Owen, John

, the most eminent and learned of the nonconformist divines, was descended of an ancient and reputable family in Wales. He was the second son of Henry Owen, first a schoolmaster at Stokenchurch, and afterwards vicar of Stadham in Oxfordshire (who was reputed a puritan), and was born at Stadham in 1616. He was sent to a school at Oxford, kept by Mr. Edward Sylvester, in All Saints’ parish; and in his twelfth year was admitted of Queen’s college, where Thomas, afterwards bishop Barlow, was his tutor. Here he took his degrees in arts, that of master in 1636, at which time Anthony Wood does not omit to inform us that he took the oaths of allegiance, &c. During his residence at college, he pursued his various studies with incredible diligence, allowing himself for several years, not above four hours’ sleep in a night; yet he did not neglect useful exercise, and for the sake of his health sometimes partook of the recreations usual among his fellows, such as leaping, throwing the bar, ringing of bells, &c. To this diligence in study he allows that he was prompted by an early ambition to raise himself to such | eminence in church or state as might be practicable, without at this time feeling any extraordinary predilection for either. He confessed that he was of an aspiring mind, affected popular applause, and was desirous of honour and preferment, and he paid the age the compliment to think that superiority of learning was the readiest way to obtain these objects. He likewise goes so far as to allow that at this time he felt no concern for the honour of God, or for serving his country unless in subserviency to his own interest; but, whatever were his motives, it is certain that he became at college a very distinguished scholar.

He remained here till the age of twenty-one, maintained chiefly by an uncle, a gentleman of a good estate in Wales, who having no children of his own, intended to have made him his heir, as his father had a large family. About this time, we are told by most of his biographers, archbishop Laud, who was also chancellor of Oxford, imposed several superstitious rites on the university, upon pain of expulsion, and that Mr. Owen had then received such light, that hifr conscience would not submit to these impositions; but what these impositions, or superstitious rites were, they have not informed us. It is probable they related to the academical habits, the wearing of which Laud enjoined very strictly, but which will scarcely now be thought of sufficient importance to trouble the conscience of any man. Mr. Owen, however, like many other good and wise men of his party, began with scruples on small matters, which obstinacy and perseverance magnified into objects of the most serious importance. That he was serious could not be doubted, for his hopes of rising could no longer be indulged; his friends, we are told, forsook him as one infected with puritanism, and he became so much the object of resentment from the Laudensian party, as they were called, that he was forced to leave college.

With this dislike to the discipline of the university, he appears to have connected at the same time many perplexing thoughts respecting his spiritual state, which ended in a sort of melancholy that lasted about five years, during which he seemed alienated from his friends and accustomed pursuits. He was roused to activity, however, as soon as the rebellion broke out, on which occasion he appeared a decided supporter of the measures of the parliament. The first consequence of this was, that his uncle, who was a zealous royalist, resented his conduct, settled his estate upon | another, and died without leaving him any thing. About this time, however, sir Robert Dormer, of Ashcot, in the parish of Great Milton, took him into his family as chaplain, and tutor to his eldest son, a task for which he was eminently fitted; and he afterwards became chaplain to John lord Lovelace of Hurley, in Berkshire, a loyalist, who treated Mr. Owen with respect, from an opinion of his great learning; but when this nobleman went to joint the king’s army, Mr. Owen came up to London, and took lodgings in Charter-house yard. While here, going one day to Aldermanbury church, with a view of hearing Mr. Caiamy, it happened that a stranger preached, and the effect of his discourse was to remove all those doubts with which Mr. Owen had been perplexed for some years, and to restore the tranquillity of his mind on religious matters.

Mr. Owen was admitted into orders about the time he took his master’s degree, but had as yet obtained no preferment. During his abode in London, however, he wrote his “Display of Arminianism,” which was published in 1642, and became so popular, as to procure him very general respect from the party that had now obtained the disposal of church-preferments. It is still indeed considered a very able performance, but at that time was thought particularly seasonable, Arminianism, and the steps archbishop Laud took to encourage such opinions, having engaged the attention of all who meditated the changes, or reformation in church and state, which afterwards followed. The effect of the publication to himself was immediate, and important. Already a committee had been formed “for purging the church of scandalous ministers;” and Mr. White, the chairman of this committee, sent a special messenger to Mr. Owen, to present him with the living of Fordham in Essex; which offer he the more cheerfully embraced, as it gave him an opportunity for the regular exercise of his ministry, and he went thither to the great satisfaction, not only of that parish, but of the country round. He continued at this place about a year and a half, where his preaching was so acceptable, that people resorted to his ministry from other parishes. Soon after he came to Fordham, he married a lady, whose name is supposed to have been Rooke, by whom he had several children, none of whom survived him. In 1644 he published his discourse, “Of the Duty of Pastors and People.

