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The two following volumes contain, it is believed, the most complete collection of Dr Owen’s Sermons which has ever been published.
The first volume (vol. viii.) includes all the Discourses which were published during the lifetime of the author. Among these there will be found his “Humble Testimony to the Goodness and Severity of God;” which — though, from its length, it might rank as a separate treatise — is comprehended in this volume, as it was the substance of some discourses, and is entitled by Owen himself a Discourse. Another valuable sermon, which we have discovered in the “Morning Exercises against Popery, at Southwark,” though omitted in every previous collection of his Sermons, and in Russell’s edition of his Works, we have not hesitated to include in the present collection, our conviction that it belongs to Owen resting on the high authority of Calamy,11 See Calamy’s Account of Ministers Ejected, vol. ii. p. 56. who must have had the best opportunities of knowing what sermons, in a publication so important and celebrated as the “Morning Exercises,” were the productions of our author. We are strengthened in this conviction by the circumstance, that the Rev. T. H. Horne, also, in the recent admirable edition of the “Morning Exercises,” expressly ascribes this sermon to Owen. It is entitled, “The Testimony of the Church not the only nor the chief Reason of our Believing the Scripture to be the Word of God.” On the contrary, we have assigned to the subsequent volume, which contains the Posthumous Discourses of our author, a sermon entitled, “Human Power Defeated,” though we find it mentioned by Mr Orme in his list of the works which Owen himself committed to the press. Our reason for accounting it posthumous, is not simply that we have not met with it in its original form (for in a few other instances we have been unable to discover copies of original editions), but in the folio volume of Owen’s Sermons, published in 1721, and edited so carefully by five Independent ministers, who assure us that the posthumous sermons contained in it were the genuine productions of Owen, “a great part of them having been transcribed from his own copies, and the rest taken from his mouth by a gentleman22 Sir John Hartopp. See vol. ix., p. 18. of honour and known integrity,” it is ranked among the posthumous sermons, which had then for the first time been given to the public.
VIIIThe other volume (vol. ix.) embraces all the Posthumous Sermons of our author, — viz., the “Seasonable Words for English Protestants,” printed separately in 1690; the posthumous sermons published in 1721; others which issued from the press in 1756, and were prepared from the manuscripts of Sir John Hartopp, which his granddaughter, Mrs Cooke of Stoke Newington, had supplied for the purpose; and, finally, the sermons derived through the same channel, and published in 1760.
An attempt has been made in this edition, by prefatory notes and running annotations, to connect the different sermons (especially in vol. viii.) with the life of Owen, and with the circumstances in which they were originally delivered. Much of the interest and value of a discourse lies in its suitableness to the occasion which called it forth.
There are discourses attributed to Owen on Ps. cxvi. 12, and on 2 Sam. xviii. 20; and said to have been published, the former in 1742, and the latter in 1746. They are not mentioned by Mr Orme. There is a reference to them in Cooke’s “Preacher’s Assistant;” but after a diligent search, we have failed to recover them.
The merits of Owen as a preacher have not been sufficiently appreciated. In this respect he seems to have stood higher in the estimation of his contemporaries than he has subsequently done. No edition of his Sermons has been published in a form and at a price which placed them within the reach of all classes in the community. Perhaps the value of his other works diverted attention from his minor productions; and his style of careful and elaborate, though often prolix and cumbrous, discussion, was deemed incompatible with the condensation of statement and the vigour of appeal which constitute the main value and charm of a good discourse. From the accounts transmitted to us, however, whether by his various friends and admirers, such as Clarkson, his colleague and successor, or by those even who were quite opposed to him in principle and sentiment, such as Anthony Wood, the ability with which Owen could secure and sustain the attention of an audience must have been great.33 See some excellent observations on his character as a pulpit orator, in the “Life of Owen,” vol. i. p. 106. The effects of his preaching in some instances attest his usefulness in this department of his public labours. John Rogers, in his singular work, “The Heavenly Nymph,” records the cases of two individuals, Dorothy Emett and Major Mainwaring, who ascribed their conversion to the preaching of Owen when he was in Dublin. Mr Orme remarks, that the circumstance confutes a saying attributed to Owen, that he never knew an instance of a sinner converted through his instrumentality; though the saying might so far be true, that he himself might be ignorant of the extent of his own usefulness. His congregation in London after the Restoration, though, from the severe measures adopted against Dissent, necessarily small, seems to have been made up of persons altogether superior in character and attainments. Another IXsource of evidence as to the popularity and acceptance of our author in preaching the gospel, presents itself in the frequency with which he was called to officiate in this capacity before the House of Commons. He was generally summoned to this duty in connection with some event or crisis of great importance. On examining the journals of the House, we have found that he preached before it on several occasions besides those on which he delivered sermons that were afterwards published. He usually receives the thanks, or “the hearty thanks,” of the House, for “his great pains” taken in the discourses preached before them. Nor were such “orders” of the Parliament, that he should be thanked for his services, mere form and indiscriminate courtesy. There is a curious record which we may quote, as showing that the Parliament exercised some measure of discrimination in voting thanks on these occasions:—
“Die Veneris, 14 Martii, 1650.
