In the unusual turbulence of the seventeenth century, God, in His goodness, raised up a generation of godly leaders to guide His people. Outstanding among these was the stately and erudite John Owen, who, with God-given wisdom, provided clear leadership in a political and ecclesiastical maelstrom.
The Making of a Minister
Henry Owen, John’s devout and learned father ministered in the parishes of Stadhampton and Chiselhampton in Oxfordshire. There he laid the foundations of John’s formal education. John entered Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of twelve and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1632 when only sixteen years old. Continuing at Oxford, he took his Master of Arts in 1635 and then began extensive reading in English and European theology with a view to securing his Bachelor of Divinity. This course led him into a close study of both the Roman and Arminian controversies, which were to exercise him for the rest of his life.
Events cut short a potentially brilliant academic career. In 1633 William Laud, chancellor of Oxford University, was appointed archbishop of Canterbury. Laud headed a group of ritualistic ecclesiastics who reacted strongly against the Calvinism of the Reformed Church of England. The universities were targets for their new emphasis on ritual and Arminian theology. Under their pressure, Owen left Oxford in 1637 to become a private tutor.
In 1642, the support of Charles I for Laud’s highhanded religious policy, and his own disagreements with Parliament, provoked civil war. In the confusion, Owen moved to London — the parliamentary capital. He was, however, a troubled young man. Although an astute theologian, Owen lacked personal assurance of salvation. Deliverance came through an unknown preacher occupying Edmund Calamy’s pulpit in the city of London. Gripped by the stranger’s prayer, Owen found assurance under a sermon from the text: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matt. 8:26). He left the church a transformed man. Strangely, he could never identify the preacher later, but the service left him a new man. His nineteenth-century biographer, Andrew Thomson, claimed that Owen later traced the experiences of these years in his Exposition of Psalm 130.
Between 1643 and 1650, Owen served successively in the churches of Fordham and Coggeshall in rural Essex and proved a model pastor, catechising, preaching, and writing. There he met and married Mary Rooke who proved a devoted wife. It was here also that he embraced independent church principles. Long a careful student and opponent of Arminianism, he published his first major work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ in 1647.
In these years, his reputation as a preacher led to invitations to preach before the House of Commons and eventually led to the weighty responsibility of preaching there on the day after the execution of Charles I in 1649.
Serving the Nation
Owen’s London preaching led Oliver Cromwell to ask him to accompany the army to Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland he urged the restoration of Trinity College, Dublin, to its intended role as a center of Protestant scholarship. He preached in the Irish capital, in his own words, “to a numerous multitude of thirsting people after the gospel as ever I conversed with.”
He was soon to be called to another center of learning, his old university of Oxford, where he was appointed dean of Christ Church. During the civil war, Oxford had been the royalist capital and a major garrison. Inevitably, education had suffered. Owen’s main responsibility was to give lectures on theology. However, in 1652 Cromwell was appointed Chancellor of the university and appointed Owen as his vice-chancellor. Administration was now joined to teaching. Lord Clarendon, a later chancellor — and no friend of Puritanism — admitted that, under Owen, Oxford “yielded a harvest of extraordinary good and sound knowledge in all parts of learning.” The fruit of these years appeared in his Latin lectures Theologoumena Pantodapa, recently translated and published under the title Biblical Theology. Other fruits of these years included his work on the justice of God and practical sermons to students on the mortification of sin, temptation, and indwelling sin, all of which later appeared as published works.
There can be no doubt that his work at Oxford helped to produce a generation of ministers equipped to provide leadership in the troubled days ahead.
Leadership in Troubled Times
Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658. His death plunged the nation into a period of uncertainty in which his close political associates soon found themselves out of their depths. After a period of uncertainty, Charles Stuart, the eldest son of the executed Charles I, was invited back to the throne, having made vague promises of some inclusion of Puritanism within the established Church. Throughout the entire event, the disciples of Archbishop Laud (Laud was executed during the civil war) had the ear of the new king’s closest advisers. They soon made it clear that there was no room for Puritanism within the established Church of England and no toleration for it outside. They negotiated with Richard Baxter, Thomas Manton, and a few of their friends until they were securely back in the saddle. In 1662 Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity, the terms of which were so severe that almost 2000 Puritan clergymen were ejected from their benefices on what came to be known as Black Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August 1662.
Owen never entertained hope of inclusion in the restored Church of England. Removed from his position at Oxford, he retreated to a house at Stadhampton, and there he quietly conducted worship and was available for consultation by his old associates. He received invitations from universities in Holland as well as opportunities to serve in North America, but he was sure that his duty was to remain in England. In 1664 his house was raided while he was preaching to some thirty people, and soon afterwards he accepted an invitation to move to London, where there were a number of independent churches.
In London, he witnessed the terrible experiences of the Great Plague (1665) and the Great Fire (1666). These terrible judgments gave some opportunities for the persecuted Puritans to minister to their fellow citizens. In 1667 the diarist Samuel Pepys noted: “The Nonconformists are mighty high and their meetings frequented and connived at.” The truth was that Charles II and his government had wearied of persecution, although the high church party in Parliament had not given up pressing for the full vigour of the law to be imposed with fines and imprisonments. There was an occasion when Charles arranged for one thousand guineas to be passed to Owen from state funds for the relief of suffering Nonconformists. Owen was sufficiently well known in court circles to be able to make representations on behalf of his brethren. Amongst those whom he helped was the tinker preacher of Bedford, John Bunyan. It was also Owen who arranged for the publication of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
As well as acting as a leader among the Nonconformists, Owen pastored a church in London and gave himself to study and writing. The 1670s were a little easier. Oppressive laws were not always enforced although they remained on the statute book. It was in these years that Owen wrote on apostasy, justification by faith, and the person of Christ and produced his massive commentary on the epistle to the Hebrews.
John Owen’s closing years were marked by ill health and bereavement. Several children were born to John and Mary, but sadly none survived childhood. Then, in January 1676, Mary herself died. Eighteen months later John married Dorothy D’Oyley, a wealthy widow who was able to care for him in his declining years. They settled in Ealing, just west of London, but Owen continued to pastor his London church. The years were taking their toll. Sadly, as Owen weakened, the storm clouds of persecution were piling up again. On 22 August 1683, Owen dictated his last surviving letter. It was to an old friend of Commonwealth days, Charles Fleetwood. He wrote: “I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm, but while the Great Pilot is in it, the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live and pray and hope and wait patiently and do not despair; the promise stands invincible that he will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
Two days later a friend called to tell him that work on the printing of his treatise, The Glory of Christ, was going well. Owen replied, “I am glad to hear it; but Oh, brother Payne! The long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than ever I have done, or was capable of doing in this world.” Later that day, 24 August 1683, John Owen entered the eternal glory.
John Owen was buried in the historic, Nonconformist burial ground, Bunhill Fields, where so many of his associates lie and where his tomb can be seen to this day.
At his funeral, David Clarkson declared, “It was his great design to promote holiness in the life and exercise of it among you … He was a burning and a shining light, and you for a while rejoiced in his light. Alas! It was but for a while; but we may rejoice in it still.”