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His Retirement and Last Days
A wish has sometimes been expressed, that men who, like Owen, have contributed so largely to the enriching of our theological literature, could have been spared the endless avocations of public life, and allowed to devote themselves almost entirely to authorship. But the wisdom of this sentiment is very questionable. Experience seems to testify that a certain amount of contact with the business of practical life is necessary to the highest style of thought and authorship; and that minds, when left to undisturbed literary leisure, are apt to degenerate into habits of diseased speculation and sickly fastidiousness. Most certainly the works that have come from men of monastic habits have done little for the world, compared with the writings of those who have ever been ready to obey the voice which summoned them away from tranquil studies to breast the storms and guide the movements of great social conflicts. The men who have lived the most earnestly for their own age, have also lived the most usefully for posterity. Owen’s retirement from the vice-chancellorship may indeed be regarded as a most seasonable relief from the excess of public engagement; but it may be confidently questioned whether he would have written so much or so well, had his intellect and heart been, in any great degree, cut off from the stimulus which the struggles and stern realities of life gave to them. This is, accordingly, the course through which we are now rapidly to follow him, — to the end of his days continuing to display an almost miraculous fertility of authorship, that is only equalled by that of his illustrious compeer, Richard Baxter; and, at the same time, taking no second part in the great ecclesiastical movements of that most eventful age.
The next great public transaction in which we find Dr Owen engaged, was the celebrated meeting of ministers and delegates from the Independent Churches, for the purpose of preparing a confession of their faith and order, commonly known by the name of the Savoy Assembly or Synod. The Independents had greatly flourished during LXIXthe Protectorate; and many circumstances rendered such a meeting desirable. The Presbyterian members of the Westminster Assembly had often pressed on them the importance of such a public and formal exposition of their sentiments. Their Independent brethren in New England had set them the example ten years before; and the frequent misrepresentations to which they were exposed, especially through their being confounded with extravagant sectaries who sheltered themselves beneath the common name of Independents, as well as the religious benefits that were likely to accrue from mutual conference and comparison of views, appeared strongly to recommend such a measure. “We confess,” say they, “that from the very first, all, or at least the generality of our churches, have been in a manner like so many ships, though holding forth the same general colours, launched singly, and sailing apart and alone on the vast ocean of these tumultuous times, and exposed to every wind of doctrine, under no other conduct than that of the Word and Spirit, and their particular elders and principal brethren, without association among themselves, or so much as holding out common lights to others, whereby to know where they were.”9393 Confess. Pref., p. 6. Neal, iv. 173.
It was with considerable reluctance, however, that Cromwell yielded his sanction to the calling of such a meeting. He remembered the anxious jealousy with which the proceedings of the Westminster Assembly had been watched, and probably had his own fears that what now began in theological discussion might end in the perilous canvassing of public measures. But his scruples were at length overcome, — circulars were issued, inviting the churches to send up their pastors and delegates, and more than two hundred brethren appeared in answer to the summons. They met in a building in the Strand, which was now commonly devoted to the accommodation of the officers of Cromwell’s court, but which had formerly been a convent and a hospital, and originally the palace of the Duke of Savoy, from whom it took its name. A committee, in which Owen and Goodwin evidently bore the burden of the duties, prepared a statement of doctrine each morning, which was laid before the Assembly, discussed, and approved. They found, to their delight, that “though they had been launched singly, they had all been steering their course by the same chart, and been bound for one and the same port; and that upon the general search now made, the same holy and blessed truths of all sorts which are current and warrantable among the other churches of Christ in the world, had been their lading.”9494 Ibid. It is an interesting fact, that, with the exception of its statements on church order, the articles of the Savoy Confession bear a close resemblance to those of the famous Confession of the Westminster divines, — in most places LXXretaining its very words. This was a high and graceful tribute to the excellence of that noble commend. And though Baxter, irritated by the form of some of its statements,9595 Baxter’s Catholic Communion Defended, and Life, p. 104. wrote severely against the Savoy Assembly, yet a spirit of extraordinary devotion appears to have animated and sustained its conferences. “There was the most eminent presence of the Lord,” says an eyewitness, “with those who were then assembled, that ever I knew since I had a being.”9696 Letter from Rev. J. Forbes of Gloucester. Asty, p. xxi. And, as the natural consequence of this piety, there was an enlarged charity towards other churches “holding the Head.” In the preface to the Confession, which Owen is understood to have written, and from which we have already made some beautiful extracts, this blessed temper shines forth in language that seems to have anticipated the standing-point to which the living churches of our own times are so hopefully pointing. We are reminded in one place that “the differences between Presbyterians and Independents are differences between fellow-servants;” and in another place, the principle is avowed, that “churches consisting of persons sound in the faith and of good conversation, ought not to refuse communion with each other, though they walk not in all things according to the same rule of church order.”9797 Of the Institution of Churches, and the Order Appointed in them by Jesus Christ. It is well known that the Savoy Confession has never come into general use among the Independents; but there is reason to think that its first publication had the best effects; and in all likelihood the happy state of things which Philip Henry describes as distinguishing this period is referable, in part at least, to the assurance of essential unity which the Savoy Confession afforded. “There was a great change,” says he, “in the tempers of good people throughout the nation, and a mighty tendency to peace and unity, as if they were by consent weary of their long clashings.”9898 Neal, iv. 178. One of the few letters of Dr Owen that have been preserved has reference to this Confession. A French minister of some eminence, the Rev. Peter du Moulin, wished to attempt a French translation of so valuable a document; but before doing so, he ventured some animadversions on certain of its sentiments and expressions. Owen’s reply betrays some irritation, especially at Moulin’s misunderstanding and consequent misrepresentation of the passages commented on. See Appendix.
