Tag Archives: William Cowper

fountain pen

8 Devotional Poets You Must Know About

Historically, poetry has always had an important role in the Christian spiritual life. The longest book in the Bible is a book of verse; many of the Bible’s prophetic books, though they are not translated as poetry, are poetry in their original language. In addition, the New Testament’s writers quoted from the wisdom of secular poets and from early hymns.

Although I am a lover of music, it is sad when music overshadows the truths about which we are singing. If you start reading these works, you will find that the best musicians of today are those that draw from the vast treasures of Christian verse in English.

  1. John Donne (1572-1631)
    A Spiritual Romantic
    Literature students will read a few of Donne’s angsty poems that can be read alongside Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. But Donne’s Holy Sonnets and Divine Poems have a depth of work that set the foundation for English devotional poetry. His poems deal with suffering, the cross, and longing for God. Donne was a flighty and romantic soul, but in his lifetime ws better known as a pastor than a poet.
    Samuel Johnson classes Donne as a “metaphysical poet,” because of his flare for difficult metaphors (with no relation to the present trend of “metaphysics” as a religious study). Today critics class with him George Herbert, Henry Vaughan, and Richard Crashaw—all seventeenth-century poets who wrote on devotional themes, all inspired in part by Donne.

    ‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,
    But, that God should be made like man, much more.

    Selection of Divine Poems: vox

  2. George Herbert (1593-1633)
    Lyricist of the Cross
    Herbert follows very much along the line of Donne, but that does not mean his work is not valuable. He frequently contemplates scenes or passages from Scripture, and like Donne, he was a priest. He was also a lute-player, and many of his poems were set to his own music. Herbert died at 39.

    He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.

    Selected Poems (free): pdf

  3. John Milton (1608-1674)
    Poet of Eden
    Author of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Although he is most well known for these two poems, he has many other poems, especially on the Nativity of Christ, that are worth a second look.
    Milton also wrote a number of polemical tracts, one of which—the Areopagitica—is regarded as foundational to the Western concept of censorship and freedom of press.
    Milton was blind in his later life. His biographer records that he had his daughter read the Scriptures to him in the original languages for hours every day. While he was writing Paradise Lost, he took comfort in what he considered his most significant literary work, a recent political tract, now all but forgotten in comparison to his poetry.

    Peace hath her victories
    No less renowned than war.

    Paradise Lost (free): amzpdfvox
    Paradise Regained (free): amzpdfvox

  4. Isaac Watts (1674-1748)
    Pioneer of English Hymnwriting
    In his lifetime, Watts was known as a logician more than his verse. In the early 18th century, he published  The Psalms of David Imitated and several others books that set the foundation for English hymnody. Little known to most Christians, there was a time in Reformation England when there was a controversy over whether congregations should sing psalms or hymns. Authors and theologians like Benjamin Keach and Isaac Watts were instrumental—pun intended—in bringing freedom to Christian expression in music and worship, similar to many 20th-century musicians who challenged the Christians music industry to expand its art forms.

    He rules the world with truth and grace,
    And makes the nations prove
    The glories of His righteousness,
    And wonders of His love.

    Psalms of David: amz ($0.99) – pdfvox

  5. Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
    Singer of the Methodist Revolution
    Today John Wesley is known as the “founder of the Methodist movement,” and his brother as the songwriter of the movement. But are the brothers so different? Both brothers were in Oxford’s Holy Club, which Charles founded in 1729; both brothers went to Georgia in 1735; both brothers experienced conversion in 1738; both brothers began open-air preaching in 1739 after the style of George Whitefield; both brothers wrote thousands of hymns, and both preached evangelistically for decades.

    Faith, mighty faith, the promise sees,
    And looks to God alone;
    Laughs at impossibilities,
    And cries it shall be done.

    Hymns and Sacred Poems: pdf

  6. William Cowper (1731-1800)
    Minstrel of Abolition
    Cowper and Newton arranged Olney Hymns for Newton’s congregation in Olney, England; this was the first work to include “Amazing Grace” (by Newton) and many other now famous hymns.
    Cowper’s The Task is often called the best of his poetry, probably because of its defense of a Reformed theology. But his other long poems like “Charity” have equal merit and are loaded with theological content.

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

    The Task: pdfamz
    Olney Hymns: pdfamz ($6.99)

  7. F. W. Faber (1814-1863)
    The Muse of God’s Character
    Faber was a prolific Catholic writer of both poetry and prose. Although his theology works are strongly flavored by his Catholicism, today many Protestants know and love his verse through the writings of A. W. Tozer. Tozer was so greatly moved by Faber’s poetry, that in his compilation, The Christian Book of Mystical Verse, Faber figures more prominently than any other poet. Tozer also quotes Faber multiple times in his devotional books like The Knowledge of the Holy.
    Faber’s hymns deal preeminently with the nature and character of God, which is why Tozer liked them so much. Faber also deals with themes of death, the prayer life, and spiritual dryness. Protestant readers can also get our edition of Faber’s Hymns which has been culled down from his best works.

