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Biographical Sketch



John Owen (1616-1683), theologian, was born of Puritan parents at
Stadham in Oxfordshire in 1616. At twelve years of age he was
admitted at Queen's College, Oxford, where he took his B.A. degree
in 1632 and M.A. in 1635. During these years he worked with such
diligence that he allowed himself but four hours sleep a night, and
damaged his health by this excessive labour. In 1637 he was driven
from Oxford by his refusal to comply with the requirements of Laud's
new statutes. Having taken orders shortly before, he became chaplain
and tutor in the family of Sir Robert Dormer of Ascot in
Oxfordshire. At the outbreak of the civil troubles he adopted
Parliamentary principles, and thus lost both his place and the
prospects of succeeding to his uncle's fortune. For a while he lived
in Charterhouse Yard, in great unsettlement of mind on religious
questions, which was removed at length by a sermon which he
accidently heard at St Michael's in Wood Street.

His first publication, in 1642, The Display of Arminianism,
dedicated to the committee of religion gained him the living of
Fordham in Essex, from which a "scandalous minister" had been
ejected. Here he was married, and by his marriage he had eleven
children.

Although he was thus formally united to Presbyterianism, Owen's
views were originally inclined to those of the Independents, and, as
he acquainted himself more fully with the controversy, he became
more resolved in that direction, though later he would return to
Presbyterianism (as seen in his writings). He represented, in fact,
that large class of persons who, falling away from Episcopacy,
attached themselves to the very moderate form of Presbyterianism
which obtained in England as being that which came first in their
way. His views at this time are shown by his Duty of Pastors and
People Distinguished. At Fordham he remained until 1646, when, the
old incumbent dying, the presentation lapsed to the patron, who gave
it to some one else. He was now, however, coming into notice, for on
April 29 he preached before the Parliament. In this sermon, and
still more in his Thoughts on Church Government, which he appended
to it, his tendency to break away from Presbyterianism is displayed.

The people of Coggeshall in Essex now invited him to become their
pastor. Here he declared his change by founding a church on
Congregational principles, and, in 1647, by publishing Eshcol, as
well as various works against Arminianism. He made the friendship of
Fairfax while the latter was besieging Colchester, and urgently
addressed the army there against religious persecution. He was
chosen to preach to Parliament on the day after the execution of
Charles, and succeeded in fulfilling his task without mentioning
that event, and again on April 19, when he. spake thus:-"The time
shall come when the earth shall disclose her slain, and not the
simplest heretic shall have his blood unrevenged; neither shall any
atonement or expiation be allowed for this blood, while a toe of the
image, or a bone of the beast, is left unbroken."

He now became acquainted with Cromwell, who carried him off to
Ireland in 1649 as his chaplain, that he might regulate the affairs
of Trinity College; while there he began the first of his frequent
controversies with Baxter by writing against the latter's Aphorisms
of Justification. In 1650 he accompanied Cromwell to Scotland, and
returned to Coggeshall in 1651. In March Cromwell, as chancellor,
gave him the deanery of Christ Church, and made him vice-chancellor
in September 1652. In 1651, October 24, after Worcester, he preached
the thanksgiving sermon before Parliament. In October 1653 he was
one of several ministers whom Cromwell, probably to sound their
views, summoned to a consultation as to church union. In December in
the same year he had the honour of D.D. conferred upon him by his
university. In the Parliament of 1664 he sat, but only for a short
time, as member for Oxford university, and, with Baxter, was placed
on the committee for settling the "fundamentals" necessary for the
toleration promised in the Instrument of Government. He was, too,
one of the Triers, and appears to have behaved with kindness and
moderation in that capacity. As vice-chancellor he acted with
readiness and spirit when a general rising in the west seemed
imminent in 1655; his adherence to Cromwell, however was by no means
slavish, for he drew up, at the request of Desborough and Pride, a
petition against his receiving the kingship (see Ludlow's Memoirs,
ed. 1751, p. 224). During the years 1654-58 his chief controversial
works were Divina Justitia, The Perseverance of Saints (against
Goodwin) and Vindiciae Evangelicae (against the Socinians). In 1658
he took a leading part in the conference which drew up the Savoy
Declaration.

