This article is part of the Questions and Answers series.
Q: Who was John Owen?
A: Owen’s most recent biographer, Crawford Gribben, calls him “the most formidable and sometimes unpredictable of nonconformist divines—and one of the most significant theologians in the religious history of early modern England.” He also calls him “the genius of English Puritanism—its preeminent thinker, and a formative influence on successive generations of evangelicals.”
Owen was born in the year that William Shakespeare died (1616). In terms of his public influence, Owen was a rising star in the 1640s and at the height of his power in the 1650s. Christopher Hill describes him as “Cromwell's Archbishop”, and he may have lived for a time in the central London lodgings once occupied by Archbishop Laud. He wielded a significant degree of power and influence within the short-lived English Republic. Famously, he was the chosen preacher to the House of Commons the day after King Charles I was beheaded.
Yet he eventually found himself on the losing side of the epic struggles of the seventeenth century and was ousted from his position of national pre-eminence. The Restoration of the monarchy and the Act of Uniformity in 1662 effectively barred him from any position within the established church. He remained, however, one of the most influential leaders among the Protestant dissenters.
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Q: How did his ministry develop?
A: After Owen published his first book, A Display of Arminianism, he was rewarded by Parliament with his first church post, as pastor of the church in Fordham, Essex. There he preached to the people and wrote catechisms to teach the children of the parish. He then moved to nearby Coggeshall, which had a larger church building, and preached to an even greater number each Sunday. He was present as a bystander at the civil war siege of Colchester, and preached to the victorious Parliamentarian army there when it was over, on faith amidst the brutality of war1.
After coming to the attention of Oliver Cromwell, the young ambitious theologian became preacher-in-chief to the Council of State, and even went with the great General to Scotland and to Ireland on his fateful campaigns to bring the Celtic fringe to heel. In Ireland he worked particularly at Trinity College in Dublin, and he was a natural choice for Cromwell when the time came to appoint a new Dean of Christ Church in Oxford, where he also went on to become Vice Chancellor of the University.
Q: What was life like for him after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660?
A: The puritans as a whole suffered a great backlash after 1660. Owen had rich and influential friends who were willing and able to house and protect him at various times, and he was able to assemble and pastor a congregation of noble worthies in Leadenhall Street in the City of London. His advice was sought by many in old and New England (where his books sold well), and he retained sufficient wealth and lands to provide himself with a not uncomfortable living. He certainly does not seem to have struggled financially in the way poor old John Bunyan did. Other dissenters were no doubt jealous. His keeping of a horse and carriage in the 1670s caused some hostile comment, for example.
Nevertheless, life was not easy for Owen after the Restoration. His income was reduced. His house was raided a number of times. On one occasion, the suspicious authorities removed six boxes of pistols from his house. That is quite an arsenal if it was merely for personal protection! He continued to be watched by government informers, who even attended his church to observe and hear him at close quarters. He was charged under the so-called Clarendon Code legislation, and liable to huge fines.
Owen considered leaving for Massachusetts, having been offered the Presidency of Harvard and also a pastorate in Boston. There is evidence that he was involved in negotiations to buy land in New Hampshire in 1664, and he even went so far as to have all his belongings packed and taken to a boat after the 1665 plague. But he stayed in England. The Owens sent their children to stay with friends for their own safety and for long stretches, which we can see from his letters caused them some heartache. When his first wife, Mary, died in 1676, only one of their eleven children was still alive, and her unhappy marriage and early death would also have brought considerable sorrow.
Owen suffered some kind of eye disease and was troubled by kidney and liver complaints of which he finally died in 1683. He also felt burdened by opposition in various forms. He reflected to a friend, “I suppose there is scarce anyone alive in the world who hath more reproaches cast upon him than I have, [including] virulent revilings and false accusations.” He requested his prayers since, “I do acknowledge unto you that I have a dry and barren spirit.”
Q: What effect did this persecution have on him?
