Home History of Hymns: "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood"

History of Hymns: "There is a Fountain Filled with Blood"

"There is a Fountain Filled with Blood"
William Cowper
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 622

William Cowper

“There is a fountain filled with blood
drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
and sinners plunged beneath that flood
lose all their guilty stains.”

William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”) was one of the few hymn writers that was also a recognized secular poet. This much-beloved and yet tormented literary figure was born in his father’s rectory at Great Berkhampstead, England, on Nov. 26, 1731. His father, George II, was a chaplain. His mother died when he was 6 years old.

Cowper was first sent to a boarding school at Markyate. It was here he first began suffering from frequent emotional difficulties. He was transferred to Westminster where he was much happier.

After graduating, he was apprenticed to a solicitor. In 1754, Cowper was called to the Bar, yet he never actually practiced law. He was nominated in 1763 to the Clerkship of Journals of the House of Lords.

Just as Cowper’s career seemed assured, tragedy struck. When he was interviewed for the position, he suffered a panic attack. As a result, he was not awarded the position, a loss that led to a state of deep depression.

He was treated at St. Alban’s Hospital and took up residence with the Rev. Morley Unwin in Huntingdon. During this time, his depression slowly lifted and he developed a lifetime friendship with Unwin’s wife.

Unwin passed away in 1767, and John Newton, author of the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” persuaded Mrs. Unwin and her family along with Cowper to move to Olney, where he was the vicar of a small parish. Newton and Cowper developed a close friendship over the years, and began a joint publication that became very influential, The Olney Hymns.

During his depression, Cowper wrote one of his most beloved and most controversial hymns, “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” It was most likely written in 1771, first published in Conyers’s Collection of Psalms and Hymns in 1772 and republished by Cowper and Newton in 1779 for The Olney Hymns.

Based on Zechariah 13:1, “On that day a fountain shall be opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity,” the hymn is a meditation on the saving power of the blood of Christ.

An unsuccessful, major alteration in 1819 sought to make the hymn less graphic by changing the first line to “From Calvary’s Cross a Fountain Flows.” Hymnologist E. E. Ryder says this alteration “forgets that what they [the offensive graphic language] express is not only poetry, but the poetry of intense and impassioned feeling, which naturally embodies itself in the boldest metaphors.”

A second alteration was to stanza two, which Cowper originally wrote as:

“The dying thief rejoic’d to see
That Fountain in his day;
And there have I, as vile as he,
Wash’d all my sins away.”

The last two lines were altered to:

“And there may sinners, vile as he,
Wash all their guilt away.”

Later, they were altered again:

“And there would I though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.”

And finally, to what is commonly used in hymnals today:

“And there may I, though vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.”

In 1773, two years into the Olney Hymns project, Cowper’s brother died, and the poet relapsed into his deepest state of depression. He became convinced that God wanted him to commit suicide. He tried three times to kill himself, but each time something prevented him from carrying through. Cowper believed God had stopped him.

Cowper said the next years came with a “full realisation of God’s favour” and were the happiest, most lucid years of his life. It was during this time he wrote his most famous secular poem, “The Task,” which received much acclaim. He was so overwhelmed by God’s “overruling providence” for him to live that he was led to write his famous hymn on God’s providence, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.”

In 1796, his dear friend Mrs. Unwin died. He suffered her loss so deeply that he went into a permanent state of despair. This led to his eventual death on April 25, 1800.

Mr. Butler is a student of Dr. Michael Hawn and a candidate in the master of sacred music degree at Perkins School of Theology.

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