God not only leads us into dark valleys, whether our own or others’; he also determines their distance and the pace with which we walk through them. And while we find ourselves there, he is more than able to sustain us beneath our brother’s burden.
Among the mourners gathered in a London church in May of 1800, few would have expected the pastor, John Newton, to open his Bible to the third chapter of Exodus:
The angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt. (Exodus 3:2–3 KJV)
It was a strange passage for a funeral sermon. Yet when the 74-year-old Newton looked up from his Bible, he said, “I know of no text in the whole book of God’s word more suited to the case of my dear friend than that I have read. He was indeed a bush in flames for 27 years but he was not consumed.”
From the winter of 1773 until his death in 1800, William Cowper, the “dear friend” of Newton’s sermon, was indeed a bush in flames. For 27 years, the cold, dark fire of depression burned in Cowper’s bones. For 27 years, despair haunted him, hounded him, and caged him in an emotional and spiritual midnight. For 27 years, suicidal temptations met him at his lowest and spoke with almost overwhelming force.
Yet for 27 years, the flames did not consume him. And why? “Because the Lord was there,” Newton answered. Yes, the Lord was there. And very often, the Lord was there through Newton himself. Because for 27 years, John Newton did not forsake William Cowper, but faithfully stood as a friend in the fire.
Today, their story stands as a testament to the power of God through persevering friendship. And in a day of rising depression and declining loyalties, it is a story many of us need to hear.
Friendship Before the Fire
“One could not imagine two more different personalities than John Newton and William Cowper,” writes biographer George Ella. Newton was exuberant, sociable, and well-balanced; Cowper was shy, reclusive, and melancholic. Newton’s biography would enthrall lovers of adventure; Cowper’s might lull even scholars to sleep.
Yet Cowper would write of Newton near the end of his life, “A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had” (The Hidden Smile of God, 95). And Newton, during Cowper’s funeral sermon, would say, “The Lord has given me many friends but with none have I had so great an intimacy, as with my friend Mr. Cowper.” Theirs was a friendship made for the flames.
Six Bright Years
The friendship began in the summer of 1767, when Cowper moved to Olney, the town where Newton had been pastor since 1764. Despite their strikingly different personalities, the two men found more than enough common ground to build a mutual attachment. Both lost their mothers at age 6. Both were fluent in Latin and Greek, and familiar with classic and contemporary literature. Both became accomplished authors, Cowper as a poet and Newton as a letter writer, autobiographer, and hymn writer. Yet most significantly, the hearts of both beat for Jesus Christ.
“The Lord who had brought us together so knit our hearts and affections,” Newton would write to another friend, “that for nearly twelve years we were seldom separated for seven hours at a time when we were awake and at home” (Life of John Newton, 135). They visited each other’s homes so often, in fact, that they paid one of their neighbors a guinea per year for the right to take a shortcut across her orchard. (The area is known as “Guinea Field” to this day.)
All the while, Newton labored to keep Cowper, so prone to fall into the depths, on bright and stable ground. So, the two collaborated on several projects, including a book of hymns for their congregation. Later published as the Olney Hymns, the project was intended, in part, to be “a monument to perpetuate the remembrance of an intimate and endeared friendship” (“Olney Hymns Preface”).
The six years following Cowper’s move to Olney were some of the happiest both men had known. Yet on the eve of 1773, their friendship was about to be tested.
Historically, January was a dreaded month for Cowper. Paralyzing depressions had seized him in the Januaries of 1752 and 1763, the second of which led to suicide attempts and a stay in an insane asylum. The shadow returned on January 1, 1773 — this time for the rest of his life.
On that first night of the year, Cowper dreamed that God spoke to him in Latin, “Actum est de te periisti,” which he would later translate as, “It is all over with thee, thou hast perished” (John Newton, 219). He also dreamed that God issued a command similar to the one Abraham received in Genesis 22: yet instead of sacrificing Isaac, Cowper was to sacrifice himself.
“I was sent for early this morning, and returned astonished and grieved,” Newton wrote in his diary on January 2 (Life of John Newton, 157). The suicide attempt had failed, leaving Cowper wounded and desperate. Darkness swirled in the days that followed, as Cowper teetered on the edge of insanity. Yet Newton maintained a nearly “constant attendance at his bedside, calming the afflicted poet from the effects of his nightmares, delusions, and hallucinations” (John Newton, 222). For the next fourteen months, Newton and his wife, Mary, would care for Cowper under their own roof.
The suicidal ideation eventually subsided. But the knife edge of Cowper’s misery dulled rather than disappeared, leaving him in a land that felt somewhere between the living and the dead. Despite momentary hopes throughout the next 27 years, Cowper would live the remainder of his life under the imagined (but to him, terrifyingly real) sentence of 1773: Actum est de te periisti. Believing himself condemned by God, he turned from church, turned from prayer, turned from the hope he had expressed so poignantly in so many hymns.
Newton, however, did not turn from him.
Friendship in the Fire
Newton pastored in Olney for about six more years after 1773. As he reflected on the twelve years of friendship with Cowper in the same town, he wrote, “The first six I passed in daily admiring and aiming to imitate him: during the second six, I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death” (Life of John Newton, 135). Then in 1780, Newton accepted a call to pastor a church in London, taking him some fifty miles from Cowper’s valley.