JOHN COWPER, M.A.
The following narrative of the conversion of his brother from infidelity, is given by William Cowper, the well known hymnwriter:
“As soon as it had pleased God, after a long and sharp season of conviction, to visit me with the consolation of His grace, it became one of my chief concerns that my relations might be made partakers of the same mercy. In the first letter I wrote to my brother, I took occasion to declare what God had done for my soul; and am not conscious that, from that period down to his last illness, I wilfully neglected an opportunity of engaging him, if it were possible, in conversation of a spiritual kind. When I left St. Alban’s, and went to visit him at Cambridge, my heart being full of the subject, I poured it out before him without reserve; and in all my subsequent intercourse with him, so far as I was enabled, took care to show that I had received, not merely a set of notions, but a real impression of the truths of the Gospel.
“At first I found him ready enough to talk with me upon these subjects; sometimes he would dispute, but always without heat or animosity, and sometimes would endeavour to reconcile our sentiments, by supposing that at the bottom we were both of a mind, and meant the same thing.
“He was a man of a most candid and ingenuous spirit; his temper remarkably sweet; and in his behaviour to me, he had always manifested an uncommon affection. His outward conduct, so far as it fell under my notice, or I could learn it by the report of others, was perfectly decent and unblameable. There was nothing vicious in any part of his practice; but, being of a studious turn, he placed his chief delight in the acquisition of learning. He was critically skilled in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew languages; was beginning to make himself master of the Syriac, and perfectly understood the French and Italian, the latter of which he could speak fluently. These attainments, however, he lived heartily to despise, not as useless when sanctified and employed in the service of God, but when sought after for their own sake, and with a view to the praise of men- He was easy and cheerful in his conversation, and entirely free from the stiffness which is generally contracted by men devoted to such pursuits.
“Thus we spent about two years, conversing, as occasion offered (and we generally visited each other once or twice a week, as long as I continued at Huntingdon) upon the leading truths of the Gospel. By this time he began to be more reserved; he would hear me patiently, but never reply; and this I found, upon his own confession afterward, was the effect of a resolution he had taken in order to avoid disputes, and to secure the continuance of that peace which had always subsisted between us. When our family removed to Olney, our intercourse became less frequent. We exchanged an annual visit, and, whenever he came among us, he observed the same conduct, conforming to all our customs, attending family worship with us, and receiving civilly whatever passed in conversation upon the subject, but adhering strictly to the rule he had prescribed for himself, never remarking upon anything he heard or saw. This, through the goodness of his natural temper, he was enabled to carry so far, that though some things unavoidably happened, which we feared would give him offence, he never took any.
“In September 1769, I learned, by letters from Cambridge, that he was dangerously ill. I set out for that place the day after I received them, and found him as ill as I expected. He had taken cold on his return from a journey into Wales; and lest he should be laid up at a distance from home, he had pushed forward as fast as he could from Bath with a fever upon him. Soon after his arrival at Cambridge, he discharged, unknown to himself, such a prodigious quantity of blood, that the physician ascribed it only to the strength of his constitution that he was still alive; and assured me that if the discharge should be repeated, he must inevitably die upon the spot. In this state of imminent danger, he seemed to have no more concern about his spiritual interests than when in perfect health. His couch was strewn with volumes of plays, to which he had frequent recourse for amusement. I learned indeed afterwards, that, even at this time, the thoughts of God and eternity would often force themselves upon his mind; but not apprehending his life to be in danger, and trusting in the morality of his past conduct, he found it no difficult matter to thrust them out again.
“As it pleased God that he had no relapse, he presently began to recover strength, and in ten days’ time I left him so far restored that he had every symptom of returning health. It is probable, however, that, though his recovery seemed perfect, this illness was the means which God had appointed to bring down his strength, and to hasten on the malady which proved his last.
