The Captain & the Castaway

IN HIS PREFACE to the Olney Hymns (1779), John Newton explained the larger purpose of the collection: “A desire of promoting the faith and comfort of sincere Christians, though the principal, was not the only motive to this undertaking. It was likewise intended as a monument, to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship.” This friend and co-author of the hymnbook was the poet William Cowper (1731–1800).

At first, Newton was in awe of this sophisticated gentleman who would later become known as one of the great English poets of the eighteenth century. But the author of such well-known hymns as “God moves in a mysterious way” and “There is a fountain filled with blood” was also a man of deep struggles.

Newton witnessed his role model undergo an emotional collapse that left Cowper completely dependent for a time upon him. The former sea captain who had braved his own storms faced the difficult—perhaps impossible—task of steering his dear friend through an even fiercer tempest of the soul.

Inner turmoil

Unlike Newton’s own turbulent past, full of literal “dangers, toils, and snares,” William Cowper’s trials were almost entirely interior. Pushed by his family into a law career in London, the intensely shy Cowper had tried to escape the terror of a public bar examination by committing suicide. Though his attempt failed, he became obsessed with the fear that he was guilty of the unpardonable sin.

While being treated at an asylum, Cowper came gradually to a belief in the mercy of Jesus and converted to an evangelical faith. His new religious fervor kept him from capsizing again into mental illness for another ten years.

Cowper moved to the village of Olney in 1767, with only a garden and an orchard separating his house from Newton’s. The two became inseparable companions, taking walks together and engaging in theological discussion. Newton also urged Cowper to help conduct weekly prayer services, visit the poor, and accompany Newton on preaching tours. This partnership spawned a prolific period of hymn writing for both men, and they made plans to publish a hymnbook for the Olney congregation as a celebration of their spiritually fruitful camaraderie.

The project was interrupted, however, when Cowper sank into another debilitating depression in 1773. Wracked by terrifying nightmares prompting more suicide attempts, he moved into the vicarage under the vigilant care of Newton. After 14 months Cowper recovered and returned to his own house, but depression plagued him for the rest of his life, and he never again attended public worship.

Newton continued to write hymns during this period and eventually published the hymnbook, despite having fewer hymns from Cowper’s pen than he wished. He described the relationship later: “The Lord who had brought us together had so knit our hearts and affections that for nearly 12 years, we were seldom separated for 12 hours at a time when we were awake and at home. The first six I passed in daily admiring and trying to imitate him; during the second six I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death.”

Though the exact nature and causes of Cowper’s condition have been long debated, Cowper interpreted his own feelings solely in religious terms and became convinced that he was experiencing God’s rejection. He was an anomaly both to his friends and to himself: a doctrinally orthodox Christian who proclaimed the gospel of grace to others yet believed himself to be uniquely condemned by God. Even in the midst of despair over his own salvation, Cowper firmly believed that there was no possibility of happiness or healing apart from God, and to his dying day he waited for a divine word that would cure his misery.

Castaway on a troubled sea

One of the things Cowper gained from his friendship with the ex—seafarer Newton was a propensity for describing the spiritual life using nautical imagery. Though Newton’s hymns about sailing through tempests always ended with the certainty that Jesus would pilot him safely home, Cowper’s were more tentative and self-accusatory, pleading for mercy and clinging to hope as to an unseen anchor:

Amidst the roaring of the sea, 
My soul still hangs her hopes on thee; 
Thy constant love, thy faithful care, 
Is all that saves me from despair. 

Yet he could also pen awe-inspiring descriptions of God’s incomprehensible providence:

God moves in a mysterious way, 
His wonders to perform; 
He plants his footsteps in the sea, 
And rides upon the storm. 

Though he did not lose the objective belief in God’s sovereignty and love that shines through his best hymns, for the rest of his life Cowper saw himself as a “castaway,” banished from grace.