Upon a report that the sequestered incumbent of | Fordham was dead, the patron, who had no kindness for Mr. Owen, presented another to the living; on which the people at Coggeshall, a market-town about five miles from thence, earnestly invited him to be their minister; and the earl of Warwick, the patron, very readily gave him the living; and here he taught a more numerous congregation, seldom fewer than two thousand, consisting of persons generally sober, religious, and discreet, who contracted an uncommon and very steady regard for their pastor. Hitherto Mr. Owen had been a presbyterian in matters of church government; but after diligent inquiry into the nature of church government and discipline, he became convinced that the congregational way, or the mode of independency, was most agreeable to the rule of the New Testament; and he published his opinion, with the several reasons for it, in two quartos. Several ministers of the presbyterian denomination were dissatisfied with this change of Mr. Owen’s judgment, and particularly Mr. Gawdry reproached him very unhandsomely, to whom he returned, as he generally did, a much more civil answer. He had formed a church at Coggeshall upon these congregational principles, which continued long; but his reputation as a divine and preacher was not coofined to this spot. He was soon sent for to preach before the parliament: this sermon is entitled “A Vision of free Mercy, &c.” on Acts xvi. 11. April 29, 1646. He pleads for liberty of conscience and moderation towards men of different persuasions, &c. in an “Essay for the practice of Churchgovernment in the Country,” which he subjoins to that sermon. In 1643 he published his book, entitled “Salus electorum, sanguis Jesu:” or, “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.” He dedicated this book to Robert earl of Warwick, where he pays his tribute of thanks to his lordship for that privilege of opening the door for his preaching the gospel at Goggeshall; and in his preface to the reader he tells us, “That this performance was the result of more than seven years serious inquiry into the mind of God about these things, with a perusal of all which he could attain, that the wit of men in former or later days hath published in opposition to the truth.” He had indeed such an opinion of this work, that although generally modest in speaking of himself, he scrupled not to declare, that “He did not believe he should live to see a solid answer given to it.| During the siege of Colchester, he became acquainted with general Fairfax, who was quartered at Coggeshall for some days; and when Colchester surrendered, he preached a sermon on the day of thanksgiving, and another to the parliamentary committee that had been imprisoned by the enemy, but were now released. These two sermons are entitled “Ebenezer, a Memorial of the Deliverance of Essex County and Committee.” He was again required to preach before the House of Commons, Jan. 31, 1648-9, the very next day after the murder of king Charles: much was expected from this sermon, and an apology for the bloody deed of the preceding day would infallibly have led to preferment; but we are told “his discourse was so modest and inoffensive, that his friends could make no just exception, nor his enemies take an advantage of his words another day.” After this he frequently was appointed to preach before the parliament, and, on Feb. 1649, had Cromwell, for the first time, as one of his hearers, who was highly pleased with the discourse. Cromwell was at this time preparing to go to Ireland, and meeting with Mr. Owen a few days afterwards, at general Fairfax’s house, he came directly up to him, and laying his hand on his shoulder in a familiar way, said, “Sir, you are the person I must be acquainted with.” JMr. Owen modestly replied, “That will be more to my advantage than yours;” to which Cromwell rejoined, “We shall soon see that,” and taking him by the hand led him into lord Fairfax’s garden; and from this time contracted an intimate friendship with him, which continued to his death. He acquainted Mr. Owen with his intended expedition into Ireland, and desired his company there to reside in the college at Dublin; but he answered that the charge of the church at Coggeshall would not permit him to comply with his request. Cromwell, however, would have no denial, and after some altercation, told the congregation at Coggeshall, that their pastor must and should go. He did not, however, travel with the army, but arrived privately at Dublin, and took up his lodgings in the college. Here he frequently preached, and superintended the affairs of the college, for about half a year, when he obtained Cromwell’s leave to return to Coggeshall, where he was joyfully x received.

