Philippians 4:10-13: “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
William Cowper (1731-1800) was an English poet and hymn writer. Though never a preacher of the gospel, his hymns have blessed generations of the Lord’s people. He became close friends with John Newton, which led to the publication of the Olney Hymns—a collection of hymns designed to be used by Newton’s congregation. Both men were Abolitionists, campaigning to end the slave trade. Cowper wrote several anti-slavery compositions, one of which was called “The Negro’s Complaint”, frequently quoted by Martin Luther King Jr during the civil rights movement of the 20th century. John Gadsby wrote of Cowper:
“William Cowper was born at Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, Nov. 15, 1731. In his autobiography he says, "I cannot recollect that, until I was in my 32nd year, I had ever any serious impressions of a religious kind, or at all bethought myself of the things of my salvation, except in two or three instances." At 10 years old he was sent to the Westminster School, where, he says, he learnt Latin and Greek at the expense of knowledge much more important. "That I may do justice to the place of my education, I must relate one mark of religious discipline, which, in my time, was observed at Westminster; I mean the pains which Dr. Nicholls took to prepare us for confirmation. The old man acquitted himself of this duty like one who had a deep sense of its importance; and I believe most of us were struck by his manner and affected by his exhortation. Then, for the first time, I attempted to pray in secret; but, being little accustomed to that exercise of the heart, and having very childish notions of religion, I found it a difficult and painful task, and was even then frightened at my own insensibility. This difficulty, though it did not subdue my good purposes till the ceremony of confirmation was passed, soon after entirely conquered them. I relapsed into a total forgetfulness of God, with all the disadvantages of being the more hardened, for being softened to no purpose. At 12 or 13 I was seized with the smallpox. I mention this only to show that, at that early age, my heart was become proof against the ordinary means a gracious God employs for our chastisement. Though I was severely handled by this disease, and in imminent danger, yet, neither in the course of it, nor during my recovery, had I any sentiments of contrition, any thought of God or eternity. On the contrary, I was scarcely raised from the bed of pain and sickness before the emotions of sin became more violent than ever, and the devil seemed rather to have gained than lost an advantage over me; so readily did I admit his suggestions, and so passive was I under them. By this time I became such an adept in the infernal art of lying, that I was seldom guilty of a fault for which I could not invent an apology capable of deceiving the wisest. These, I know, are called school-boys' tricks; but a total depravity of principle, and the work of the father of lies, are universally at the bottom of them. At the age of 18, being tolerably well furnished with grammatical knowledge, but as ignorant of all kinds of religion as the satchel at my back, I was taken from Westminster; and, having spent about nine months at home, was sent to acquire the practice of the law with an attorney." At 21, he took possession of a set of chambers in the Temple; but, soon after his settlement there, was struck with such a dejection of spirits that none but those who have felt the same can have the least conception of. Day and night he was upon the rack, lying down in horror and rising up in despair. He soon lost all relish for those studies to which he had before been so much attached; they had now no longer any charms for him. He had need of something more salutary than amusement, but had no one to direct him where to find it. At length he met with Herbert's Poems, and though he did not find in them what he wanted—a cure for his malady, yet his mind never seemed so much relieved as while he was reading them. In this state he continued for nearly a year, when, having experienced the inefficacy of all human means, he was at length driven to God in prayer. "Such," says he, "is the rank our Redeemer holds in our esteem, that we never resort to him but in the last instance, when all creatures have failed to succor us. My hard heart was at length softened and my stubborn knees taught to bow." He went with some friends to Southampton, where he spent several months. Soon after their arrival, they walked about two miles from the town, and sat clown upon an eminence, when, on a sudden, it was as if another sun had been kindled in the heavens on purpose to dispel his sorrow. The weight of his misery was taken off, and his heart became light and joyful in a moment. He could have wept with transport had he been alone. But Satan and his wicked heart soon persuaded him that he was indebted for his deliverance to nothing but a change of season and scene. "By this means the blessing was turned into a poison, teaching me to conclude that nothing but a continued circle of diversion and indulgence of appetite could secure me from a relapse." Upon this hellish principle, away went all thoughts of religion and of dependence