The story of John Newton (1725-1807) — the dissolute slave trader turned evangelical pastor — is one of the most captivating stories of grace in Christian history. In Newton’s final days, he said, “Although my memory is nearly gone, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.” This sentiment not only serves as a fit summary of Newton’s life but also conveys the overall theme of his pastoral ministry.
There is much to learn from Newton on the subjects of counseling and pastoral care. His published letters certainly provide counselors with a treasure trove of wisdom and insight for how to carefully and lovingly help those who are in need. Newton also provides help for counselors through his example in his many friendships with needy individuals. One of Newton’s most famous friendships was with the troubled poet and hymn-writer, William Cowper. Through this friendship, we can learn the importance and value of simply being there for a friend in need.
Who was William Cowper?
William Cowper (1731-1800) is most well-known in wider culture as one of the greatest poets of the 18th century. He was a personal favorite of Jane Austen. The great poet Samuel Coleridge considered Cowper the best poet of his age. William Wordsworth was also a famous admirer of Cowper’s work. Cowper’s poem, “The Negro’s Complaint,” written in support of the abolitionist cause in England, was often quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement of the 20th century. Cowper is best-known in evangelical circles as a great hymn-writer. Some of his most famous hymns include, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, There is a Fountain Filled with Blood, and Jesus! Where’er Thy People Meet.
What is perhaps not so well-known is that Cowper suffered from severe depression and bouts of insanity for much of his life. After a nervous breakdown in his early thirties in which he tried and failed three times to take his own life, Cowper was institutionalized at a lunatic asylum for two years. Upon hearing of Cowper’s situation, Newton, who had recently taken up a pastorate north of London in the market town of Olney, opened up his home to allow Cowper to live with him while he recuperated. Thus, Cowper’s relationship with Newton began in 1767 as his houseguest.
In the years that followed, Newton and Cowper became close companions. Jonathan Aitken, in his biography of Newton, writes of their friendship:
“…[it] became the deepest and most creative relationship in both men’s lives. Without Newton, it is unlikely that Cowper would have recovered his mental equilibrium or published his finest poems. Without Cowper, who became his houseguest, next-door neighbor, and lay curate, Newton would have become overloaded with pastoral and parish duties.”
After a number of months living with Newton, Cowper moved to a home that was literally a stone’s throw from Newton’s residence. There Cowper lived with Mary Unwin, the widow of an Anglican minister, who was a sort of adoptive mother to Cowper.
Newton and Cowper saw one another daily. However, to get to one another’s homes by road was somewhat inconvenient and involved taking a roundabout way. Thankfully, a short path through a neighbor’s field connected their two homes. Because of their desire to be able to visit one another daily and on short notice, Newton purchased access through the neighbor’s field for a guinea a year (no small sum in those days, amounting to roughly $200/year today). To this day, the field is known as “Guinea Field,” named after this famous transaction. The two men could hardly have anticipated the importance of this passage, not only for enriching their friendship but in Cowper’s case, for saving his very life.
Struggles with Depression
As noted already, Cowper had serious struggles with depression and even experienced temporary bouts of insanity. As the year 1773 dawned, Cowper entered a period he would refer to as “the storm,” which was nothing short of a suicidal crisis of faith that would come to demand Newton’s constant surveillance and attention. On January 1, 1773, Cowper relapsed and fell once again into fits of madness. That night, Cowper stumbled in and out of various hallucinations and nightmares, eventually arriving at the insane conclusion that God was commanding him to take his own life. If not for the intervention of Mary Unwin, Cowper might have succeeded in committing suicide. Mrs. Unwin sent for Newton in the early hours of the morning. When Newton arrived at the scene he found his friend covered in blood. In the days that followed, this episode repeated itself many times.
It is striking to read Newton’s grim and rather terse diary entries over the next several days. A few of them read as follows:
“Saturday January 2nd: My time and thoughts much engrossed today by an affecting and critical dispensation at Orchard Side [Cowper’s home]. I was sent for early this morning and returned astonished and grieved. How mysterious are the ways of the Lord!
Tuesday January 5th: I have now devoted myself and time as much as possible to attend on Mr. Cowper. We walked today and probably shall daily. I shall now have little leisure but for such things as indispensably require attention.
Wednesday January 6th: Much as yesterday. I have now to perform family worship morning and evening in two houses. The storm is heavy, but I can perceive that the Lord is present in it.
Friday January 22nd: My dear friend still walks in darkness. I can hardly conceive that anyone in a state of grace and favor with God can be in greater distress.
Sunday January 24th: A very alarming turn roused us from our beds and called us to Orchard Side at 4 in the morning. I stayed there till 8, by which time the threatening appearance went entirely off and now things remain much as they were.”
Newton did everything he could to help Cowper from sinking further into darkness. During the year 1773, Newton was constantly to be found at his friend’s bedside. On some occasions, it is likely that Newton literally held together his friend’s open veins to keep him from bleeding to death. At such times, it is possible Newton would remind Cowper of the blood “drawn from Immanuel’s veins” which Cowper had written about so eloquently in his great hymn, There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.
Eventually, Newton arranged to have Cowper and Mrs. Unwin move back in with him and his wife while Cowper continued to recover. This second stay with the Newtons lasted over a year. Newton’s close personal friend, Richard Cecil, once wrote of Newton, “His house was an asylum for the perplexed and afflicted.”
During this time, Newton gave himself completely and totally to the rehabilitation of his poor friend. Even though Cowper would never fully re-emerge from his depression and despondency, Newton faithfully ministered to him with total devotion. Summing up their years together in Olney, Newton said “For nearly twelve years we were seldom separated for seven hours at a time, when we were awake, and at home: the first six I passed daily admiring and aiming to imitate him: during the second, I walked pensively with him in the valley of the shadow of death.”
To the last, Newton was a faithful friend to Cowper, and would daily visit him using the guinea-a-year path between their houses, even though it eventually became a one-way passage. At no point did he consider Cowper an inconvenience, or somehow unworthy of his time. Newton was exemplary in his love and kindness toward Cowper and remained his most faithful friend until Cowper’s death in 1800.
Lessons from Cowper’s and Newton’s Friendship
Through his friendship with William Cowper, Newton teaches pastors and counselors a few significant lessons:
1. Newton teaches us that faithful counseling sometimes requires us to just be there for those in need. Though he sought to bring Scriptural counsel and consolation to Cowper, Newton recognized that sometimes the most important role of a friend and counselor is simply to be there for the one who is hurting. Newton understood the value of faithful physical presence.
2. Newton teaches us that what troubled souls need most is a friend. Without Newton in his life, Cowper would almost certainly have succeeded in taking his own life. Newton recognized that Cowper needed a friend who could patiently provide care and support day in and day out. Newton understood that what Cowper needed above all else was a friend who could walk with him through life’s storms.
3. Newton models for us the loving disposition of Christ toward sinners and sufferers. When Jesus sat down with his disciples in the upper room on the eve of his death, John records in John 13:1, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:7, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Newton was gentle, lowly, and longsuffering with his friend, William Cowper. He loved him to the end and modeled something of the posture of Jesus Christ toward sinners and sufferers.