1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Owen, John (English divine)

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22237071911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 20 — Owen, John (English divine)

OWEN, JOHN (1616–1683), English Nonconformist divine, was born at Stadham in Oxfordshire in 1616, and was educated at Queen's College, Oxford (B.A. 1632, M.A. 1635), noted, as Fuller tells us, for its meta physicians. A Puritan by training and conviction, in 1637 Owen was driven from Oxford by Laud's new statutes, and became chaplain and tutor in the family of Sir Robert Dormer and then in that of Lord Lovelace. At the outbreak of the civil troubles he sided with the parliament, and thus lost both his place and the prospects of succeeding to his Welsh royalist uncle's fortune. For a while he lived in Charterhouse Yard, in great unsettlement of mind on religious questions, which was removed at length by a sermon preached by a stranger in Aldermanbury Chapel whither he had gone to hear Edmund Calamy. His first publication, The Display of Arminianism (1642), was a spirited defence of rigid Calvinism. It was dedicated to the committee of religion, and gained him the living of Fordham in Essex, from which a “scandalous minister” had been ejected. At Fordham he remained engrossed in the work of his parish and writing only The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished until 1646, when, the old incumbent dying, the presentation lapsed to the patron, who gave it to some one else. He was now, however, coming into notice, for on the 29th of April he preached before the Long parliament. In this sermon, and still more in his Country Essay for the Practice of Church Government, which he appended to it, his tendency to break away from Presbyterianism to the more tolerant Independent or Congregational system is plainly seen. Like Milton he saw little to choose between “new presbyter” and “old priest,” and disliked a rigid and arbitrary polity by whatever name it was called. He became pastor at Coggeshall in Essex, where a large influx of Flemish tradesmen provided a congenial Independent atmosphere. His adoption of Congregational principles did not effect his theological position, and in 1647 he again attacked the Arminians in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, which drew him into long debate with Richard Baxter. He made the friendship of Fairfax while the latter was besieging Colchester, and urgently addressed the army there against religious persecution. He was chosen to preach to parliament on the day after the execution of Charles, and succeeded in fulfilling his delicate task without directly mentioning that event. Another sermon preached on the 19th of April, a vigorous plea for sincerity of religion in high places, won not only the thanks of parliament but the friendship of Cromwell, who carried him off to Ireland as his chaplain, that he might regulate the affairs of Trinity College. He pleaded with the House of Commons for the religious needs of Ireland as some years earlier he had pleaded for those of Wales. In 1650 he accompanied Cromwell on his Scottish campaign. In March 1651 Cromwell, as chancellor of Oxford, gave him the deanery of Christ Church, and made him vice-chancellor in September 1652; in both offices he succeeded the Presbyterian Edward Reynolds.

During his eight years of official Oxford life Owen showed himself a firm disciplinarian, and infused a new spirit of thoroughness into dons and undergraduates alike, though, as John Locke testifies, the Aristotelian traditions in education suffered no change. With Philip Nye he unmasked the popular astrologer, William Lilly, and in spite of his share in condemning two Quakeresses to be whipped for disturbing the peace, his rule was not intolerant.[1] Anglican services were conducted here and there, and at Christ Church itself the Anglican chaplain remained in the college. While little encouragement was given to a spirit of free inquiry,[2] it is unhistorical to say that Puritanism at Oxford was simply “an attempt to force education and culture into the leaden moulds of Calvinistic theology.” It must be remembered, too, that Owen, unlike many of his contemporaries, found his chief interest in the New Testament rather than the Old. During his Oxford years he wrote Justitia Divina (1653), an exposition of the dogma that God cannot forgive sin without an atonement; Communion with God (1657), which has been called a “piece of wire-drawn mysticism”; Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance (1654), his final attack on Arminianism; Vindiciae Evangelicae, a treatise written by order of the Council of State against Socinianism as expounded by John Bidle; On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656), an introspective and analytic work; Schism (1657), one of the most readable of all his writings; Of Temptation (1658), an attempt to recall Puritanism to its cardinal spiritual attitude from the jarring anarchy of sectarianism and the pharisaism which had followed on popularity and threatened to destroy the early simplicity.

Besides all his academic and literary concerns Owen was continually in the midst of affairs of state. In 1651, on October 24 (after Worcester), he preached the thanksgiving sermon before parliament. In 1652 he sat on a council to consider the condition of Protestantism in Ireland. In October 1653 he was one of several ministers whom Cromwell summoned to a consultation as to church union.[3] In December the degree of D.D. was conferred upon him by his university. In the parliament of 1654 he sat, but only for a short time, as member for Oxford university, and, with Baxter, was placed on the committee for settling the "fundamentals" necessary for the toleration promised in the Instrument of Government. In the same year he was chairman of a committee on Scottish Church affairs. He was, too, one of the Triers, and appears to have behaved with kindness and moderation in that capacity. As vice chancellor he acted with readiness and spirit when a Royalist rising in Wiltshire broke out in 1655; his adherence to Cromwell, however, was by no means slavish, for he drew up, at the request of Desborough and Pride, a petition against his receiving the kingship. Thus, when Richard Cromwell succeeded his father as chancellor, Owen lost his vice-chancellorship. In 1658 he took a leading part in the conference of Independents which drew up the Savoy Declaration.