upon God. Having spent about 12 years in the Temple, in an uninterrupted course of sinful indulgence, he obtained at length so complete a victory over his conscience, that all remonstrances from that quarter were in vain. Though at this time little better than an infidel, yet, when half intoxicated, he was often employed in vindicating the truth of Scripture, while in the very act of rebellion against its dictates. At one time he went so far as to assert he would willingly have his right hand cut off, so that he might but be enabled to live according to the gospel. This inconsistency of his was visible to others as well as to himself, insomuch that a deistical friend of his cut short the matter by alleging that, if what he said were true, he was certainly damned by his own choosing. At length he appears to have spent nearly all his money, and begun to be apprehensive of want. Through the influence of a relative, he was appointed Clerk of the Journals of the House of Lords. He acknowledges that he was totally unfit for the office, and yet he labored hard to make himself master of the duties. But God had designed other things for him. "To this dilemma," he says,"was I reduced, either to keep possession of the office to the last extremity, and by so doing expose myself to a public rejection for inefficiency, or else to fling it up at once, and by this means to run the hazard of ruining my benefactor's right of appointment, by bringing his discretion into question. In this situation, such a fit of passion has sometimes seized me that I have cried out aloud, and cursed the hour of my birth, lifting up my eyes to heaven at the same time, not as a suppliant, but in the hellish spirit of rancorous reproach and blasphemy against my Maker. I made one effort of the devotional kind; for, having found a prayer, or two in that repository of self-righteousness and pharisaical lumber, “The Whole Duty of Man,” I said them a few nights, but soon laid them aside. He now began to look upon madness as the only chance remaining, and earnestly wished for it, that he might be excused from appearing at the Bar of the House of Lords. The day of decision drew near, and then came the great temptation the dark and hellish purpose of self-murder. He thought perhaps there was no God; or the Scriptures might be false, and if so, God had nowhere forbidden suicide. At any rate, his misery, even in hell itself, he thought, would be more supportable. Accordingly, in Nov., 1763, he purchased half an ounce of laudanum, resolving to use it as soon as he was convinced there was no other way of escape. He went into the fields, to find a house or a ditch in which to die; but his mind was changed. He thought drowning would be better. He took a coach to the Tower Wharf, intending to throw himself into the Thames from the Custom-house Quay, but the water was low, and there was a porter seated upon some goods. He returned to the coach, and put up the shutters. Twenty times had he the vial to his mouth, distracted between the desire of death and the dread of it, and even at the time it seemed as if an invisible hand swayed the bottle downwards. A convulsive agitation seemed to deprive him of the use of his limbs. He reached the Temple, and prepared himself for the last scene. He poured the laudanum into a small basin, set it on a chair by the bedside, half undressed himself, lay down between the blankets, and, shuddering with horror, reached forth his hands towards the basin, when the fingers of both his hands became so closely contracted, as if bound with a cord, that they became entirely useless. He could indeed have guided the basin to his mouth with his hands, as his arms were not at all affected, but the circumstance struck him with wonder, and he lay down to muse upon it, when he heard his laundress's husband coming in, which frustrated his design for that time. The next morning was to place him at the Bar of the House, and he was determined not to see it. He went to bed and slept till 3 o'clock, when, taking his penknife, he endeavored to force it into his heart, but it would not penetrate. The clock struck 7, and instantly it occurred to him that there was no time to be lost. He took his garter, and, forming a noose, fixed it about his neck, but twice did the iron and framework of the bed break under his weight. The third effort was more likely to succeed. He fastened the garter to the top of the door, which was a very high one, and, pushing away the chair, hung at his whole length. While he hung, he heard a voice say distinctly, “’Tis over!" but it did not at all alarm him nor affect his resolution. He hung so long, that he lost all sense and consciousness of existence. When he came to himself again, he thought himself in hell. The sound of his own groans was all that he heard. The garter had broken, and he was lying on his face. The stag nation of blood under one eye, and a red circle round his neck, showed plainly that he had been on the brink of eternity. His laundress must have passed the door while he was hanging on it, as she was in the adjoining room. On hearing him fall, she went into his bedroom to ask him if he were not well, and said she feared he had been in a lit. lie sent for his relative, and related to him the whole affair. His words were, "My