In Sept. 1650, Cromwell required Mr. Owen to go with him to Scotland and when he found him averse to another | absence from his flock at Coggeshall, he procured an order of parliament, which could not be disobeyed. He remained at Edinburgh about half a year, and returning to Coggeshall, expected, as his biographers say, to have passed the remainder of his days there. But the general reputation he had acquired, and his favouritism with Cromwell, pointed him out for a higher station, that of dean of Christ church, in room of Dr. Reynolds, afterwards bishop of Norwich, who had been placed in this office by the authority of the parliamentary visitors. Mr. Owen appears to have owed his promotion to the parliament itself, as appears by the following document “The House, taking into consideration the worth and usefulness of Mr. John Owen, student of QueenVcollege, M. A. has ordered that he be settled in the deanry of Christ-church, Oxford, in the room of,” &c. This was the first intimation Mr. Owen had of his appointment; but he afterwards received a letter from the principal students of the college, signifying their great satisfaction, and a commission from Cromwell, who was at this time chancellor of the university, to act as vicechancellor. Accordingly he went to Oxfprd in 1651, and on Sept. 26 of the following year, was admitted vicechancellor. About the same time he took his degree of D. D. His rise seems calculated to have gratified the ambition he acknowledged in his youthful days, for he had not been above twelve or fourteen years absent from Oxford, and was now only in his thirty-sixth year.

Granger remarks, that “Supposing it necessary for one of his persuasion to be placed at the head of the university, none was so proper as this person; who governed it several years with much prudence and moderation, when faction and animosity seemed to be a part of every religion.” It is certain that Dr. Owen’s administration was distinguished for moderation, arising doubtless from his natural temper; and that he was impartial in his patronage. At this time the presbyterians had considerably the ascendancy, and it was with such he most of all conversed in the university, and, in the disposition of several vacant livings, he generally gave them to presbyterians: nor was he ever wanting to oblige even the episcopal party, whom he suffered to meet quietly, about three hundred every Sunday, at the house of Dr. Willis, near Christ-church, where they celebrated divine service according to the liturgy of the church of England; and though he was often urged to it, yet he | would never give them the least disturbance and if at any time they met with opposition or trouble on that account, it was from other hands, and always against his mind. In his office also of commissioner for ejecting “scandalous ministers,” as the royalists were generally called, he frequently took the part of men of merit, and particularly in the case of Dr. Edward Pococke. This moderation of temper in the exercise of power, gained him the love and respect of the most; yet we must observe also, that he would not suffer authority to be slighted, when there was occasion to assert it. At an act, when one of Trinity-college was Terrae-filius, before he began, the doctor stood up, and in Latin told him, he should have liberty to say what he pleased, provided he would avoid profaneness, obscenity, and personal reflections. The Terrse-filius began, and in a little time transgressed in all these particulars, and the doctor endeavoured to check him, but finding that he paid no attention to his remonstrances, he sent his beadles to pull him down, on which the scholars interposed, and would not suffer them to come near him. Dr. Owen then resolved to pull him down himself, and when his friends dissuaded him lest the scholars should do him some mischief, he exclaimed, “I will not see authority thus trampled on,” and actually seized on the offender and sent him to prison. Dr. Owen was never deficient in personal courage, for in 1654, having heard of some disturbances in Wiltshire, which threatened to reach Oxford, he ordered a troop of scholars to be raised and armed for the protection of the university; and Wood informs us that he often appeared at the head of them, well mounted, with a sword by his side and a case of pistols.

Some other parts of his conduct savour more of the levelling spirit of the times; and as he had been disturbed in his youth by Laud’s regulations respecting the university habits, he determined to prohibit every mark of distinction of that kind; but it does not appear that he persisted in this determination, or that the university was so unanimous in supporting the measures of their new governors, as they had been when first visited. On the other hand many instances are on record, by which we learri that he patronized literary merit in young men of poor circumstances, with great liberality, and apparently without any consideration of their principles, maintaining many of diem at his own expence, or providing them with | maintenance in college. On one occasion a poor scholar waited on him with a Latin letter, in which Dr. Owen perceiving considerable talent, asked him if he wrote it, and when he affirmed that he did, he said, “Well: go into the next room, and write another as good, and I will not be wanting to encourage you.” The young man having performed this to his satisfaction, he took him into his house as tutor to his children.

During his vice-chancellorship,*


The most unaccountable part of Dr. Owen’s conduct, while vice-chancellor, occurred in 1654, when he offered himself as a candidate to represent the university in parliament. On this occasion, according to Wood, he endeavoured to remove the objection of his being a divine, by renouncing his orders, and pleading that he was only a layman. He was accordingly returned, but his election being questioned by the House, he sat only a short time.

he was a frequent preacher at St. Mary’s, and other places in the county, and published some of his numerous works, particularly in 1654, his “Saint’s Perseverance,” in answer to Goodwin’s “Redemption redeemed;” and in 1655, his “Vindiciæ Evangelicæ, or, the Mystery of the Gospel vindicated, and Socinianism examined,” against Biddle, who had published two Socinian Catechisms. In the preface to this work, which he wrote at the desire of the heads of houses and many other divines of Oxford, is a succinct and perspicuous history of Spcimanism from its first appearance. This was followed by his more popular treatise, often reprinted till this day, on Communion with God." In 1657 he was succeeded as vice-chancellor by Dr. Conant, and in 1659, as dean of Christ-church by Dr. Reynolds. For these changes his biographers no otherwise account than as parts of that general change which the restoration was about to effect. Dr. Owen, however, lost his vicechancellorship on the death of Oliver Cromwell, whose successor, Richard, appointed Dr. Conant. The latter was evidently an ejectment, and it is supposed the presbyterians had a hand in it.

