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July 8, 2009


William Cowper & Habakkuk

by quaesitor

William CowperAfter spending time on the wonders of Habakkuk for the last time on Sunday, I just wanted to follow up some of the stuff on William Cowper (1731-1800). He was a remarkable poet but such a tragic figure. Plagued by years of doubt, depression and insanity, he was sustained by good friends and by his Christian faith (although it should be said that sometimes, his depression caused distortions of the faith which made the spiritual attacks infinitely worse – it is deeply unfair, as PoemHunter baselessly claims, to suggest that Newton the ‘gloomy Calvinist’ was responsible for this).

The story of how people like fellow hymn-writer John Newton and old friend (and one time fiancee) Mary Unwin cared for him over many years is itself a remarkable challenge to those who get tired of ministry that less is than instant. (If I can put it like this) how we all need to recapture a chronic vision of ministry (in the true sense of the word).

But this post is a little plea for people to rediscover Cowper’s writing. He came up several times in commentaries on Habakkuk because he versified various moments in the prophet’s writing. But what struck me profoundly was how resonant his struggles and questions were with those of Habakkuk. There are differences of course – and in some ways, Cowper’s battles were much more private and mental, whereas Habakkuk felt like despairing of seeing God’s justice. But it was the questioning of God derived from faith that they had in common – which would find resolution in the promises he has made. That is why Habakkuk 3, the prophet’s own psalm of aching and longing faith meant so much to Cowper. He referenced it twice at least in his hymns.

The most explicit is his use of Hab 3:16-18 in the last verse of ‘Joy and Peace in Believing’ – I have a vague memory of singing this as a kid in school chapel – and not having a clue at all. Being a musical snob, I think I felt that the tune was quite naff, which made me think that the hymn itself was naff. How wrong could I be? It is profound.

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing on His wings;
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new;
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
E’en let the unknown to-morrow
Bring with it what it may!

It can bring with it nothing,
But He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe His people too;
Beneath the spreading heavens
No creature but is fed;
And He who feeds the ravens
Will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there:
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For, while in Him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

Cowpers memorial in Norfolk

Cowper's memorial in Norfolk

Then there is this famous one (given the nod by U2’s She Moves in Mysterious Ways). The first verse speaks of the Exodus it seems, which is precisely what Habakkuk points back to in his plea for God to renew the deeds performed in the past in his own time.

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

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye 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.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
And He will make it plain.

Cowper knew more than most what living through a ‘frowning providence’ was like. It breaks the heart. And yet how remarkable in the midst of it all to declare that behind that ‘frowning providence he hides a smiling face.’

For other poems and hymns, start here.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Graham Caskie
    Jul 8 2009


    I take it you have read Jonathan Aitken’s excellent biography of John Newton? If not, then I would heartily recommend it, if only to reinforce what you mentioned about non-instantaneous results ministry (ie what most of us have to do).

    Oh and it’s also an excellent description of Newton’s life….

  2. Jul 8 2009

    Thanks for the tip Graham – I’ve not read the Aitken book – but have read a couple of others which i can also heartily recommend:

    John Pollock is the master of Christian biography – and have read nearly all his books. His bio of Newton is great (and i understand was a key resource for Aitken’s)

    Steve Turner’s book on the hymn Amazing Grace gives a brilliant bio as well as insight into the song itself

  3. Sam Thielman
    Oct 18 2009

    The best bio I’ve come across of Cowper is James King’s biography _William Cowper_ published in the 1980s by Duke University Press. Cowper was a very complex man who could not be assured of his salvation despite the efforts of many of the most famous evangelicals of his day.

  4. Jan 24 2015

    The Wikipedia entry for Cowper (that Poem Hunter used) appears to have changed. Newton has cheered up and is no longer the gloomy Calvinist! Some of Cowper’s poetry is of the highest standard, and particularly touching is the poem he wrote to Mary Unwin as she was on her deathbed. I’ll post some of it on the Church History Blog. Wonderful poem, To Mary. Worth checking out.

    • Jan 24 2015

      Good spot, Lex! Thanks for making a note of it here


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  1. Age of Wonder gems: 3. William Cowper and the Armchair Traveller « Quaerentia

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