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By Dennis Roe

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 purpose will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
the bud may have bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

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

The words of this hymn are vivid and beautiful poetic imagery, but more than that, they are rich in spiritual truth. They speak of the mysterious and unfathomable ways of God, or simply put, they speak of God’s mysterious providence. They also compose one of the most familiar hymns of the hymn writer and author William Cowper. This notable hymn is a testimony to Cowper’s faith. In it he puts to verse his clear understanding of the sovereignty of God over all the affairs of life.

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God blessed Cowper to pen some of the most wonderful religious verse that has ever been written in the English language, even though his mental state was such that he often struggled with the deepest depression and mental anguish.

William was the fourth child of Rev. John Cowper, Chaplain to George II. He was born in Great Berkhamsted, England; however, his older siblings died and his mother Anne died in childbirth when his brother John was born; William was not yet six years old.

Many biographers attribute Cowper’s mental instability to the death of his mother in childbirth in 1737. This is only speculation inasmuch as Cowper never speaks to the cause of his times of despair and severe melancholy. However, in this hymn, “God Moves in A Mysterious Way,” he certainly addresses the often mysterious and dark providences of God. In reading this hymn you see that he has come to grips with God’s sovereignty over evil in His child’s life.

You see a similar vein of thought in the book of Job, “He stirs up the sea with His power, And by His understanding He breaks up the storm” (Job 26:12). Job, too, had to deal with the mysterious providences of God, and so Cowper has imagery familiar to this book.

Cowper’s family is noteworthy for its literary and ecclesiastical standing. As mentioned earlier, his father had served as chaplain to King George II, but also notable is that his mother was a descendent of John Donne, who served as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and was a recognized poet.

William Cowper

As a young boy Cowper distinguished himself while attending Westminster School by penning verse both in Latin and English. He had prepared himself for law and even read for the bar. But that was not to be, for his mental problems had begun. So much so, that in the early 1760s he was admitted to what was termed then a “lunatic asylum.”

Yet even in this asylum, the sovereign God came to him, and while he was a patient he came to faith in Christ and was converted to the evangelical faith. This evangelical Calvinistic faith would be the anchor of his soul throughout his life.

In 1867, a relationship would begin that would be of benefit for not only Cowper’s soul, but for the Christian church throughout the ages. It was at this time that John Newton, the noted pastor, theologian and hymn writer, invited Cowper to come and live in Olney, a small community in Buchinghamshire, England. Newton had arranged with Mrs. Mary Unwin, a widow whose husband had been a pastor, to allow Cowper to board with her. This arrangement proved both beneficial to Cowper and to Newton, as Cowper would assist him in the Olney ministry. Often Cowper would accompany Newton on his pastoral calls and help lead in prayer meetings and Bible study.

In 2002, I had the privilege to visit Cowper’s house, now a museum for both Cowper and Newton, in Olney, England. In many ways it was the typical architecture of the house built in that period. What I found notable was when you went out in the back yard, there you could see the Olney church building nearby where John Newton served as pastor. I also observed a foot path leading through his gardens from the back of his property to Olney church building. I could picture in my mind’s eye Cowper making his way to be with his dear friend and pastor.

Soon Cowper and Newton were composing hymns together. These hymns were used in the common worship of the people of Olney. This co-labor in producing hymns eventually led to the publication in 1779 of the Olney Hymnal. This hymnal contained 280 hymns and verse by Newton and another 67 by Cowper.

It is said, “what Cowper’s contributions lacked in quantity they more than make up in quality.”

In the front of the Olney Hymnal these verses are found: “And they sang as it were a new song before the throne; – and no man could learn that song, but the redeemed from the earth” (Rev. 14:3); “As sorrowful – yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10).

The last verse seems to capture the spirit and life of William Cowper.

Among the popular hymns penned by Cowper are: “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “Jesus, Where’er Thy People Meet” and “O For A Closer Walk With God.”

Read the text of “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” and you delve into the riches and depth of Cowper’s understanding of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Truly he was an evangelical poet of the highest order because he grasped so clearly the necessity of Christ’s death and the shedding of His blood as the heart of the gospel.

Look at and meditate at each stanza:

There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
and sinners plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.
Lose all their guilty stains,
lose all their guilty stains;
and sinners plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
that fountain in his day;
and there may I, though vile as he,
wash all my sins away.
Wash all my sins away,
wash all my sins away;
and there may I, though vile as he,
wash all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
shall never lose its power
till all the ransomed church of God
be saved, to sin no more.
Be saved, to sin no more,
be saved, to sin no more;
till all the ransomed church of God
be saved, to sin no more.

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.
And shall be till I die,
and shall be till I die;
redeeming love has been my theme,
and shall be till I die.

Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing thy power to save,
when this poor lisping, stammering tongue
lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave,
lies silent in the grave;
when this poor lisping, stammering tongue
lies silent in the grave.

Some have criticized his evangelical faith in Christ, and in particular his Calvinism, as the cause of his mental problems. Rather I think we should recognize it as a testimony of God’s marvelous grace in Cowper’s life that was the only true pillar to an otherwise troubled life. Note his words in the fourth stanza of the aforementioned hymn, “Redeeming love has been my theme, and shall be till I die.”

Furthermore, the Christian should not be surprised that one of God’s servants should struggle with such mental anguish as Cowper did. Consider the Apostle Paul’s words in his first letter to the Corinthians, perhaps in a new light, when you think of Cowper.

“For you see your calling, brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called. But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence. But of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God – and righteousness and sanctification and redemption – that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the LORD’” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31).

In the church building in East Dereham, where William Cowper is buried, you find a tablet praising him with “spotless fame” and that “his virtues form’d the magic of his song.” Knowing Cowper from the legacy of hymns he has given us, I doubt very much that he would have approved of such self-praise. No, Cowper’s glory was in his only Savior Jesus Christ as he wrote in his last stanza of “There is a Fountain”:

Then in a nobler, sweeter song,
I’ll sing thy power to save,
when this poor lisping, stammering tongue
lies silent in the grave.
Lies silent in the grave,
lies silent in the grave;
when this poor lisping, stammering tongue
lies silent in the grave.

To read more about William Cowper, please visit Leben’s website.

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