William Cowper – The Insane Saint
Psalms 42:1-11, Mark 2:1-12,
Could I tell you a story? It is a sad story. In fact, it is a heart breaker. It is the story of William Cowper (Pronounced Cooper, spelt c-o-w-p-e-r.) He was one of the greatest poets of the 18th century. He wrote many of the hymns that are still sung across much of Christendom. Here are some of those titles:
- “There is a Fountain filled with Blood”
- “O for a closer walk with God”
- ”God moves in a Mysterious Way his wonders to Perform”
William Cowper was a great poet and his hymns and poems run into the hundreds. But he was, according to those who knew him best, a mad man. A man insane. A man who needed at times to be confined in a strait jacket!
Hear the words of Elisabeth Barrett Browning upon hearing of his death in the year 1800.
O poets, from a maniac’s tongue / was poured the deathless singing!
O Christians, at your cross of a hope, / a hopeless hand was clinging.
O Men, this man, in brotherhood, / your weary paths beguiling
Groaned inly while he taught you peace, / and died while you were smiling.
A great poet and a man pronounced insane. He lived almost his entire life in and out of insane asylums or convalescing at the homes of friends. In his moments of recovery he wrote with beauty, skill and passion. But he rode the roller coaster of feelings. When he was up he was very, very up, and when he was down it was horrid. He plumbed the depth of depression that drove him over and over again to try to end his own life. Who is this man?! I think we need to hear his story.
He is six years of age when we first meet him. The year is 1737. (280 years ago)
He is a shy, frail, nervous, timid child. He is also heartbroken. His mother has just died. The father does not know how to cope with a small child. So little William is bundled up, put in a coach and sent off to a distant boarding school. He is a kaleidoscope of nerves. He is frequently ill. His eyes are chronically inflamed. He climbs under the covers at night, afraid of every shadow and every noise.
His years at the boarding school are a tragedy. He is smaller than the other boys. He is bullied and beaten. Whenever, in later life, he thinks of those years, he cannot help shudder with the horror of them. Yet, who could dream that this frail and fragile child would one day make such an impact upon his world?
When he was 11 years old his foolish father gave him a pamphlet recommending suicide. He asked his son to read it and give his opinion of it. There will be many times over the next years when William will personally attempt suicide using poison, or a knife, or a rope or drowning.
Sometimes the despair in his life is so deep that he thinks that suicide must be God’s will for him. Some of us suspect that his dysfunctional father was one of the causes for his descent into depression. Scott Peck the Psychiatrist speaks about such fathers whom he calls “People of the Lie.” They are the people who cause damage to the lives of the young and the vulnerable!
His teen years are spent going from pillar to post to different schools and various homes, living on the borders of poverty. But finally he graduates from university. He meets a young cousin named Theodora. They fall in love. For several years they kept company postponing marriage until he could get established. But the future father-in-law-to-be sensed the frailty of this young man, and broke off their relationship, forbidding his daughter to ever see that young man again. The two young people never did meet each other again. Neither of them ever married. To their dying days they loved each other, without the other person ever knowing it. It was not hard for William to feel unloved and unlovable.
He applies for work, but this young man is so damaged that he cannot cope even with the pressure of a job interview, and suffers an emotional breakdown. He is sent away to one of the insane asylums of his day. They are terrible places where the patients are stored in horrible conditions. But he is fortunate. He meets a doctor who is sympathetic and wise. He looks after William so he can re-emerge back into society, though not without repeated need to return for care.
But, while hospitalized he was visited by well meaning Christians, who only added insult to injury. They inferred,
He was not only sick he must also be sinful.
He was not only weak; he must be wicked.
This insanity must be the judgment of God.
He needed to get right with God.
If he was truly a Christian, he would not feel such despair.”
So they added guilt on top of his grief.
There were several causes to his constant fight with depression and his flights into delirium. But part of his difficulty stemmed from believing a bad theology. He had been taught that “Some people are predestined by God to go to heaven, and some are predestined by God to go to eternal damnation.” It was called “Double Predestination.”
William Cowper was sure that God had decreed that he was to be among the damned. He wanted to be a Christian, and by the way, he was. A wonderful Christian, but one who struggled with what today we would call bi-polar syndrome, or manic-depression. When he was healthy, then he knew himself to be a Christian. But when his mood swung towards depression he felt himself condemned by God as well as himself.
There was also considerable preaching on “The Unpardonable Sin” in his day, and he was sure that he must have committed it. In that day suicide was considered to be an unforgivable sin because there was no chance of repentance after it was done. This kind of preaching was like shooting our wounded! It was that kind of preaching was almost unforgivable!
