Hymn text by William Cowper, 1731-1800. View the full text of this hymn.

I’ve never really appreciated this phrase. It often suggests to me something I don’t love: specifically, a too-general way to explain things we don’t understand. In philosophy we might call that sort of thing an appeal to the unknown. In layman’s terms, we might call it a cop-out, employed by benign but removed well-wishers at a time of tragedy or pain. You know the kind I mean. The senseless death of an innocent, or many innocents. Natural disaster. The sorts of events which by which we can be either razed or raised. But when I read or listen to “God Moves in a Mysterious Way”, it seems to me that sorrows, fears, and doubts are both acknowledged and addressed.

The song was written by William Cowper (England, 1731-1800). A very non-mysterious web search identifies him as a talented but tortured lawyer-turned-poet. His intermittent battles with depression took him from an asylum for the mentally ill to the very edge of unsuccessful suicide a number of times. In said asylum, it is said, he happened upon a Bible and accordingly his conversion. He became a good friend of John Newton, most famous for penning “Amazing Grace”. At Newton’s encouragement he started writing hymns, and the pair collaborated on a songbook for their congregation, which included the song that would become part of our LDS hymnal by 1919. (Interestingly, you’ll note that in our hymnal we use a melody penned by William Bradbury, who was born sixteen years after Cowper’s death- there are six or seven melodies to which this song has been known to be sung.)

I love how the lyrics communicate both his faith and the wounds it helped to heal. The imagery of a storm and clouds, the sensory appeal of bitterness, and the emotional appeal of dread- these things he counters pound for pound with references to Christ’s walking upon the sea, to blessings, and eventual understanding. Like Alma, Cowper uses the analogy of a seed. Alma’s seed is planted by one who exercises faith to plant. The worth of Cowper’s seed is not realized until the plant has been allowed to fully bloom.

We see so little of God’s plan from our little world, the hazy underside of heaven. Cowper’s hymn asks us to view this fact from the higher perspective, and take comfort in the knowledge that the Lord is the epitomic Artist, whose designs are without error or end. His ways are mysterious only to us, and He is kind- whatever sorrows or circumstances we face, He can heal and He can help. All we need to do is trust Him.

If you, like me, were not well-acquainted with this hymn, here is a lovely contemporary version:

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