William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was born in 1731 in Berkhampstead, England. His life was a painful and tragic one, beginning with a frail childhood and difficult homelife, marked by the death of many siblings and of his mother when he was 6 years old. Cowper longed for his mother, but was left with his father whom he had had an unhealthy relationship with. His father then shipped him off to a boarding school where he endured years of bullying. Cowper’s father had high hopes for his son to practice law, but Cowper’s heart just wasn’t in it. He preferred to be left to himself, away from the pressures and demands of public life. Even amidst his difficulties growing up, Cowper developed a love for Latin, literature and poetry. He grew in his skill at the interpretation and translation of Latin, and was gifted in writing his own verses. His poetry would eventually be commended by Benjamin Franklin.
Throughout his life, Cowper continually battled depression and anxiety. Much of the time he would seek a change of scenery to help him through, and at this point in his life, he gave no credit to God for the mercies and relief bestowed on him during mental attacks. In the year 1763, a job opportunity was promised to Cowper as a clerk, but only if he would submit to a public examination before he began his duties. This exam bothered Cowper so deeply, that he was unable to think clearly or to feel anything but utter hopelessness, anxiety and sadness. A desire to harm himself completely overwhelmed him. As much as Cowper tried to follow through with this desire, God kept intervening and thwarting all of his attempts. He finally abandoned the pursuit and loathed himself for being in such a state. He felt the heaviness of judgment upon him and thought that his sin was too great—that he could never be cleared of his guilt.
Depression then overtook poor Cowper and he was sent to St. Albans Insane Asylum, under the care of a very godly man named Nathaniel Cotton. It was here, in God’s good providence, that Cowper began to read a Bible that he found lying on a garden bench. God used Romans 3 to breathe life into Cowper’s heart. “…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Later he wrote, “The full beams of the sun of righteousness shone upon me. I saw the sufficiency of the atonement He had made, my pardon sealed in His blood, and all the fullness and completeness of His justification. Unless the Almighty arm had been under me, I think I should have died with gratitude and joy. My eyes filled with tears, and my voice choked with transport; I could only look up to heaven in silent fear, overwhelmed with love and wonder.” After this experience, one of the first hymns that Cowper wrote was There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.
Cowper’s depression and health improved greatly after his conversion. He was helped and blessed through several friendships that the Lord brought his way. One was with his pastor, John Newton (author of Amazing Grace), who helped Cowper become interested in many therapeutic hobbies and crafts: gardening, carpentering, a printing press, caring for pets of all kinds, and finally in writing a book of hymns together under the title “Olney Hymns” published in 1779.
Unfortunately, Cowper’s mental health was a nagging problem. He suffered from terrible dreams and often battled with anxiety and hopelessness. His friends stood by him to the end, and took care of him as carefully as a parent would. He died and attained glorious peace in Jesus and relief from all his oppressing woes on April 25, 1800. He is buried in the chapel of St Thomas of Canterbury where a stained-glass window commemorates his life.
A note about verses 6 and 7… In our hymnals today, Cowper’s hymn normally ends at verse 4 or 5. But these last verses are part of his original song, intentionally written so that we would not be left in verse 5’s “lisping, stammering and silent in the grave.” That is not our end! Our end is glory and incandescent pleasure in our God and the renewed creation. Cowper uses a golden harp, formed with holy hands, and made ready to play to the glory of God as a picture of the bliss of eternity. We might have an image in our heads about harps being played by baby faced angels adorned with silly grins all whilst floating on puffy white clouds. Let’s push that image aside. Rather, let’s think of kings like David, and how harps were often played for and enjoyed by royalty. Also read Revelation 14:1-3! There is nothing wimpy or silly about harps! How precious is that blood-bought reward, given freely despite all our unworthiness. Praise be to God for His gift of Jesus!
You may or may not be familiar with this hymn. Either way, we invite you to spend this month meditating on its truths. To get you started, we’ve provided free printable lyrics, music and copywork — all found here! Also, you can find fresh versions of the hymn on our YouTube channel that you and your family can sing along with.
If you are new to this community, welcome! It is a great time to join in and make family worship a priority if you haven’t already. You are encouraged to gather up your families, for just a few minutes each day, to sing, discuss and memorize this hymn (following your daily time in the Scriptures and in prayer) whether it is first thing in the morning, or around the dinner table or before bedtime – whatever works best for your family. You can let us know how it’s going by posting either a video or a photo on Instagram. Just tag it with #happyhymnody or #hymnofthemonth ! As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! God bless you all this month as you worship together as a family!