God moves in a mysterious way


Fig. 1. John Newton, Twenty Six Letters on Religious Subjects (1774).

Text: Origins. Many people, when quoting this famed first line, might think they are quoting Scripture, but in reality they are quoting the English poet William Cowper (1731–1800; pronounced ‘Cooper’). The origin of the hymn is described in two different stories. The oldest, and perhaps the most reliable, can be found in the Memoirs of the Life and Writings of William Cowper, Esq. (Rev. ed., London: Whittingham & Arliss, 1814), pp. 32-33, by Samuel Greatheed. Referring to one of Cowper’s major psychological breakdowns, the memoir described his self-awareness of the impending storm:

Of this sad reverse in his experience, he conceived some presentiment as it drew near, and during a solitary walk in the fields, composed that hymn, of the Olney collection, beginning, “God moves in a mysterious way,” &c. which is very expressive of that faith and hope, which he retained at the time, even in prospect of his severe distress. Mr. Cowper’s relapse occurred in 1773, in his forty-second year. … His spirits, no longer sustained upon the wings of faith and hope, sunk, with their weight of natural depression, into the horrible abyss of absolute despair.

In the preface, Greatheed vouched for the accuracy of the volume, stating, “Nothing is here added, of which I was not either personally a witness, or had not positive assurance from others that were so” (p. iv).

The origin of the other story is less clear, even though it has had wider circulation. It can be found as early as 1861 in The British Friend, vol. 19, no. 3, p. 58:

On the eve of the sad attack of the poet’s constitutional melancholy, in January, 1773, he composed a hymn, of which the original title was “Light shining out of darkness.” He firmly believed that the Divine will was that he should drown himself in a particular part of the river Ouse, two or three miles from his residence at Olney. He one evening ordered a post-chaise, and desired the driver to take him to that spot, which the man readily undertook to do, as he was well acquainted with it. However, several hours were consumed in seeking it, but in vain. The driver was at last compelled to admit that he had entirely lost his road. Cowper thus escaped the temptation, returned home, and immediately wrote that hymn which has ministered comfort to thousands already, and will be the language of submission and patience to generations yet to come.

It is possible that both stories are two parts of the same experience, a divinely interrupted suicide attempt followed by a stroll through the fields. Some scholars, including John Julian in his Dictionary of Hymnology (1892), p. 433, doubt the plausibility of the latter story, based on descriptions from various accounts that when Cowper had entered his suicidal state, he had stopped writing and did not resume until April of 1774.

Fig. 2. The Gospel Magazine (July 1774).

The hymn was printed three times in 1774, all textually the same. In July 1774, it was printed in John Newton’s Twenty Six Letters on Religious Subjects, pp. 215-216, in six stanzas of four lines, without music (Fig. 1).

Also in July 1774, it appeared in The Gospel Magazine, p. 307 (Fig. 2), where it was curiously labeled “J.W.” Pseudonyms were fairly common in that publication, so this could simply be an example of attempted anonymity.

Lastly, the hymn also appeared in Richard Conyers’ Collection of Psalms and Hymns (London: J. & W. Oliver, 1774), pp. 258-259, unattributed. A few years later, the hymn was part of the important collection by Newton & Cowper, Olney Hymns (1779), p. 328.

Text: Analysis. The opening lines possibly recall Isaiah 55:8 (“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord,” ESV). The second part of the first stanza reflects God’s powers over storm and sea, as in passages like Psalm 107:23-30 or Job 38. The second stanza includes ideas from Romans 11:33 (“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”). The showers of blessing in stanza three are probably an allusion to Ezekiel 34:26. The first part of stanza four has similar sentiments as Proverbs 3:5 (“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding”). The mention of bitter and sweet in stanza five possibly relates to passages like Proverbs 27:7 or Revelation 10:9-10, although the meaning is a little different here. In the Olney Hymns printing, the last stanza is annotated with John 13:7 (“Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand’”). Joseph told Pharaoh’s officers in Genesis 40:8, who inquired about a mysterious dream, “Do not interpretations belong to God?”

