Yesterday, we sang one of my favorite hymns entitled, “There Is a Fountain.” Written by William Cowper, it is a great message of redemption and the gospel.
Before the last stanza, I stopped the band and told the story about the author and what makes the final stanza so powerful. Later that day, someone on the tech team asked ever-so-kindly if I could let them know when I would do that kind of explanation, it would help them prepare for such a transition. I told them I would love to do that, but I didn’t plan on that one yesterday. It was just one of those things that I felt needed to be shared at that moment.
This is the story.
William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper” by the English) was born in Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, England, on November 15, 1731. His father was an English clergyman and his mother came from a prominent English family of royalty. He set out to become a lawyer and later passed his bar examination and was licensed to practice as a solicitor in the lower courts of the English justice system.
While he achieved much in his early years, Cowper was physically frail and emotionally sensitive throughout his childhood. His mother died when he was six years old and that experience had a deep impact upon him. He was never able to deal with his grief appropriately.
He passed his law exam and was actually licensed as a lawyer, but the thought of appearing before the bar for his final oral examination frightened him to the extent that he had a mental breakdown from which he never recovered.
His perceived inadequate ability to speak kept him from something he desired to do.
As a result, he never practiced law, but preferred the study and writing of literature. Added to the anxiety of his bar examination was an unsuccessful romantic relationship that resulted in an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
After this suicide attempt, he was placed in an insane asylum for a period of eighteen months.
It was during his time in the asylum when he began to read the Scriptures. Battling severe depression, he remembered his spiritual upbringing as a child. He struggled concerning his own salvation. One day, while reading the Book of Romans, he was confronted with the words of the Apostle Paul who said:
For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God; being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God. -Romans 3:23-25
Aware of his sin and the Holy Spirit drawing him, Cowper received the gospel and began a relationship with Jesus. He was gloriously converted at the age of thirty-three years old in 1764.
After partial recovery of his melancholia and mental depression, William Cowper moved into the home of a retired evangelical minister named Morley Unwin. There he received the necessary spiritual encouragement and very patient care at the hands of Rev. Unwin and his wife Mary. After five years Rev. Unwin died and his widow decided it best at the request of Rev. John Newton, to move with her family to Olney, England. William Cowper was invited to move with the Unwin family to Olney and to attend the parish Anglican Church pastored by Rev. Newton who was the author of the hymn, Amazing Grace.
While living in the Olney Parish, William Cowper lived in a small house whose backyard joined the parsonage yard where Rev. Newton and his family resided. Here at the Olney Parish, Newton and Cowper became very close friends and worked together in the writing of religious poetry for the services of the church. Rev. Newton became a spiritual father to Cowper and a real source of needed inspiration in helping him overcome his spells of religious doubts, mental depressions and emotional morbidity.
Even after Cowper’s conversion, he endured several periods of time when he seriously doubted the love of God for him and his security as a believer.
Both Newton and Cowper were very talented poets and writers of religious verse and with their combined efforts produced the famous Olney Hymns. This book of 349 hymns became one of the most important contributions to musical worship in evangelical Christianity. Among the 67 hymns written by William Cowper while living at Olney under the patient care of Mrs. Unwin and spiritual inspiration of his pastor John Newton, the hymn that testifies of his final peace with his Savior stands out as one of the anthems of the church and a monument to the sovereign grace of God. While sitting alone one day at his desk in his little house, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and with the words of the prophet Zechariah 13:1 fresh in his mind, he began to pen these comforting words:
There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Immanuel’s veins
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day;
And there may I, though vile as he
Wash all my sins away
Dear dying Lamb, thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power
Till all the ransomed church of God
Are saved, to sin no more
For since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply
Redeeming love has been my theme
and shall be till I die
When this poor lisping,
Lies silent in the grave
Then in a nobler, sweeter song
I’ll sing thy power to save
William Cowper penned these words not long before his death on April 25, 1800. It was at the writing of these words that he became aware of Christ’s complete atonement for his sins. Several years later Lowell Mason (1792-1872), an American living in Boston set William Cowper’s words to music.
What I love about this story is how his story is evident through this hymn, but the fifth stanza is simply breathtaking to me. A man who struggled with his speech and his confidence would pen the words:
When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave, then in a nobler, sweeter song I’ll sing thy power to save.
What depth of mercy, grace, and power we find in the person and work of Christ.