­
EFAC Australia

William Macquarie Cowper (1810–1902) was Australia’s first Australian-born clergyman. When Sydney Synod passed a motion unanimously to “place on record [the Synod’s] sense of the loss sustained by the Diocese, and its sincere appreciation of the valuable services rendered” he had served as a clergyman for sixty-six years, including forty-four as Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral.1

His exceptionally long ministry was dominated by the eternal future assured by Jesus Christ.Cowper

He learned this perspective from his parents, Rev. William and Ann Cowper. In 1827, they were prepared to endure the “painful separation” involved in sending their 16 year old to his university education in England for his own “great, and I trust eternal, advantage”, urging him to study everything “deemed likely to make [him] acceptable and useful among [his] fellow creatures for their eternal good.”2 By the time the 23 year old Cowper preached his first sermon after his ordination, on 15 September 1833 at Dartmouth, this eternal perspective had become his own. His chosen text showed that he was thinking of his ministry in the light of eternity: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” (Heb 13:17)3

He returned in 1836 as the Chaplain to Australian Agricultural Company and for 20 years his ministry was centered in Stroud. Here he helped establish gospel work in the northern parts of NSW and in what became the Diocese of Newcastle, as well as playing his part in wider issues of the colony, such as the public debates about education. Like many of his contemporaries, Cowper was deeply interested in education because it “involves alike the temporal and eternal welfare of the rising and all future generations”.4

“Since man, in his social and moral character, is what he is made by education, the question of his training, even as regards this world, assumes the very highest importance. How much greater still when we take into account the next?”

His time at Stroud came to an end after he lost his wife Margaret in October 1854, after a long and painful struggle with cancer. He drew inspiration from her own eternal perspective:

“Were it not for the faith which He has given me in His blessed Son—a faith which assures me that He will accept me, for the sake of that blessed Saviour who died to redeem me; were it not for this faith and this blessed hope, I should sink into utter despair and misery for ever.”5

As he left Stroud, the parishioners expressed their gratitude to one “who had for so long a period taken a deep interest in the present and eternal welfare of every member of the community”. Cowper, in turn, prayed that the Lord “may guide you in the path of life, and when your earthly pilgrimage is ended, may grant you all a place amongst his redeemed in glory!” His parting sermon (10 February 1856) looked towards eternity, since this occasion may well be “for the last time until we shall meet in the presence of our Great Eternal Judge”. His text was 2 Corinthians 6:1, and he spoke of the grace of God in the Lord Jesus Christ, turning to the famous look towards eternity found in John 3:16: that “whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life”.

When he moves towards his final exhortation, he spoke of the minister being entrusted with the mission to call people to accept salvation through Christ.

Naturally, therefore, he then called upon his congregation “in the name of the living God, […] the Fountain of all your hopes for eternity, not to receive the grace of God in vain.”6

In 1856, Cowper returned to ministry in Sydney, successively as the first (Acting) Principal of Moore College, St John’s Glebe, St Phillip’s Church Hill, and finally to St Andrew’s Cathedral as its first and longest serving Dean.7 In the early months of 1858, as he watched his father gradually fade, he noted that thoughts of “the great assembly of saints in the paradise of God, and the final triumph of the universal church with its Lord in Glory everlasting” were much on his father’s mind.8

Cowper’s eternal perspective came through strongly in funeral sermons. He confidently proclaimed the gospel light:

“which has shown us beyond all doubt, first, that there is a heaven of bliss, and secondly, by what means it is to be secured. Were it not for this revelation, what hope should we have to console us when mourning the death of friends, or to cheer us amid life’s manifold sorrows, or to support us under its burdens? None, my brethren, none whatever. A gloomy cloud would have enveloped the tombs of the departed, and fear and sadness would have rested upon every reflecting mind as it realized its own condition and dwelt upon its prospects. But how different now, is our lot, blessed as we are with the Christian revelation! Its declarations upon this subject are plain, simple, and unmistakable. It sets before us life and immortality as brought out from obscurity to light by the Gospel; it tells us that ‘as by man came death, by man came also the resurrection from the dead’.” [1 Cor 15:21] 9

