I’m delighted to have Diana Gruver, author of Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints Who Struggled with Depression in Doubt on the blog today. Of all the saints Diana researched, William Cowper could be considered the most tragic. At first glance, it is hard to see any hope in Cowper’s story, but Diana digs beneath the surface and reveals how God showed His faithfulness to Cowper in the depths of mental illness.
As I wrote and researched Companions in the Darkness, I couldn’t help but find myself drawn toward the poet and hymnwriter William Cowper. I pored over collections of his letters, delighting in the occasional poetry he wrote for friends, his descriptions of the writing life, in the antics of his many pets. I was drawn by his warmth and his sense of humor. I related to his life as a writer. But as I read, I also found myself ever-more saddened by his intractable depression.
Depression, in William Cowper’s life, was a specter he would never fully escape. It first appeared during his days in law school, and though it abated briefly from time to time, it would continue to find him again, dragging him down to the darkest depths, where he was incapable of work or play. Several times throughout his life, he attempted to take his own life. Cowper died in “unutterable despair,” convinced by a dream and by the voices that kept him company in the last years of his life, that he was outside of God’s grace and could never be saved.
It’s a tragic story, really, to die with such despair, loving God but believing He would never love you in return. It’s tragic to see him so often find life to be too painful to carry on.
Cowper’s story is not one of supernatural healing. It is not one that gives testimony to finding full and final freedom from depression. But this does not mean God was not present or working in his life. It does not mean God was not there. As I’ve reflected on William Cowper’s life (and as I’ve asked God why He didn’t supernaturally intervene) I’ve begun to see some glimmers of grace. I’ve begun to see how God did keep company with him in the dark.
One means of God’s faithful provision for William Cowper was his art. After being released from a mental asylum as a younger man, Cowper met John Newton. Newton became Cowper’s pastor, spiritual advisor, and a dear friend. As he saw the ebb and flow of Cowper’s depression, he encouraged him to write hymns. They partnered together on the Olney Hymns (which is where Newton’s famous “Amazing Grace” was first published). Cowper devoted himself to writing hymns to contribute, and some of his contributions, such as “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “God Works In A Mysterious Way,” are known to this day.*
As he was recovering from another mental health crisis, Cowper, at the encouragement of another friend, began writing poetry for publication. He would later call poetry his “best remedy” in the face of depression. It wasn’t a cure-all. There were still seasons when he became so debilitated by depression he couldn’t pick up a pen. But as he could, writing offered a way to combat depression and sometimes even to prevent its onset. It was something to throw himself into, something that gave him purpose, something that exercised his mind and imagination. Poetry anchored him in the present and grounded him in beauty. He once told his cousin that, though depression may have kept others from becoming writers, it made him one.
Another means of God’s grace to William Cowper came in the form of his friends. He had some wonderful friends—friends who stuck with him through multiple mental health crises and suicide attempts, friends who creatively cared for him, friends who prayed with him, friends who helped him find the will to keep living. They were the tangible presence of God’s faithfulness to him again and again, and a book could be written telling the tales of their faithful friendship.
Some of them welcomed him into their homes when he was not well enough to care for himself. This included John and Mary Newton, who had Cowper show up as a houseguest unexpectedly one day, in the middle of a severe depression episode. He didn’t leave for eighteen months, and throughout that time they graciously cared for his needs.
Others encouraged his work, sparking his imagination with stories, leaving books open in his path with the hopes that he would see them and resume his project, and collecting praise from respected leaders to show Cowper the sort of impact his words had on the world.
They kept him moving, getting him out of the house on a walk or taking him travelling. They prayed with and for him, and replied to his sometimes-despairing letters with gentleness and grace. On occasion, they employed the utmost creativity to counteract his mind, which became increasingly deluded by voices. One of them, for example, installed a series of tubing, which ended in Cowper’s room, and hired someone whose voice Cowper wouldn’t recognize to speak words of hope into the tubes, in the hope that this may balance the messages he heard from the voices in his head.
God didn’t show up for William Cowper in the ways he may have wanted, his friends prayed for, or I long for. But He was there—steadily, faithfully there. When I look at Cowper’s life, I’m reminded that I don’t need to see God at work to hold onto hope that He is there. Such hope doesn’t remove the pain or sentimentalize my struggles, but it does keep me anchored in the midst of them.
*I’ve included the modern popular titles of these hymns, which are taken from the first line of the first stanza. In the original Olney Hymns collection, they were titled “Praise for the Fountain Opened” and “Light Shining Out of Darkness,” respectively.