dear Mr. Cowper, you terrify me. To be sure, you cannot hold the office at this rate." And thus ended his connexion with the Parliament Office. "To this moment," he says, "I had felt no concern of a spiritual kind. Ignorant of original sin, and insensible of the guilt of actual transgression, I understood neither the law nor the gospel. I was as much unacquainted with Christ in all his saving offices as if his blessed name had never reached me. But now a new scene opened upon me. Conviction of sin took place, especially of that just committed. The meanness of it, and its atrocious nature, were exhibited to me in colors so inconceivably strong, that I despised myself with a contempt not to be imagined or expressed, for having attempted it. This sense of it secured me from the repetition of a crime which I could not now reflect on without abhorrence. Before I arose from bed, it was suggested to me that there was nothing wanted but murder to fill up the measure of my iniquities; and that, though I had failed in my design, yet I had all the guilt of that crime to answer for. A sense of God's wrath, and a deep despair of escaping it, instantly succeeded. The fear of death became much more prevalent in me now than even the desire of death had been. My sins were now set in array before me. I began to see and feel that I had lived without God in the world. As I walked to and fro in my chambers, I said within myself, 'There was never so abandoned a wretch—so great a sinner!' All my worldly sorrows seemed now as if they had never been; the terrors of my mind, which succeeded them, seemed so great, and so much more afflicting. One moment I thought myself shut out from mercy by one chapter, and the next by another. The sword of the Spirit seemed to guard the tree of life from my touch, and to flame against me in every avenue by which I attempted to approach it." If for a moment a book or a companion turned away his attention from himself, a flash from hell seemed to be thrown into his mind, and he said within himself, "What are these things to me who am damned!” He feared he had committed the unpardonable sin, and no argument that could be used in extenuation of his guilt could gain a moment's admission. Life appeared more desirable than death, only because it was a barrier between him and everlasting burnings. lie took his Prayer Book and endeavored to pray out of it, but immediately experienced the impossibility of drawing nigh to God unless God first drew nigh to him; and, with the most rooted conviction, he gave himself up to despair. "I felt a sense of burning in my heart, like that of real tire, and concluded it was an earnest of those eternal flames which would soon receive me. I laid myself down, howling with horror, while my knees smote against each other. In this condition my brother found me, and the first words I spoke were, 'brother, I am damned!’ Think of eternity, and think what it is to be damned At length he was visited by Martin Madan, who spoke to him of sin and salvation, which seemed to cause hope to spring up. But he says, "What I had experienced was but the beginning of sorrows, and a long train of still greater terrors was at hand. I slept my usual three hours well, and then awoke with ten times stronger an alienation from God than ever. Satan plied me close with horrible visions, and more horrible voices. My ears rang with the sound of torments that seemed to await me. Then did the pains of hell get hold of me, and before daybreak the very sorrows of death encompassed me. A numbness seized the extremities of my body, and life seemed to retreat before it. My hands and feet became cold and stiff; a cold sweat stood upon my forehead; my heart seemed at every pulse to beat its last, and my soul to cling to my lips as on the very brink of departure. No convicted criminal ever feared death more or was more assured of dying. At 11 o'clock my brother called upon me, and in about an hour after his arrival, that distemper of mind I had wished for so ardently actually seized me. While I traversed the apartment in the most horrible dismay of soul, expecting every moment that the earth would open and swallow me up, my conscience scaring me, the avenger of blood pursuing me, and the city of refuge out of reach and out of fight, a strange and horrible darkness fell upon me. I fit were possible that a heavy blow could light upon the brain without touching the skull, such was the sensation I felt. I clapped my hand to my forehead, and cried aloud through the pain it gave me. At every stroke my thoughts and expressions became more wild and indistinct; all that remained to me clear was the sense of sin and the expectation of punishment. It was now found necessary to confine him in a lunatic asylum, where he remained for about eight months. "All that passed," he says, "during these eight months, was conviction of sin and despair of mercy." At one time he seemed even to regret that he had not given every scope to his wicked appetite, and even envied those who, being departed, had the consolation to reflect that they had well earned their miserable inheritance. Soon after his confinement, he threw aside his Bible, as a book in which he had no interest or portion. But now the happy period which was to shake off his fetters had