His very last poem written just before his death is called “The Castaway.” It is a poem about a sailor washed overboard and lost at sea. The drowning sailor calls out for help, but no one hears and no one heeds. The final words of the last stanza read:
No voice divine the storm allayed,
No light propitious shone.
When snatched from all effectual aid
He perished, all alone. (original -We perish, each alone)
But I beneath a rougher sea
Am whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.
So why is this man so important. Because some of the best poetry and some of the best hymns every written came from his pen or from his influence. We all know the name, John Newton. The song “Amazing Grace how sweet the Sound” came from the joint efforts of Newton & Cowper. The song “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds” came from the same influence. John Newton and William Cowper were the creators of hymnbooks that were used for over 200 years to bless and nourish the faith of God’s people.
William Cowper was also known as the Poet of the Anti-Slavery movement who supported William Wilberforce with hymns for the abolitionist movement. (See the recent film “Amazing Grace” for that story.)
The story is told of a time of such despair in William’s life that he hired a coach to take him to a secluded spot on the nearby river. There he intended to end his life by drowning himself. But the unfortunate taxi driver got confused in his directions and couldn’t find the river and finally drove William back home, thus ending that attempt. That evening the hymn was written,
“God moves in a Mysterious Way, His wonders to perform.” The 3rd & 4th stanzas read,
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take; The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust Him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence He hides a smiling face.
But as I have said, William not only struggled with the pain of his life; He also knew moments of health and joy. He was a passionate Christian. He loved God, He loved the church, he loved truth and beauty, and only in his deliriums of despondency did he lose the joy.
Listen to another of his poems that spoke of both his hurt and his joy in God.
I was a stricken deer
that left the herd long since:
With many an arrow deep infixed,
my panting side was charged,
When I withdrew
to seek a tranquil death in distant shades.
There was I found by one who had himself
been hurt by the archers.
In his side he bore, and in his hands and feet,
the cruel scars.
With gentle force soliciting the darts
He drew them forth and healed and bade me live.
The Prevalence of Such Hurts
But I must let you know that despair dogged all of his days from the time he was a very little child until he died at 70 years of age. And he was not alone in his affliction. Great Leaders like Martin Luther, Charles Spurgeon & Winston Churchill, suffered terribly from depression. Churchill reports that depression haunted his steps almost every day, like a dark dog stalking its prey. As I was listening to CBC radio recently it was reported that half the hospital beds in Canada house Psychiatric patients, with the major malady being disabling depression.
Christianity Today and Christian Century magazines recently reported the result of a survey: 1 in 4 pastors have struggled with mental illness, the same proportion as the general public.
So why do I bring to us such a melancholy story to us this morning?
- There are many who suffer psychiatric damage, due to a wide variety of causes.
- Some have suffered such profound loss in their lives that the whole of life has been damaged by such events.
- Some live with damaging memories that have plagued them for far too long.
Others suffer from crippling anxiety, from deeply rooted shame, from incessant doubt, from irrational anger, and from deeply rooted addictions.
- There are others who have suffered illness of body to such an extent, that the heart has been poisoned by the experience.
And some of us, or some within our circle of family and friends, are among such wounded people. Some of us, in our illness, feel unable to share it with others, and we bury the hurt within ourselves, or medicate ourselves to diminish the pain. Sometimes we feel so damaged that faith in God has become almost impossible.
But let me turn to another story, this one taken from the New Testament.
The Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)
It is the story of a man who is paralyzed. He cannot make his way to Jesus. But here is good news. Four friends pick up his bed, and carry him to where Jesus can be found. When they get there, there are obstacles, but these four faithful friends are not done for. They climb the outer steps of the building, cut a hole through the roof, and lower their friend into the room where Jesus is trying to teach.
But these friends are not simply a transportation committee. They have another gift to give. Our paralyzed friend has not come in faith. He has been down too long for hope to rise. Listen to the words that follow next. “And when Jesus say THEIR faith, he said to the man who was paralyzed… your sins are forgiven… rise, take up your bed and walk,”
If only the Church in William Cooper day had been more wise! If only, instead of adding insult to injury. they had followed the counsel of the Book of James, William Cooper and others like him might have found health of heart and mind and body.
Here is the counsel of the Book of James, (5:16)
“Is anyone sick, let them call for the elders of the church and let them pray over him… Confess your faults to one another so you might be healed.”
So what can we do?
- If any of us face prolonged depression, talk to someone about the deep hurt of your life. You need not be, or feel, all alone!
- Read the Psalms of complaint that are included in the Book of Psalms. Psalm 88, 42 & 43 are only three of many that can be found there. Many of the saints of God have struggled with such pain and found comfort from God. We are not the only ones!
And for the rest of us?
- Let us take care of one another.
- Let us pray often for those who undertake to care for the wounded of our society.