Story Behind the Hymn
William Cowper (pronounced Cooper), depressed and fragile both physically and emotionally, wrote a hymn over 200 years ago that has become the “redemption anthem” for the church. Born to an English chaplain in 1731, Cowper attended a boarding school where he was severely bullied and harshly disciplined. At 6 years of age, his mother died, devastating this tender child, plunging him into anxiety and depression from which he never did fully recover.
In his youth, Cowper moved to his uncle’s home to study law. While there he fell in love with his cousin. A deep depression engulfed him when his uncle forbade the marriage. He not only lost in love but also in his law career due to a public grilling that was required of him prior to receiving a promotion that would give him the edge he needed. A panic attack ensued and the promotion was lost. Overwhelmed, he attempted suicide 3 times. Cowper was placed in an asylum where he returned to his spiritual heritage and was converted to Christianity. After the asylum, the depression lifted for a season, and he took up residency in the home of Rev. Morley and Mary Unwin. Five years later, Morley fell from a horse and died.
After the death of her husband, Mary and her family, along with Cowper, were invited by the Rev. John Newton (Amazing Grace), vicar of a small parish, to move next door to him in Olney. Cowper thrived under Newton’s spiritual guidance and nurture. He assisted Newton with his church duties and together they published “The Olney Hymns,” one of history’s most important contributions to church music.
It was during this time that Cowper penned his most beloved—and controversial—hymn. He had been meditating on Zechariah 13:11, “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity”. He became keenly aware of the efficacy of Christ’s complete atonement for his sins. Overcome by the truth of God’s love for him, the poem flowed from his pen as he endeavored to put into words God’s fountain that welled up within him.
Then news came of his brother’s death sending him into a severe depression. Another suicide attempt failed. When Mrs. Unwin died in 1796, Cowper went into a permanent state of despair until his own death four years later.
Though he suffered mental breakdowns, depression, emotional weakness, and spiritual doubts, God used this man to write the words to the hymn that has become an anthem of God’s redeeming love for over two centuries.