Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Have Hou ever heard of William Cowper and John Newton? Let me tell you about them.

By Anita Gordon, Alberta, Canada
 Complete and unabridged
Copy right 2016 A. Gordon, all rights reserved
John Newton was the captain of a slave trader ship in the 1700's. Lashing the Africans and putting them in thumbscrews to subdue them was 'all in a day's work.' In God's good providence, Newton was forced to retire from the slaving ships after a bout of severe illness. At this time Christ became much enlarged in this man's life and he turned to the pastorate in the Anglican church. Here he met William Cowper.

William Cowper was a timid and sensitive young man. Losing his mother at a very young age, he grew up with increased anxiety and great fits of despondency, even attempting to take his own life several times. After time in a private asylum, he recovered his reason and moved to the country town of Olney, where John Newton, the ex-slaver, was pastor. Soon they were close friends, taking walks together and engaging in theological discussion.

Seeing Cowper's gift in writing poetry, Newton pressed him to service writing hymns for the church. These were called the Olney hymns and many are still sung today such as There is a Fountain Filled with Blood and God Moves in A Mysterious Way.

The project was interrupted, however, when Cowper sank into another debilitating depression in 1773. Wracked by terrifying nightmares which prompted more suicide attempts (overdosing on laudanum and 3 attempts at hanging himself), he moved into the manse under the vigilant care of Newton who sacrificed at least one vacation so as not to leave Cowper alone.

After 14 months, Cowper recovered somewhat and returned to live with a kindly older couple, but depression plagued him for the rest of his life, and he never again attended public worship.

Newton continued to uphold his friend, Cowper. After accepting a call to a church in London, Newton refused to abandon his sorely depressed friend and their friendship continued by way of a constant trail of letters.

Newton writes:

I can only advise you to resist to the utmost every dark and discouraging suggestion. The Lord has done great things for you, and wonderfully appeared in your behalf already. Take encouragement hence to hope, that he will not forsake the work of his own hands;

Writing to Newton, in the winter of 1784, Cowper insists that:

The weather is an exact emblem of my mind in its present state. A thick fog invelops every thing, and at the same time it freezes intensely. You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavor to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it. But it will be lost labor: Nature revives again, but a soul once slain, lives no more. The hedge that has been apparently dead, is not so, it will burst into leaf and blossom at the appointed time; but no such time is appointed for the stake that stands in it. It is as dead as it seems, and will prove itself no dissembler.

Cowper bared his soul to Newton as to no other, and Newton in turn counseled, shepherded, encouraged and upheld this oppressed saint.

It would have been easy for Newton to graciously step away from the pastoral responsibility he owed to Cowper as one of his troubled sheep when he moved to London. Nobody would have faulted Newton for this. But despite the physical distance between them and the obvious time restraints that no doubt came with the pastorate, Newton never abandoned his friend. He held him close in heart and prayer, and his pen was ever ready to offer counsel and encouragement:

The connection which the Lord himself formed between us, was undoubtedly formed for eternity; but I trust we shall have more of the pleasure and comfort of it in time, and that I shall yet hear you say, "Come, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together; for He has turned my mourning into joy, and He has taken off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness."

In 1795 Cowper writing to Newton stated, "There is no day in which you are excluded from my thoughts."

Cowper's depression intensified as he aged. Even on his deathbed Cowper was plagued by torment, certain that God had turned His face from him. However, a glimmer of hope emerged soon before he breathed his last when he exclaimed, "I am not shut out of heaven after all!"

When Cowper died, Newton conducted the funeral service and began with these words:

Exodus Chapter 3 verses 2,3:
And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

The Lord has given me many friends but with none have I had so great an intimacy, as with my friend Mr. Cowper. But he is gone. I was glad when I heard it. I know of no text in the whole book of God’s word more suited to the case of my dear friend than that I have read. He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed. And why? Because the Lord was there.

Cowper is one of God's gracious gifts to those suffering from debilitating depression. He suffered the agonies of the deepest hell that could be suffered on earth. He endured despite everything inside of him telling him to lay down all hope. But when His precious Lord took him home, his endurance was rewarded. Never would there ever be even a wisp of a cloud to hide his Maker from his view.

Newton is a precious example to all those who support loved ones who are crippled by depression. His steadfastness, his love, his commitment and perseverance to Cowper mirrors Christ's enduring love for His broken people. Oh, to have more Newtons in this world!.