I’ve spent the last few days attending the biennial conference of the Brethren Historians and Archivists Network, which was held this year in Maynooth. Among many excellent presentations, Jean DeBernardi (University of Alberta) spoke on “The emplacement and indigenization of the Brethren movement in Penang and Singapore”; Donald Akenson (Queen’s University, Kingston) thought about “Remembering Rodney King: Can academic and non-academic historians get along?”; and Timothy Stunt considered “John Nelson Darby’s ecclesiastical identity.” My own paper was about “Brethren and the legacy of the reformation.”

Brethren, especially in the nineteenth century, have often thought about John Owen. William Kelly had a particular interest in “the excellent and learned Dr. John Owen,” whose arguments he cited to support positions on such subjects as the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and the liturgical suitability of the Lord’s Prayer. William Reid sought to attract readers to Brethren literature by arguing that J. N. Darby “bids fair to become as voluminous an author as John Owen of Puritan celebrity … Like Owen, you will find [Darby] involved, discursive, and rather hard to read; in Mr D.’s case with far more reason, as he is incomparably more profound, as well as more learned” [William Reid, The literature and mission of the so-called Plymouth Brethren (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1875), p. 8]. Jim Elliot was engaging with Owen in 1949, several years before going to Ecuador, and his martyrdom [The journals of Jim Elliot, ed. Elizabeth Elliot (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1978), pp. 149, 294, 327]. And at the Swanick conference of “open” brethren leaders (1966), H. J. Brearey referred to Owen as a helpful guide to Christian experience [H. J. Brearey, ‘Baptism and fullness – II’, in Demonstration of the Spirit and power (Bristol: Evangelical Christian Literature, 1966), p. 55].

These brethren were appreciating Owen’s contribution in different ways. Brearey was thinking about his teaching about spirituality; Elliot was thinking about his articulation of the doctrine of particular redemption; Reid reflected upon his theological depth and difficult prose; while Kelly sought to use Owen to show that the brethren were closer than contemporary evangelicals to the theological positions of some seventeenth-century puritans.

Kelly’s use of Owen is interesting. Why did one of the best exponents of dispensationalism believe Owen to be his ally? What does Kelly’s citation of Owen say about the binary that is often set up between Reformed and dispensational theology? Were the brethren Calvinists, as Mark Stevenson has claimed?

You can find out about membership of the Brethren Archivists and Historians Network here. And please let me know of any other references to Owen in brethren writing!



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