What would have been the effects of these proceedings upon the policy of the Protector, had his life been prolonged, we can now only surmise. Ere the Savoy Assembly had commenced its deliberations, Oliver Cromwell was struggling with a mortal distemper in the palace of Whitewall. The death of his favourite daughter, Lady Claypole, as well as the cares of his government, had told at length upon his iron frame; and on September 3, 1658, the night of the most awful LXXIstorm that had ever shaken the island, and the anniversary of some of his greatest battles, Oliver Cromwell passed into the eternal world. It is no duty of ours to describe the character of this wonderful man; but our references to Owen have necessarily brought us into frequent contact with his history; and we have not sought to conceal our conviction of his religious sincerity and our admiration of his greatness. Exaggerate his faults as men may, the hypocritical theory of his character, so long the stereotyped representation of history, cannot be maintained. Those who refuse him all credit for religion must explain to us how his hypocrisy escaped the detection of the most religious men of his times, who, like Owen, had the best opportunities of observing him. Those who accuse him of despotism must tell us how it was that England, under his sway, enjoyed more liberty than it had ever done before.9999 Bishop Kennet has long since given the true statement of the case in reference to the ordinances against Episcopal worship during Cromwell’s government. “It is certain,” says he, “that the Protector was for liberty and the utmost latitude to all parties, so far as consisted with the peace and safety of his person and government; and even the prejudice he had against the Episcopal party was more for their being Royalists than for their being of the good old church.” — Neal, iv. 125. In point of fact, the ordinances were not put in execution except against such clergymen as had become political offenders. — Parr’s Life of Usher, p. 75. Vaughan’s Stuart Dynasty, i. 246. Those who see in his character no qualities of generous patriotism, and few even of enlarged statesmanship, must reconcile this with the fact of his developing the internal resources of England to an extent which had never been approached by any previous ruler, — raising his country to the rank of a first power in Europe, until his very name became a terror to despots, and a shield to those who, like the bleeding Vaudois in the valleys of Piedmont, appealed to his compassion.
Owen, and other leading men among the Puritans, have been represented, by writers such as Burnet, as offering up the most fanatical prayers for the Protector’s recovery; and after his death, on occasion of a fast, in the presence of Richard and the other members of his family, as almost irreverently reproaching God for his removal. It would be too much to affirm, that nothing extravagant or extreme was spoken, even by eminently good men, at a crisis so exciting; but there is every reason to think that Owen was not present at the deathbed of the Protector at all; and Burnet’s statement,100100 Burnet’s Own Times, i. 116, 117. No fanatical words are directly charged upon Owen by any of is accusers, but his extravagance is freely surmised. — Biog. Dict., x. 103. Goodwin is represented as complaining in these words, “Lord, thou hast deceived us, and we were deceived;” — words which Burnet characterizes as impudent and enthusiastic boldness; but which, if used at all, were evidently accommodated from Jer. xx. 7, and used in the sense in which the prophet himself had used them; q.d., “Lord, thou hast permitted us to deceive ourselves.” This may probably be taken as a specimen of the looseness of the other charges. when traced to its source, is found to have originated in an impression of Tillotson’s, LXXIIwho was as probably mistaken as otherwise. Vague gossip must not be received as the material of biography. At the same time, it cannot be doubted that the death of Cromwell filled Owen and his friends with profound regret and serious apprehension. His life and power had been the grand security for their religious liberties; and now by his death that security was dissolved. Cromwell during his lifetime had often predicted, “They will bring all to confusion again;” and now that his presiding hand was removed, the lapse of a little time was sufficient to show that he had too justly forecast the future. Ere we glance, however, at the rapid changes of those coming years, we must once more turn to Owen’s labours as an author.
In 1657 he published one of his best devotional treatises, — “Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, each Person distinctly, in Love, Grace, Consolation, etc.” It forms the substance of a series of sermons preached by him at Oxford during his vice-chancellorship, and is another evidence of his “close walk with God” during the excitements and engagements of that high official position.
There is, no doubt, some truth in the remark, that he carries out the idea of distinct communion between the believer and each of the persons of the Godhead to an extent for which there is no scriptural precedent; and this arises from another habit, observable in some degree even in this devotional composition, — that of making the particular subject on which he treats the centre around which he gathers all the great truths of the Gospel; but, when these deductions have been made, what a rich treasure is this work of Owen’s! He leads us by green pastures and still waters, and lays open the exhaustless springs of the Christian’s hidden life with Christ in God. It is easy to understand how some parts of it should have been unintelligible, and should even have appeared incoherent to persons whose creed was nothing more than an outward badge; and therefore we are not surprised that it should have provoked the scoffing remarks of a Rational ecclesiastic twenty years afterwards;101101 Dr Sherlock, in a treatise entitled, “Discourse concerning the Knowledge of Jesus Christ, and our Union and Communion with Him,” etc., 1674. To which Owen replied in “A Vindication of some Passages concerning Communion with God, from the Exceptions of Willian Sherlock, Rector of St George’s, Buttolph Lane.” The controversy drew a considerable number of other combatants into the field, and appears to have been protracted through a series of years. — Wood’s Athen. Oxon., iv. 105, 106. but to one who possesses even a faint measure of spiritual life, we know few exercises more congenial or salutary than its perusal. It is like passing from the dusty and beaten path into a garden full of the most fragrant flowers, from which you return still bearing about your person some parts of its odours, that reveal where you have been. And those who read the book with somewhat of this spiritual susceptibility, will sympathize with the LXXIIIglowing words of Daniel Burgess regarding it: “Alphonsus, king of Spain, is said to have found food and physic in reading Livy; and Ferdinand, king of Sicily, in reading Quintus Curtius; — but you have here nobler entertainment, vastly richer dainties, incomparably more sovereign medicines: I had almost said, the very highest of angel’s food is here set before you; and, as Pliny speaks, ‘Permista deliciis auxilia,’ — things that minister unto grace and comfort, to holy life and liveliness”102102 Preface to the reader.