“The question being propounded, That thanks be given to the ministers that preached yesterday before the Parliament, and the question being put, ‘That that question be now put?’ it passed with the negative.”
There are no means of ascertaining what ministers actually preached on the occasion here referred to. The ministers who had been appointed to preach were Mr Owen, Mr John Simson, and Mr Leigh; but it is clear from the journals, that Owen sometimes was not in circumstances to fulfil such appointments after they had been made. Perhaps, were all the facts known, it would have been to his credit that he had incurred what wears the aspect of a vote of censure from the House; although we learn, from certain entries elsewhere in its journals, that he was so much of a favourite with Parliament, that they settled “lands of inheritance of the clear value of £100 per annum in Ireland on John Owen, Doctor of Divinity, and his heirs.”
His Discourses themselves, however, will best illustrate the position and rank to which he is entitled among the lights and ornaments of the British pulpit. In judging of them, we must remember how often his singular aptitude for the management of affairs drew him into public business, interrupting and disturbing the leisure requisite for elaborate composition. The amount of time and thought expended on more important works might interfere with the care due to the preparation of a single discourse. He himself informs us that his public discourses were frequently delivered under some sudden call to the duty, and at the spur of some great emergency, when brief space was allowed him to prepare them carefully; so that, to use his own similitude, they were often “like Jonah’s gourd, the offspring of a night.” Although they cannot, therefore, be regarded as models of finished composition and careful preparation, they nevertheless abound in many cardinal excellencies. The doctrine illustrated and urged in them is commonly founded on a sifting and masterly exposition of that portion of Scripture from which the text is selected. So much was it his habit to investigate Scripture, with the view of Xascertaining the precise import of its statements, that he often sheds new and striking light on other passages besides the one which it may be the object of the sermon to explain and enforce. Singular tact is evinced in eliciting the general truths or principles raised for consideration by the text. While there are many indications of haste and negligence, it may be safely affirmed, that there is not a paragraph of worthless or frivolous matter which any reader could have wished away, and passages often occur conceived in no common strain of eloquence; while, even amidst the tamest sentences, burning thoughts are found, thrown out freely and at random by the author, as if unconscious of the effect they would produce, or careless whether they produced any effect at all. The depths of Christian experience are admirably unfolded, and the general spirit and tenor of his statements are calculated to tell with power upon the unconverted, and to commend themselves with acceptance to the enlightened conscience. No feature, indeed, in his sermons is more prominent and remarkable, — especially in the sermons delivered towards the close of his life, and which labour under the disadvantage of never having been intended for the press, — than the skill with which he can scrutinize character and motives, till his hearers must have felt as if, in gauging, their inward being, the preacher had laid his hand, with intuitive discernment, on the deepest secrets of their bosom. Nor does this result from an affected refinement of metaphysical discussion and analysis; but from the simple adaptation of truth, so as to tell on the wide variety of human character. Among uninspired authors, it is pre-eminently true of Owen, that, by the manifestation of the truth, he commends himself to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. At the same time, the highest qualities of thought and a rare knowledge of human nature are often evinced; and on perusing the sermons on Popery, “The Chamber of Imagery,” and, “On the Authority of Scripture,” the reader will be struck with the powers of sagacious and philosophic analysis displayed in the former, and with the logical point and acumen of the latter, — stamping on them a freshness and value as continued and enduring as the importance of the great controversy itself to which they relate. The more, in short, these Discourses of Owen are studied, it will be found that their chief blemish — if it be a blemish — is the tendency of the author, in the fertility of his resources, to compress within the limits of one sermon what, to minds less affluent, would have furnished precious materials for several sermons; and though some may desiderate in them the minor graces of composition, it would be unwise to forget that, apart from any shapes of elegance and utility into which it may be fashioned by art, sterling gold, in the broad market of the world, will always command a value of its own.
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