Owen, John (1)
Owen, John (1), an English divine of the Puritan age, and most conspicuous among the English Congregationalists of his day. Descended from an ancient and honored family in Wales, he was born (1616) at Stadham, near Oxford. His father, Henry Owen, was an earnest and laborious minister in the Church of England, but a Noncomformist. At the age of twelve he was entered a student at Queen's College, Oxford, where, while he was still a boy, his diligence in study and his progress in all the departments of learning were such as are not often equaled by maturer minds. From the first he seems to have had in view the clerical profession; but in the early years of his university life he was impelled (as he afterwards believed and confessed) by no better motive than ambition for eminence and power in the Church of England. In the progress of his studies he was wakened by the Spirit of God to higher thoughts and aspirations; and he began to work with religious conscientiousness, seeking to do God's will, though he had not yet attained the full freedom of the sons of God. The Puritan habit of thinking and the Puritan spirit, which Owen had inherited from his father, brought him into collision with certain ritualisms which Laud, then chancellor of the university, was forcing upon Oxford, and which to the evangelical party of those days seemed to be "popish superstitions." Compelled to choose between a compliance with the new regulations and a relinquishment of his place and hopes in the university, he chose the latter. He was then twenty-one years of age, having commenced master of arts two years before, and having been more recently ordained to the ministry of the Church of England. That confession of Puritanism cost him (as he knew it must) the favor of an uncle in Wales who had chiefly supported him, and whose estate he was expected to inherit. At that time the conflict between king Charles I and the English people as represented in Parliament was impending, and men everywhere, young and old, were taking sides. Owen had taken the side of reformation in the Church and of chartered liberty in the state; and all who knew him knew where he would be found. To such a man, so long as Laud might remain at the helm of the ecclesiastical establishment, there was no prospect of preferment. Many a Puritan clergyman in those days found refuge and employment as chaplain or tutor, or both, in the family of some nobleman or gentleman favorable to that party. Such was the beginning of Owen's ministry. But at the outbreak of the civil war the nobleman in whose. family he was then employed took arms for the king, while he himself declared for the Parliament, and notonly lost his place, but was disinherited by his Welsh uncle. Being thus thrown upon the world, he removed to London, which had become the metropolis of Puritanism. His religious life at the university and in the: country had been earnest and resolute, but had not been. enriched with the joy of salvation. He had not. found in his own experience an assured peace with God through Christ. But it happened to him, not long after his removal to London, that having gone on a. Sabbath morning to hear a celebrated preacher, he was disappointed by seeing a stranger in the pulpit. The. unknown preacher's text. "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?" was so appropriate to Owen's habit of mind that it commanded his most earnest attention, and the sermon that followed led him into the light. Thenceforward he knew how to rest upon the Gospel with a cheerful and sustaining confidence. His removal to London seems to have been with a view to the publication of a work on the chief theological controversy of that age. His Display of Arminianism, published in 1642, was an elaborate confutation of the doctrines which Laud and his abettors were introducing into the originally Calvinistic Church of England, and which were regarded on all sides as having more than an accidental connection with the party of absolutism in the state, as well as with tendencies Rome-ward in the Church. The learning and ability of that book, written by a young man of twenty-six years, commended its author to the Parliamentary committee for purging the Church of scandalous ministers, and thus it was the occasion of his being introduced to a pastoral charge. The incumbent of the parish church at Fordham, in Essex, having been found scandalous, the living was "sequestered," and Owen was commissioned to supply the vacancy. In that retired parish his ability as a preacher, and his diligence in visiting the families and catechizing the children of his flock, gave character and success to his ministry, so that in 1646 (when he was thirty years of age) he was called to preach before the House of Commons at one of their monthly fasts. Not far from that time the incumbent of Fordham, whose place he was occupying, having died, the right of presentation to the living was exercised by the patron, and Owen was displaced. Immediately the people of Coggeshall, in the same county, invited him to become their minister; and by the Puritan earl of Warwick, patron of that parish, he was presented to the living. The invitation came from a people who had been trained in