In the same year Owen was engaged in an important and protracted controversy on the subject of schism, which drew forth from him a succession of publications, and exposed him to the assaults of many adversaries. Foster has sarcastically remarked on the great convenience of having a number of words that will answer the purposes of ridicule or reprobation, without having any precise meaning attached to them;103103 Essay on the application of the epithet Romantic. and the use that has commonly been made of the obnoxious term, “Schism,” is an illustration in point. Dominant religious parties have ever been ready to hurl this hideous weapon at those who have separated from them, from whatever cause; and the phrase has derived its chief power to injure from its vagueness. The Church of Rome has flung it at the Churches of the Reformation, and the Reformed Churches that stand at different degrees of distance from Rome, have been too ready to cast it at each other. Owen and his friends, now began to feel the injurious effects of this, in the frequent application of the term to themselves; and he was induced, in consequence, to write on the subject, with the view especially of distinguishing between the scriptural and the ecclesiastical use of the term, and, by simply defining it, to deprive it of its mischievous power. This led to his treatise, “Of Schism; the true nature of it discovered, and considered with reference to the present differences in region:” in which he shows that schism, as described in Scripture, consists in “causeless differences and contentions amongst the members of a particular church, contrary to that love, prudence, and forbearance, which are required of them to be exercised among themselves, and towards one another.”104104 Owen’s Works, xix. 132, 133, Russell’s edition. From this two consequences followed; — that separation from any church was not in its own nature schism; and that those churches which, by their corruption or tyranny, rendered separation necessary, were the true schismatics: so that, as Vincent Alsop wittily remarked, “He that undertakes to play this great gun, had need to be very careful and spunge it well, lest it fire at home.”105105 Melius Inquirend., p. 209. Orme, p. 199. Wood’s description of Alsop makes one suspect that he had smarted from his wit: “A Nonconforming minister, who, since the death of their famous A. Marvell, hath been quibbler and punner in ordinary to the Dissenting party, though he comes much short of that person.” — Athen. Oxon., iv, 106. It is one of Dr Owen’s best controversial treatises, being LXXIVexhaustive, and yet not marked by that discursiveness which is the fault of some of his writings, and bringing into play some of his greatest excellencies as a writer, — his remarkable exegetical talent, his intimate knowledge of Scripture, and mastery of the stores of ecclesiastical history. Dr Hammond replied to him from among the Episcopalians, and Cawdrey from among the Presbyterians, — a stormy petrel, with whose spirit, Owen remarks, the Presbyterians in general had no sympathy; but Owen remained unquestionable master of the field.106106 The other writings drawn from Owen in this controversy were provoked by Cawdrey. — 1. A Review of the True Nature of Schism, with a Vindication of the Congregational Churches in England from the imputation thereof, unjustly charged on them by Mr Daniel Cawdrey, 1657. 2. An Answer to a late Treatise of Mr Cawdrey about the Nature of Schism, 1658, prefixed to a Defence of Mr John Cotton, &c., against Cawdrey, written by himself, and edited by Owen.
It was not thus with the controversy which we have next to describe. Owen had prepared a valuable little essay, — “Of the Divine Original, Authority, Self-evidencing Light and Power of the Scriptures; with an answer to that inquiry, How we know the Scriptures to be the word of God?” the principal design of which, as its title so far indicates, was to prove that, independently altogether of its external evidence, the Bible contains, in the nature of its truths and in their efficacy on the mind, satisfactory evidence of the divine source from which it has emanated; — an argument which was afterwards nobly handled by Halyburton, and which has recently been illustrated and illuminated by Dr Chalmers with his characteristic eloquence, in one of the chapters of his “Theological Institutes.”107107 Theological Institutes, x. b. iii. ch. 6. In this essay he had laid down the position, that “as the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were immediately and entirely given out by God himself, — his mind being in them represented to us without the least interveniency of such mediums and ways as were capable of giving change or alteration to the least iota or syllable, — so, by his good and merciful providential dispensation, in his love to his Word and church, his Word as first given out by him is preserved unto us entire in the original languages.”108108 P. 153, duod. ed. It happened that while this essay was in the press, the Prolegomena and Appendix of Walton’s invaluable and immortal work, the “London Polyglott,” came into Owen’s hands. But when he glanced at the formidable array of various readings, which was presented by Walton and his coadjutors as the result of their collation of manuscripts and versions, he became alarmed for his principles, imagined the authority of the Scriptures to be placed in imminent jeopardy, and, in an essay which he entitled, “A Vindication of the Purity and Integrity of the Hebrew and LXXVGreek Texts of the Old and New Testaments, in some considerations on the Prolegomena and Appendix to the late Biblia Polyglotta,”109109 Owen published a third tract in this little volume, “Exercitations adversus Fanaticos,” in which he handled the Quakers with some severity. rashly endeavoured to prove that Walton had greatly exaggerated the number of various readings, and insinuated his apprehension, that if Walton’s principles were admitted, they would lead, by a very direct course, to Popery or Infidelity. It is needless to say how undeniable is the fact of various readings; how utterly groundless were the fears which Dr Owen expressed because of them; and how much the labours of learned biblicists, in the region which was so nobly cultivated by Walton and his associates, have confirmed, instead of disturbing our confidence in the inspired canon.110110 Marsh’s Michaelis, i. ch. vi. Taylor’s History of the Transmission of Ancient Books; appendix. And yet it is not difficult to understand how the same individual, who was unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled, in his own age in his knowledge of the subject-matter of revelation, should have been comparatively uninformed on questions which related to the integrity of the sacred text itself. The error of Owen consisted in making broad assertions on a subject on which he acknowledged himself to be, after all, but imperfectly informed; and, from a mere a priori ground, challenging facts that were sustained by very abundant evidence, and charging those facts with the most revolting consequences. Let those theologians be warned by it, who, on the ground of preconceived notions and incorrect interpretations of Scripture, have called in question some of the plainest discoveries of science; and be assured that truth, come from what quarter it may, can never place the Word of God in jeopardy.
