John Owen, perhaps the greatest theologian of the English puritan movement, was born sometime in 1616 to a family living in the tiny village of Stadhampton, in Oxfordshire. The family was not especially wealthy, and neither were they especially rigorous in their religious views, despite the fact that its father was a clergyman of the established church. Late in life, Owen described his father as a ‘a Nonconformist all his days, and a painful labourer in the vineyard of the Lord’ (Works, 13: 224), but it is not clear that his father was committed to any radical programme of reform within the English church: his father was not among those Puritans whose dissatisfaction with the Church of England drove them into exile in Holland or to the new world, for he remained within the establishment, apparently neglecting to fulfil some aspects of his liturgical duties, as was common among the party of conforming puritans whose hopes for further reformation had ended shortly after the accession of James I. Owen’s well-known description of his father may reflect the kindness of a dimmed memory, a filial piety that wanted to distinguish his father from those elements of the liturgical practice of the established church that Owen, throughout his life, found most objectionable. Rather than being the heir of a radical tradition, therefore, Owen grew up in a religious community that had worked hard for the reformation of the Church of England, and had failed. Owen grew up knowing the bitter reality of defeat.
Owen’s sense of the marginal status of the religious community to which he belonged would have been confirmed during his university studies in Queen’s College, Oxford, which he commenced at the age of 12. This was not an especially young age at which to begin university education in the early seventeenth century – and in fact the English universities were admitting a higher proportion of young men than in many other periods. But this expansion of university education came alongside the introduction of a number of controversial structural changes that made Owen’s college days tumultuous. During the late 1620s and 1630s, Queen’s College, with the rest of the university, passed through a religious revolution, as the Reformed theological consensus that had dominated theological discussion for several decades was replaced by a new theological system, which seemed to its critics to mimic Catholic styles of worship, and which questioned elemental components of English protestant identity. Within Queen’s, the debate provoked threats of violence, with one academic threatening to stab the provost who was driving forward the liturgical changes. The death threat was a sign of things to come, for England was about to enter a long civil war, in which religious ideas would be used to justify horrific levels of violence. Diaries from the period illustrate both the excitement of undergraduate life within the college, and the growing pressures for teaching fellows to find ways to shoe-horn their old religious principles into the new liturgical mold.
Some of the college community could not do so. At the age of 21, nine years after his admission to Queen’s College, Owen had graduated with his BA and MA degrees, and was likely a junior member of the teaching faculty. His years of hard study had earned him a place among the postgraduate students, and he may have been working towards his BD. But after years of preparation for an academic or clerical career, Owen felt he had to leave Oxford. He could not support the religious innovations that were being pushed through Queen’s with the support of the provost and through the university with the support of the vice-chancellor. The new and fashionable Arminianism ran entirely counter to a number of Owen’s convictions. Choosing conscience over career, Owen left the university.
It is not clear where or how Owen spent the next few years of his life. In the few surviving glimpses of his life during this period, Owen seems to be making erratic and unpredictable decisions. For, within a year of abandoning his academic career, he sought ordination as a priest at the hands of Bishop of Oxford, one of the chief supporters of the Arminian innovations. He then found employment as a chaplain in the home of Sir Robert Dormer, a suspected Catholic whose riotous recreational activities suggested no sympathy for puritan views. By 1642, Owen had accepted another position as a household chaplain, this time in the home of Sir John Lovelace. Throughout this period, Owen appears to have been suffering from depression. It is possible that his move to the Lovelace household occurred around the same time that his father and elder brother took up new pastoral charges in the vicinity – though as a cause or consequence of these family movements we cannot tell. As so often in Owen’s life, we are left to balance possibilities. But it is possible that members of the family, which appears to have been close-knit, were deliberately re-grouping to support their brother in his discouragement and, possibly, fear.