    Shoreless Ocean! who shall sound Thee?
    Thine own eternity is round Thee,
    Majesty Divine.

    Faber’s Hymns: amz ($2.99) – pdf

  8. Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861)
    She was often quoted simply as Mrs. Browning, and her husband Robert was, of course, a famous poet in his own right. In some books of the period, she is introduced as “Mr. Browning’s wife,” but, ironically, I see her quoted more often in devotional readings.
    Though she shies from comparing her Drama in Exile to Milton’s Paradise Lost, she follows a similar line by starting where Milton left off.

    Earth’s crammed with heaven,
    And every common bush afire with God:
    But only he who sees takes off his shoes.

    Drama in Exile (free): amzpdfvox

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Review: Olney Hymns

Rating: ★★★★★

Who: John Newton was the Anglican minister at Olney after being cast away as a mutineer on the African coast and sold to black slave-traders. He later became one of the champions of the abolition of the British slave trade.

William Cowper became famous in his own right through his long poem The Task. Although Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” the most famous hymn ever written, Cowper wrote many of the more famous ones. Several of these are still regularly sung today, whether in older or modern forms.

When: Olney Hymns was published in 1779 in the context of an (local) revival of religious fervor and commitment in England. This revival, with the abolitionist Clapham Sect at its center, led to many of the most well known Christian efforts against the British slave trade.

Overview: Olney Hymns is one of the most famous hymnbooks ever created, and is connected to an evangelical revival that was occurring with John Newton, William Wilberforce, and William Cowper in the middle of it. Most famously, it is the hymnbook that introduced “Amazing Grace” (and several other classics) to the world.

(An aside: Hymnbooks were used differently back then; the tunes were memorized, and any hymn could be sung to any melody with the same number of notes. So the original tune used for “Amazing Grace,” for instance, is not the one we sing now. If you want to prove this, try singing the first hymn in the book to the same tune as “Amazing Grace.”)

Meat: I have read several classic hymnbooks in recent years, but this is easily the best. The poetry is simple and exemplary, and for the most part, it makes great devotional reading.

Many hymns that we still sing in one version or another are traced back to this classic book. I had been singing “There is a fountain filled with blood” for years before I knew it was written by one of my favorite poets, William Cowper.

Bones: Interwoven with what we consider classic hymnody are expressions of self-loathing and near despair. Newton and Cowper were prone to “worm theology” and sometimes make very little of themselves. (“Save a wretch like me.”) This is concomitant with their Calvinism and was part of the worship of several centuries of Calvinists; today, though, we find this self-deprecation to be self-focused and destructive to the atmosphere of worship.

I should add, the original index, with a title, and the first line, and a paired Scripture, is pretty confusing to modern readers. (This requires three indexes!) And different editions number the poems differently to boot.

Best Poems: 

Walking with God (“Oh! for a closer walk with God,” Gen. 5:24)

Joy and Peace in Believing (“Sometimes a light surprises”)

Light Shining out of Darkness (“God moves in a mysterious way.”)

Praise for the Fountain Opened (“There is a fountain fill’d with blood,” Zech. 13:1)

Old Testament Gospel (“Israel, in ancient days,” Heb. 4:2)

Faith’s Review and Expectation (“Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound,” 1 Chron. 17:16-17)

Light Shining out of Darkness

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

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

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.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain:
God is His own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

William Cowper, Olney Hymns.

Joy and Peace in Believing

Source: William Cowper, Olney Hymns.

Sometimes a light surprises
The Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord who rises
With healing in his wings:
When comforts are declining,
He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining,
To cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation,
We sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation,
And find it ever new:
Set free from present sorrow,
We cheerfully can say,
E’en let th’ unknown to-morrow
Bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing
But he will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing,
Will clothe his people too:
Beneath the spreading heavens,
No creature but is fed;
And he who feeds the ravens,
Will give his children bread.

Though vine nor fig-tree neither
Their wonted fruit shall bear,
Though all the field should wither,
Nor flocks nor herds be there:
Yet God the same abiding,
His praise shall tune my voice;
For while in him confiding,
I cannot but rejoice.

Walking with God

Genesis v. 24.

Oh! for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame;
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb!

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is the soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and his word?

What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

Return, O holy Dove, return!
Sweet the messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made thee mourn
And drove thee from my breast.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

So shall my walk be close with God,
Calm and serene my frame;
So purer light shall mark the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

William Cowper, Olney Hymns.