Beams of Light from a Tragic Life

From a session at the Pastor’s Academy Study Day on ‘Depression in the Ministry’, 6th October 2022.

I begin with a pointer to the much-valued classic by the Scottish Presbyterian minister Thomas Boston (1676-1732), The Crook in the Lot: Or the Sovereignty and Wisdom of God in the Afflictions of Men Displayed.  This popular exposition of Ecclesiastes 7:13 was widely regarded as one of the very best pastoral writings of the post-covenanter period.

By “crook” Boston refers to any afflicting and disturbing experience providentially introduced by God in His wisdom, designed to restrain, refine or correct us in the course of our life. By “lot” he means our personal situation and circumstances, foreordained in God’s supremacy and sovereignty, over all that comes to pass in relation to us as individual Christian believers. Such a crook in the lot, was certainly the experience of the much-loved English poet William Cowper of Olney.

Born in London in 1731, Cowper was a contemporary of the Wesleys, and more notably of John Newton. As a child he witnessed the crowds gathering to hear the great missionary and evangelist George Whitefield. He lived through both the American and French Revolutions and his writing was highly regarded by Benjamin Franklin.

Cowper grew up in the rectory of his somewhat austere father, who was a not an evangelical. But even more significantly, young William’s mother died when he was aged only six, which resulted in his being sent to boarding school, a move which probably compounded his emotional vulnerability for the rest of his life. It was a harsh setting for one who proved to be so fragile where there was almost certainly severe bullying and quite probably sexual abuse as well. By the time he was seventeen he was training for the legal profession, but he had neither the interest in law nor the confidence in public life to pursue it wholeheartedly.

John Piper writes about what happened next: ‘In 1752, age 21, Cowper was struck by the first bout of paralysing depression. “Day and night I was on the rack lying down in horror and rising up in despair.” As yet he was not a believer and only attributed his recovery to the benefits of the poetry of George Herbert and the country air.’

Despite a growing attraction for his cousin Theodora, her father, having probably recognised his fragility, did nothing to encourage marriage. The disappointment again played into his underlying tendencies to self-deprecation. His lingering desire towards her continued in a series of somewhat veiled poems entitled Delia; her own regard for him was marked by a series of anonymous gifts.

Aged 28 Cowper’s enforced legal pathway led towards a formal appointment as Clerk of Journals in Parliament, but the prospect of the requisite verbal examination backfired on him in 1763 with devastating consequences for his mental health.  He said, “To those whose spirits are formed like mine, public display of themselves is as mortal poison. A thunderbolt would have been as welcome as that experience.”

Staggering under the weight of his mental pain over this early period, he attempted suicide more than five times, which only compounded his guilt and despair.

Sadly, it appears that even from this early point, the pattern had been set and Cowper emerged on the stage of history a sensitive, gifted and deeply anxious man who would limp through life dependent on the kindness of those whom God mercifully brought across his path.

In December 1763 he was admitted to an asylum in St Albans which was under the care of an evangelical believer Dr Nathaniel Cotton. This man sought to assuage Cowper’s fears of eternal damnation and in time, through the rediscovery of the Bible and in particular the account of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, he found the peace and a measure of the assurance that results from a sincere trust in the Gospel promise.

In 1765 Cowper moved into the home of the Unwin family of Huntingdon. Having lost her own husband in a tragic riding accident, Mary Unwin became something of a mother figure to Cowper. It was here that they first encountered the wide-ranging and highly valued ministry of John Newton, whose visits eventually led to their moving to the small market town of Olney in Buckinghamshire where Newton had been appointed curate in 1764. These friendships, in this remote setting, far from the stresses of public life, introduced a measure of happiness which was sadly not to last.

The brighter years in Olney in which he and Newton’s friendship was mutually enriching produced a wealth of fruitful writing, including the collection known as the Olney Hymns, most of which were written by Newton with a contribution of fifty or sixty from the pen of his younger friend.

However, depression and dread were never far from the door. Newton did all he could to pastor this troubled soul through his darkest days. As time went on Cowper increasingly lost his assurance and became convinced that though the promises of God were valid for most, he himself was a tragic exception. His consequent gloom was expressed in his poetic ballad ‘The Castaway’. Here he implies that for the physical sufferer there is at least a cut-off point in death, whereas mental pain casts one into a rougher sea from which there is no release:

No voice divine the storm allayed
No light propitious shone
When snatched from all effectual aid
We perished each alone
But I beneath a rougher sea
and whelmed in deeper gulfs than he.

With Newton’s subsequent removal to a new ministry in London, Cowper seemed to settle into a pattern of spiritual depression which was only offset by temporal interests. With his assurance lacking, his Christian output declined, though this period did result in some of his best loved poetic works which were increasingly recognised as the work of a master of the genre. See for example his comic piece ‘The Diverting History of John Gilpin’, or on a more complex note, ‘The Task’.

As a footnote, it is almost certain that with the clinical insights and medication available today, so much of his suffering would have been relieved if not cured, but all this took place in very different times (think Poldark!).

For further reading I suggest the full text of John Piper, ‘Insanity and Spiritual Songs in the life of William Cowper’, from which I have drawn for what I have included up to this point.

We now turn the clock forward to the mid-1800s as we come to my next recommendation, Spurgeon’s Sorrows, by Zack Eswine (Christian Focus).

The writer here demonstrates his sensitive and valuable insight, backed by a number of anecdotes and quotations from the life of this Evangelical (Baptist) genius.

Eswine, who has suffered serious depression himself, gives us the fruit of an in-depth study of Spurgeon’s testimony and pastoral observations on this vital topic. Spurgeon bares his own soul and confesses freely and vividly his own deep and protracted struggles. Despite his remarkable sense of humour and ready wit, the fact remains that Spurgeon had many dark encounters with the so-called ‘black dog’. For example, he could write that “All our birds are Owls or Ravens; when one is born with a melancholy temperament he sees a tempest brewing even on a calm day.” Again: “Quite involuntarily, unhappiness of mind, depression of spirit and heart will come upon you; without any reason for grief, you become the most unhappy of men because for a time your body has conquered your soul.” Note that as he describes it an identifiablereason for the grief does not exist.

Eswine also raises the question of the sufferer who never, in this life at least, seems to make a lasting recovery. Does this observation justify doubts over the reality of God’s love or the validity of His promises? Spurgeon would reply that it does not mean that, because the gospel promises of healing are never absolute in regard to this present life. As one writer put it, the gospel secures, but not always cures.

Spurgeon, in sympathy with the severely wounded, said that “some were brought so low they never held up their heads again and were unable to live in any other scene than the one that crushed them” – which, as we have seen, was evidently the case with Cowper. At the same time Spurgeon was one of the strongest advocates of the believer’s eternal security.

So perhaps those who apparently live on the brink of despair are the unhappy exceptions that underline the general rule. For even with severe cases, most will recover to a significant degree whilst always living with their underlying proclivity, as they complete the journey to the land where every tear, at last, is wiped away.

Recommended reading 

In addition to the reading mentioned above, I recommend Note to Self by Joe Thorn (Christian Focus) and Tackling Mental Illness Together by Alan Thomas (IVP). Alan is a Christian psychiatrist writing from a Reformed Evangelical perspective, with an emphasis on the place of the local church and its members in the pastoral care of sufferers. This is highly recommended as reading for pastors in these confusing times. It is especially useful regarding the tendency of the medical profession, with its secular presuppositions, to assume an exclusive capacity to resolve the kind of problems which previous generations viewed as spiritual and religious. It is also helpful on all the definitions and terminology used in the area of mental health.