William Cowper spent years preparing to become a barrister, or at least a government clerk. And he was bright. He learned his lessons and was exemplary in testing and in his essays, although also a bit of a mocker of the institution. But there came a day when a final examination was due. It couldn't be passed by. It couldn't be mocked away. He had to do it in order to either gain the job for which he had been nominated, or even to keep the post at which he had been long stationed.
He had to stand in front of a group of lawyers and give answers. Out loud. With them watching him. And listening. And judging.
And as he anticipated this terrifying experience he came to judge himself more harshly than they ever could have. But far surpassing that, he recognized, was the reasonable judgement of a righteous God.
And he collapsed.
He nearly died.
It was fear. It was fright. It was guilt. And it was madness.
He did not stand for his examination. He failed. And he lost his job.
His madness, and it was totally debilitating madness, lasted at least half a year. He could not, or would not speak. He had to be made to eat.
His physician spoke the most trivial (sounding at the time) platitudes of Christian hope to him. And the physician made a Bible available at all times.
One day William Cowper opened the Bible as a diversion, in order to think about something else besides his own horrible self for a moment. He opened it at random.
"Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forebearance of God."
As he read that sentence, he understood, he believed, he accepted and he was healed.
His madness left him.
During his madness his cousin Harriet, with whom he had always been very close, visited him. He knew she was there but had been unable to look at her or speak to her. Later he wrote to her about his recovery. Here is a small excerpt from one of his letters to her. He began by expressing sorrow at how difficult it must have been to see him in his madness. Then he says:
"How naturally does affliction make us Christians! and how impossible is it when all human help is vain, and the whole earth too poor and trifling to furnish us with one moment's peace, how impossible is it then to avoid looking at the gospel! It gives me some concern, though at the same time it increases my gratitude, to reflect that a convert made in Bedlam is more likely to be a stumbling-block to others, than to advance their faith. But if it has that effect upon any, it is owing to their reasoning amiss, and drawing their conclusions from false premises. He who can ascribe an amendment of life and manners, and a reformation of the heart itself, to madness, is guilty of an absurdity that in any other case would fasten the imputation of madness upon himself; for by so doing he ascribes a reasonable effect to an unreasonable casuse, and a positive effect to a negative. But when Christianity only is to be sacrificed, he that stabs deepest is always the wisest man."