This Day in History: The Death of John Owen

This article is part of the This Day in History series.

A Long-Lasting Reputation

When John Owen died on August 24, 1683, his reputation as “the Calvin of England,” as he has been called, was firmly established—a reputation that is still recognized three hundred and thirty-five years after his death.

“Bred Up . . . Under . . . a Nonconformist”

John Owen was born in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died. He grew up in a Christian home in a small village now known as Stadhampton, about five miles south-east of Oxford. His father, Henry Owen, was the minister of the parish church there and a Puritan. Of Owen’s childhood years only one reference has been recorded. “I was bred up from my infancy,” he remarked in 1657, “under the care of my father, who was a nonconformist all his days, and a painful laborer [that is, diligent worker] in the vineyard of the Lord.”

At twelve years of age, Owen was sent by his father to Queen’s College, the University of Oxford. Here he obtained his B. A. on June 11, 1632, when he was 16. He went on to study for the M. A., which he was awarded on April 27, 1635. Everything seemed to be set for Owen to pursue an academic career. It was not, however, a good time to launch out into the world of academia. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573-1645), had set out to suppress the Puritan movement, and to that end had begun a purge of the churches and universities. By 1637 Owen had no alternative but to leave Oxford and to become, along with many other Puritans who refused to conform to the Established Church, a private chaplain. He eventually found employment in the house of Lord Lovelace, a nobleman sympathetic to the Puritan cause. However, when the English Civil War broke out in 1642 and Lord Lovelace decided to support the King, Owen left his service and moved to London.

A “Clear Shining from God”

The move to London was providential in a couple of ways. First of all, it brought him into contact with the some of the leading defenders of the Parliamentary cause, Puritan preachers who viewed the struggle between the King and Parliament in terms of the struggle between Christ and anti-Christian forces. Moreover, it was during these initial days in London that he had an experience he would never forget. By 1642 Owen was convinced that the final source of authority in religion was the Holy Scriptures and moreover, that the doctrines of orthodox Calvinism were biblical Christianity. But he had yet to personally experience the Holy Spirit bearing witness to his spirit and giving him the assurance that he was a child of God.

Owen found this assurance one Sunday when he decided to go with a cousin to hear Edmund Calamy the Elder (1600-1666), a famous Presbyterian preacher, at St. Mary’s Church, Aldermanbury. On arriving at this church, they were informed that the well-known Presbyterian was not going to preach that morning. Instead, a country preacher (whose name Owen never did discover) was going to fill in for the Presbyterian divine. His cousin urged him to go with him to hear Arthur Jackson (c.1593-1666), another notable Puritan preacher, at nearby St. Michael’s. But Owen decided to remain at St. Mary’s. The preacher took as his text that morning Matthew 8:26: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” It proved to be a message that Owen needed to hear and embrace. Through the words of a preacher whose identity is unknown, God spoke to Owen and removed once and for all his doubts and fears as to whether he was truly regenerate or not. He now knew himself to be born of the Spirit.

The impact of this spiritual experience cannot be over-estimated. It gave to Owen the deep, inner conviction that he was indeed a child of God and chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, that God loved him and had a loving purpose for his life, and that this God was the true and living God. In practical terms, it meant a life-long interest in the work of God the Holy Spirit that would issue thirty years later in his monumental study of the Holy Spirit, A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit, which in many ways is the finest study of the work of the Holy Spirit ever written in English. As he later wrote: “Clear shining from God must be at the bottom of deep laboring with God.”

“Deep Labouring with God”

In 1643 Owen was offered the pastorate in the village of Fordham, six miles or so north-west of Colchester in Essex. Owen was here till 1646 when he became the minister of the church at the market town of Coggeshall, some five miles to the south. Here, as many as two thousand people would crowd into the church each Lord’s Day to hear Owen preach.

It is noteworthy that this change in pastorates was also accompanied by an ecclesiological shift to Congregationalism. Up until this point Owen had been decidedly Presbyterian in his understanding of church government. His reading of The Keyes of the Kingdom of Heaven by John Cotton (1584-1652) which had been published in 1644, was decisive in changing his mind in this area of theology. It was also at Coggeshall that he wrote the classic work on particular redemption, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647).