A: Owen suffered political defeat, ecclesiastical isolation, personal loss, and intense opposition. These experiences must have taken their toll on Owen's peace of mind as he was meditating on the book of Hebrews in preparation for writing his gigantic two-million word commentary on it. His mental state may be reflected in that commentary itself. Expounding on the tears of Christ in Hebrews 5:7, we get an extraordinarily rare published glimpse of Owen's inner world as he writes,
Let us not, then, think strange, if we have our season of weakness and infirmity in this world, whereby we are exposed unto temptation and suffering. . . . And these things are apt to make us faint, to despond, and be weary. I know not how others bear up their hearts and spirits. For my part, I have much ado to keep from continual longing after the embraces of the dust and shades of the grave, as a curtain drawn over the rest in another world. In the meantime, every momentary gourd that interposeth between the vehemency of wind and sun, or our frail, fainting natures and spirits, is too much valued by us.
He had struggled with depression and despondency before. Archbishop William Laud brought Owen’s earthly ambitions in Oxford to an abrupt end in 1637, and as a result, he hardly spoke for three whole months. Perhaps he learned how to cope with melancholy since it was not so disabling later in life as to prevent him from working diligently and laboriously on several complex projects. He was deeply involved in numerous attempts to secure some kind of religious toleration for dissenters after 1662. Alongside regular preaching and teaching, he produced no fewer than thirty works in the last fifteen years of his life, including books on toleration, his monumental multi-volume work on the Holy Spirit, and four large folio volumes on Hebrews. All this may have functioned as some kind of distraction for him in his “season of weakness and infirmity in this world.”
Let us not, then, think strange, if we have our season of weakness and infirmity in this world.
The “Protestant work ethic” played an important part in his makeup. He certainly considered those who are industrious in their affairs to be far more amiable and desirable than the idle rich. “Industry in men's callings is a thing in itself very commendable,” he wrote. “If in nothing else, it hath an advantage herein, that it is a means to preserve men from those excesses in lust and riot which otherwise they are apt to run into.” Strenuous intellectual exertions may distract the mind, therefore, and prevent a plunge into darkness and a melancholic longing after “the shades of the grave.” Alongside preparation of two or three substantial sermons each week as a pastor, his concurrent literary output was staggering, and it may well have been good for his mental health.
Q: What sort of books did he write?
A: Many of Owen’s published works began as sermons. Indeed, his sermons are probably the best place to start if one wants to get a sense of Owen’s heartbeat as a pastor and a theologian. However, he also wrote deep works of theology interacting with the major currents of thought in his day, both orthodox and heretical. He wrote against Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and Socinianism—a new and virulent strain of rationalist anti-Trinitarian thought which would plague churches throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But he was not merely a reactive writer. Although some of Owen’s writing “reads like the roughly dashed-off translation of a piece of thinking done in Ciceronian Latin,” as J. I. Packer put it, he is at his most profound and fruitful when expounding the person and work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.
At the same time, much of his writing was also focused on the ecclesiastical controversies of the day. So he wrote a huge amount on ecclesiology and church polity. Having been episcopally ordained as a Church of England minister, he flirted briefly with Presbyterianism before becoming convinced that Congregationalism was the best form of church government. However, throughout his career he retained a great attachment to the doctrinal statements in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the great confession of Reformation Anglican theology.
Q: What was unique about Owen?
A: His commentary on Hebrews was at the cutting edge of the scholarly application of Hebraic studies to the understanding of the New Testament in the seventeenth century. Thomas Chalmers declared it to be “a work of gigantic strength as well as gigantic size; and he who hath mastered it is very little short, both in respect to the doctrinal and practical of Christianity, of being an erudite and accomplished theologian.”
His book, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace, and Consolation (1657) broke new ground2 by considering the distinct relationship that believers have with each person of the Trinity. As Ryan McGraw says, “Owen stands out in his self-consciously Trinitarian approach to Christian experience.”
Owen was also a groundbreaking advocate for ecclesiastical toleration in an era of great conflict which saw a unique persecution of Protestants by Protestants. He sought toleration for different forms of Reformed Protestantism even when his own party was in power, and laid the groundwork for the “glorious revolution” and Act of Toleration in 1689, which sadly he died too soon to see.
- Lee Gatiss. "Faith Amidst the Brutality of War." May 23, 2022. https://www.churchsociety.org/resource/faith-amidst-the-brutality-of-war/.
- "19th November 2022. Relating to God the Father, Son & Holy Spirit. Rev'd Lee Gatiss." YouTube Video. November 20, 2022. https://youtu.be/Ol5sXxVmS_A.
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