Hymns & Hymn Writers: God Moves in a Mysterious Way

This phrase is well known, even in non-Christian circles. Many think the phrase is Biblical. Though it is not, the truth behind it is. These are the first words of a hymn written in 1773 by William Cowper, considered over the years to be some of the finest lines written on the subject of sovereignty and providence of God.

This was Cowper’s (pronounced “Cooper”) final hymn. He wrote many; his other well-known hymn, also included in the Believer’s Hymn Book, is There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood, a hymn still beloved today.

William Cowper lived from 1731-1800. His mother died when he was six years old, and he spent much of his childhood years at boarding school where he was taunted and bullied. His childhood was a most troubled one, and emotional issues, from early on, beset him terribly throughout his life. His father urged him to go to law school. He was so terrified at taking the bar exam that he attempted suicide. His father, an overbearing man, forbade him to marry the one girl he ever loved. He was in and out of insane asylums throughout much of his young and early adult life. In today’s terminology, he most likely suffered from bipolar illness which lasted for most of his life.

After his failed suicide attempt, he was placed under the care of a physician, Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, who committed him to a small mental home in St. Albans, England. He was there for two years and was restored mentally. More importantly, he was saved by the grace of God when he was 30 years old. For eight months prior, he had been under great conviction of his own sins. He picked up a Bible and opened it “for comfort and instruction.” He turned to Romans 3:24-25, where he read: “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation (atoning sacrifice) through faith in His blood, to manifest His righteousness.” In an instant, He received the Word of God, believed, and accepted the forgiveness Christ offered him through His death on the cross.

After his release, he realized that his emotional issues still remained, and he found it difficult to live alone. A Christian family took him in, and they were very kind to him for many years. They all later moved to the town of Olney, where John Newton (Amazing Grace) lived. Newton and Cowper became great friends and wrote many hymns together. One was saved on a slave-trading ship, another in a mental institution, yet their incongruous paths brought them close together in the things of the Lord. There were weekly prayer meetings, and either one of the two friends wrote a new hymn for each weekly meeting. The book “Olney Hymns,” containing the works of both men, was eventually printed.

The story of this great hymn has been passed down through the years. It is hard to state exactly what happened, but many accounts tell nearly the same tale. Cowper, at age 42, was living alone, and was, once again, suffering from a severe bout of depression, or “melancholy,” as it was then called.

He is reported to have written a goodbye letter and, leaving his modest red brick house, hailed a horse-drawn cab, and asked to be taken to the bridge over the River Ouse. There, he planned to leap off the bridge and end his life. That very night, the city was overcome with thick fog, and after driving for a considerable time, the cabbie was completely lost. He asked Mr. Cowper to get out, and apologized that he was leaving him there, but it was unsafe for him to take him any further. Standing there alone, Cowper recognized the hitching post directly across from his own house!

Having returned home, it is said that he tore up the goodbye letter, bowed himself before God, and wrote these amazing words.

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 with blessing 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.

In six short verses, William Cowper described the providence and sovereignty of God better than any mortal writer has. Thousands of believers have found comfort in these words in times of inexplicable sadness and distress.

God, the Judge of all the earth, only does what is right (Gen 18:25). Even though we cannot understand His ways (Isa 55:8-9), Scripture tells us that His way is perfect (2Sam 22:31; Psa 18:30), His Word is perfect (Psa 119:7), and His will is perfect (Rom 12:2). He does not need us to enable Him, nor can any teach Him. He is eternally self-sufficient. All things do work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called … but always according to His purpose (Rom 8:28). In spite of his frequent bouts of despair and doubt, William Cowper clung to the Rock, Who never let go of him.

On his deathbed, the clouds lifted, and he exclaimed before he died, “I am not shut out of heaven after all!” His dear friend John Newton preached at his funeral, and in anticipation of seeing his dear friend in heaven one day, wrote and spoke these words:

“Oh! Let thy memory awake! I told thee so;
I told thee thus would end thy heaviest woe;
I told thee that thy God would bring thee here,
And God’s own hand would wipe away thy tear.
While I would claim a mansion at thy side,
I told thee so – for our Immanuel died.”