Updated: Jan 8, 2021
Text: William Cowper (1731-1800) Tune: Tans'ur Compleat Melody (1734)
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 sovereign will
3. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take
The clouds ye 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 every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower
6. Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
The news that morning, August 7, 1969, was bad. A tornado had ripped through the Bethany Fellowship church camp near Outing, Minnesota. Ultimately 15 people perished in the storm. It was the highest number of fatalities from a tornado in Minnesota for decades. The elderly missionaries Arthur and Minnie Olson were missing. Their daughter Evelyn’s body had been found, among others. The Olsons had served the Lutheran Free Church in China for many years and were well known among old China hands.
The next week the front page of the Minneapolis paper featured a picture of seven hearses parked outside the Bethany Fellowship Missionary Training Center Chapel. There were seven coffins inside the sanctuary where over one thousand mourners had gathered. The mood was somber, but victorious. The mourners sang “God Moves in a Mysterious Way his Wonders to Perform.” The sermon and conversation focused on stanza three: “The clouds ye so much dread are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.” To non-believers reporting on the service, the words were nonsense. How could a tornado that had killed so many be big with mercy?
How could a loving God let this happen? They did not know, but they had the faith to believe God was somehow at work, even in the storm. They would not know for sure until they all stood around the throne of God. God would interpret what had happened. Meanwhile they would trust in God.
The writer of the hymn, William Cowper, (pronounced Cooper) knew whereof he wrote. The son of an English rector, he lost his mother when he was quite young. A fine student, his mental stability was uncertain. He had bouts with mental illness that led him to be institutionalized several times. A kindly couple, Morley and Mary Unwin, took him in to their home in Olney and gave him a place to live. There he met John Newton, the writer of “Amazing Grace.” Cowper and Newton shared their hatred of slavery and wrote against it. In 1779 the two published a collection of hymns known as the Olney Hymns. It contained some of the most beloved English hymns of all time. “Amazing Grace” was part of that collection, as were many other beloved hymns, among them “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Cowper named it “Light Shining out of Darkness.” He had written it after his third attempt at suicide. Out of that darkness came a great light that has shone for Christians ever since, and assured them they should not judge by “their feeble sense,” but trust in God’s grace.
Christians walk by faith and not by sight. What we see around us is not God’s final word. Many today are saying that some good will come out of this time sheltering in place against the virus. That can only be said by faith, not sight. The bud right now tastes bitter, but we believe the flower will be sweet. Cowper knew what he was talking about. With him we pray that our unbelief will be changed to sight.
There are several tunes for this famous hymn. Dundee is the tune I know best; New London, the tune Britten used, sounds a lot like it.
Selwyn College Choir
George Beverly Shea
Benjamin Britten—go to ca. minute 46:00 to hear a thrilling version of the hymn from the Britten opera Saint Nicolas