From Crawford Gribben, “The experience of dissent: John Owen and Congregational life in revolutionary and Restoration England”, in Michael Davies, Anne Dunan-Page, and Joel Halcomb (eds), Church life: Pastors, congregations, and the experience of dissent in seventeenth-century England (Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 119-35.
‘Christ hath instituted a beautiful order in his church, if it were discovered and improved’, John Owen declared in a sermon in September 1682.He was old, infirm, and increasingly aware of how little he had achieved.As a preacher, writer, academic, and administrator he had spent his adult life working to expand, and then to uphold, the community of the godly, in a long sequence of publications that assumed, defended, and then worried over the adequacy of his literary style, theological method, and the influence he had achieved. Owen’s concern for the betterment of local church life had always been central to his activity, whether as a parish minister in the 1640s, as chaplain to Cromwell in the invasions of Ireland and Scotland in 1649–51, as vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford from 1652–58, as a republican plotter from 1658–60, and as a leader of Dissent until his death in 1683. But, as the endapproached, he grew increasingly pessimistic about the short-term future of the Dissenting churches. The circumstances of the godly at this point were very different from those of the heady days of the English Revolution. The impaled heads of his former colleagues in that revolution, still on public display around London over twenty years after their brutal executions, were symbols of the retributive justice of an unforgiving government, and powerful reminders of the dangerous marginality of Dissent.
For all of their power, nevertheless, the governments of Charles II were not beyond challenge: Owen believed that stark warnings of God’s judgement upon their backsliding had been witnessed in plague, fire, and a sequence of spectacular comets.But the godly had to be reminded to dissent. Owen’s sermons in the late 1670s and early 1680s warned his congregants that they were identifying too closely with the culture by which they were being persecuted, and that, unless they repented, they would share its fate:
When all endeavours fail, warnings fail, chastisements fail, preaching of the word fails, and the silver is not separated from the dross; when men can scarce, professors can scarce, bear to be warned; […] there is no way but we must all [go] into the same furnace; nothing else will do.
But Owen did not give in to despair. He believed that the situation was reversible, and shared the older puritan expectation of the global triumph of Protestant Christianity in the latter days of history. The Independent or Congregational churches, among which he had been a leading figure for many years, would confound the broader culture by rejecting its values of prosperity and success, and conquer the world by recovering their other-worldliness. He was certain that the beginning of this latter-day glory would be marked by the expansion of biblical church order, and increasing numbers of biblically constituted church fellowships.But he did not believe that this great revival was something he would experience: ‘I have wished sometimes I could live to see it’, he considered, ‘but I do not think I shall.’
This chapter will describe Owen’s experience of Dissent before and during the English Revolution as context for a discussion of its maintenance thereafter. It will, then, do several things. First, it will outline Owen’s experiments in ecclesiology in the 1640s, when the Independent party emerged as a movement of reform within the national church, and only hesitantly as a denomination in its own right.Secondly, it will suggest reasons for his apparent lack of interest in ecclesiology in the 1650s: a period in which his principal writings make little reference to the benefits of church membership, and in which Owen’s own ecclesiastical affiliation cannot be traced. Thirdly, it will discuss the renewal of his interest in church life in the 1660s and beyond, particularly as his Restoration works on the principles of public worship, together with a very complete set of auditor’s notes covering almost twenty years of his preaching, offer new ways of understanding the challenge he faced in turning local church principles into local church practice.
The aim of this chapter is to trace the development of important themes in Owen’s thinking about church government, church membership, and the observation of the sacraments or ‘gospel ordinances’ (namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper), while paying attention to changes within the membership of his congregations and the broader circumstances of congregational life, including the choice of meeting places and the often uncertain political contexts in which these meetings occurred. It will note the distortion evident in earlier work on the subject, caused by over-reliance on published sources and the mistaking of principles for practice. It will comment too upon Owen’s most enduring challenge: that of calling upon his congregants to embrace, rather than deny, a Dissenting identity—a performance made all the more difficult when caught between the competing dangers of a persecuting government and an angry God.
This chapter will also consider Owen’s sense of failure. For Owen died lamenting the decay of the religious movement that he had helped to create.His many publications in defence of both high Calvinism and Independent church government had not prevented serious, and perhaps fatal, debates among Dissenters about such basic Christian doctrines as the Trinity, or the most elemental ideas of the Protestant Reformation. He could not understand why the godly had ‘grown altogether indifferent as to the doctrine of God’s eternal election, the sovereign efficacy of grace in the conversion of sinners, justification by the imputation of the righteousness of Christ’, or how they could ‘quarrel and dispute about the interest of works in justification; about general redemption, which takes off the efficacy of the redeeming work of Christ; and about the perseverance of the saints.’Theological divisions were sapping the integrity of the community of Dissenters who had not been persuaded by the extraordinary campaign of theological polemic that Owen had sustained over forty years, eighty individually published titles, and millions of words, including the longest commentary ever published on the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews. Indeed, in his last years, Owen found it difficult even to persuade his own small, loyal, and close-knit congregation of the merit of his ideas.
Towards the end of his life, Owen became convinced of his own failure, as well as that of the movement he had inspired. This admission is a key control for our reading of the textbooks on church order published by Owen in this period. Despite his clear convictions as to their best practice, and his expectations of their glorious future, by the 1680s Owen feared that the Dissenting churches were in ruins. He was fighting for the survival of his own congregation, as well as the godly cause it represented, as the experience of Dissent threatened to give way to the experience of defeat.
READ MORE AT Michael Davies, Anne Dunan-Page, and Joel Halcomb (eds), Church life: Pastors, congregations, and the experience of dissent in seventeenth-century England (Oxford University Press, 2019).
John Owen, Posthumous Sermons(1756): ‘The Duty of a Pastor’, in William H. Goold (ed.),The Works of John Owen, 24 vols (London and Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850–55; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965–68), IX, 452–62 (453). Unless otherwise indicated, all references to Owen’s works will refer to this edition.
On the later period of Owen’s life, see Crawford Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 209–62.
Robert Latham and William Matthews (eds.), The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 11 vols (London: Bell, 1970–83), II, 31 (5 February 1661); Maurice Exwood and H. L. Lehmann (trans. and eds.), The Journals of William Schellinks’ Travels in England, 1661–1663(London: Royal Historical Society, 1993), 48, 51.
John Owen, Posthumous Sermons(1854): ‘The Furnace of Divine Wrath’, in Works, XVI, 425–31 (428, 431).
Owen, ‘Furnace of Divine Wrath’, in Works, XVI, 427.
For the broader contexts of puritan millennial expectation, see Crawford Gribben, The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology, 1550–1682 (Dublin: Four Courts, 2000).
Owen, ‘Duty of a Pastor’, in Works, IX,453.
For the emergence of the Congregational movement, see Nuttall, Visible Saints; Halcomb, ‘Congregational’.
For Owen’s impact on Dissent, see Tim Cooper, John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Formation of Nonconformity (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2011).
John Owen, Posthumous Sermons(1721): ‘Perilous Times’, in Works, IX, 320–34 (327); ‘Duty of a Pastor’, in Works, IX,459.
Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries(London: Faber and Faber, 1984); Gribben, John Owen.