Bishop Burnet relates an extraordinary anecdote relative to the death of Cromwell. He tells us, that Tillotson, happening to be at Whitehall on a fast-day of the household, about a week after, went out of curiosity into the presence-chamber, where the solemnity was kept; and saw there on one side of the table the new protector, with the rest of his family and, on the other, six preachers, among whom were Dr. Owen, Dr. Goodwin, Mr. Caryl, | and Mr. Sterry, with whose sallies of enthusiasm Tillotson was much disgusted, God being in a manner reproached with the late protector’s services, and challenged for taking him away so soon. Goodwin, who had pretended to assure them in a prayer, a few minutes before he expired, that he was not to die, had now the confidence to say to God, “Thou hast deceived us, and we are deceived.” And Sterry, praying for Richard, used words next -to blasphemy, “Make him the brightness of the father’s glory, and the express image of his person.” No particular expression of Owen, however, is recorded; and therefore the fact does not particularly attach to him, but is rather generally illustrative of the enthusiasm of the party.

The short time he remained at Oxford, he preached at St. Peter’s in the East, to a crowded congregation who regretted his being now excluded from St. Mary’s; and after leaving Oxford, he retired to Stadham, where he had purchased an estate. According to Baxter, he is supposed to have had a particular hand in restoring the members of the old parliament, who compelled Richard Cromwell to resign; but this seems a disputable point. We are more certain that at the meeting of his brethren at the Savoy in 1658, he took an active part, and had a principal hand in drawing up the confession of faith of what were called the congregational churches. On the restoration of Charles II. he was not in possession of any church preferment, but had formed a congregation at Stadham, where he continued to preach for some time until he settled in London. Here he contracted an acquaintance with some of the most eminent persons in church and state, and might have risen to considerable preferment had he chosen to conform. In 1661 he published a learned and elaborate work, “De natura, ortu, progressu, et studio veras Theoiogiae,” 4to. The following year, one John Vincent Lane, a Franciscan friar, published a work called “Fiat Lux,” in which, under the pretence of recommending moderation and charity, he endeavoured to draw over his readers to the church of Rome, as the only infallible cure of all religious animosities. Two editions of this work were printed before it fell under Dr. Owen’s notice; but it was, at length, sent to him by a person of distinction, with a request that he would write a reply to it. This he readily undertook, and, in the same year, published his “Animadversions on Fiat Lux. By a Protestant.” This produced an answer from | Lane, and another tract from Owen, entitled “A Vindication of Animadversions on Fiat Lux;” but there was some difficulty in obtaining a licence for this last book, when the bishops who were appointed by act of parliament the principal licensers of divinity-books had examined it: they made two objections against it. 1. That upon all occasions when he mentions the evangelists and apostles, even St. Peter himself, he left out the title of saint. 2. That he endeavours to prove that it could not be determined that St. Peter was ever at Rome. To the first the doctor replied, that the title of evangelist, or apostle, by which the scripture names them, was much more glorious than that of saint; for in that name all the people of God were alike honoured; yet to please them he yielded to that addition; but as to the other objections, he would by no means consent to any alteration, unless they could prove him to be mistaken in his assertion, and rather chose his book should never see the light than to expunge what he had written upon that subject; and in all probability it would not have been printed, had not sir Edward Nicholas, one of his majesty’s principal secretaries of state, who was informed of the matter, written to the bishop of London to license it notwithstanding this objection. This book recommended him to the esteem of the lord chancellor Hyde, who, by sirBulstrode Whitlocke, sent for him, and acknowledged the service of his late books against Fiat Lux; assuring him that he had deserved the best of any English protestant of late years; and that for these performances the church was bound to own and advance him; and at the same time he offered him preferment if he would accept it: the chancellor moreover told him there was one thing he much wondered at, that he being so learned a man, and so well acquainted with church history, should embrace that novel opinion of independency, for which, in his judgment, so little could be said. The doctor replied, that indeed he had spent some part of his time in reading over the history of the church, and made this offer to his lordship, if he pleased, to prove that this. was that way of government which was practised in the church for several hundred years after Christ, against any bishop he should think fit to bring to a disputation with him upon this subject. “Say you so” said the chancellor, “then I am much mistaken.” Other conversation passed between them, particularly about liberty of conscience The lord | chancellor asked him what he would desire With respect *tb liberty and forbearance in the matters of religion. To which the doctor replied, “That the liberty he desired was for protestants, who assented to the doctrine of the church of England.” This was afterwards misrepresented, as if he meant to exclude all others from the exercise of their religion, which he often declared was not his meaning.