For fear was in the air. In the summer of 1642, as Owen officiated as household chaplain to a young married couple whose cousin, Richard Lovelace, would become one of the most eminent apologists of the emerging party of royalists, England drifted into its first civil war. Dormer and Lovelace, who had employed Owen, both declared in favour of the king. Owen, who did not need to express any political preference, decided in favour of parliament. Having abandoned the university, he now left the Lovelace household, and the path into pastoral work it represented, and travelled to London, without obvious prospects and almost entirely without friends. In the capital, one of the largest and most international cities in Europe, Owen found lodgings in Smithfield, a cheap and unpleasant place to live, close to the red light district and to the place where so many of the Protestant martyrs had died one century before.
It was in this unpromising situation that Owen found his purpose in life. As censorship collapsed, Owen began to write, developing a manuscript on the priesthood of Christ that he never published. And, more importantly, Owen was converted. This event, which finally brought an end to Owen’s depression, was entirely unexpected. Owen was sermon-gadding, attending a church service along with his cousin in the hope of listening to preaching by a famous divine. But the famous preacher could not attend. His replacement seemed much less promising, and Owen’s cousin wanted to leave the service for better prospects elsewhere. Owen did not feel well enough to do so. He stayed, and found the unknown preacher directly addressing his situation. Under this unknown ministry, and on an unknown date, Owen was born again.
His aspirations to be a writer were similarly renewed. For the first time, perhaps, Owen had come to understand how the doctrines that had been so fiercely debated during the previous decade could bring peace to a troubled soul. And so, with new resolve, he threw himself into another writing project, A display of Arminianism, which he dedicated to a committee of MPs who oversaw the religious health of the nation. It was not an auspicious first publication, for Owen was still learning how to construct an argument, and how to argue a case with clarity, accuracy and discretion. It is not clear, as a number of recent scholars have noted, that his depiction of his theological antagonists was entirely fair, and Owen certainly erred in including a prominent Presbyterian member of the Westminster Assembly among his targets. Nevertheless, gaining the attention of his parliamentary patrons, Owen found the support he needed to enter parish ministry.
The committee of MPs appointed Owen to his first parish, in Fordham, Essex. Finally settling into parish ministry, he became frustrated by the spiritual apathy of his parishioners. Within a few years he had married a girl from the neighbouring village of Coggeshall and had started a family. But, in the later 1640s, as poor weather and a series of bad harvests created the conditions of famine, John and Mary buried several of their children. At Coggeshall, Owen was initially excited by the possibility of a new start, not least because the parish’s previous minister was now a member of the Westminster Assembly. Large crowds came to hear him preach, with some suggestions that over 2,000 people attended his sermons. But this was not a sign of revival — his parishioners were legally compelled to attend worship. And, within a few years, he was again disappointed by the spiritual condition of his parish, and lamenting its disorder in print.
This disappointment with the realities of parish ministry developed as Owen changed his views on church order. In his early parish ministry, he moved from supporting a rather unformed Presbyterianism to adopt the vision of church life then being promoted by Independents. There may have been much less to this movement than some later historians have suggested, for in the period before the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) the ‘Presbyterian’ label was widely applied to those puritans who pushed for further reform within the Church of England without supporting any detailed manifesto for what might replace it. But Owen’s growing sense of the need to emphasise the autonomy of individual congregations involved much more than defining his ecclesiological concerns.
Owen’s neighbouring minister, Ralph Josselin, recorded in his diary the ways in which the Coggeshall church was changing. Owen installed an elder, John Sams, and had him preach without any ordination, even as he downplayed the importance of his own ordination. Sams was examined by the Westminster Assembly, and supported for ordination, several years after he was recorded as being a teaching elder in Owen’s congregation. In addition, Owen gathered believers together for weeknight Bible study meetings, in which multiple people participated, in a move that might have been seen to undermine the special status of the congregation’s teacher. And Owen also revised his views on the Lord’s Supper, moving gradually to the position that the eucharist should be celebrated on a weekly basis, by a gathered church rather than by members of a parish, retaining its centrality and the frequency of its observation while his neighbour, Ralph Josselin, gave up on the sacrament for a decade. These were notable departures from the norms of church life in the period – and in Owen’s case, as so often in Christian history thereafter, key indicators of an impulse to recover as accurately as possible the order of the New Testament churches. For Owen was also revising his views of baptism, moving steadily away from the very high view of the efficiency of baptism that he outlined in his first publication to adopt in the 1650s a perspective on the sacrament that made sense of his growing sympathy for Baptists.