Walton saw that he had the advantage of Owen, and in “The Considerator Considered, and the Biblia Polyglotta Vindicated,” successfully defended his position, and did what he could to hold Owen up to the ridicule of the learned world. Though he was Owen’s victor in this controversy, yet the arrogance of his bearing excites the suspicion that something more than learned zeal bore him into the contest, and that the exasperated feelings of the ecclesiastic made him not unwilling to humble this leader and champion of the Puritans in the dust. The respective merits of the two combatants in this contest, which excited so much commotion in the age in which it occurred, are admirably remarked on by Dr Chalmers: “The most interesting collision upon this question that I know of, between unlike men of unlike minds, was that between the most learned of our Churchmen on the one hand, Brian Walton, author, or rather editor of the ‘London Polyglott,’ and the most talented and zealous of our sectarians on the other, Dr John Owen. The latter adventured himself LXXVImost rashly into a combat, and under a false alarm for the results of the erudition of the former; and the former retorted contemptuously upon his antagonist, as he would upon a mystic or enthusiastic devotee. The amalgamation of the two properties thus arrayed in hostile conflict, would have just made up a perfect theologian. It would have been the wisdom of the letter in alliance with the wisdom of the spirit; instead of which I know not what was most revolting, — the lordly insolence of the prelate, or the outrageous violence of the Puritan. In the first place, it was illiterate in Owen, to apprehend that the integrity of the Scripture would be unsettled by the exposure, in all their magnitude and multitude, of its various readings; but in the second place, we stand in doubt of Walton’s spirit and his seriousness, when he groups and characterizes as the new-light men and ranting enthusiasts of these days, those sectaries, many of whom, though far behind him in the lore of theology as consisting in the knowledge of its vocables, were as far before him in acquaintance with the subject-matter of theology, as consisting of its doctrines, and of their application to the wants and the principles of our moral nature.”111111 Institutes of Theology, i. 287 — On Scripture Criticism.
About the time of his emerging from this unfortunate controversy, Owen gave to the world his work on Temptation, — another of those masterly treatises in which he “brings the doctrines of theology to bear on the wants and principles of our moral nature,” and from which whole paragraphs flash upon the mind of the reader with an influence that makes him feel as if they had been written for himself alone.
In his preface to that work, Owen (no doubt reflecting his impressions of public events) speaks of “providential dispensations, in reference to the public concernments of these nations, as perplexed and entangled, — the footsteps of God lying in the deep, where his paths are not known.” And certainly the rapid and turbulent succession of changes that took place soon after the removal of Cromwell’s presiding genius from the helm, might well fill him with deepening anxiety and alarm. These changes it is not our province minutely to trace. Richard’s feeble hand, as is well known, proved itself unfit to control the opposing elements of the state; and a few months saw him return not unwillingly, to the unambitious walks of private life.112112 Owen’s sermon, “A Gospel Profession, the Glory of a Nation,” Isa. iv. 5, was preached before Richard’s Parliament. Soon after, he preached before the Long Parliament; and this was the last occasion in which he was invited to officiate before such an assemblage. This sermon has not been preserved. Owen has been charged with talking part in the schemes which drove Richard from the Protectorate; but the charge proceeded upon a mere impression of Dr Manton’s, produced from hearing the fragment of a conversation, and was repeatedly and indignantly denied by Owen during his LXXVIIlife.113113 Dr Manton declared, that at Wallingford House he heard Dr Owen say with vehemence, “He must come down, and he shall come down;” and this was understood to refer to Richard; — but it is material to notice that Dr Manton did not so understand it till after the event. — Palmer’s note to Calamy’s Life of Owen. Noncon. Mem., i. 201. Add to this Owen’s solemn denial of the charge, Vindic. of Animadversions on Fiat Lux, p. 127; and the testimony of a “worthy minister,” preserved by Asty, that Dr Owen was against the pulling down of Richard, and this his dissatisfaction at what they were doing at Wallingford House was such as to drive his into illness. — Asty, p. xix. Then followed the recalling of that remnant of the Long Parliament which had been dispersed by Cromwell, — a measure which Owen advised, as, on the whole, the most likely to secure the continuance of an unrestricted liberty. But the Parliament, unwilling to obey the dictation of a dominant party in the Army, was once more dispersed by force, while the army itself began to be divided into ambitious factions. A new danger threatened from the north. General Monk, marking the state of things in England, and especially the divided condition of the army, was making preparations to enter England. What were his designs? At one period he had befriended the Independents, but latterly he had sided with the powerful body of the Presbyterians. Would he now, then, endeavour to set up a new Protectorate, favouring the Presbyterians and oppressing other sects or would he throw his sword into the scale of the Royalists, and bring back the Stuarts? A deputation of Independent ministers, consisting of Caryl and others, was sent into Scotland, bearing a letter to Monk that had been written by Owen, representing to him the injustice of his entering England, and the danger to which it would expose their most precious liberties. But the deputies returned, unable to influence his movements, or even to penetrate his ultimate designs. Owen and his friends next endeavoured to arouse the army to a vigorous resistance of Monk, and even offered to raise £100,000 among the Independents for their assistance; — but they found the army divided and dispirited; and Monk, gradually approaching London, entered it at length, not only unresisted, but welcomed by thousands, the Long Parliament having again found courage to resume its sittings. In a short while the Long Parliament was finally dissolved by its own content, and soon after the Convention Parliament assembled. Monk at length threw off his hitherto impenetrable disguise, and ventured to introduce letters from Charles Stuart. It was voted, at his instigation, that the ancient constitution of King, Lords, and Commons, should be restored, and Charles invited back to the throne of his ancestors; and the great majority of the nation, weary of the years of faction and turbulence, hailed the change with joy. But in the enthusiasm of the moment, no means were taken to secure an adjustment of those vital questions which had been agitated between the people and the crown. The act, therefore, which restored the king, LXXVIIIrestored the laws, both civil and ecclesiastical, to the state in which they had been at the commencement of the war, re-established the hierarchy, and constituted all classes of separatists a proscribed class; and Owen and his party had little to trust to for the continuance of their religious liberties but the promise of Charles at Breda, that he “would have a respect to tender consciences.”114114 Neal, iv. 191–220. Vaughan’s Stuart Dynasty, ii. 266–271. A little time sufficed to show that the king’s word was but a miserable security; and the beautiful words of Baxter now began to be fulfilled in their darkest part: “Ordinarily, God would have vicissitudes of summer and winter, day and night, that the church may grow externally in the summer of prosperity, and internally and radically in the winter of adversity; yet usually their night is longer than their day, and that day itself has its storms and tempests.” The night was now coming to the Puritans.
