Tuesday, November 29, 2005

William Cowper


Indeed, he had been a thoughtless, wild young man. But suddenly in the heyday of his youth, in the midst of his gaiety, something terrible had happened. There lurked beneath that levity and perhaps inspired it a morbidity that sprang from some defect of person, a dread which made action, which made marriage, which made any public exhibition of himself insupportable. If goaded to it, and he was now committed to a public career in the House of Lords, he must fly, even into the jaws of death. Rather than take up his appointment he would drown himself. But a man sat on the qua when he came to the water’s edge; some invisible hand mysteriously forced the laudanum from his lips when he tried to drink it; the knife which he pressed to his heart broke; and the garter with which he tried to hand himself from the bedpost let him fall. Cowper was condemned to life.

When, therefore, that July morning he looked out of the window at the ladies shopping, he had come through gulfs of despair, but he had reached at last not only the haven of a quiet country town, but a settled state of mind, a settled way of life. He was domesticated with Mrs. Unwin, a widow of six years his elder. By letting him talk, and listening to his terrors and understanding them, she had brought him very wisely, like a mother, to something like peace of mind. They lived side by side for many years in methodical monotony. They began the day by reading the Scriptures together; they then went to church; they parted to read or walk; they met after dinner to converse on religious topics or to sin hymns together, then again they walked if it were fine, or read and talked as if it were wet, and at last the day ended with more hymns and more prayers. Such for many years had been the routine of Cowper’s life with Mary Unwin. When his fingers found their way to pen they traced the lines of a hymn, or if they wrote a letter it was to urge some misguided mortal, his brother John, for instance, at Cambridge, to seek salvation before it was too late.

Yet this urgency was akin perhaps to the old levity; it, too, was an attempt to ward off some terror, to propitiate some deep unrest that lurked at the bottom of his soul. Suddenly the peace was broken. One night in February 1773 the enemy rose; it smote once and forever. An awful voice called out to Cowper in a dream. It proclaimed that he was damned, that he was outcast, and he fell prostrate before it.

After that he could not pray. When the others said grace at table, he took up his knife and fork as a sign that he had no right to join in their prayers. Nobody, not even Mrs. Unwin, understood the terrific import of the dream. Nobody realized why he was unique; why he was singled out from mall mankind and stood alone in his damnation.

But that loneliness had a strange effect—since he was no longer capable of help or direction he was free. The Rev. John Newton could no longer guide his pen or inspire his muse. Since doom had been pronounced and damnation was inevitable, he might sport with hare, cultivate cucumbers, listen to village gossip, weave nets, make tables; all that could be hoped was too while away the dreadful years without the ability to enlighten others or to be helped himself.

Never had Cowper written more enchantingly, more gaily, to his friends than now that he knew himself condemned. It was only at moments, when he wrote to Newton or to Unwin, that terror raised its horrid head above the surface and that he cried aloud: “My days are spent in vanity…Nature revives again; but a soul once slain lives no more.

For the most part, as he idled his time away in pleasant pastimes, as he looked with amusement at what passed in the street below, one might think him the happiest of men.

Virginia Woolf, “Cowper & Lady Austen,” The Second Common Reader (Harncourt, Brace & Co., 1932), 127-29.



  1. Wisdom and mercy guide my way;
    Shall I resist them both-
    A poor blind creature of a day,
    And crushed before the moth?

    But ah! my inmost spirit cries,
    Still bind me to thy sway,
    Else the next cloud that veils my skies
    Drives all these thoughts away.

  2. Steve, I started a conversation with myself about those appropriate for pastoral ministry. I ended up writing about both Charles Stanley and Jimmy Swaggart.

    I think Swaggart, besides having what is known in the therapeutic community as a SEXUAL ADDICTION, really shot himself in the foot, knee, chest and head when he refused Church discipline by the Assembly of God denomination for more than two months.

    Charles Stanley has in public described at least two times in his ministry when he could not continue; he may have even called it a nervous breakdown. And then, of course, his wife divorced him some years ago.

