God Moves in a Mysterious Way

Full Text

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

2 Deep in unfathomable mines
of never-failing skill;
He treasures up his bright designs,
and works His sov'reign will.

3 Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
the clouds you so much dread
are big with mercy and shall break
in blessings on your head.

4 Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
but trust Him for His grace;
behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

5 His purposes will ripen fast,
unfolding ev'ry hour;
the bud may have a bitter taste,
but sweet will be the flow'r.

6 Blind unbelief is sure to err,
and scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter,
and He will make it plain.

Source: Hymns to the Living God #325

Author: William Cowper

Cowper, William, the poet. The leading events in the life of Cowper are: born 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. The simple life of Cowper, marked chiefly by its innocent recreations and tender friendships, was in reality a tragedy. His mother, whom he commemorated in the exquisite "Lines on her picture," a vivid delineation of his childhood, written in his 60th year, died when he was six years old. At his first school he was profoundly wretched, but happier at Westminster; excelling at cricket and football, and numbering Warren Hasti… Go to person page >

Text Information

First Line: God moves in a mysterious way
Title: God Moves in a Mysterious Way
Author: William Cowper (1774)
Language: English
Copyright: Public Domain
Liturgical Use: Scripture Songs


Scripture References:
st. 1 = Rom. 11:33, Ps. 77:19
st. 3-4 = Ps. 62:1-8

William Cowper (pronounced "Cooper"; b. Berkampstead, Hertfordshire, England, 1731; d. East Dereham, Norfolk, England, 1800) is regarded as one of the best early Romantic poets. To biographers he is also known as "mad Cowper." His literary talents produced some of the finest English hymn texts, but his chronic depression accounts for the somber tone of many of those texts. Educated to become an attorney, Cowper was called to the bar in 1754 but never practiced law. In 1763 he had the opportunity to become a clerk for the House of Lords, but the dread of the required public examination triggered his tendency to depression, and he attempted suicide. His subsequent hospitalization and friendship with Morley and Mary Unwin provided emotional stability, but the periods of severe depression returned. His depression was deepened by a religious bent, which often stressed the wrath of God, and at times Cowper felt that God had predestined him to damnation.

For the last two decades of his life Cowper lived in Olney, where John Newton (PHH 462) became his pastor. There he assisted Newton in his pastoral duties, and the two collaborated on the important hymn collection Olney Hymns (1779), to which Cowper contributed sixty-eight hymn texts. In addition to his two hymns (also 551) in the Psalter Hymnal, "There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood" is also often included in modern hymnals.

Erik Routley (PHH 31) compared this text to a Rembrandt painting, saying it had a dark background with a strong streak of light falling across it. That is an apt analogy. Cowper wrote "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" in 1773 prior to the onset of one of his severely depressive states, which later that year led him to an unsuccessful suicide attempt. The text was published in Newton's Twenty-six Letters on Religious Subjects; to which are added Hymns (1774). It was also included in Olney Hymns with the heading "light shining out of darkness" and accompanied by a reference to John 13:7 in which Jesus says, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." The original stanza 4, omitted in the Psalter Hymnal, contained the couplet "behind a frowning providence/He hides a smiling face."

The first line indicates the focus of the entire text: God's ways may well be mysterious to us, but God does act! He "works his sovereign will" (st. 2), and someday "he will make it plain" (st. 5). In the meantime, even in periods of profound doubt and despair, we may trust God's wisdom.

Liturgical Use:
This fine hymn on divine providence is useful on many occasions of worship.

--Psalter Hymnal Handbook
God moves in a mysterious way. W. Cowper. [Providence.] The commonly accepted history of this hymn is that it was composed by Cowper in 1773, after an attempt to commit suicide by drowning in the Ouse at Olney. In the Memoirs of Cowper by Hayley, and by Southey, as also in that of J. Newton, by Bull, there are painful details of his insanity in 1773. In Southey there is a distinct statement to the effect that his mania was suicidal, and that he made an attempt upon his life in October, 1773. Southey says (1853, vol. i. p. 174):—

"In the new character which his delirium had assumed [that it was the will of God that he should put an end to his life] the same perfect spirit of submission was manifested. Mr. Newton says ‘Even that attempt he made in October was a proof of it; for it was solely owing to the power the enemy had of impressing upon his disturbed imagination that it was the will of God he should, after the example of Abraham, perform an expensive act of obedience, and offer, not a son, but himself.'" (May 26, 1774.)