Christian knowledge and duty by faithful ministers, and who called him because they knew him. It was by the patron's judicious use of his right of presentation that the parish had become so competent to choose; and. his confirmation of the people's choice, when they chose so wisely, was a matter of course. Till this time Owen had accepted, in a general way, the Presbyterian theory of a National Church, governed by classical and synodical courts; but in connection with his removal to Coggeshall he began to act more definitely upon those principles of ecclesiastical polity which, in that age and country, more than now and here, distinguished the Independents or Congregationalists from the Puritans of the Presbyterian party. Long afterwards, reviewing what he had asserted and practiced in the administration of his parish at Fordham, and describing the change in his position, he said, "I found that my principles were far more suited to what is the judgment and practice of the Congregational men than to those of the Presbyterian." Yet he had considered himself a Presbyterian, for he had not consciously advanced beyond the position of his Puritan friends. His acquaintance was not with any of the ministers or of the people who held "the Congregational way," but wholly with those of "the Presbyterian way." When the question between those two parties was becoming the great question in England, he set himself "seriously to inquire into the controversy." After reading much of what had been written on both sides, he proceeded in his study of the question as his manner had been in. other controversies. He "took under peculiar consideration and examination" the work — "which seemed most methodically and strongly to maintain that which was contrary," as he thought, to what was then his own persuasion. The book thus selected was from New England — John Cotton's book of The Keys; and to "the examination and confutation" of that book he addressed himself "for his own particular satisfaction." His own account of the result is, "Quite beside and contrary to my expectation, at a time and season when I could expect nothing on that account but ruin in this world, without the knowledge or advice of or conference with any one person of that judgment, I was prevailed upon to receive those principles which I had thought to have set myself in opposition unto." He had published, while at Fordham, a tract entitled The Duty of Pastor and People Distinguished. His first publication after coming to his new charge was Eshcol, or Rules of Church Fellowship; and thenceforward he found himself among the champions of Congregationalism, or Church independency against the theory of a National Church under a National Church government. Yet his mind and heart were always set much more upon great questions in theology, and upon the theines of Christian experience and Christian living, than upon questions of Church polity. His Eshcol was a simple tract for use in his own parish; but the more arduous labor of his mind and of his pen, while he ministered to that congregation of two thousand souls, appears in another publication. Saclus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu, or the Death of Death in the Death of Christ, a volume of more than 300 pages, quarto. was another of his battles against Arminianism. About that time, Essex having become a principal seat of the war, Fairfax, the chief commander of the Parliamentary forces, had his headquarters for a while at Coggeshall during the siege of Colchester, and Owen, who seems to have served temporarily as his chaplain, became one of his friends. After the fall of Colchester and the deliverance of the Parliament committee who had been held captive there (which virtually ended the war in England), he preached a Thanksgiving sermon to the victorious army, and another, at another place, to the committee in celebration of their deliverance — the two sermons from the same text, and so connected that they were published as one discourse. At the age of thirty-two years he had attained the highest rank among the preachers as well as among the controversial theologians of his generation. A few months later he was required, at very short notice, to preach before Parliament on an occasion unique in history. It was the day after that 30th of January, 1649, which saw the king beheaded in the name of justice for crimes against the people. The sermon on that occasion is remarkable for its abstinence from any explicit reference to the great event of the preceding day; but a careful reading of it will show that while the preacher did not find himself called to sit in judgment on the High Court of Justice, or to pronounce a sentence of approval or disapproval on what that court had done, he did not fear to teach that inasmuch as kings have their power from the formal or informal consent of the people, and inasmuch as the people are therefore held responsible in God's providence for the crimes of those whom they permit to rule them, kings are of right responsible to the people whom they rule. To the sermon, as published by request of Parliament, he appended a most timely Discourse on Toleration, maintaining that religion, as such, does not come within the province