God Moves in a Mysterious Way
DESCRIPTION: "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, He plants his footsteps on the sea (x2), And rides upon the storm (x3)." "Ye fearful saints fresh courage take. "Judge not the Lord by feeble sense." "Blind unbelief is sure to err."
AUTHOR: Words: William Cowper (1731-1800)
EARLIEST DATE: 1774 (Newton, Twenty-four Letters on Mysterious Subjects)
KEYWORDS: religious nonballad storm
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Grimes, p. 101, "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" (1 text)
NOTES: According to John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes), p. 265, "The leading events in the life of Cowper are: b[orn] in his father's rectory, Berkhampstead, Nov. 26, 1731; educated at Westminster; called to the Bar, 1754; madness, 1763; residence at Huntingdon, 1765; removal to Olney, 1768; to Weston, 1786; to East Dereham, 1795; death there, April 25, 1800."
It was a life marked by wild changes in mood. The "madness" mentioned above included three suicide attempts, "with laudanum, knife, and cord," and he developed an extreme belief in his guilt before God. It was in the aftermath of this that he met John Newton, the hymnwriter based at Olney. But in 1773, he suffered another bout of depression. He recovered again, and was able to work with Newton to publish Olney Hymns in 1779 and also Poems by William Cowper in 1782.
Cowper clearly suffered from either major depressive disorder or bipolar II disorder; on the whole, I suspect the latter. Nor am I alone in this; after I wrote the above, I found on p. 64 of Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, 1993 (I use the 1994 Free Press paperback edition) a table marking him as one of many great eighteenth century poets with bipolar disorder; her summary of his case is "Recurrent psychotic melancholia and repeated suicide attempts. Delusions and hallucinations. First signs of mental instability while in his twenties, confined to asylum in his early thirties. Family history of melancholia."
Julian, p. 433, reports of this song, "The commonly accepted history of this hymn is that it was composed by Cowper in 1773, after an attempt to commit suicide in the Ouse at Olney." But after sifting the evidence, Julian concludes, "To our mind it is evident that Cowper must have written this hymn, either early in 1773, before his insanity became so intense as to lead him to attempt suicide in October of that year, or else in April of 1774, when "he used to compose lines descriptive of his own unhappy state.' Of these date the latter is the more probable of the two."
The Olney Hymns is regarded as one of the greatest hymn collections; in this collection, Cowper is responsible for "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" and "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood"; he also wrote "Oh! for a closer walk with God." - RBW
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