“In February 1770, I was again summoned to attend him, by letters which represented him so ill that the physician entertained but little hope of his recovery. He, however, expressed great joy at seeing me, thought himself much better, and seemed to hope that he should be well again. My situation at this time was truly distressful. I learned from the physician, that in this instance as in the last, he was in much greater danger than he suspected. He did not seem to lay his illness at all to heart, nor could I find by his conversation that he had one serious thought. As often as a suitable occasion offered, when we were free from company and interruption, I endeavoured to give a spiritual turn to the discourse; and the day after my arrival, asked his permission to pray with him, to which he readily consented. I renewed my attempts in this way as often as I could, though without any apparent success: still he seemed as careless and unconcerned as ever; yet I could not but consider his willingness in this instance as a token for good, and observed with pleasure that, though at other times he discovered no mark of seriousness, yet when I spoke to him of the Lord’s dealings with myself he received what I said with affection, would
press my hand, and look kindly at me, and seemed to love me better for it.
“On the 21st of the same month, he had a violent fit of asthma, which seized him when he rose, and lasted all day. His agony was dreadful. This day the Lord was very present with me, and enabled me, as I sat by the poor sufferer’s side, to wrestle for a blessing upon him. I observed to him, that, though it had pleased God to visit him with great afflictions, yet mercy was mingled with the dispensation. I said, ‘You have many friends, who love you, and are willing to do all they can to serve you; and so perhaps have others in the like circumstances; but it is not the lot of every sick man, how much soever he may be beloved, to have a friend that can pray for him.’ He replied, ‘That is true, and I hope God will have mercy upon me.’ His love for me from this time became very remarkable; there was a tenderness in it more than was merely natural; and he generally expressed it by calling for blessings upon me in the most affectionate terms, and with a look and manner not to be described.
“Through the whole of this most painful dispensation he was blessed with a degree of resignation to the will of God not always seen in the behaviour of established Christians, under sufferings so great as his. I never heard a murmuring word escape him; on the contrary, he would often say, when his pains were most acute, ‘I only wish it may please God to enable me to suffer without complaining; I have no right to complain’. Once he said, with a loud voice, ‘Let Thy rod and Thy staff support and comfort me: and, oh, that it were with me as in times past, when the candle of the Lord shone upon my tabernacle’! One evening, when I had been expressing my hope that the Lord would shew him mercy, he replied, I hope He will: I am sure I pretend to nothing’. Many times he spoke of himself in terms of the greatest self-abasement. I thought I could discern, in these expressions, the glimpses of approaching day; and have no doubt but that the Spirit of God was gradually preparing him, in a way of true humiliation, for that
bright display of Gospel grace which He was soon after pleased to afford him.
“On Saturday the 10th of March, about three in the afternoon, he suddenly burst into tears, and said, with a loud cry, ‘Oh, forsake me not’! I went to his bedside, when he grasped my hand, and presently, by his eyes and countenance, I found that he was in prayer. Then, turning to me, he said, ‘Oh brother, I am full of what I could say to you.’ The nurse asked him if he would have any hartshorn or lavender. He replied, ‘None of these things will serve my purpose’. I said. But I know what would, my dear, don’t I?’ He answered, ‘You do, brother’.
“Having continued some time silent, he said, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth.” Then, after a pause, ‘Aye, and He is able to do it’.
“I left him for about an hour, fearing lest he should fatigue himself with talking, and because my surprise and joy were so
great that I could hardly bear them. When I returned, he threw his arms about my neck, and leaning his head against mine, he said,Â— ‘Brother, if I live, you and I shall be more like one another than we have been. But, whether I live or not, all is well, and will be so; I know it will; I have felt that which I never felt before, and am sure that God has visited me with this sickness to teach me what I was too proud to learn in health. I never had satisfaction till now. The doctrines I had been used to referred me to MYSELF for the foundation of my hopes, and there I could find nothing to rest upon. The sheet-anchor of the soul was wanting. I thought you wrong, yet wished to believe as you did. I found myself unable to believe, yet always thought that I should one day be brought to do so. You suffered more than I have done before you believed these truths; but our sufferings, though different in their kind and measure, were directed to the same end. I hope He has taught me that which He teaches none but His own. I hope so. These things were once foolishness to me, but now I have a firm foundation, and am satisfied’.
