I find it very moving to see how Newton never gave up on Cowper spiritually but encircled his friend’s mental illness within a larger faith perspective. It was like he held on for him. In 1780, Newton wrote from London to his friend, “How strange that your judgement should be so clouded in one point only, and that a point so obvious and strikingly clear to everybody who knows you!” He wasn’t about to share in Cowper’s spiritual despair. No, he added, “Though your comforts have been so long suspended, I know not that I ever saw you for a single day since your calamity came upon you, in which I could not perceive a s clear and satisfactory evidence, that the grace of God was with you, as I could in your brighter and happier times.”
Just over 250 years have passed since John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” and introduced it for his congregation for New Year’s Day 1773. He had been a pastor in the quiet market town of Olney for almost a decade, but his earlier life had been anything but quiet.
He had passed through many dangers, toils, and snares: reckless decisions and a reckless love affair; trauma and kidnapping; near shipwreck, near starvation, and near-death illness; enslaved and then a slave trader. But by the end, he was a transformed man. He became a wise spiritual counselor, a powerful preacher, a popular hymn-writer, and in due course a courageous abolitionist. When his autobiography was published, shortly after he was ordained, the people of the town used to stare at him when they saw him in the street. Amazing grace, indeed.
Of the many surprising stories behind the song, one of the most poignant concerns Newton’s friendship with the troubled poet William Cowper. The day the congregation sang “Amazing Grace” was Cowper’s last day in church.
Golden Years of Friendship
William Cowper had suffered great mental anguish and had even been suicidal ten years earlier. At an asylum just outside London, he recovered, by the grace of God, right around the time when Newton arrived at Olney as a pastor. The two met three years later and became fast friends.
Indeed, Newton invited Cowper to move to Olney, and for about twelve years they were pretty much neighbors, with just a small orchard between the vicarage and Cowper’s home on the market square. Cowper had been living in Cambridgeshire with the widow Mary Unwin and her household, and they all moved together into the home they called “Orchardside,” pleased to think they would be in a place where the gospel was preached and loved.
Cowper and Newton had much in common. Both men had lost their mothers when only six years old, both had suffered abuse at boarding school, and both were “men of letters” with literary interests. But most of all, they were both serious about their faith in Christ.
For six years, their friendship grew. Newton, about six years older, encouraged the bashful Cowper to share in the work of pastoral care, prayer meetings, and hymn-writing. These were the golden years of their friendship. Newton admired his friend’s poetic gifts, and one or the other wrote hymns each week for the parish services. Olney knew something of a local revival. When a new building was opened for prayer meetings, Cowper wrote with a real sense of God’s presence,
Jesus, where’er thy people meet,
There they behold thy mercy-seat;
Where’er they seek thee thou art found,
And ev’ry place is hallow’d ground.
There were hints, though, that Cowper still struggled with soul distress from time to time. When Mrs. Unwin, like a mother to him, was seriously ill, he wrote with some melancholy of an “aching void” in his spirit, compared to just after his conversion:
What peaceful hours I then enjoy’d,
How sweet their Mem’ry still!
But they have left an Aching Void
The World can never fill.
Still, remarkably, he could turn this spiritual melancholy into an exemplary hymn of prayer for a closer walk with God. This was a prayer for all of us.
A Chasm Opens
Writing this way would become more difficult later. In 1771, he felt a profound disquiet and told Newton, “My Soul is among Lions.” A year later, Newton observed, “Cowper is in the depths as much as ever.” But truth be told, none of these troubles predicted what would happen on the second day of January 1773. This was altogether unexpected.
The day after “Amazing Grace” was sung in church, Newton was called urgently to Orchardside. Cowper had collapsed back into a dark depression and was suicidal. It was a complete breakdown.