Sadness and Singing: The Life of William Cowper


William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) wrote many hymns. A couple of them include favorites like O for a Closer Walk with God  or There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood. But if you didn’t know, Cowper’s life was filled with great tragedy and personal depression. His life serves as encouragement for us as believers who may currently be going through hardships. I wanted to give a short blurb about his life just to give you a taste of his lot of suffering and joy.

As a hymn writer, Cowper wrote many hymns. But some don’t know of the tragic events he experienced like the loss of his mother. This and other circumstances led him into different cycles of depression all his life. He determined to commit suicide and even had attempted it during the course of his life.

It wasn’t until he met a pastor couple, the Unwins, when things began to turn around. This pastor and his wife had a profound impact on him spiritually and he would come to Christ during this time.

NPG 1423; William Cowper by George RomneyBut the pastor, Mr. Morley Unwin, suffered an accident that led to his death. It was then that John Newton, the famous hymn writer who also wrote Amazing Grace, came to town to pay his respects to Morley Unwin. He met Cowper, and Newton would invest a lot of time and effort into their relationship. The two spent a great amount of time together writing hymns.

Sadly, after the death of her husband, Mrs. Unwin died of a serious illness. And Cowper fell into depression again since someone who was like a mother to him had passed away. This led him to write a hymn called “O for a Closer Walk with God.”

This hymn calls for a deeper relationship with God in deep distress. With verses that speak of looking for the “road that leads to the Lamb,” and tearing down “idols of the heart,” the hymn sings of this desire to be more and more intimate with Christ. William Cowper knew that the anchor for his soul, especially in hard times, was to be a closer relationship with His God.

If you want to hear an audio of a good solid biography with devotional lessons, then I suggest you look to John Piper’s presentation of his life: Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the Soul of a Saint: Reflections on the Life of William Cowper.

This is a lengthy but encouraging study on the life of Cowper at the 1992 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. Download it and listen to it on your commute! Here is a good excerpt from that study:

“Two heaps of human happiness and misery; now if I can take but the smallest bit from one heap and add to the other, I carry a point. If, as I go home, a child has dropped a halfpenny, and if, by giving it another, I can wipe away its tears, I feel I have done something. I should be glad to do greater things, but I will not neglect this. When I hear a knock on my study door, I hear a message from God; it may be a lesson of instruction, perhaps a lesson of penitence; but, since it is his message, it must be interesting”

“To me, that exudes health. A pastor cannot resent a little child or resent that there’s misery or resent a knock on the door but exude expectancy that God has interesting things for my life today, even if it is penitence that I will have to perform when somebody confronts me…”

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