“In the evening, when I went to bid him good night, he looked steadfastly in my face, and, with great solemnity in his air and manner, taking me by the hand, resumed the discourse in these very words: ‘As empty, and yet full; as having nothing, and yet possessing all thingsÂ—I see the rock upon which I once split, and I see the Rock of my salvation; I have peace in myself; and, if I live, I hope it will be that I may be made a messenger of peace to others. I have learned that in a moment which I could not have learned by reading many books for many years. I have often studied these points, and studied them with great attention, but was blinded by prejudice; and, unless He who alone is worthy to unloose the seals had opened the book to me, I had been blinded still. Now they appear so plain, that, though I am convinced no comment could ever have made me understand them, I wonder I did not see them before. Yet, great as my doubts and difficulties were, they have only served to pave the way; and, being solved, they make it plainer. The light I have received comes late, but it is a comfort to me that I never made the Gospel truths a subject of ridicule. Though I dissented from the persuasion and the ways of God’s people, I ever thought them respectable, and therefore not proper to be made a jest of. The evil I suffer is the consequence of my descent from the corrupt original stock, and of my own personal transgressions; the good I enjoy comes to me as the overflowing of His bounty; but the crown of all His mercies is this, that He has given me a Saviour; and not only the Saviour of mankind, brother, but my Saviour’.
” ‘I should delight to see the people of Olney, but am not worthy to appear among them’. He wept at speaking these words, and repeated them with emphasis. ‘I should rejoice in an hour’s conversation with Mr. Newton; and, if I live, shall have much discourse with him upon these subjects; but I am so weak in body that at present I could not bear it’.
“At the same time he gave me to understand that he had been five years enquiring after the truth; that is, from the time of my first visit to him after I left St. Albans; and that, from the very day of his ordination, which was ten years ago, he had been dissatisfied with his own views of the Gospel, and sensible of their defect and obscurity; that he had always had a sense of the importance of the ministerial charge, and had used to consider himself accountable for his doctrine no less than his practice; and that he could appeal to the Lord for his sincerity in all that time, and had never wilfully erred, but always been desirous of coming to the knowledge of the truth. He added, that the moment when he sent forth that cry was the moment when light was darted into his soul; that he had thought much about these things in the course of his illness, but never till that instant was able to understand them.
“It was remarkable that, from the very instant when he was first enlightened, he was also wonderfully strengthened in body, so that, from the 10th to the 14th March, we all entertained hopes of his recovery. He was himself very sanguine in his expectations of it, but frequently said, that his desire of recovery extended no farther than his hope of usefulness; adding, ‘Unless I may live to be an instrument of good to others, it were better for me to die now’.
“As his assurance was clear and unshaken, so he was very sensible of the goodness of the Lord to him in that respect. On the day when his eyes were opened, he turned to me, and in a low voice said, ‘What a mercy it is to a man in my condition to know his acceptance! I am completely satisfied of mine’. On another occasion, speaking to the same purpose, he said, ‘This bed would be a bed of misery, and it is so; but it is likewise a bed of joy and a bed of discipline. Were I to die this night, I know I should be happy. This assurance, I hope, is quite consistent with the Word of God. It is built upon a sense of my own utter insufficiency and the all-sufficiency of Christ’. At the same time he said, ‘Brother, I have been building my glory upon a sandy foundation; I have laboured night and day to perfect myself in things of no profit; I have sacrificed my health to these pursuits, and am now suffering the consequence of my misspent labour. But how contemptible do the writers I once highly valued now appear to me! Yea, doubtless, I count all things dross and dung for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord. I must now go to a new school. I have many things to learn. I succeeded in my former pursuits. I wanted to be highly applauded, and I was so. I was flattered up to the height of my wishes, now I must learn a new lesson’.
