The life of William Cowper; God moves in a mysterious way

Sally-Anne Jackman

Recently I had the privilege of introducing the 18th century poet, William Cowper, to the Globe Church congregation. I spoke about his life, his battles with depression, how he was led to Christ through the story of Lazarus and performed a song I had arranged based on the lyrics to Cowper’s song, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”.

William Cowper (1731-1800) was a poet and hymn writer from the 18th century. His life was a series of unfortunate events, with despair being the theme of his life.

He grew up in a ‘Christian home’, his father worked in a church, although he didn’t know a saving relationship with Christ until he was 32. He knew about God but didn’t know God. His mother died when he was a young boy, his father became absent so essentially he lost both of his parents at once. He was sent to boarding school where he was bullied throughout the school by an older boy. Following boarding school he apprenticed to become a lawyer but he never really engaged with it.

It was at this stage in his life where he sank into his first depress, the first of four. He expressed that it felt like he had no meaning in the world. Relief for Cowper was found in reading of other people’s poetry and the writing of his own.

Pressure and stress lead him to a second depression, he attempted to commit suicide three times and was placed into a mental asylum. Cowper’s doctor at the asylum was also a poet and a lover of God and the gospel. Six months into Cowper’s stay, his doctor left a Bible lying on a bench for Cowper to find.  On reading about Lazarus being raised from the dead, Cowper “saw so much benevolence, mercy, goodness, and sympathy with miserable men” and realised that the love and mercy Jesus extended for Lazarus also extended for him - “thus my heart was softened...” This was the point at which Cowper committed his life to the work of God.

Increasingly he felt he was not utterly forsaken. He again felt led to turn to the Bible, and read verses such as Romans 3:25. He wrote:

Immediately I received the strength to believe it, and the full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me… I could only look up to Heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.

What an amazing quote! This is the quote that I put into the chorus of the arrangement I did in response to Cowper’s life.

Finding Christ did not end Cowper’s struggles with depression. However, in this time he met John Newton, who became a close friend, pastor and councillor. Cowper and Newton wrote a hymn book together and Cowper wrote hymns such as “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood”.

His life did not end in cheerfulness- he died in 1800, apparently in deep despair.

What I’ve written here is just a snippet of his life and the struggles he faced, his story taught me so much and has so many challenges to it. One thing that stood out to me was the fact that he live a life seeking to serve the Lord in the midst of the darkness of his ongoing depressions. God worked through him even in his darkest times. We can apply this to our lives, as God can work through every one of us if we’ve been saved by grace, even if we have the darkest life. Jesus is the light in the darkness.

Having been blessed by his story I sat at the piano and enjoyed arranging his hymn and adding the chorus, especially the use of the quote I mentioned earlier, it’s beautiful. I found it a real blessing to know the story of the man behind the lyrics of the hymn and also behind the countless poems he wrote.

William Cowper is an example of someone who God has worked through, even in the darkest times, and it’s a privilege to show you the song I arranged and the lyrics he wrote. Hopefully you can see the work of light that God did through his life of darkness and I hope and pray that it gives you hope of the things God can do through you.


Sally-Anne Jackman is studying Theology, Music & Worship at London School of Theology.