William Cowper

Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Hymn Stories

Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” (John 13:7)

William Cowper (1731-1800) was not a man who had an easy life, and was prone to what might be today called manic depression. His father was Rector of Berkhamsted, but his mother died when he was aged just six. He attended Westminster School, and was heading for a career in the law, and was offered the post of Clerk of Journals in the House of Lords. The strain of preparing for examinations broke him, however, and on three occasions he attempted suicide before ending up at an asylum in St Albans.

He then lived with a retired clergyman and moved with them to Olney, which brought him into contact with the evangelical curate, John Newton (of Amazing Grace fame). The two became friends, and Newton asked Cowper - who had a reputation as a poet - to contribute some hymns to his new hymnbook.

He still struggled with his mental health - and further suicide attempts - yet he found solace in his hymn writing, and many of his best known hymns date from the period, not least “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” which deals with the providence of God. This hymn was developed from a poem entitle “Light Shining out of Darkness”. Many think the phrase “God moves in a mysterious way” is a Biblical one, but in fact it comes from Cowper’s pen. When the hymn was published, is was given a text from John’s Gospel: “Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’”

Such is the testimony of a man who struggled his entire life, and yet found solace in the providence of God.

God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence,
He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding ev'ry hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flow'r.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

God and Man

If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. (1 John 5:9-10) - John was adamant that Jesus “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). He really was fully human and fully divine.


I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. (1 John 5:13) - And so to the end of 1 John, and the apostle gives us the reason why he put pen to paper. The believers in the church had been shaken by the presence of some false teachers. They were doubting that they had eternal life. They had lost confidence.

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