Thursday, November 26, 2020

The year was 1731. We remember hymn writer William Cowper and read his "Light Shining out of Darkness."

It is the 26th of November 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I'm Dan van Voorhis.

The year was 1731.

Today, the 26th of November, will be celebrated across the United States as Thanksgiving. Last year our show looked a little bit at these holiday traditions. Today the show takes a different tack. By sheer coincidence, today happens to be the birthday of a man we have heard about on this show before, and just might be the saint from the history of the Christian Church for whom I am most thankful. Today, we will spend a few minutes remembering the poet William Cowper, born on this day in 1731.

Cowper was born outside London to Anne and John Cowper. They lived a comfortable life with John working as both the rector at the local parish and then as chaplain to King George II. Ann died when William was young, and John sent his son to boarding school. It was there that Cowper learned Latin and Greek, and French such that he could read the great poets in their original tongue. But upon graduation, his father, with connections to the crown, expected him to study and practice law.

Since his school days, and especially with his years of post-graduate insecurity, William suffered from bouts of severe depression. While a man of faith (at least nominally), he did not find the balm he was looking for. He attempted suicide three times, having been found unconscious the last time. From here, Cowper was sent to St. Alban's asylum. It is here that Cowper both came to understand the richness and comfort of Jesus' work and began to see poetry as a way to express the beauty of the Gospel. His attending doctor, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, was an evangelical and tried to convince Cowper that his suicide attempts did not mean he was damned. William fought this for six months before he picked up a Bible, turned to John 11, and read the story of Lazarus. Cowper stayed at the asylum for another year, not feeling able to rejoin the world just yet. He wrote poetry and devoured all he could from the poet George Herbert.

He eventually moved in with family friends who lived just outside the town of Olney. It is here that Cowper would meet the local rector, John Newton. The former slave trader and the chronically depressed poet would collaborate on a hymnal, what today we call the Olney Hymns. This is where we find Newton's "Amazing Grace" and Cowper's "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" and "There Is A Fountain Filled with Blood." When Newton left Olney, he continued to stay in touch with William, but the poet soon fell into another depression. In 1799 Cowper wrote his last poem, "the Castaway," and died in temporal despair in 1800. He saw through a glass dimly, and often the view was so dim on account of his mental illness that he despaired of life itself. And in the midst of this, he wrote clearly about the hope of the Gospel and the balm that it is for those who need it most. A very happy birthday to William Cowper, and a cause for Thanksgiving on this special day.

The reading, of course, comes from William Cowper, a repeat from last year. This is his "Light Shining out of Darkness," also known by the poem's first line.

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.

This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 26th of November 2020 brought to you by 1517 at The show is produced by a man that reminds you that it looks like "cow-per" but is pronounced "coo-per," Christopher Gillespie. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe to the Christian History Almanac

Subscribe (it’s free!) in your favorite podcast app.