Essay / On This Day

Happy Birthday, William Cowper

Today (November 26) is the birthday of English hymn writer William Cowper (1731 – 1800), who collaborated with John Newton on the collection called Olney Hymns.

The most famous of the Olney Hymns is of course Newton’s Amazing Grace. Newton also wrote the lion’s share of the hymns in the collection. Newton could out-produce, out-promote, out-preach, and out-perform Cowper in life as well as in art, partly because John Newton was a remarkable man, but also because William Cowper was a melancholy sort, afflicted with depression throughout his life.

But Cowper was the greater artist of the two, and one of Newton’s great accomplishments is that he helped poor Cowper produce and publish some excellent poetry. Left to his own devices, Cowper might have settled for writing nothing but a series of brilliant personal letters, a private medium more congenial to his temperament.

Cowper’s contributions to the Olney Hymns are of a consistently high quality. The most famous are probably “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood,” “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” and “Sometimes a Light Surprises.”

But the series of hymns on the divine names is one of the richest veins in the collection. They are all closely tied to Scriptural texts, and set in a strong, experiential evangelical spirituality. Consider these:


The saints should never be dismay’d,
Nor sink in hopeless fear;
For when they least expect His aid,
The Saviour will appear.


Heal us, Emmanuel! here we are,
Waiting to feel Thy touch:
Deep-wounded souls to Thee repair
And, Saviour, we are such.


‘Twas Israel’s God and King
Who sent him to the fight;
Who gave him strength to sling,
And skill to aim aright.
Ye feeble saints, your strength endures,
Because young David’s God is yours.

Jehovah our Righteousness:

My God! how perfect are thy ways!
But mine polluted are;
Sin twines itself about my praise,
And slides into my prayer.

When I would speak what thou hast done
To save me from my sin;
I cannot make thy mercies known
But self-applause creeps in.

Divine desire, that holy flame
Thy grace creates in me;
Alas! impatience is its name,
When it returns to thee.


As birds their infant brood protect,
And spread their wings to shelter them,
Thus saith the Lord to His elect,
“So will I guard Jerusalem.”

Let earth repent, and hell despair,
This city has a sure defence;
Her name is call’d, “The Lord is there,”
And who has power to drive him hence?


Jesus! whose blood so freely stream’d
To satisfy the law’s demand;
By Thee from guilt and wrath redeem’d,
Before the Father’s face I stand.

To reconcile offending man,
Make Justice drop her angry rod;
What creature could have form’d the plan,
Or who fulfil it but a God?

No drop remains of all the curse,
For wretches who deserved the whole;
No arrows dipt in wrath to pierce
The guilty, but returning soul.

Peace by such means so dearly bought,
What rebel could have hoped to see?
Peace by his injured Sovereign wrought,
His Sovereign fasten’d to a tree.

Now, Lord, Thy feeble worm prepare!
For strife with earth and hell begins;
Conform and gird me for the war;
They hate the soul that hates his sins.

Let them in horrid league agree!
They may assault, they may distress;
But cannot quench Thy love to me,
Nor rob me of the Lord my peace.


My song shall bless the Lord of all,
My praise shall climb to His abode;
Thee, Saviour, by that name I call,
The great Supreme, the mighty God.

Of all the crowns Jehovah bears,
Salvation is His dearest claim;
That gracious sound well pleased He hears
And owns Emmanuel for His name.

Note on pronunciation: The right way to say “Cowper’s Olney Hymns” is “COOper’s OHney Hymns.” You have to pretend the W and the L aren’t there; don’t say “COWper’s OLney Hymns.” The main reason this is important is that there are some people who live to correct you on this one. (For definitive proof on that weird Cowper pronunciation, see this pdf at the Newton-Cowper museum.

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