Owen’s new vision of church life was developed in startling contrast to the clerical, formal and liturgical preferences of his Presbyterian colleagues. Their Blasphemy Act (1648) criminalized adherence to a range of religious opinions, making any defence of believers’ baptism, for example, a penal offence. The most effective opposition to this Presbyterian theocracy was located in the army, and Owen increasingy identified himself with its leading figures. In 1648, he witnessed the siege of Colchester, a large town five miles from Coggeshall. It was Owen’s first direct experience of the civil wars, and it must have been harrowing. Some of the worst war crimes of the period were committed during that long summer siege. But if Owen was disturbed by the crimes against civilians, and the horrific mutilation of animals, he did not refer to it in the sermons he preached celebrating the achievements of the Parliamentary soldiers and their leader, Sir Thomas Fairfax. These sermons brought him to the attention of the army. As the political mood darkened, and, in the winter of 1648-49, the king was put on trial and executed, Owen’s new patrons within the high military command identified him as the man to express their achievements in political preaching.
Owen was the preacher chosen to commemorate the English revolution. One day after the execution of Charles I, on the charge of treason, Owen addressed MPs with an oration that understood without celebrating the achievements of regicide. He, like his patrons, had something to gain from the new situation of England. Owen’s new links with the army pulled him further from parish ministry and brought him into contact with Oliver Cromwell.
Owen’s links with this extraordinary and brilliant military leader were initially very close. He accompanied Cromwell on the invasion of Ireland in 1649, remaining in Dublin where for the first time he believed his ministry was being attended with conversions. His journey to Scotland in 1650 was more complicated, and he was drawn into the complex politics and internal divisions of the kirk. He left the army, looking for new opportunities, and was awarded with positions of academic leadership in the university from which he had resigned less than 15 years before.
John Owen’s return to Oxford was a moment of triumph. As dean of Christ Church, and later vice-chancellor of the university, he was being given the opportunity to reshape the institution, so as to protect Reformed theology and promote godliness among the staff and students. He pursued these ends with diligence, and sometimes with a lack of scruple. It was a difficult and demanding transition. The move to Oxford had pushed him from the moral clarity of civil war into the ambiguous and complex world of academic politics. There is some evidence that he struggled to know how best to negotiate his new environment. For all that these appointments represented the apex of his career, they also represented his greatest challenges.
Owen preached and wrote relentlessly throughout his years in Oxford. A number of the books he completed during the 1650s have become spiritual classics, including Communion with God and his work on sanctification. But he was also becoming increasingly critical of the government. It was obvious that the army, not the parliament, held the real political power. Cromwell’s government was increasingly similar to that of the king it had replaced. Owen grew worried, but then over-reached himself. In 1654 he was elected as a MP for the first Protectorate parliament. In his few months in the Commons, he was associated with radical republicans, men who were alarmed by the monarchical trappings of the Cromwell family. Within months, Owen was expelled from Parliament on the basis that he was a clergyman — a status he rejected. He was, he insisted, a layman, and rejected the status conferred upon him by the Arminian bishop of Oxford one decade before. Sent back to Oxford, perhaps with his tail between his legs, Owen became ever more critical of Cromwell and the direction being taken by his government. He condemned the frivolity of Cromwell’s court and intervened on behalf of army republicans to stop Cromwell being crowned as king. By 1657, the breach with his old patron and friend was complete.
Owen did not see Cromwell as he gradually sickened and in September 1658 died. When Oliver was replaced by Richard, his son, who wished to continue the conservative trend, Owen moved immediately to gather a congregation of disaffected republicans, who, in a complex series of events, worked to undermine the new government before it had any chance of real success.