“On the evening of the 13th he said, ‘What comfort have I in this bed, miserable as I seem to be! Brother, I love to look at you. I now see who was right, and who was mistaken. But it seems wonderful that such a dispensation should be necessary to enforce what seems so very plain. I wish myself at Olney; you have a good river there, better than all the rivers of Damascus. What a scene is passing before me! Ideas upon those subjects crowd upon me
faster than I can give them utterance. How plain do many texts appear, to which, after consulting all the commentators, I could hardly affix a meaning! Now I have their true meaning without any comment at all. There is but one key to the New Testament. There is but One Interpreter. I cannot describe to you, nor shall ever be able to describe, what I felt in the moment when it was given to me. May we make a good use of it! How I shudder when I think of the danger I have just escaped! I had made up my mind upon these subjects, and was determined to hazard all upon the justness of my own opinions’.
“His remarkable amendment soon appeared to be no more than a present supply of strength and spirits, that he might be able to speak of the better life which God had given him; which was no sooner done that he relapsed as suddenly as he had revived. His experience was rather peace than joy, if a distinction may be made between joy and that heart-felt peace which he often spoke of in the most comfortable terms, and which he expressed by a heavenly smile upon his countenance under the bitterest bodily distress His words upon this subject once were these,Â— ‘How wonderful is it that God should look upon man, especially that He should look upon me! Yet He sees me, and takes notice of all that I suffer. I see Him too; He is present before me, and I hear Him say “Come unto me all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” On the 14th, in the afternoon, I perceived that the strength and spirits which had been afforded him were suddenly withdrawn so that by the next day his mind became weak, and his speech roving and faltering. But still, at intervals, he was enabled to speak of Divine things with great force and clearness. On the evening of the 15th he said. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, than over ninety and nine just persons who need no repentance.’ That text has been sadly misquoted by me, as well as by others. Where is that just person to be found? Alas! what must have become of me if I had died this day se’nnight! What should I have had to plead? My own righteousness? That would have been of no great service to me, to be sure! Well, whither next? Why, to the mountains to fall upon us, and to the hills to cover us. I am not duly thankful for the mercy I have received. Perhaps I may ascribe some part of my insensibility to my great weakness of body. I hope, at least, that, if I were better in health, it would be better with me in these respects also’.
“The next day, perceiving that his understanding began to suffer by the extreme weakness of his body, he said, I have been vain of my understanding and of my acquirements in this place;
and now God has made be little better than an idiot; as much as to say. Now, be proud if you can. Well, while I have any senses left, my thoughts will be poured out in the praise of God. I have an interest in Christ, in His blood and sufferings, and my sins are forgiven me. Have I not cause to praise Him? When my understanding fails me quite, as I think it will soon, then He will pity my weakness’.
“Though the Lord intended that his warfare should be short, yet a warfare he was to have, and to be exposed to a measure of conflict with his own corruptions. His pain being extreme, his powers of recollection much impaired, and the Comforter withholding for a season His sensible support, he was betrayed into a fretfulness and impatience of spirit which had never been permitted to shew itself before. This appearance alarmed me; and, having an opportunity afforded me by every one’s absence, I said to him, ‘You were happier last Saturday than you are today. Are you entirely destitute of the consolations you then spoke of? And do you not sometimes feel comfort flowing into your heart from a sense of your acceptance with God?’ He replied, ‘Sometimes I do, but sometimes I am left to desperation’. The same day, he said, ‘Brother, I believe you are often uneasy, lest what lately passed should come to nothing’. I replied by asking him, whether, when he found his patience and his temper fail, he endeavoured to pray for power against his corruptions? He answered, ‘Yes, a thousand times in a day. But I see myself odiously vile and wicked. If I die in this illness, I beg you will place no other inscription over me than such as may just mention my name, and the parish where I was a minister; for that I ever had a being, and what sort of a being I had, cannot be too soon forgotten. I was just beginning to be a deist, and had long desired to be so; and I will own to you what I never confessed before, that my function and the duties of it were a weariness to me which I could not bear. Yet, wretched creature and beast as I was, I was esteemed religious, though I lived without God in the world’. About this time, I reminded him of the account of John Janeway, which he once read at my desire. He said he had laughed at it in his own mind, and accounted it mere madness and folly; ‘Yet, base as I am’, said he, ‘I have no
doubt now but God has accepted me also, and forgiven me all my sins’.