Baxter declares that at the death of Cromwell Owen joined the
Wallingford House party. This, though supported by the fact that
under the Restoration he had among his congregation a large number
of these officers, Owen himself utterly denied. He appears, however,
to have assisted in the restoration of the Rump Parliament, and,
when Monk began his march into England, Owen, in the name of the
Independent churches, to whom Monk was supposed to belong, and who
were keenly anxious as to his intentions, wrote to dissuade him from
the enterprise.

In March 1660, the Presbyterian party being uppermost, Owen was
deprived of his deanery, which was given back to Reynolds. He
retired to Stadham, where he wrote various controversial and
theological works, in especial the laborious Theologoumena
Pantodapa, a history of the rise and progress of theology. In 1661
was published the celebrated Fiat Lux, a work in which the oneness
and beauty of Roman Catholicism are contrasted with the confusion
and multiplicity of Protestant sects. At Clarendon's request Owen
answered this in 1662 in his Animadversions; and this led of course
to a prolonged controversy. Glarendon now offered Owen perferment if
he would conform. Owen's condition for making terms was liberty to
all who agree in doctrine with the Church of England; nothing
therefore came of the negotiation.

In 1663 he was invited by the Congregational churches in Boston, New
England, to become their minister, but declined. The Conventicle and
Five Mile Acts soon drove him to London; and in 1666, after the
Fire, he, as did other leading Nonconformist ministers, fitted up a
room for public service and gathered a congregation, composed
chiefly of the old Commonwealth officers. Meanwhile he was
incessantly writing; and in 1667 he published his Catechism, which
led to a proposal from Baxter for union. Various papers passed, and
after a year the attempt was closed by the following laconical note
from Owen: " I am still a well-wisher to these mathematics." It was
now, too, that he published the first part of his vast work upon the
Epistle to the Hebrews.

In 1669 Owen wrote a spirited remonstrance to the Congregationalists
in New England, who, under the influence of Presbyterianism, had
shown themselves persecutors. At home, too, he was busy in the same
cause. In 1670 Parker attacked the Nonconformists in his own style
of clumsy intolerance. Owen answered trim; Parker repeated his
attack; Marvell wrote The Rehearsal Transprosed; and Parker is
remembered by this alone.

At the revival of the Conventicle Acts in 1670, Owen was appointed
to draw up a paper of reasons which was submitted to the House of
Lords in protest. In this or the following year Harvard university
invited him to become their president; he received similar
invitations from some of the Dutch universities.

When Charles issued his Declaration of Indulgence in 1672, Owen drew
up an address of thanks. This indulgence gave the dissenters an
opportunity for increasing their churches and services, and Owen was
one of the first preachers at the weekly lectures which the
Independents and Presbyterians jointly held in Plummer's Hall. He
was held in high respect by a large number of the nobility (one of
the many things which point to the fact that Congregationalism was
by no means the creed of the poor and insignificant), and during
1674 both Charles and James held prolonged conversations with him in
which they assured him of their good wishes to the dissenters.
Charles gave him 1000 guineas to relieve those upon whom the severe
laws had chiefly pressed. In 1674 Owen was attacked by one Dr
Sherlock, whom he easily vanquished, and from this time until 1680
he was engaged upon his ministry and the writing of religious works.
In l680, however, Stillingfleet having on May 11 preached his sermon
on "The Mischief of Separation," Owen defended the Nonconformists
from the charge of schism in his Brief Vindication. Baxter and Howe
also answered Stillingfleet, who replied in The Unreasonableness of
Separation. Owen again answered this, and then left the controversy
to a swarm of eager combatants. From this time to his death he was
occupied with continual writing, disturbed only by an absurd charge
of being concerned in the Rye House Plot. His most important work
was his Treatise on Evangelical Churches in which were contained his
latest views regarding church government. During his life he issued
more than eighty separate publications, many of them of great size.
Of these a list may be found in Orme's Memoirs of Owen. For some
years before his death Owen had suffered greatly from stone and
asthma. He died quietly, though after great pain, at Ealing, on
August 24, 1683, and was buried on September 4th in Bunhill Fields,
being followed to the grave by a large procession of persons of
distinction. "In younger age a most comely and majestic form; but in
the latter stages of life, depressed by constant infirmities,
emaciated with frequent diseases, and above all crushed under the
weight of intense and unremitting studies, it became an incommodious
mansion for the vigorous exertions of the spirit in the service of
its God."

Taken in part from The Encyclopedia Britannica Ninth Edition, (New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1885)

 

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