The army had brought down governments before. In fact, almost every parliament since the regicide had been ended by the army’s intervention. But, this time, the officers gambled and lost. Their coup created chaos until Charles II returned. The restoration of the monarchy in May 1660 ended the English revolution. Its leaders were tried, found guilty of treason and publicly butchered. Meanwhile, the ejection of Puritan ministers from the Church of England in August 1662 ended any hope that the godly could be accommodated within the established church. Owen, who was in some personal danger, struggled to know how best to respond to the new circumstances. His activities in the early 1660s reveal his mental conflict. In January 1661, while conducting a conventicle, his house was raided and the militia carried away half-a-dozen cases of pistols. Throughout the same period, his books advocated a surprising range of positions. In Animadversions on Fiat Lux (1662) and its Vindication (1664), for example, Owen praised the new king as the greatest Protestant in Europe, defended his role as the head of the established church, and denied the need for confessions of faith. In other publications from this period, he defended Independent church order and called for congregations to strenuously defend confessional Reformed theology. All of these works were published anonymously, and some of them were published illegally. There was certainly need for caution. Owen passed by the impaled heads of many of his old friends every time he passed in and out of London. Who is to say he did not fear that he too could become a victim?
But the political situation began to settle. By the mid-1660s, nonconformists gained courage to begin public preaching again, even in London. Owen kept his head down, kept writing, and found time in 1668 to pose for a portrait by one of the most fashionable and dissolute of the court painters. By the early 1670s, his situation had changed again. His small congregation, which comprised around 30 individuals, many of them prominent republicans with close links to the party that had scuppered the English revolution, combined with a congregation of around 100 individuals, which had been led by the recently deceased Joseph Caryl. They began to meet in the premises belonging to the larger congregation.
Owen’s preaching changed to address his new situation. His sermons were shorter, more focused and geared very directly to the pastoral needs of his listeners. In many ways, these sermons, which are mostly collected in volume 9 of the Banner of Truth edition of his Works, represent some of the best of his work. He moved away from the extended topic and exegetical series that had featured in his earlier ministry to instead present different themes and passages each week. Perhaps many members of his new congregation had grown tired of the preaching of extended series of sermons – after all, Caryl’s series on Job had lasted 40 years.
We get our clearest view of Owen’s pastoral concerns in the materials that survive from this period of his ministry. Now in his mid-50s, Owen was surrounded by death. Mary, his wife, died in the later 1670s and their only surviving child died shortly later. He quickly remarried, but his friends remarked on his continuing depression. He had lost so much — a wife, each of his children, and, he seemed to be convinced, the work of a lifetime. Owen looked across the spectrum of English dissent and persuaded himself that the churches were in ruins. When he died, in August 1683, Owen believed that the English reformation was almost over and that the puritan project had failed.
Of course, events proved otherwise. The Glorious Revolution of 1689-90 secured the British Protestant constitution, but it did not secure the integrity of the British churches. Owen’s congregation was not long to continue in his footsteps. Isaac Watts, his successor in the pastoral office, experimented with Trinitarian doctrine to such an extent that by 1720s the Unitarians believed he had come to support their cause.
But some evangelicals did continue to appreciate Owen’s legacy. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was John Wesley who kept Owen’s reputation alive when he republished parts of Owen’s writing in his Christian library (1750). Throughout the eighteenth century, Scottish publishers kept his ecclesiastical works in print, while a much smaller number of English publishers occasionally reprinted his devotional and exegetical works. In the nineteenth century, Owen was praised by the Exclusive Brethren leader William Kelly, even as he was abominated by liberal evangelicals within the Church of Scotland. In the early twentieth century, he found appreciative readers among A. W. Pink in the 1920s, Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1930s, and Jim Eliot, the future missionary martyr, in the early 1950s. And so, when the Banner of Truth republished The Death of Death (1959), the stage was already set for Owen’s return.
Today, it is easier than ever before to read this greatest of Puritan theologians. Owen’s books, in both original and modernised editions, are readily available. And he deserves to be read. Owen’s work repays all the close attention it requires – for Owen was extraordinary.
This article was first published in Reformation Today (2016). For a more complete biography, see Crawford Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of defeat (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).