    Charles and Jimmy still hold pastoral positions. What thinkest thou Steve?

  3. I should say, first of all, that I myself never said that Spencer was emotionally unstable. I haven’t read enough of his stuff to render that diagnosis.

    We don’t expect our pastors to be men of steel. Pastoral burnout is, I guess, rather common. I knew a couple of PCA pastors who left the ministry. Both of them were excellent men. But they had very difficult congregations.

    Pastoral ministry can be emotionally exhausting, and once you’re emotionally drained, you don’t have any reserves left to draw upon. The insulation is gone. All that’s left are hot bare wires.

    Under such circumstances, I don’t think it’s bad for a pastor to take a leave of absence. Indeed, it’s a good thing.

    That, of itself, doesn’t mean that he’s unsuited to ministry. Indeed, his strength may be his weakness. Because he is so emotionally giving, he’s vulnerable.

    You have the phenomenon of good pastors with bad congregations. Oftentimes a pastor will take a new pastorate, only to find that there’s a family that forms a power clique, that thinks it should call the shots. They rest of the congregation may sympathize with the pastor, but they don’t side with him, they don’t publicly support him.

    On the other hand, you have men who go into the pastorate for the wrong reasons. They’re untested material. Oftentimes they go into ministry because they’re people persons. And, of course, social skills are a prerequisite of pastoral ministry.

    But you need more than social skills. You also need a strong faith and a certain amount of emotional toughness or resilience.

    A pastor is a spiritual physician. When I go to see the doctor, I, of course, want a physician who’s compassionate, but I’m not looking for a physician who wants to hold my hand and have a cry-fest.

    Regarding Swaggart, for a couple of reasons I don’t think he was every qualified for the ministry. To begin with, he comes out of a charismatic tradition in which your “call to the ministry” is judged by your oratorical ability—nothing less and nothing more. Now, public speaking skills are obviously an advantage in preaching, but a pastor can be an excellent Bible teacher without being a natural orator while a natural orator can be a lousy Bible teacher.

    In addition, Swaggart became hooked on pornography as a teenager and was never able to kick the habit. Addictions are very hard to break. And he was impenitent.

    As to Stanley, he made the mistake of making a rash vow, reaffirming the policy of his church, according to which a divorced man was disqualified from pastoral ministry. That’s a rather legalistic standard which goes beyond Scripture. For Stanley was guilty of being shortsighted and foolish on that account. Still, we should hold folks to Scriptural standards, not extrascriptural (or subscriptural) standards, so his vow was certainly forgivable. It may have looked hypocritical, but we shouldn’t hold folks to every stupid thing they say.

    As I understand, his ex-wife first demanded a separation on the ground that he didn’t spend enough time with her. That’s a legitimate grievance—though not a biblical grounds for divorce. And after he made more time with her, she divorced him, which is a rather contrarian reaction given her original grievance.

    I believe that Stanley is about 72 years old, and has been ministering for nearly 60 years in one capacity for another. So even if he had a nervous breakdown or two along the way, it’s clear that he has a lot of saying power.

    Again, this is quite different from someone who is plagued by serious doubts about the veracity of the faith, or holds grudges against everyone who ever wronged him--whether real or imagined.

  4. "As to Stanley, he made the mistake of making a rash vow, reaffirming the policy of his church, according to which a divorced man was disqualified from pastoral ministry. That’s a rather legalistic standard which goes beyond Scripture."

    Really? What about being a one-woman man? I can see if his wife was unfaithful to him, and the divorce followed, but In any other cirumstance, I can't see how the charge of "legalism" applies.

  5. His wife divorced him, not vice versa. From what I can tell, she divorced him without sufficient Scriptural warrant. So he's the innocent party as far as that's concerned.

    Stanley is a one-woman man. He's not remarried, has he? He's not a bigamist or polygamist or philanderer.

  6. Over at Free St. George's we have a post on 'The Death of Cowper'