Notwithstanding the abilities he had displayed in this controversy, as he would not conform, he became liable to the same interruptions as his brethren in the exercise of his preaching, and on this account began to entertain serious thoughts of leaving his native country, and had actually made preparations to go to New England, where he had the offer of the place of president of Harvard college, but he was prevented by express orders from the king. During the plague, however, in 1665, and the great fire of London in 1666, when the laws against nonconformists were somewhat relaxed, he enjoyed frequent opportunities of preaching in London and elsewhere but when the laws began again to be put in force, he had recourse to his pen, and in 1668 published his “Exposition of the CXXX Psalm,” and in the same year, his “Exposition upon the Epistle to the Hebrews,” an elaborate work, which he completed in 1684, in 4 vols, folio. This is usually reckoned his capital work, and although not uncommon at the present time, sells at a very high price. It alone affords a sufficient proof of the extent of his theological learning. At the end of 1669, when Mr. Samuel (afterwards bishop) Parker, published his “Discourse of Ecclesiastical Polity, and the power of the civil Magistrate in matters of Religion,” Dr. Owen answered it in a work called “Truth and Innocence vindicated.” In 1670, while the act against conventicles was revived in parliament, he was advised to draw up some reasons against it, which were laid before the Lords, but without effect.

On the death of the rev. Joseph Caryl, in 1673, Dr. Owen was invited to succeed him in the charge of a very numerous congregation in Leadenhall- street, and as he had already a charge of the sme kind, the congregations agreed to unite. In the following year he published “A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit;” in 1677, his “Doctrine of Justification by Faith;” and in 1679, his “Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ;” all which, at least the genuine editions of them, are still in considerable request. | Dr. Owen was in most of his works rather prolix, which has given rise to abridgments of some of them, but as these are executed sometimes by men not exactly according in his principles, little reliance can be placed on their accuracy. In his own days, we are told that his works procured him. the admiration and friendship of many persons of rank, who took great delight in his conversation. Among these are enumerated the earl of Orrery, the earl ofAnglesea, lord Willoughby of Parham, lord Wharton, lord Berkley, sir John Trevor, one of the principal secretaries of state, &c. Even Charles II. and the duke of York paid particular respect to him. It is said that when he was at Tunbridge, drinking the waters, the duke sent for him to his tent, and entered into a long conversation on the subject of nonconformity. The king went yet farther; for, after his return to London, his majesty conversed with him for the space of two hours together, and after assuring him of his favour and respect, told him he might have access to his person as often as he pleased; said that he was sensible of the wrong he had done to the dissenters; declared himself a friend to liberty of conscience, and concluded all by giving Dr. Owen a thousand guineas to distribute among those who had suffered most by the late severities. Whether the professions of the king and the duke were sincere or not, or whether this was an act of policy, or an involuntary respect paid to the talents and amiable private character of Dr. Owen, it appears that he was not afterwards molested in the exercise of his ministry.

During the short remainder of Dr. Owen’s life, he was much afflicted with the stone and asthma, aggravated, if not brought on, by unremitting study, which, however, he still continued, until confined, about a month before his death, which took place at his house at Ealing, August 24, 1683, in the sixty-seventh year of his age. He was interred in the dissenters’ burying-ground in Bunhill-fields, where a monument was erected to his memory.

The character of Dr. Owen, apart from the share he had in the troubles of his country, seems entitled to the praise bestowed by his various biographers. In person he was tall, grave in aspect, of a comely and majestic figure, and his deportment was in every respect that of a gentleman. As he was indisputably the most learned, he was at the same time the most moderate and candid of the nonconformists. With great talents, keenness, and spirit for | controversy, he confined himself strictly to argument, and abstained from personal reflections and arrogance. As a writer he was perhaps the most voluminous of his brethren. His works amount to seven volumes in folio, twenty in quarto, and about thirty in octavo. 1


Biog. Brit.—Life, 1720, 8vo, and 1758, 12mo.—Ath. Ox, vol. II.—Calamy.—Wilson’s Hist. of Dissenting Churches.—Burnet’s Own Times, &c.— Wood’s Annals.