“I then asked him what he thought of my narrative? He replied, ‘I thought it strange, and ascribed much of it to the state in which you had been. When I came to visit you in London, and found you in that deep distress, I would have given the Universe to have administered some comfort to you. You may remember that I tried every method of doing it. When I found that all my attempts were vain, I was shocked to the greatest degree. I began to consider your sufferings as a judgment upon you, and my inability to obviate them as a judgment upon myself. When Mr. M. came he succeeded in a moment. This surprised me; but it does not surprise me now. He had the key to your heart, which I had not’.
“There is that in the nature of salvation by grace, when it is truly and experimentally known, which prompts every person to think himself the most extraordinary instance of its power. Accordingly, my brother insisted upon the precedence in this respect, and, upon comparing his case with mine, would by no means allow my deliverance to have been so wonderful as his own. He observed,
that, ‘from the beginning, both his manner of life and his connections had been such as had a natural tendency to blind his eyes, and to confirm and rivet his prejudices against the truth! Blameless in his outward conduct, and having no open immorality to charge himself with, his acquaintance had been with men of the same stamp, who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised the doctrines of the cross. Such were all whom, from his earliest days, he had proposed to himself as patterns for his imitation.
“As long as he expected to recover, the souls committed to his care were much upon his mind. One day, when none was present but myself, he prayed thus: ‘O Lord, Thou art good; goodness is Thy very essence, and Thou art the fountain of wisdom. I am a poor worm, weak and foolish as a child. Thou hast entrusted many souls unto me, and I have not been able to teach them, because I knew Thee not myself. Grant me ability, O Lord, for I can do nothing without Thee, and give me grace to be faithful’.
“In a time of severe and continual pain, he smiled and said, ‘Brother, I am happy as a king’. And the day before he died, when I asked him what sort of a night he had had, he replied, ‘a sad night, not a wink of sleep’. I said, ‘perhaps, though, your mind has been composed, and you have been enabled to pray’. ‘Yes’, said he, ‘I have endeavoured to spend the hours in the thoughts of God and prayer; I have been much comforted, and all the comfort I got came to me in this way’.
“The next morning, I was called up to be witness of his last moments. I found him in a deep sleep, lying perfectly still, and seemingly free from pain. I stayed with him till they pressed me to quit the room, and in about five minutes after I had left him he fell asleep; sooner, indeed, than I expected, though for some days there had been no hopes of his recovery. His death at that time was rather extraordinary; at least I thought so; for, when I took leave of him the night before, he did not seem worse or weaker than he had been, and, for aught that appeared, might have lasted many days; but the Lord cut short his sufferings, and gave him a speedy and peaceful departure.
“He fell asleep on the 20th March, 1770.
“Thou art the source and centre of all minds,
Their only point of rest, ETERNAL WORD!
From THEE departing, they are lost, and rove
At random, without honour, hope, or peace.
From THEE is all that soothes the life of man.
His high endeavour and his glad successÂ—
His strength to suffer, and his will to serve;
But, Oh! Thou bounteous Giver of all good,
Thou art of all Thy gifts Thyself the Crown.
Give what Thou canst, without Thee we are poor,
And with Thee rich, take what Thou wilt away.”