Newton’s hidden muse

Newton and Cowper shared a Calvinist preoccupation with self-examination and the need for assurance—though in Cowper it rose to the level of an obsession. According to biographer Bruce Hindmarsh, Newton had passed safely through these introspective waters many years before and had come to believe that, while at one level a Christian could always be at peace with the certainty of his redemption in Christ, emotional assurance and sense of communion with God came and went like the tide. Newton’s somewhat cautious attitude toward assurance made him, perhaps, more sympathetic to Cowper’s bouts of doubting and despair than other evangelicals would have been who saw assurance of salvation as a hallmark of true faith. In return, Cowper was a living test of Newton’s theological convictions. Newton expressed amazement, both in his letters to Cowper and in a sermon he preached after Cowper’s death, that a man whose virtues were so obvious to everyone around him could question his own place in God’s heart.

The strong pastoral tone in Newton’s hymns dealing with doubt and affliction probably owes much to these circumstances. Surely, given his constant presence at the time, Cowper was never out of Newton’s mind as he wrote. Indeed, some of Newton’s hymns seem addressed directly to Cowper, such as one entitled, “To the Afflicted, tossed with tempests, and not comforted.” In it Jesus says to the listener,

"Though afflicted, tempest-toss’d, 
Comfortless a while thou art, 
Do not think thou canst be lost, 
Thou are graven on my heart: 
All thy wastes I will repair, 
Thou shalt be rebuilt anew; 
And in thee it shall appear 
What a God of love can do.” 

The apprentice surpassed the master

Newton also acted, in the beginning, as Cowper’s literary mentor, encouraging him to write hymns, poetry, and moral satires, and even serving as editor and liaison with Cowper’s publisher. Cowper’s literary vocation became one of the most important pillars of strength that kept him from toppling under the weight of depression, and his poems owed a great deal to Newton’s encouragement.

This literary collaboration eventually failed, however, since Cowper soon grew beyond Newton’s more limited aesthetic vision. As Cowper’s authorial career gained momentum and he branched into new areas, such as an English translation of Homer, he found it increasingly difficult to share this aspect of his life with Newton.

To the preacher he defended his writing as a therapy for his depressions, a distraction from the “terrible tempests” that struck “the most turbulent voyage that ever Christian mariner made.”

After Newton moved to London the relationship encountered rough waters and cooled over the years, but the two maintained an extensive written correspondence, and as late as 1795 Cowper could write, “There is no day in which you are excluded from my thoughts.”

Perhaps the most poignant statement of the difference between the two men is a poem Cowper wrote to Newton in 1780:

That ocean you of late survey’d, 
Those rocks I too have seen, 
But I, afflicted and dismay’d, 
You, tranquil and serene. 
You from the flood-controlling steep 
Saw stretch’d before your view, 
With conscious joy, the threat'ning deep, 
No longer such to you. 
To me, the waves that ceaseless broke 
Upon the dang'rous coast 
Hoarsely and ominously spoke 
Of all my treasure lost. 
Your sea of troubles you have past, 
And found the peaceful shore; 
I, tempest-toss’d, and wreck’d at last, 
Come home to port no more. 

In Cowper, Newton found a living paradox of doubt, assurance, despair, and grace that tested his pastoral skills to their limit. In Newton, Cowper found a spiritual sounding board and an encourager of his literary skills—two things so necessary for keeping his head above the waves as long as possible. Newton was a limited and sometimes fallible guide for the tormented poet, and he never fully understood the dark depths in which his friend lived.

An apt image for their relationship might be that of Newton calling from the shore, “You’ll make it, you’ll make it,” while Cowper is sinking deeper and deeper beneath the sea of his own misery. Nevertheless, out of this intense, treasured, and often troubled communion came hymns that are still beloved today, poems that have an important place in the history of English literature, and the incalculable personal impact of two men whose characters were forged in the furnace of a unique Christian friendship. CH

By Jennifer M. Trafton

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #81 in 2004]

Jennifer Trafton is a freelance writer living in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
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