The Dean explained that the Burial Service uses Revelation 14:13 in order, “to raise [our] thoughts from earth to heaven—from that which is mortal and corruptible to that which is spiritual and eternal; from the sighs and griefs of time to the rest and the joys of eternity.” When he summed up Richardson’s ministry amongst them, he reminded the congregation that “he sought to win your hearts to the Redeemer, and so to bring you to Him that when you should die, you might ‘die in the Lord’.”10 This reminder then led to Cowper making a personal appeal to the people, by asking what Richardson would say if he was able to address the assembled throng at his own funeral. Cowper was pretty sure he knew, and concluded by doing the same:

“Let me then urge this upon you in the spirit of love and concern for your everlasting welfare. And when the Saviour returns to gather His Saints unto Him, may we all be found among His sanctified ones and enter with Him into His eternal joy!” 11

In the first half of 1902, when Cowper faced his own final days, he had to endure five months of illness. When he was saying farewell to a friend, he said, “We shall all meet in a better world”.12 Cowper left this world in June, just short of his 92nd birthday. His coffin was placed in St Andrew’s Cathedral for the whole night before his funeral. It was bedecked with “white hyacinths, a fit emblem of ‘sure and steadfast hope’.”13 After a joyous service, he was taken through “a dense, sympathetic, and deeply respectful crowd” to Randwick, to be laid in the family vault. There the crowd sang his favourite hymn, whose words capture Cowper’s own perspective, which he considered so essential to life and ministry:14

Jesu, Lover of my soul,
let me to Thy bosom fly […]
Safe into the haven guide;
Oh, receive my soul at last.
[…]

Plenteous grace with Thee is found,
Grace to cover all my sin;
Let the healing streams abound;
Make and keep me pure within
Thou of life the fountain art;
Freely let me take of Thee;
Spring Thou up within my heart;
Rise to all eternity.

NOTES

1 Proceedings of the Second Session of the Twelfth Synod of the Diocese of Sydney, New South Wales, September 16th to September 23rd, 1902 (Sydney: William Andrews, 1902), 75. Emphasis in quotations mine.

2 W.M. Cowper, Autobiography & Reminiscences (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1902), 222–223. In all quotations, italics are my own.

3 W.M. Cowper, Sermon preached at Dartmouth, 15 Sept 1833 (Sydney Diocesan Archives: 1994/67/1)

4 W.M. Cowper, The Christian Training of Children by their Parents. A Sermon, preached in St Philip’s Church, Sydney, on the 11th January, 1852 (Sydney: Kemp & Fairfax, 1852), 5.

5 W.M. Cowper, A Brief Account of the Closing Period of the Life of Mrs W.M. Cowper, who departed to her eternal rest, at the Parsonage, Stroud, October 21st, 1854. Derived principally from memoranda made during her illness (Sydney: Reading and Wellbank, 1855), 6. See also J.M. Tooher, ‘Margaret Cowper (1806–1854): A Woman of Eternal Hope’, in E. Loane (ed.), Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City. Ministry at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney. Dean Cowper, Dean Talbot and Dean Shilton (Sydney: St Andrew’s Cathedral, 2019), 167–190.]

6 W.M. Cowper, A Sermon preached at Booral and Stroud, Port Stephens, on Sunday, February 10th, 1856, on the Occasion of His Resigning the Ministerial Charge of that District [2 Cor 6:1] (Sydney: Reading & Wellbank, 1856), 21, 24, iii, 5, 8, 14.

7 See my ‘William Macquarie Cowper (1810–1902): The First Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral’, in Loane, Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City, 49–90.

8 Cowper, Autobiography, 61–62.

9 W.M. Cowper, & W.H. Walsh, Two Sermons preached in St Mark’s Church, Darling Point, on Sunday, January 3rd, 1864, on the occasion of the death of Rev George Walter Richardson [Rev 13:14] (Sydney: Joseph Cook, 1864), 9, 10, 15

10  Cowper, Two Sermons, 15.

11 Cowper, Two Sermons, 16.

12 Cowper, Autobiography, 245.

13 Cowper, Autobiography, 248.

14 Cowper, Autobiography, 249.

­