of the magistrate, and that, therefore; the state ought not to concern itself with the suppression of any religious error which does not directly assail the foundations of society or the public peace. At the moment when the party with which his interests were identified, and of which as a religious party he had become a leader, was wielding the supreme power, he demanded of Parliament liberty for all to worship God according to their own convictions. Less than three months elapsed before he was again called to preach before Parliament, the principal officers of the army being also present, among whom was Cromwell, then lately appointed lord-lieutenant of Ireland. That was his sermon on the shaking of heaven and earth, from Heb 12:27. The next day Cromwell met Owen for the first time, and, immediately taking him aside, announced his intention with regard to Ireland, and invited him to go as chaplain, and to aid in reforming and restoring the University of Dublin. Yielding to the advice of brethren in the ministry, and to the urgency of the great chief, whose earnest invitation was equivalent to a command, he left his parish for the time. While preparations for the expected campaigns were in progress he had the opportunity of preaching or another memorable occasion before Parliament, the council of state, and the council of the army, the occasion being a national thanksgiving when the attempt at military revolution by the Levellers had been suppressed. Going to Ireland, he remained in Dublin preaching to attentive multitudes, investigating the affairs of the university, and devising measures for its benefit. Returning with Cromwell to England, he was again summoned to preach before Parliament on a day of national fasting. In consequence of his representations and appeals on that occasion, seconded as they were by Cromwell, the Parliament passed an ordinance for the encouragement of religion and learning in Ireland. Certain lands were appropriated to the support of Trinity College, to the founding of another college in that university with maintenance for teachers, and to the establishment of a free school with support for masters and scholars. At the same time six of the most acceptable preachers in England were sent over to give reputation to the restored university, and they. till the provided endowments should become productive, were to be supported from the public revenue. So conspicuous had Owen become in connection with public affairs that he was soon required to leave his flock again, and to go with the lord-general into Scotland, where Presbyterianism had anointed the second Charles for king, and was in arms against the commonwealth of England. Accordingly he was with Cromwell through that strange campaign in which sermons and theological disputations alternated with sieges and cannonadings. Returning once more to his home and his parochial work, he was soon appointed dean of Christ Church College at Oxford, his great friend Cromwell having been already made chancellor of the university. The next year he became by Cromwell's appointment vicechancellor, and the chief responsibility for the welfare of the university came upon him. Owen's administration at Oxford was perhaps the most active — certainly not the least useful period of his life. The university had been brought almost to ruin by the long war, Oxford having been for a time the royal residence, and its colleges having exhausted their resources in the vain attempt to sustain the divine right of Charles Stuart to govern England according to his absolute will. When the victories achieved for Parliament had ended the conflict, some of the colleges had been closed, others had been converted into barracks and military storehouses; the university was overwhelmed with debt; and the students, diminished in number, were characterized more by insubordination and licentious behavior than by diligence in study or by generous aspirations. To Owen was committed the public work of raising the university from its low estate, and of making it, more than it had ever been before, the seat of learning and of religion. He restored order and salutary discipline. He gathered around him men conspicuous by their ability, such as John Howe, Charnock, Thomas Goodwin, Theophilus Gale. Pocock the Orientalist, and Ward the astronomer — men not of the Independent party only, but of various party connections or of none. His government, severe towards licentious practices, was tolerant of honest differences; he conciliated the Presbyterians by bestowing upon eminent preachers of that party some of the livings of which he was officially the patron; and, at a time when the use of the old Book of Common Prayer was regarded by law as proof of hostility to the existing government, he silently permitted a meeting of Episcopalians every Lord's day hard by his own lodgings. So manifest was the revival and prosperity of learning there that, after the restoration of Charles II, even the enemies of Puritanism were compelled to acknowledge the fact. Clarendon's reluctant testimony for the university as governed by Owen is, "It yielded a harvest of extraordinary good and sound knowledge in all parts of learning; and many who were wickedly