A few months before the restoration of Charles, Owen had been displaced from the deanery of Christ Church, and thus his last official connection with Oxford severed. He now retired to his native village of Stadham in the neighbourhood, where he had become the proprietor of a small estate. During his vice-chancellorship, it had been his custom to preach in this place on the afternoons of those Sabbaths in which he was not employed at St. Mary’s; and a little congregation which he had gathered by this means now joyfully welcomed him among them as their pastor. It was probably while at Stadham that he finished the preparation of one of his most elaborate theological works, whose title will supply a pretty accurate idea at once of its general plan and of its remarkable variety of matter, — “Theologoumena, etc.; or, six books on the nature, rise, progress, and study of true theology. In which, also, the origin and growth of true and false religious worship, and the more remarkable declensions and restorations of the church are traced from their first sources. To which are added digressions concerning universal grace, — the origin of the sciences, — notes of the Roman Church, — the origin of letters, — the ancient Hebrew letters, — Hebrew punctuation, — versions of the Scriptures, — Jewish rites,” etc. It is matter of regret that the “Theologoumena” has hitherto been locked up in the Latin tongue; for though parts have been superseded by more recent works, there is no book in the English language that occupies the wide field over which Owen travels with his usual power, and scatters around him his learned stores.115115 A portion of the “Theologoumena” was translated and published by the Rev. J. Craig of Avonbridge in Scotland; but the encouragement was not such as to induce him to persevere.
In all likelihood Owen hoped that he would be permitted to remain unmolested in his quiet village, and that his very obscurity LXXIXwould prove his protection; but he had miscalculated the leniency of the new rulers. An act passed against the Quakers, declared it illegal for more than five persons to assemble in any unauthorized place for religious worship; and this act admitting of application to all separatists, soon led to the expulsion of Owen from his charge, and to the dispersion of his little flock.116116 Wood’s Athen. Oxon., iv. 100. In a little while he saw himself surrounded by many companions in tribulation. The Presbyterians, who had shown such eagerness for the restoration of Charles to his throne, naturally expected that such measures would be taken as would comprehend them within the establishment, without doing violence to their conscientious difficulties; and Charles and his ministers flattered the hope so long as they thought it unsafe to despise it; but it was not long ere the Act of Uniformity drove nearly two thousand of them from their churches into persecution and poverty, and brought once more into closer fellowship with Owen those excellent men whom he had continued to love and esteem in the midst of all their mutual differences.
Sir Edward Hyde, the future Lord Clarendon, was now lord chancellor, and the most influential member of the government, and means were used to obtain an interview between Owen and him, with the view, it is probable, of inducing him to relax the growing severity of his measures against the Nonconformists. But the proud minister was inexorable. He insisted that Owen should abstain from preaching; but at the one time, not ignorant of the great talents of the Puritan, strongly urged him to employ his pen at the present juncture in writing against Popery. Owen did not comply with the first part of the injunction, but continued to preach in London and elsewhere, to little secret assemblies, and even at times more publicly, when the vigilance of informers was relaxed, or the winds of persecution blew for a little moment less fiercely. But circumstances soon put it in his power to comply with the latter part of it; and those circumstances are interesting, both as illustrative of the character of Owen and of the spirit and tendencies of the times.
John Vincent Cane, a Franciscan friar, had published a book entitled, “Fiat Lux; or, a Guide in Differences of Religion betwixt Papist and Protestant, Presbyterian and Independent;” in which, under the guise of recommending moderation and charity, he invites men over to the Church of Rome, as the only infallible remedy for all church divisions. The work falling in to some extent with the current of feeling in certain quarters, had already gone through two impressions ere it reached the hands of Owen, and is believed to have been sent to him at length by Clarendon. Struck with the subtle and pernicious character of the work, whose author he describes LXXXas “a Naphtali speaking goodly words, but while his voice was Jacob’s voice, his hands were the hands of Esau,” Owen set himself to answer it, and soon produced his “Animadversions on Fiat Lux, by a Protestant;” which so completely exposed its sophistries and hidden aims, as to make the disconcerted friar lose his temper. The friar replied in a “Vindication of Fiat Lux,” — in which he betrayed a vindictive wish to detect his opponent, and bring upon him the resentment of those in power; describing him as “a part of that dismal tempest which had borne all before it, — not only church and state, but reason, right, honesty, and all true religion.”117117 Vindic. of Animad. on Fiat Lux, p. 10. To which Owen rejoined, now manfully giving his name, and, according to his custom, not satisfied with answering his immediate opponent, entered largely into the whole Popish controversy. Few things are more remarkable in Owen than the readiness with which he could thus summon to his use the vast stores of his accumulated learning.
But, even after this good service had been done to the common cause of Protestantism, there seemed a danger that this second work would not be permitted to be published; and it is curious to notice the nature of the objections, and the quarter whence they came. The power of licensing books in divinity was now in the hands of the bishops; and they were found to have two weighty objections to Owen’s treatise. First, That in speaking of the evangelists and apostles, and even of Peter, he withheld from them the title of “saint;” and, secondly, That he had questioned whether it could be proved that Peter had ever been at Rome. Owen’s treatment of these objections was every way worthy of himself. In reference to the former, he reminded his censors that the titles of evangelist and apostle were superior to that of saint, inasmuch as this belonged to all the people of God; at the same time, he expressed his willingness to yield this point. But the second he could only yield on one condition, — namely, that they would prove that he had been mistaken. Owen’s book at length found its way to the press; not, however, through the concessions of the bishops, but through the command of Sir Edward Nicolas, one of the principal secretaries of state, who interposed to overrule their scruples.118118 Asty, pp. xxiii., xxiv.