On the death of Cromwell Owen joined the Wallingford House party, and though he denied any share in the deposition of Richard Cromwell, he threw all his weight on the side of a simple republic as against a protectorate. He assisted in the restoration of the Rump parliament, and, when Monk began his march into England, Owen, in the name of the Independent churches, to whom Monk was supposed to belong, and who were keenly anxious as to his intentions, wrote to dissuade him from the enterprise.

In March 1660, the Presbyterian party being uppermost, Owen was further deprived of his deanery, which was given back to Reynolds. He retired to Stadham, where he wrote various controversial and theological works, in especial the laborious Theologoumena Pantodapa, a history of the rise and progress of theology. The respect in which many of the authorities held his intellectual eminence won him an immunity denied to other Nonconformists. In 1661 was published the celebrated Fiat Lux, a work by the Franciscan monk John Vincent Cane, in which the oneness and beauty of Roman Catholicism are contrasted with the confusion and multiplicity of Protestant sects. At Clarendon's request Owen answered this in 1662 in his Animadversions; and so great was its success that he was offered preferment if he would conform. Owen's condition for making terms was liberty to all who agree in doctrine with the Church of England; nothing therefore came of the negotiation.

In 1663 he was invited by the Congregational churches in Boston, New England, to become their minister, but declined. The Conventicle and Five Mile Acts drove him to London; and in 1666, after the Fire, he, like other leading Nonconformist ministers, fitted up a room for public service and gathered a congregation, composed chiefly of the old Commonwealth officers. Meanwhile he was incessantly writing; and in 1667 he published his Catechism, which led to a proposal, " more acute than diplomatic, " from Baxter for union. Various papers passed, and after a year the attempt was closed by the following la conical note from Owen: " I am still a well-wisher to these mathematics." It was now, too, that he published the first part of his vast work upon the Epistle to the Hebrews, together with his exposition of Psalm 130 and his searching book on Indwelling Sin.

In 1669 Owen wrote a spirited remonstrance to the Congregationalists in New England, who, under the influence of Presbyterianism, had shown themselves persecutors. At home, too, he was busy in the same cause. In 1670 Samuel Parker's Ecclesiastical Polity attacked the Nonconformists in a style of clumsy intolerance. Owen answered him {Truth and Innocence Vindicated); Parker replied with personahties as to Owen's connexion with Wallingford House. Then Andrew Marvell with banter and satire finally disposed of Parker in The Rehearsal Transposed. Owen himself produced a tract On the Trinity (1669), and Christian Love and Peace (1672).

At the revival of the Conventicle Acts in 1670, Owen was appointed to draw up a paper of reasons which was submitted to the House of Lords in protest. In this or the following year Harvard College invited him to become its president; he received sim.ilar invitations from some of the Dutch universities.

When Charles issued his Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, Owen drew up an address of thanks. This indulgence gave the dissenters an opportunity for increasing their churches and services, and Owen was one of the first preachers at the weekly lectures which the Independents and Presbyterians jointly held at Princes' Hall in Broad Street. He was held in high respect by a large number of the nobility (one of the many things which point to the fact that Congregationalism was by no means the creed of the poor and insignificant), and during 1674 both Charles and James held prolonged conversations with him in which they assured him of their good wishes to the dissenters. Charles gave him 1000 guineas to relieve those upon whom the severe laws had chiefly pressed, and he was even able to procure the release of John Bunyan, whose preaching he ardently admired. In 1674 Owen was attacked by William Sherlock, dean of St Paul's, whom he easily vanquished, and from this time until 1680 he was engaged upon his ministry and the writing of religious works. The chief of these were On Apostasy (1676), a sad account of religion under the Restoration; On the Hnly Spirit (1677-1678) and The Doctrine of Justification (1677).. In 1680, however, Stillingfleet having on May 11 preached his sermon on " The Mischief of Separation, " Owen defended the Nonconformists from the charge of schism in his Brief Vindication. Baxter and Howe also answered Stillingfleet, who replied in The Unreasonableness of Separation. Owen again answered this, and then left the controversy to a swarm of eager combatants. From this time to his death he was occupied with continual writing, disturbed only by suffering from stone and asthma, and by an absurd charge of being concerned in the Rye House Plot. His most important work was his Treatise on Evangelical Churches, in which were contained his latest views regarding church government. He died at Ealing on the 24th

of August 1683, just twenty-one years after he had gone out with so many others on St Bartholomew's day in 1662, and was buried on the 4th of September in Bunhill Fields.

F"or engraved portraits of Owen sec first edition of S. Palmer's Nonconformists' Memorial and Vertue's Sermons and Tracts (1721). The chief authorities for the life are Owen's Works; W. Ormc's Memoirs of Owen; A. Wood's Alhenae Oxonienses; R. Baxter's Life; D. Nleal's History of the Puritans; T. Edwards's Gangraena; and the various histories of the Independents. See also The Golden Book of John Owen, a collection of extracts prefaced by a study of his life and age, by James Moffatt (London, 1904).

  1. H. L. Thompson, Christ Church (“Oxford College Histories”) pp. 70 seq.
  2. Owen made a very unhappy attack on Brian Walton’s Polyglot Bible.
  3. Owen probably drew up the scheme for a national church surrounded by bodies of tolerated dissent which was presented to parliament. See D. Masson, Milton, iv. 390, 566.