introduced applied themselves to the study of learning and the practice of virtue; so that when it pleased God to bring king Charles II back to his throne, he found the university abounding in excellent learning, and little inferior to what it was before its desolation." While thus presiding over the university, Owen never intermitted his work as a preacher, nor was he relieved from the responsibility of often advising those in whose hands were the interests of the commonwealth. It is difficult to see how even he, under such burdens, could find time for the labors of authorship. But during that period many of his most elaborate and learned treatises were published — some in Latin, others in English. Owen's retirement from the vice-chancellorship followed soon after the crisis at which Cromwell found himself constrained to decline the title of king, offered to him by the Parliament as a means of restoring the ancient forms of government under a new dynasty. Owen opposed that movement, and was the aluthor of the petition which was presented to the protector in the name of his early and best friends, and which overruled in his mind his own judgment, convincing him that, though governing with more than kingly power, he could not assume the kingly name without the ruin of "the good old cause." Cromwell, invested with new dignity in the state, transferred the chancellorship of Oxford to his son Richard, who appointed a new vice-chancellor. Owen remained in the deanery of Christ Church College till a few months before the restoration of the Stuart monarchy. From Oxford he retired to his native place, where a Congregational Church, previously gathered by his ministry, received him as its pastor. But the suppression of such congregations, by an Act of Parliament forbidding more than five persons to meet for worship in any unauthorized place, was an early consequence of the restoration; and thenceforward his preaching to little secret assemblies, or sometimes more publicly, when persecution grew less violent, was always in violation of law. In 1663 he received, but for some unrecorded reason did not accept, an invitation to New England. The First Church in Boston called him to become the successor of John Cotton and John Norton, and the colleague of John Wilson; and for several years his coming was confidently expected. When Charles II, in 1671, proclaimed his "declaration of indulgence," virtually abrogating those acts of Parliament which' inflicted penalties on Roman Catholic recusants and Protestant dissenters, there was a measure of liberty which Owen did not hesitate to use. He began to preach openly in London. Under his ministry a Church was constituted-the same which, in another generation, enjoyed the pastoral ministrations of Isaac Watts. He was still recognized as the leading man of the Independents; and, though under the ban of the law for his nonconformity, he was widely honored, and had powerful friends even in the House of Lords. On one occasion, being at Tunbridge Wells, when the king and the duke of York (afterwards James II) were there, he was invited to the royal tent; and Charles talked freely with him about the laws against dissenters. Afterwards, at London, the king invited him to repeated interviews on the same subject, and even entrusted him with a thousand guineas for the relief of suffering Nonconformists. Of course it was well understood, all the while, that the king's sympathy was not with nonconforming Protestants, but with recusant Romanists. Those latest years of Owen's life were in one respect the most productive. Persecuted or tolerated, worshipping in secret conventicles or openly preaching the Word, he seems to have been always writing, and the demand for his books seems to have been constant. His greatest and best-remembered works (of which the most voluminous is his Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews) are the product of those years. His last work (destined to be posthumous) was Meditations on the Glory of Christ, and the first sheet of it only had been printed when he departed, rejoicing that he was to see that "Glory" face to face. His death took place at Ealing, near London, Aug. 24, 1683. Eleven days afterwards a procession of more than sixty noblemen in carriages drawn by six horses each, and of many others in mourning coaches and on horseback," followed his remains along the streets of London to their burial in Bunhill- fields.
Many of Owen's works have been often reprinted, and are among the classics of English religious literature. A collected edition of all his works in twenty-three volumes, the first being Memoirs of his Life, by the Rev. William Orme, was published at London in 1820. Another edition, in twenty-four volumes, carefully edited by the Rev. William H. Goold, and including a Memoir by the Rev. Andrew Thomson, was published at Edinburgh in 1850, and republished at Philadelphia in 1860. The last-
named memoir has been used (but not exclusively) in the preparation of this article. See also Bogue and Bennett, Hist. of the Dissenters, 1:444; Nea., Hist. of the Puritans; Princeton Rev. 1852, p. 165 sq.; Presbyt. Rev. Oct. 1862; North Brit. Rev. Nov. 1851; Kitto's Jour. Sac. Lit. July, 1854, p. 466. (L. B.)