This hymn is one of the most significant in the English language. Erik Routley, in his Hymns and Human Life (London: John Murray, 1952), p. 4, called it “an outstanding example of terse, epigrammatic, memorable writing. … Consider how much of its text and thought-form has found its way into our common speech.” In his Hymns of the Faith (Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1956), p. 40, he wrote, “This hymn is of a very rare and gracious kind, the hymn of the mystery of God’s being and acts. It runs so smoothly, its lines are so neat and quotable, its thought so familiar, that it is easy to miss the genius of it.”

J.R. Watson, in his Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: University Press, 2002), p. 221, said of this hymn:

It is the Christian’s duty and joy to interpret the signs of God’s providence: and the concluding verse sums up beautifully the hymn’s subject. Belief is needed, and then God, who is the great interpreter, will make everything clear. Without that interpretation, His ways are mysterious and his ‘bright designs’ are hidden. The hymn is therefore one of trust and hope, and the perception of the goodness of God (even if it seems to be hidden) is the ‘Light shining out of darkness’ of the hymn’s title.

Tunes. The hymn has been published with a number of different tunes, but it is most frequently set to DUNDEE, a Psalm tune from The CL Psalmes of David, in Meeter (Edinburgh: Andro Hart, 1615). In that collection, it was called “The French Toone,” thus the tune is sometimes called FRENCH. It also appears under the name NORWICH, which was how it was named in the collections of John Playford, as in The Whole Book of Psalms (London: W. Godbid, 1677). Modern collections continue to print the tune as it was arranged by Thomas Ravenscroft, in The Whole Booke of Psalmes (London, 1621), where it appeared with Psalm 36 (Fig. 3) and Psalm 90, melody in the tenor part. The division of the four parts into separate staves, as seen here, is called choirbook format.

Fig. 3. Thomas Ravenscroft, The Whole Booke of Psalmes (London, 1621). Melody in the tenor part.

Cowper’s text is also frequently set to LONDON NEW, another tune with Scottish roots, coming from The Psalmes of David in Prose and Meeter (1635 | Fig. 4). In that collection, it was given without text and labeled NEWTOUN TUNE. The name LONDON NEW came shortly thereafter in the collections of John Playford, starting in 1674. The pairing of this tune with Cowper’s text was popularized via Hymns Ancient & Modern (1861).

Fig. 4. Edward Millar, The Psalmes of David in Prose and Meeter (1635). Melody in the tenor part.

In more recent years, Cowper’s text has been reset with new music by composers for modern worship settings, which often add a sense of melancholy and/or humility that is not reflected well in the older Scottish tunes. One such setting is by Bob Kauflin for Sovereign Grace Music (here), recorded on their album Worship God Live (2005). Kauflin’s version adds a refrain, “So God, we trust in You; O God, we trust in You; when tears are great and comforts few, we hope in mercies ever new; we trust in You.”

In 2009, Indelible Grace published a setting by Jeremy Casella on their album Indelible Grace VI: Joy Beyond the Sorrow. Regarding this setting (here), Kevin Twit explained:

One thing that a maturing Christian should understand is that God’s ways are not our ways, and thus we must always be humble in how we think about God’s work in our lives. Thinking we have got God “figured out” can be a real barrier to walking humbly with our God. This hymn is a great reminder of that important lesson. … Newton writes in the preface to the Olney Hymns that he was so discouraged when Cowper was struck ill that he set aside the project and almost never completed it. … The hymn is a call to trust the Lord, even in the dark (Isaiah 50:10). But I love that it was written by one who knew firsthand the difficulty of this. 

for Hymnology Archive
5 October 2018

Related resources:

John Julian, “God moves in a mysterious way,” A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), p. 433: Google Books

Erik Routley, “God moves in a mysterious way,” Hymns and the Faith (Greenwich, CT: Seabury Press, 1956), pp. 39-50.

“God moves in a mysterious way,” Hymnary.org:

Elizabeth Cosnett, “God moves in a mysterious way,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:

“God moves in a mysterious way,” Indelible Grace Hymn Book:

“God moves,” Sovereign Grace Music:

Hymn Tune Index: