A Black Dog, Cowper, and Nevin
In the interest of full disclosure: I have experienced Churchill’s “black dog” – depression - with varying degrees of severity for much of my life. I purposely choose the most neutral word I can think of – “experienced” – so as neither to excuse nor accuse myself. Though I have read books and listened to experts I still don’t understand what depression is. Genetic? Psychological? Spiritual? Predisposition? Choice? Sin? Beats me.
My interest here is not in myself (unlike D. G. Hart, I don’t think it’s all about me), nor in depression as a phenomenon. My interest is in two other depressives: William Cowper and John Williamson Nevin. My interest in part is no doubt another instance of “misery loves company.” As Cowper put it:
its semblance in another’s case.
My primary interest is in the difference in the way they are regarded by Reformed Christians.
Cowper’s depressions began when he was young. At his best, he was probably holding it at bay. He had at least four major depressive episodes in his life. On occasion he intended, though he failed, to end his own life. He died in despair, believing himself reprobate. His last poem, The Castaway, expresses his hopelessness with regard not just to this world but the world to come.
John Newton, with whom Cowper lived for a season and with whom he collaborated in the production of a book of hymns, testified that he did not doubt Cowper’s salvation. More recently, John Piper has given a similar assessment.
Despite the tragic course and sad end of his life, his hymns are given an important place in evangelical Christian hymnody. Six are included Trinity Hymnal. Just yesterday I sang with God’s people Jesus, Where’er Thy People Meet. Moreover, he is an object of sympathy, even of admiration, because of his affliction. He is sometimes held before depressed Christians, if not as an encouragement (how could a man with his end encourage) at least as a fellow sufferer.
Contrast that with Nevin. Several years ago, I wrote a review of a fine modern biography of this German Reformed theologian. It was not published by the media outlet to which it was initially submitted. (Happily it was published in Modern Reformation.) One of the reasons I was given for the review not being used was that it was not desired to call attention to him. And one of the reasons for not doing so was that he had been suicidal.
What? We sing despairing, suicidal Cowper but we suppress Nevin? I wonder why? Well, Nevin was not a poet, and he did not have a friend like John Newton. But, I think there is more. Cowper was a friend of Calvinist experientialism and Nevin was not. Nevin wrote The Anxious Bench while Cowper wrote O, For a Closer Walk with God.
As one who knows something of their experience, I appreciate both men, while not holding without exceptions to the views of either. It’s just a guess, but I wonder if experiential Calvinism did not play some role in exacerbating the depressions of both. Nevin first experienced depression when he was exposed to revivalism in college. On the other hand Cowper sought, gained, but could not keep the experiences.
Whether it is Nevin’s, Cowper’s, or our own, “providence big with mystery” (a phrase I remember from a sermon I heard in seminary) is one way, and to my mind the best, to account for depression.
Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill,
he treasures up his bright designs,
and works his sovereign will.
Cowper’s depression is not a reason to sing or not sing his hymns. Nevin’s depression is not a reason to promote or dismiss him.
What we must believe: Blind unbelief is sure to err. (Yet hard to resist.) God is his own interpreter and he will make it plain. (But not in this world.)
Read Nevin. Sing Cowper. With understanding. And with discernment.