During these tumultuous days, Owen clearly identified himself with the Parliamentary cause. He developed a friendship with the rising military figure Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and accompanied Cromwell on the latter’s 1649 campaign in Ireland. Though ill much of this time in Ireland, Owen stayed there from August 1649 to February 1650. He preached frequently to “a numerous multitude of as thirsting a people after the gospel as ever yet I conversed withal.” When he returned to England the following year, he confessed that “the tears and cries of the inhabitants of Dublin after the manifestations of Christ are ever in my view.” Accordingly, he sought to convince Parliament of the spiritual need of this land and asked the members of Parliament in a 1650 sermon, The Steadfastness of Promises, and the Sinfulness of Staggering :

How is it that Jesus Christ is in Ireland only as a lion staining all his garments with the blood of his enemies; and none to hold him out as a lamb sprinkled with his own blood to his friends? Is it the sovereignty and interest of England that is alone to be there transacted? For my part, …I could heartily rejoice, that … the Irish might enjoy Ireland so long as the moon endureth, so that Jesus Christ might possess the Irish.

He drives not, but gently leads into all truth, and persuades men to dwell in the tents of like precious faith; which would lose of its preciousness and value, if that sparkle of freeness shone not in it.

By the early 1650s, Owen had become one of Cromwell’s leading advisors, especially in national affairs to do with the church. There is little doubt that Owen was a firm supporter of Cromwell in this period. When Cromwell was urged to become the monarch of England in 1656, however, Owen was among those who opposed this move. As it turned out, Cromwell did not accept the crown. But Owen’s friendship with Crowmell had been damaged and the two men were nowhere near as close as they had been.

“The Great Beautifier of Souls”

Cromwell had appointed Owen to the oversight of Oxford University in 1652 as its Vice-Chancellor. From this position, Owen helped to re-assemble the faculty, who had been dispersed by the war, and to put the university back on its feet. He also had numerous opportunities to preach to the students at Oxford. An important work on holiness came out of his preaching during this period, The Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656), which is in some ways the richest of all of Owen’s treatises on this subject. It is based on Romans 8:13 and lays out a strategy for fighting indwelling sin and warding off temptation. Owen emphasizes that in the fight against sin the Holy Spirit employs all of our human powers. Not without reason does Owen lovingly describe the Spirit in another place as “the great beautifier of souls.”

Oliver Cromwell died in September of 1658 and the “rule of the saints,” as some called it, began to fall apart. In the autumn of that year, Owen, now a key leader among the Congregationalists, played a vital role in drawing up what is known as the Savoy Declaration, which would give the Congregationalist churches ballast for the difficult days ahead. Only a few days after Cromwell’s death, Owen met with around 200 other Congregationalist leaders, including men like Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680), Philip Nye (c.1596-1672), and William Bridge (c.1600-1671), in the chapel of the old Savoy Palace in London. One of the outcomes of this synod was a recommendation to revise the Westminster Confession of Faith for the Congregationalist churches. Traditionally Owen has been credited with writing the lengthy preface that came before the Savoy Declaration. In it he argued, anticipating a key issue over the rest of his life:

The Spirit of Christ is in himself too free, great and generous a Spirit, to suffer himself to be used by any human arm, to whip men into belief; he drives not, but gently leads into all truth, and persuades men to dwell in the tents of like precious faith; which would lose of its preciousness and value, if that sparkle of freeness shone not in it.

Owen on the Christian Life

Matthew Barrett, Michael A. G. Haykin

Introducing readers to the legacy of John Owen and his views on the Christian life, this book gives insights into his spiritual life, pastoral ministry, and historical context.

“The Church in a Storm”

In 1660 a number of Cromwell’s fellow Puritan leaders, fearful that Britain was slipping into full-fledged anarchy, asked Charles II, then living in exile on the continent, to return to England as her monarch. Those who came to power with Charles were determined that the Puritans would never again hold the reins of political authority. During Charles’ reign and that of his brother James II (r.1685-1688), the Puritan cause was thus savagely persecuted. After the Act of Uniformity in 1662, which required all religious worship to be according to the letter of The Book of Common Prayer, and other legislation enacted during the 1660s all other forms of worship were illegal.

A number of Owen’s close friends, including John Bunyan, suffered fines and imprisonment for not heeding these laws. Although Owen was shielded from actual imprisonment by some powerful friends, he led at best a precarious existence till his death. He was once nearly attacked by a mob, who surrounded his carriage. At one point he was tempted to accept the offer of a safe haven in America when the Puritan leaders in Massachusetts offered him the presidency of Harvard. Owen, though, recognized where he was needed most.

But these years were also ones of great literary fruitfulness. His exhaustive commentary on Hebrews appeared between 1668 and 1684. A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit came out in 1674 and an influential work on justification, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, in 1677. Owen’s Meditations and Discourses on The Glory of Christ (1st ed. 1684; 2nd ed. 1696), what Robert Oliver has rightly termed “incomparable,” was written under the shadow of death in 1683 and represents Owen’s dying testimony to the unsurpassable value and joy of living a life for the glory of Christ.

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