Posted by: rcottrill | November 15, 2010

Today in 1731 – William Cowper Born

The man hailed a horse-drawn cab, waiting as it came to a halt on the dark street. His body was stooped, and black despair clotted about his soul. “To the Thames!” he called to the driver, climbing into his seat. He saw no hope for the future, and was determined to throw himself into the river.

His name is William Cowper (pronounced Cooper). During a year in a mental institution, he had been befriended by a sympathetic doctor. Cowper began to study the Bible, and eventually had a genuine conversion experience. Yet, even after he was released, his problems continued. A nervous disposition, plus a series of stressful situations in his life contributed to severe emotional depression. He studied law, with the idea of serving in the House of Lords as a clerk. But the thought of facing an oral examination so terrified him he felt driven to drown himself, rather than go through with it.

What happened next on that dark night is not entirely clear. According to one account, the cab driver refused to take him to the river. Others say a thick London fog settled over the city, so that the driver attempted to find his way in vain. Finally, in frustration, he ordered the man from the cab, and Cowper found himself back at his own door.

Whatever the case, at the darkest time of his life, he had seen the hand of God at work. Elated at his escape from death, William Cowper wrote a poem he entitled “Light Shining Through Darkness.” Writing poetry was a special gift of this distressed saint. In fact, he is recognized in English literature as one of the greatest poets of his time. It was this ability, plus moving to the little village of Olney, that God used to give his troubled life new purpose.

At Olney, he developed a friendship with the local pastor, none other than John Newton, the author of Amazing Grace. Realizing the man’s unique talents, Newton suggested they work on compiling a new hymn book, proposing they write the songs between them. The result was a historic volume, published in 1779, called Olney Hymns. For it, William Cowper wrote over 60 selections, including There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood, and O for a Closer Walk with God.

He also included the poem mentioned earlier. Now known as God Moves in a Mysterious Way, it may be the finest hymn we have on the subject of God’s providence. The word “providence” means before-seeing. It refers to God’s ability to know the future before it happens, and work in events on that basis to bring about His wise and good purpose. Given the providential work of God, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). And Cooper wrote:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Here is a choral arrangement of Willima Cowper’s beautiful hymn.

(2) Today in 1878 – Jane Campbell Died
EnGraphic Harvest Fieldsglishwoman Jane Montgomery Campbell was not a hymn writer herself, but a translator of hymns from the German language. She also wrote A Handbook for Singers, a book of musical exercises she taught in her father’s parish school.

The only hymn she translated that is still in common use is the harvest hymn, We Plow the Fields and Scatter. Published originally in 1782, it was known as “The Peasants’ Song,” beginning heartily, in German, “Wir pflugen und wir streuen.” Matthias Claudius, the author, wrote of it in a sketch of harvest customs in northern Germany. The song consisted of 17 four-line stanzas, followed by a refrain. Campbell’s translation in our hymn books usually makes use of only three.

We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.

All good gifts around us
Are sent from heaven above,
Then thank the Lord, O thank the Lord
For all His love.

We thank Thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seed-time and the harvest, our life, our health, and food;
Accept the gifts we offer, for all Thy love imparts,
And what Thou most desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.

(3) Today in 1977 – Albert Brumley Died
Albert Edward Brumley was born into a family of impoverished tenant farmers, and spent his early years picking cotton. He quit school after the tenth grade, envisioning little future beyond being a sharecropper like his father. Then, when he was sixteen, Brumley attended a singing class and discovered he had a gift for making music. Soon he was composing songs. A few years later, he briefly enrolled in a music school, but dropped out and returned to picking cotton. One day, out in the fields, he began singing a popular number called “The Prisoner’s Song,” saying he felt very much like a prisoner. Motivated to try again, he returned to the school, completing several years of training.

In 1931 Albert Brumley was conducting a singing school in Missouri when he met Goldie Schell, and fell in love. They married, and raised a family. Meanwhile, Brumley continued to write music–producing more than 600 songs in all. His first, I Can Hear Them Singing Over There, was written back when he was only sixteen, but it was not published until some years afterward. Another, written in the cotton fields, would not be heard until Goldie urged him later to have it published.  What inspired the song was seeing a bird take flight. That caused Brumley to wish he could so easily escape the near-slavery of his life.

What a day that will be, when Christians take flight into the presence of the glorified Christ, and “we shall always be with the Lord” (I Thess. 4:17)! It was to celebrate that blessed deliverance that Albert Brumley published, in 1932, the song I’ll Fly Away. It became an instant favourite across Depression-ravaged America. In 1976, Brumley was given an award marking this as the most recorded gospel song in history.

Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.

I’ll fly away, O glory! I’ll fly away.
When I die, Hallelujah! by and by I’ll fly away.

When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.”


  1. […] In 1782, Matthias Claudius wrote a dramatic sketch picturing the harvest festival on a typical farm in northern Germany. As part of the presentation, the people gathered round and sang the Peasant’s Song, which began, in German, “Wir pflügen und wir streuen.” We now know it, in English translation, as the hymn, We Plow the Fields and Scatter. (For a bit more about this hymn, see the second item under Today in 1731.) […]

  2. […] the story behind Cowper’s hymn God Moves in a Mysterious Way, see Today in 1731, and for his hymn O for a Closer Walk with God, see Today in […]

  3. […] d. Apr. 25, 1800) Music: Belmont, by William Gardiner (b. Mar. 15, 1770; d. Nov. 16, 1853) Links: Wordwise Hymns The Cyber […]

  4. […] Wordwise Hymns The Cyber Hymnal (Albert […]


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