Dr Owen’s reputation was greatly extended by these writings; and this led to a new interview with Clarendon. His lordship acknowledged that he had done more for the cause of Protestantism than any other man in England; and, expressing his astonishment that so learned a man should have been led away by “the novelty of Independency,” held out to him the hope of high preferment in the church if he would conform. Owen undertook to prove, in answer to any bishop that he might appoint, that the Independent form of LXXXIchurch order, instead of being a novelty, was the only mode of government in the church for the first two centuries; and as for his wish to bestow upon him ecclesiastical honours, what he had to ask for himself and his brethren was, not preferment within the church, but simple toleration without it. The dazzling bait of a mitre appears to have been set before all the leading Nonconformists; but not one of them yielded to its lure.119119 “I am informed,” says the author of the Anonymous Memoir, “by one of the Doctor’s relations, that King Charles II. offered him a bishopric; but no worldly honour or advantage could prevail upon the Doctor to change his principles.” — P. xxii. This led the chancellor to inquire what was the measure of toleration he had to ask; — to which Owen is reported to have answered, “Liberty for all who assented to the doctrine of the Church of England.” This answer has been remarked on by some at the expense of his consistency and courage; and the explanation has been suggested, that he now asked not all that he wished, but all that there was the most distant hope of receiving. It should be remembered, however, in addition, that many of the most liberal and enlightened men among the Nonconformists of those days objected to the full toleration of Papists;120120 Owen’s Discourse of Toleration, passim. not, indeed, on religious, but on political grounds; — both because they were the subjects of a foreign power, and because of the bearings of the question on the succession of the Duke of York to the throne; and also, that Owen’s plan would actually have comprehended in it almost the whole of the Protestant Nonconformists of that age.
A more honourable way of deliverance from his troubles than conformity was, about the same time, presented to Dr Owen, in an earnest invitation from the first Congregational church of Boston, in New England, to become their pastor. They had “seen his labours, and heard of the grace and wisdom communicated to him from the Father of lights;” and when so many candles were not permitted to shine in England, they were eager to secure such a burning light for their infant colony. It does not very clearly appear what sort of answer Owen returned. One biographer represents him as willing to go, and as even having some of his property embarked in a vessel bound for New England, when he was stopped by orders of the court; others represent him as unwilling to leave behind him the struggling cause, and disposed to wait in England for happier days.121121 Anthony Wood is amusingly cynical in his account of this matter: “Upon this our author resolved to go to New England; but since that time, the wind was never in a right point for a voyage.” — Wood’s Athen. Oxon., iv. 100.
But neither the representations of Owen nor of others who were friendly to the Nonconformists, had any influence in changing the policy of those who were now in power. The golden age to which Clarendon and his associates sought to bring back the government LXXXIIand the country, was that of Laud, with all the tortures of the Star Chamber, the dark machinery of the High Commission, and the dread alternative of abject conformity, or proscription and ruin. And the licentious Charles, while affecting at times a greater liberality, joined with his ministers in their worst measures; either from a secret sympathy with them, or, as is more probable, from a hope that the ranks of Nonconformity would at length be so greatly swelled as to render a measure of toleration necessary that would include in it the Romanist along with the Puritan. Pretexts were sought after and eagerly seized upon, in order to increase the rigours of persecution; and new acts passed, such as the Conventicle Act, which declared it penal to hold meetings for worship, even in barns and highways, and offered high rewards to informers, — and whose deliberate intention was, either to compel the sufferers to conformity, or to goad them on to violence and crime.
In the midst of these growing rigours, which were rapidly filling the prisons with victims, and crowding the emigrant ships with exiles, the plague appeared, sweeping London as with a whirlwind of death. Then it was seen who had been the true spiritual shepherds of the people, and who had been the strangers and the hirelings. The clerical oppressors of the Puritans fled from the presence of the plague, while the proscribed preachers emerged from their hiding-places, shared the dangers of that dreadful hour, addressed instruction and consolation to the perishing and bereaved, and stood between the living and the dead, until the plague was stayed. One thing, however, had been disclosed by these occurrences; and this was the undiminished influence of the Nonconformist pastors over their people, and the increased love of their people to them; nor could the pastors ever be cut off from the means of temporal support, so long as intercourse between them and their people was maintained. This led to the passing of another act, whose ingenious cruelty historians have vied with each other adequately to describe. In the Parliament at Oxford, which had fled thither in order to escape the ravages of the plague, a law was enacted which virtually banished all Nonconformist ministers five miles from any city, town, or borough, that sent members to Parliament, and five miles from any place whatsoever where they had at any time in a number of years past preached; unless they would take an oath which it was well-known no Nonconformist could take, and which the Earl of Southampton even declared, in his place in Parliament, no honest man could subscribe. This was equivalent to driving them into exile in their own land; and, in addition to the universal severance of the pastors from their people, by banishing them into remote rural districts, it exposed them not only to the caprice of those who were the instruments of government, LXXXIIIand to all the vile acts of spies and informers, but often to the insults and the violence of ignorant and licentious mobs.
Dr Owen suffered in the midst of all these troubles; and one anecdote, which most probably belongs to this period, presents us with another picture of the times. He had gone down to visit his old friends in the neighbourhood of Oxford, and adopting the usual precautions of the period, had approached his lodging after nightfall. But notwithstanding all his privacy, he was observed, and information given of the place where he lay. Early in the morning, a company of troopers came and knocked at the door. The mistress coming down, boldly opened the door, and asked them what they would have. — “Have you any lodgers in your house?” they inquired. Instead of directly answering their question, she asked “whether they were seeking for Dr Owen?” “Yes,” said they; on which she assured them he had departed that morning at an earlier hour. The soldiers believing her word, immediately rode away. In the meantime the Doctor, whom the woman really supposed to have been gone, as he intended the night before, arose, and going into a neighbouring field, whither he ordered his horse to be brought to him, hastened away by an unfrequented path towards London.
A second terrible visitation of Heaven was needed, in order to obtain for the persecuted Puritans a temporary breathing-time: and this second visitation came. The fire followed quickly in the footsteps of the plague, and the hand of intolerance was for the moment paralysed, if, indeed, its heart did not for a time relent. The greater number of the churches were consumed in the dreadful conflagration. Large wooden houses called tabernacles were quickly reared, amid the scorched and blackened ruins; and in these, the Nonconformist ministers preached to anxious and solemnized multitudes. The long silent voices of Owen, and Manton, and Caryl, and others, awoke the remembrance of other times; and earnest Baxter
“Preached as though he never should preach again;
And like a dying man to dying men.”
