First Thoughts

The Amazing Grace of Friendship

January 1, 1773 is a momentous date for hymnody. It not only serves as the date that ‘Amazing Grace’ was first presented to the public by John Newton now almost 250 years ago, but it is also the date that William Cowper penned ‘Conflict: Light Shining Out of Darkness,’ based on John 1:5 “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We know the hymn today as ‘God Moves in a Mysterious Way.’ It is hard to imagine a more fruitful single day in English hymnody nor a starker juxtaposition of two texts depicting the nature of the friendship that these compositions represent—grace and darkness.

January 1773 was a difficult month for Cowper, a man often plagued by lengthy periods of depression and even moments of insanity. By the winter of 1773, Cowper and Newton had developed a deep friendship over six years as neighbors and co-laborers in the parish church in Olney, England. Cowper had become a lay minister in Newton’s church, and they often served the people of the parish church together. Newton saw in Cowper what Cowper could not see in himself. He had studied his friend through their countless walks and conversations along the River Ouse and around the parish for ministry. In their time together, he sought to discern the contours of Cowper’s mental landscape and the potential causes of his emotional turmoil. He loved his friend, and he tried to develop strategies to counteract Cowper’s melancholic tendencies, which were often unpredictable and, at times, unreasonable. Brotherly affection had compelled Newton to invite Cowper into his ministry as lay curate at Olney’s parish church, into his writing as a promising poet, and into his life as the closest friend he had outside of his wife. Cowper would similarly characterize Newton when he wrote: “A sincerer or more affectionate friend no man ever had.”

Despite the optimism that a New Year’s Day can bring to some, the first day of 1773 was a devastating day for Cowper. The special morning service over, Cowper began to succumb rapidly to the onset of his life’s third bout with depression that would last in some measure for the remaining 27 years of his life. It also marked the extinguishing of some aspects of Cowper’s evangelical zeal and service. Cowper never attended church again, feeling completely unworthy to do so.

The January episode was demonstrative of a lifetime of mental and emotional turmoil. On his best days, he was distracted and emotionally uneasy by the inner struggles that could pull him into the depths of despair. On his worst days, the undercurrent overcame him, and he was plunged into darkness. January 1773 proved to be such a vortex of emotional turmoil. Cowper had convinced himself that while Jesus’ grace might be extended to anyone else, he had been singularly excluded from that grace by a special decree from God. Writing this profound hymn that afternoon, while there was still some light by which to see, now seems a profound attempt to grasp for that ray of light before he lost sight of it completely. For six years prior, that light most often was embodied in the care of his dear friend, Newton. It is thus fitting that the last words Cowper ever sang in worship included Newton’s now immortal words of sovereign and sustaining grace. One can only imagine how these verses and their eternal theme lodged themselves in the caverns of Cowper’s troubled mind as a musical deposit that Newton could draw upon in the days that followed. What must have crossed Cowper’s mind that day as he sang words of such promise as, “’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” His hymnic response in “God Moves” indicates that in that moment, he believed it would—“the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.”

It is impossible to fully comprehend what Cowper was experiencing and how his ability to maintain rational thought could be so elusive. One author explains, “It is in Cowper’s mental condition, which in his later years alternated between assurance and despair, that we discover the fundamental reason for his fears and distresses. Though believing that the Christian was eternally secure, he remained convinced that he was the exception. This conflict of mind exacerbated his distress.”[1] Newton wrote to Cowper of this paradox:

How strong that your judgement should be so clouded in one point only, and that a point so obvious and strikingly clear to every body who knows you!… Though your comforts have been so long suspended, I know not that I ever saw you for a single day since your calamity came upon you, in which I could not perceive as clear and satisfactory evidence that the grace of God was with you, as I could in your brighter and happier times.[2]

Is this not true of some in the church today? They hear of God’s amazing grace but convince themselves that it could not be so for them. How are we to serve them? Newton provides a model for us.

What was Newton compelled to do when his friend was exhibiting such perspectives?

Persist in proclaiming amazing grace!

John Piper calls this “Sing[ing] the gospel to the deaf.” “Let us rehearse the mercies of Jesus often in the presence of discouraged people. Let us point them again and again to the blood of Jesus.”[3] Newton stubbornly ‘sang’ the theme of “Amazing Grace” over his friend for the rest of his life. Even as Cowper protested its applicability, Newton persisted in its theme. He continued to present the sufficiency of the atonement of Christ. He found a hundred ways to sing the song of ‘Amazing Grace’ to his friend. He would not relent. He was committed to combating his friend’s insistence on being damned, with Christ’s insistence that ‘grace would lead him home.’ And so, in person, and in writing, Newton faithfully and relentlessly blasted the light of the gospel against the stronghold surrounding Cowper’s mind until it could find a crack or crevice for a ray of grace to seep through. One beam of grace at a time was sufficient to keep him for 27 years. Newton was persuaded that ‘A life of joy and peace’ would one day reward Cowper’s (and his own) persistence. He was jealous for his friend to know such joy and peace for eternity.

We should be the same for our friends.

[1] Cromarty, “Grace in Affliction,” 72.

[2] Letter from John Newton to William Cowper in 1780, cited in Hindmarsh, “The Olney Autobiographers,” 83.

[3] John Piper, “Depression Fought Hard to have Him: William Cowper (1731–1800),” DesiringGod.org, November 26, 2019, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/depression-fought-hard-to-have-him.


Scott Connell (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Worship Pastor at First Baptist Church Jacksonville.

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