William Cowper – “A Stricken Deer”

We can learn much about mental illness and Christian compassion from Cowper's life and his friendship with John Newton

 In spite of Cowper’s distrust of his own salvation, Newton never doubted it for a moment. He was just “astonished and grieved” by the pain his friend was suffering. “My dear friend still walks in darkness,” he wrote. “I can hardly conceive that anyone in a state of grace and favor with God can be in greater distress.” On Cowper’s request, Newton took him back into his home for thirteen months, where he reminded him daily of God’s faithfulness. When he finally returned to his home, Cowper devoted himself to quiet pursuits such as writing, gardening, carpentry, drawing, and caring for three young hares he celebrated in verse and prose as Puss, Tiney, and Bess.


1773 didn’t start well for William Cowper. In spite of seemingly comfortable circumstances, he felt pressured by both hurtful local gossip and well-meaning friendly advice into making a decision he was just not able to make.

He had been lodging with a pious family, the Unwins, for almost ten years, sharing with them joys and sorrows, including the unexpected deadly accident of Rev. Unwin. Recently, a friend of the family, Rev. John Newton, had invited Mrs. Unwin and her daughter Susanna to live next-door to him in Olney. He had extended the invitation to Cowper, who was for the Unwins like a son.

Newton and Cowper found a great affinity of minds and souls. Cowper’s poetic talent and theological understanding provided fresh inspiration to Newton’s ministry. Together, the two men produced a large number of hymns to sing at prayer meetings – a collection today known as the Olney Hymns. Cowper was to Newton a trusted friend, and accompanied him to meetings and on regular visits to parishioners.

Most recently, he had been wrestling with some trying circumstances. The sudden death of his beloved brother John, financial pressures due to John’s unresolved debts, and the death of two cousins had weighed heavily on Cowper’s frail mind.

A Troubled Life

He had always been a sensitive child. Born on 15 November 1731 in Hertfordshire, England, he had experienced sorrow and death from an early age – from the infant deaths of five siblings to the decease of his mother Ann, who died while giving birth to John (the only other child who survived). Cowper was six at that time. About fifty years later, he immortalized his mother in a heart-felt poem, “On the Receipt of my Mother’s Picture.”

Cowper continued his life without the person who had given him most comfort. His father, Reverend John Cowper, sent him to a school in Bedfordshire, 30 miles from home, where a 15-year old bully made him afraid to even raise his eyes in the boy’s presence. Later, the prestigious Westminster School in London, he watched a teacher suffer at the hands of bullies. In spite of this intimidating climate, he did well in his studies and created meaningful friendships.

Cowper’s father directed him to study law – a path William disliked and felt unsuited to pursue. His first experiences in the legal field confirmed his feelings. His only consolation was his love for his cousin Theadora, which she returned. The relation continued for three years, until her father barred the financially unstable Cowper from marrying her.

Moved by Theadora’s tears, her father found a suitable occupation for Cowper. By that time, however, Cowper had been suffering from persistent feelings of depression which blinded him to opportunities and convinced him they were presented to him to cause his failure. When a jealous opponent challenged his credentials, Cowper couldn’t take the pressure and entertained thoughts of suicide.

He bought a half-ounce of laudanum, a tincture of opium, but couldn’t bring himself to swallow it. He thought of drowning himself. When an attempt to stab himself with a penknife failed (the blade broke), he hanged himself with a garter. This method didn’t work either, because the garter snapped just as William was losing consciousness. A friend found him as he had collapsed on his bed. This was the end of William’s career and any chance to marry Theadora.

This experience was followed by greater depression, aggravated by fears of spiritual damnation. He found some relief in the sermons of a cousin, Rev. Martin Madan, who preached God’s free grace to sinners. At night, however, the terrors returned, so much that his family and friends suggested a hospitalization at St. Albans, a sanitorium. He stayed there for over a year, fluctuating from moments of utter despair (with at least one new suicide attempt) to great delight in the promises of the gospel which friends and even his doctor kept reminding him.

When he left the sanitorium in 1765, friends and family committed to support him financially so he could live as a gentleman. It was around this time that he moved in with the Unwins.

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