereham where they finally settled. Sadly, Mary died a year later which plunged Cowper into a gloom from which he never fully recovered.
In the Spring of 1800 at the age of 69 William Cowper was seized with dropsy (edema) and died.
E’er since by faith I saw the stream…Thy flowing wounds supply…Redeeming love has been my theme, And shall be till I die.
William Cowper dealt with depression, bouts of insanity and attempted suicides throughout his life, but the one thing that he never lost, though under duress, was his faith in God and the promise of His redeeming love. Even in his frailty he was able to rise above his circumstances to praise and glorify God.
William Cowper left us with 15 great Hymns but greater yet he left an example to press on, even when you don’t understand the “why’s” of life, and keep your faith in God for the prize of heaven is worth reaching for even in the midst of darkness.
When this poor, lisping, stamm’ring tongue…Lies silent in the grave…Then in a nobler, sweeter song, I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save.
And….his song lives on.