This is the third of a series on sacred hymns, the story behind them, their text, a recording, and a simple companion devotional.

“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform; He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.” ~William Cowper

Every Hymn Has a Story

William Cowper was born in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, England in 1731 to John and Ann Cowper. His father resided as rector of the Church of St. Peter. When William was at the tender age of six, his mother Ann died in childbirth. William and his brother John were two of seven children to live past infancy. The death of his mother at such an early age had a deep effect on William, and he struggled with bouts of depression and mental illness referred to at the time as “melancholy” throughout the rest of his life.

After his education at Westminster where he took a liking to studying Latin and writing poetry, he moved to the home of his Uncle to be trained for a career in law to become an attorney. During this time he fell in love with his cousin Theodora, whom he wished to marry. Her father renounced the union, plunging Cowper into a deep depression. He was offered a Clerkship of Journals in the House of Lords but the dread of appearing before them for the examination caused him to suffer such a mental breakdown that he attempted to end his life three times and nearly succeeded. He was sent to St. Alban’s asylum and came to be under the care of Dr. Cotton, a Christian therapist. During his 18 month stay, he began to read the Bible, which brought peace to his mind and spirit and he eventually recovered.

After his release, he settled at Huntingdon with a retired clergyman named Morley Unwin and his wife Mary. Cowper became so well acquainted with the family that he went to live in their house and moved with them to Olney. There he met hymn writer John Newton and began assisting him with his pastoral duties. Newton invited Cowper to contribute to a hymnbook he was compiling called Olney Hymns. Being much inspired, Cowper ended up contributing 68 texts including “There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood” and “God Moves In A Mysterious Way”—the latter being written as an outpouring of gratitude to God after his attempted suicide. Cowper thrived under Newton’s guidance and his time in Olney were some of the happiest, most lucid periods of his life.

But then news came of his brother John’s death and his dearest friend Morley Unwin was killed in a fall from his horse. His depression returned and he attempted suicide once more. He felt that God had predestined him to damnation and that he was calling him to make a sacrifice of his own life. His affliction lasted 16 months, during which he resided in Newton’s house and was taken care of by the devoted Mrs. Unwin. Wanting to keep Cowper’s mind occupied, she suggested carpentry, gardening, and taking up his love of writing poetry.

Cowper became engaged in these tasks and he was so amused by a story he heard from a friend that he began to write a poem titled “The Diverting History of John Gilpen.” It is said that the writing of this poem kept him from becoming completely insane. His first volume of poetry was published in 1782, and to this day he is considered among the best of early Romantic poets. Surprisingly, Cowper also had a humorous side to him as reflected in satire and letter writing.

But darkness covered Cowper once more after the death of his beloved nurse and friend Mary Unwin. It plunged him into such a state that he never fully recovered. Her death brought on the writing of another poem called “The Castaway” which was his last. He was seized with dropsy in the spring of 1800 and died. One who saw him after death remarked that with the “composure and calmness” of the face there “mingled, as it were, a holy surprise.”

He is buried in the chapel of St. Thomas Canterbury where a stained glass window commemorates his life. In his childhood church of St. Peter’s there are also two windows in memory of him with an inscription taken from one of his poems: “Salvation to the dying man, and to the rising God.”

The text for “There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood” has caused much controversy and discomfort within the church. Many have tried to rewrite the first line to no avail. Ray Palmer writes in his Hymnal Handbook that this criticism, “takes the words as if they were intended to be a literal prosaic statement. It forgets what they express is not only poetry, but the poetry of intense and impassioned feeling, which naturally embodies itself in the boldest metaphors. The inner sense of the soul, when its deepest affections are moved, infallibly takes these metaphors in their true significance.”

How true of William Cowper’s struggle toward grace through his poetry and treasured hymns. His constant mental breakdowns produced a lisp and stutter he lived with the rest of his life which make the closing words of this hymn all the more precious:

“When this poor lisping, stamm’ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save!”


Listen to There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood

https://keishavalentina.bandcamp.com/track/there-is-a-fountain-filled-with-blood

There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains:
Lose all their guilty stains,
Lose all their guilty stains;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.

The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away:
Wash all my sins away,
Wash all my sins away;
And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.

Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its pow’r,
Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved, to sin no more:
Be saved, to sin no more,
Be saved, to sin no more;
Till all the ransomed Church of God
Be saved to sin no more.

E’er since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die:
And shall be till I die,
And shall be till I die;
Redeeming love has been my theme,
And shall be till I die.

When this poor lisping, stamm’ring tongue
Lies silent in the grave,
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save:
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save,
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save;
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save.

Text: William Cowper, 1772
Music: CLEANSING FOUNTAIN written by Lowell Mason, 1830.
Origin: English Hymnody.
Use: Not meant to be sung quickly so that one can dwell on the meaning of the text. Can be sung during communion year round but especially during Lent and Easter.
Scripture: Zechariah 13:1


Devotional: Singing Away The Dark

Second Chronicles chapter twenty tells the story of the great King Jehoshaphat. The fear of the Lord is upon the nations of the land under his leadership, but after a time his enemies begin to rise up against him. In response, King Jehoshaphat proclaims a fast throughout all Judah and in the presence of the people, recalls examples of God’s sovereignty and goodness throughout the history of Israel. He pleads for God’s help once more saying “O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.”

In response to his prayer, God sends His spirit upon a prophet named Jahaziel who tells the people not to fear but to stand firm and see the victory of the Lord on their behalf. King Jehoshaphat falls to the ground in worship and all of Judah alongside him. While everyone is bowed low to the ground, the Levites stand up and begin singing, encouraging the hearts of the people.

The next morning King Jehoshaphat and his army make their way to meet the enemy in the wilderness. He chooses a surprising group for his frontline troops: The Levites, the singers, the choir! They lead the army with loud voices praising God singing “Give thanks to the Lord, for His steadfast love endures forever.” And when they began to sing, the Lord set an ambush against their enemies so that they were routed and the people of Judah were saved. All because of a song.

Whether battling outward assailants as King Jehoshaphat, or inward foes as William Cowper there is one thing that is certain. The enemy cannot stand against a soul singing praises to God. As missionary Amy Carmichael once said, “I believe truly that Satan cannot endure it and so slips out of the room more or less—when there is a true song.” In the midst of whatever storm we face, however threatening, may we disperse the darkness surrounding us with singing. Even if our voices shake and our souls give way, may we proclaim the goodness of our great God with boldness and courage. Standing upon the solid rock of the only one who can save us. Amen.