There was no possibility of silencing these preachers at such a moment. And the fall of Clarendon and the disgrace of Sheldon soon afterwards helped to prolong and enlarge their precarious liberty.
Many tracts, for the most part published anonymously, and without even the printer’s name, had issued from Owen’s pen during these distracting years, having for their object to represent the impolicy and injustice of persecution for conscience’ sake.122122 Of these Mr Orme enumerates the following:— 1. “An Account of the Grounds and Reasons on which the Protestant Dissenters Desire their Liberty.” 2. “A Letter concerning the Present Excommunications.” 3. “The Present Distresses on Nonconformists Examined.” 4. “Indulgence and Toleration Considered, in a Letter to a Person of Honour.” 5. “A Peace-offering, in an Apology and Humble Plea for Liberty of Conscience.” — P. 234. He had also published LXXXIV“A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God and Discipline of the Churches of the New Testament, by way of question and answer,” — a title which sufficiently describes the book;123123 The publication of this Catechism gave occasion to proposals for union among the Presbyterians and Independents, addressed by the sanguine Baxter to Dr Owen, and led to lengthened correspondence and negotiation. For reasons formerly adverted to, the scheme proved abortive. One of Owen’s letters on this subject has been preserved, and appears in the Appendix. We are not sure that in every part we could vindicate the Doctor’s consistency. and some years earlier, a well compacted and admirably reasoned “Discourse concerning Liturgies and their Imposition,” which illustrates the principle on which, when a student at Oxford, he had resisted the impositions of Laud, — a principle which reaches to the very foundation of the argument between the High Churchman and the Puritan. And his publications during the following year show with what untiring assiduity, in the midst of all those outward storms, he had been plying the work of authorship, and laying up rich stores for posterity. Three of Owen’s best works bear the date of 1668.
First, there is his treatise “On the Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalence of Indwelling Sin in Believers;” on which Dr Chalmers has well remarked, that “there is no treatise of its learned and pious author more fitted to be useful to the Christian disciple; and that it is most important to be instructed on this subject by one who had reached such lofty attainments in holiness, and whose profound and experimental acquaintance with the spiritual life so well fitted him for expounding its nature and operations.”124124 Introductory Essay to Owen on Indwelling Sin, pp. xviii., xix. Next came his “Exposition of the 130th Psalm,” — a work which, as we have already hinted, stood intimately connected with the history of Owen’s own inner life; and which, conducting the reader through the turnings and windings along many of which he himself had wandered in the season of his spiritual distresses, shows him the way in which he at length found peace. When Owen sat down to the exposition of this psalm, it was not with the mere literary implements of study scattered around him, or in the spirit with which the mere scholar may be supposed to sit down to the explanation of an ancient classic; but, when he laid open the book of God, he laid open at the same time the book of his own heart and of his own history, and produced a book which, with all its acknowledged prolixity, and even its occasional obscurity, is rich in golden thoughts, and instinct with the living experience of “one who spoke what he knew, and testified what he had seen.”
Then appeared the first volume of Owen’s greatest work, his “Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews,” — a work which it would be alike superfluous to describe or to praise.125125 The second volume was published in 1674; the third in 1680; the forth was posthumous, but was left fit for the press, and appeared in 1684. For more than twenty LXXXVyears his thoughts had been turned to the preparing of this colossal commentary on the most difficult of all the Pauline epistles; and at length he had given himself to it with ripened powers, — with the gathered treasures of an almost universal reading, and with the richer treasures still of a deep Christian experience. Not disdainful of the labours of those who had gone before him, he yet found that the mine had been opened, rather than exhausted; and, as he himself strongly expressed it, that “sufficient ground for renewed investigation had been left, not only for the present generation, but for all them that should succeed, to the consummation of all things.” The spirit and manner in which he pursued his work is described by himself, and forms one of the most valuable portions of autobiography in all Owen’s writings:—
“For the exposition of the epistle itself, I confess, as was said before, that I have had thoughts of it for many years, and have not been without regard to it in the whole course of my studies. But yet I must now say, that, after all my searching and reading, prayer and assiduous meditation have been my only resort, and by far the most useful means of light and assistance. By these have my thought been freed from many an entanglement, into which the writings of others had cast me, or from which they could not deliver me. Careful I have been, as of my life and soul, to bring no prejudicate sense to the words, — to impose no meaning of my own or other men’s upon them, nor to be imposed on by the reasonings, pretences, or curiosities of any; but always went nakedly to the Word itself, to learn humbly the mind of God in it, and to express it as he should enable me. To this end, I always considered, in the first place, the sense, meaning, and import of the words of the text, — their original derivation, use in other authors, especially in the LXX. of the Old Testament, in the books of the New, and particularly the writings of the same author. Ofttimes the words expressed out of the Hebrew, or the things alluded to among that people, I found to give much light to the words of the apostle. To the general rule of attending to the design and scope of the place, the subject treated of, mediums fixed on for arguments, and methods of reasoning, I still kept in my eye the time and season of writing this epistle; the state and condition of those to whom it was written; their persuasions, prejudices, customs, light, and traditions. I kept also in my view the covenant and worship of the church of old; the translation of covenant privileges and worship to the Gentiles upon a new account; the course of providential dispensations that the Jews were under; the near expiration of their church and state; the speedy approach of their utter abolition and destruction, with the temptations that befell them on all these various accounts; — without which it is impossible for any one justly LXXXVIto follow the apostle, so as to keep close to his design or fully to understand his meaning.”126126 Preface.