arrived. He flung himself into a chair, and, seeing a Bible, ventured to open it. The first verse he saw was Rom. 3:25. The full beams of the Sun of Righteousness immediately shone upon him. He saw the sufficiency of Christ's atonement, and his pardon sealed in his blood. He thought he must have died with gratitude and joy. His eyes were filled with tears, and his voice was choked with transport. For many succeeding weeks tears were ready to flow if he did but speak of the gospel, or mention the name of Jesus. Rejoicing day and night was his employment. He was too happy to sleep much, and thought it was lost time that was spent in slumber. "My doctor," he says, "ever watchful and apprehensive for my welfare, was now alarmed, lest the sudden transition from despair to joy should terminate in a fatal phrensy. But the Lord 'was my strength and my song, and was t become my salvation.' I said, “I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord has chastened me, but not given me over unto death; give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever. In a short time Dr. Cotton became satisfied, and acquiesced with the soundness of my cure; and much sweet communion I had with him concerning the things of our salvation. He visited me every morning while I stayed with him, which was twelve months after my recovery. The gospel was the delightful theme of our conversation. No trial has befallen me since, but what might be expected in a state of warfare. Satan indeed has changed his battery. Before my conversion, sensual gratification was the warfare with which he sought to destroy me. Being of a naturally easy, quiet disposition, I was seldom tempted to anger, yet that passion it is which now gives me the most disturbance, and occasions the sharpest conflicts. But Jesus being my strength, I fight against it; and if I am not conqueror, I am not overcome."
In 1765 he removed to Huntingdon, and in 1767 to Olney, where he contracted a close friendship with John Newton. Here it was that the Hymns by Newton and Cowper, called Olney Hymns, were written. When Newton removed to London, Cowper wrote, "The vicarage-house became a melancholy object as soon as Mrs. Newton had left it; when you left it, it became more melancholy; now it is actually occupied by another family, I cannot even look at it without being shocked. As I walked in the garden last evening, I saw the smoke issue from the study chimney, and said to myself, ‘That used to be a sign that Mr. Newton was there; but it is so no longer. The walls of the house know nothing of the chancre that has taken place; the bolt of the chamber door sounds just as it used to do; and when Mr. P goes up stairs, for aught I now or ever shall know, the fall of his foot can hardly perhaps be distinguished from that of Mr. Newton. But Mr. Newton's foot will never be heard upon that staircase again.' These reflections, and such as these, occurred to me on this occasion. If I were in a condition to leave Olney, I certainly would not stay in it. It is no attachment to the place that binds me here, but an unfitness for every other. I lived in it once, but now I am buried in it, and have no business in the world outside my sepulchre. My appearance would startle them, and theirs would be shocking to me."
Cowper subsequently endured many severe trials, but he entered into his rest April 25, 1800. Early in the Friday morning a decided alteration for the worse was perceived to have taken place. A deadly change appeared in his countenance. In this insensible state he remained till a few minutes before five in the afternoon, when he gently, and without the slightest apparent pain, ceased to breathe, and his happy spirit escaped from that body in which, amidst the thickest gloom of darkness, it had so long been imprisoned, and took its flight to the regions of perfect purity and bliss. In a manner so mild and gentle did death make its approach, that though his kinsman, his medical attendant, and three others were standing at the foot of the bed, with their eyes fixed upon his dying countenance, neither of them could determine the precise moment of his departure. A short time previously the king, George III., had granted him a pension of £300 a year, but it came too late. Maunder, in his "Biographical Treasury," the most bigoted biographical work I ever read, says, "Cowper fell into a terrible state of nervous and mental debility, but was restored by the skill and humanity of Dr. Cotton." How different is this from Cowper's own account, as given above! It does not appear that Cowper ever stood up to preach. He says, "I have had many anxious thoughts about taking orders, and I believe every new convert is apt to think himself called upon for that purpose; but it has pleased God, by means which there is no need to particularise, to give me full satisfaction as to the propriety of declining it—indeed, they who have the least idea of what I have suffered from the dread of public exhibitions, will readily excuse my never attempting them hereafter. In the mean time, if it please the Almighty, I may be an instrument of turning many to the truth, in a private way, and hope that my endeavors, in this way, have not been entirely unsuccessful. Had I the zeal of a Moses, I should want an Aaron to be my spokesman."