This is conclusive as to the intended suicide; but there is no indication in the Memoirs that after his attack he wrote anything whatever until about April, 1774. Of this period Southey says:—

"His mind, though possessed by its fatal delusion, had recovered in some degree its activity, and in some of his most melancholy moments he used to compose lines descriptive of his own unhappy state." (1853, vol. i. p.m.)

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 the October of that year, or else in April of 1774, when "he used to compose lines descriptive of his own unhappy state." Of these dates the latter is the probable of the two, but neither will
agree with the popular account of the origin of the hymn. Its publication agrees with this date, as it appeared in J. Newton's Twenty-six Letters on Religious Subjects; to which are added Hymns, &c, by Omicron, London, 1774. The actual date is fixed by Newton. He says:—

"Thursday, July 6th [1774]. Omicron's Letters are now published. May the Lord accompany them with His blessing. In reading them I could not but observe how different I appear on paper from what I know myself to be," &c.

In Omicron's Letters it is in 6 stanzas of 4 lines, is entitled "Light shining out of Darkness," and is unsignedition It also appeared in the July number of the Gospel Magazine for 1774 (p. 307), in the same form and with the same title; but in this instance it is signed " J. W." We find it also in R. Conyers's Collection of Psalms & Hymns of the same year, in the same form and with the same title, but without signature. It appears again in the Gospel Magazine, Dec, 1777, p. 555, at the end of a letter "On Affliction." This letter is unsigned. At the close of the hymn these words are added:—

“By Miss Ussington, late of Islington, who died in May, 1776. Taken from the original."

In this case the stanza ii. is omitted; the eight lines of stanzas iii. and iv. are rearranged; a slight change is made in stanza vi., and the following is added:—

"When midnight shades are all withdrawn
The opening day shall rise,
Whose ever calm and cloudless morn
Shall know no low'ring skies."

This uncertainty about the authorship of the hymn was set at rest in 1779, when J. Newton gave the original text and title from Omicron’s Letters in the Olney Hymn Book iii., No. 15, and signed it "C." From the first it gradually grew in importance and interest, until it has become one of the most widely known hymns in English-speaking countries. It has also been translated into several languages, including Latin, by R. Bingham in his Hymnologia Christiana Latina, 1871, as “Secretis miranda viis opera numen "; and Dr. Macgill in hisSongs of the Christian Creed and Life, 1876, as, "Deus mundum, en, molitur." Montgomery's estimate of this hymn is very high. He says of it, "It is a lyric of high tone and character, and rendered awfully interesting by the circumstances under which it was written — in the twilight of departing reason" (The Christian Poet, 1825, Preface). Montgomery evidently thought the hymn was composed before the sad breakdown of 1773.

--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology (1907)


God moves in a mysterious way, p. 433, i. In the Salisbury Hymn Book, 1857, this hymn is altered to "God deigns to move in mystery."

--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, Appendix, Part II (1907)


God moves in a mysterious way, p. 433, i. In the manuscript volume referred to under Cowper, W., p. 1625. ii., this hymn is given at pp. 204-5, between a letter from J. Newton dated “Olney, Nov. 4, 1772," and another hymn by Cowper, “'Tis my happiness below," given as "by Mr. W. C. of Olney, 1773." This supports the conclusion as set forth on p, 433, i., that the hymn was not the outcome of his attempted suicide in October 1773. The concluding lines of the hymn read in the manuscript:— "The bud may have a bitter taste, But wait to smell the flower." This, as is well known, appeared in print as:— "The bud may have a bitter taste, But sweet will be the flower." See Notes and Queries, Sept. 24, 1905.

--John Julian, Dictionary of Hymnology, New Supplement (1907)


DUNDEE (Ravenscroft)

DUNDEE first appeared in the 1615 edition of the Scottish Psalter published in Edinburgh by Andro Hart. Called a "French" tune (thus it also goes by the name of FRENCH), DUNDEE was one of that hymnal's twelve "common tunes"; that is, it was not associated with a specific psalm. In the Psalter Hymnal…

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