The result has been, a work unequalled in excellence, except, perhaps, by Vitringa’s noble commentary on Isaiah. It is quite true, that in the department of verbal criticism, and even in the exposition of some occasional passages, future expositors may have found Owen at fault, — it is even true that the Rabbinical lore with which the work abounds does far more to cumber than to illustrate the text; but when all this has been conceded, how amazing is the power with which Owen has unfolded the proportions, and brought out the meaning and spirit, of this massive epistle! It is like some vast monster filled with solemn light, on whose minuter details it might be easy to suggest improvement; but whose stable walls and noble columns astonish you at the skill and strength of the builder the longer you gaze; and there is true sublimity in the exclamation with which Owen laid down his pen when he had finished it: “Now, my work is done; it is time for me to die.” Perhaps no minister in Great Britain or America for the last hundred and fifty years has sat down to the exposition of this portion of inspired truth without consulting Owen’s commentary. The appalling magnitude of the work is the most formidable obstacle to its usefulness; and this the author himself seems to have anticipated even in his own age of ponderous and portly folios; for we find him modestly suggesting the possibility of treating it as if it were three separate works, and of reading the philological, or the exegetical, or the practical portion alone.127127 Address to the Christian Reader, vol. ii. We are quite aware that one man of great eminence has spoken in terms of disparagement almost bordering on contempt of one part of this great work, — “The Preliminary Exercitations;”128128 Miscellaneous Gleanings from Hall’s Conversational Remarks, by the late Dr Balmer of Berwick-on-Tweed. Hall’s Works, vi. 147. but we must remember Hall’s love of literary paradoxes, in common with the great lexicographer whom he imitated; and those who are familiar with the writings of Owen — which Hall acknowledges he was not, — will be more disposed to subscribe to the glowing terms in which his great rival in eloquence has spoken of Owen’s Exposition: “Let me again recommend your studious and sustained attention,” says Dr Chalmers to his students, “to the Epistle to the Hebrews; and I should rejoice if any of you felt emboldened on my advice to grapple with a work so ponderous as Owen’s commentary on that epistle, — a lengthened and laborious enterprise, certainly, but now is your season for abundant labour. And the only thing to be attended to is, that, in virtue of being well directed, it shall not be wasted on a bulky, though at the same time profitless erudition. I promise you a hundredfold more advantage from the perusal of this greatest work of John Owen, than LXXXVIIfrom the perusal of all that has been written on the subject of the heathen sacrifices. It is a work of gigantic strength as well as gigantic size; and he who has mastered it is very little short, both in respect to the doctrinal and the practical of Christianity, of being an erudite and accomplished theologian.”129129 Prelections on Hill’s lectures. Chalmer’s Posthumous Works, ix. 282.
It has been remarked, that there is no lesson so difficult to learn as that of true religious toleration, for almost every sect in turn, when tempted by the power, has resorted to the practice of persecution; and this remark has seldom obtained more striking confirmation than in what was occurring at this time in another part of the world. While in England the Independents, and Nonconformists generally, were passing from one degree of persecution to another, at the hands of the restored adherents of Prelacy; the Independents of New England were perpetrating even greater severities against the Baptists and Quakers in that infant colony. Whipping, fines, imprisonment, selling into slavery, were punishments inflicted by them on thousands who, after all, did not differ from their persecutors on any point that was fundamental in religion. One of Owen’s biographers has taken very unnecessary pains to show that the conduct of these churches had no connection with their principles as Independents; but this only renders their conduct the more inexcusable, and proves how deeply rooted the spirit of intolerance is in human nature. Owen and his friends heard of these events with indignation and shame, and even feared that they might be turned to their disadvantage in England; and, in a letter subscribed along with him by all his brethren in London, faithfully remonstrated with the New England persecutors. “We only make it our hearty request,” said they, “that you will trust God with his truth and ways, so far as to suspend all rigorous proceedings in corporeal restraints or punishments on persons that dissent from you, and practice the principles of their dissent without danger or disturbance to the civil peace of the place.” Sound advice is here given, but we should have relished a little more of the severity of stern rebuke.130130 M’Crie’s Miscelleneous Works, p. 509. Magnalia Americana, b. vii. p. 28. Orme p. 258.
We have seen that the great fire of London led to a temporary connivance at the public preaching of the Nonconformist ministers; “it being at the first,” as Baxter remarked, “too gross to forbid an undone people all public worship with too great rigour.”131131 Own Life, part iii. p. 20. A scheme was soon after devised for giving to this liberty a legal sanction, and which might even perhaps incorporate many of the Nonconformists with the Established Church, — such men as Wilkins, bishop of Chester, LXXXVIIITillotson, and Stillingfleet, warmly espousing the proposal. But no sooner did the scheme become generally known, as well as the influential names by which it was approved, than the implacable adversaries of the Nonconformists anew bestirred themselves, and succeeded in extinguishing its generous provisions. It became necessary, however, in the temper of the nation, to do something in vindication of these severities; and no readier expedient suggested itself than to decry toleration as unfriendly to social order, and still more to blacken the character of the Nonconformist sufferers. A fit instrument for this work presented himself in Samuel Parker, a man of menial origin, who had for a time been connected with the Puritans, but who, deserting them when they became sufferers, was now aspiring after preferment in the Episcopal Church, and whom Burnet describes as “full of satirical vivacity, considerably learned, but of no judgment; and as to religion, rather impious.”132132 Burnet’s Own Times, i. 382. In his “Discourse of Ecclesiastical Polity,” the “authority of the civil magistrate over the consciences of subjects in matters of external religion is asserted, the mischief and inconveniences of toleration are represented, and all pretences pleaded in favour of liberty of conscience are fully answered.” Such is the atrocious title-page of his book, and to a modern reader, the undertaking to which it pledges him must seem rather bold; but the confident author is reported to have firmly believed in his own success. Holding out his book to the Earl of Anglesea, he said, “Let us see, my lord, whether any of your chaplains can answer it;” and the bigoted Sheldon, sympathizing with its spirit, naturally believed also in the exceeding force of its arguments. Dr Owen was chosen to reply to Parker; which he did, in one of the noblest controversial treatises that were ever penned by him, — “Truth and Innocence Vindicated, in a Survey of a Discourse on Ecclesiastical Polity,” etc. The mind of Owen seems to have been whetted by his deep sense of wrong, and he writes with a remarkable clearness and force of argument; while he indulges at times in a style of irony which is justified not more by the folly than by the baseness and wickedness of Parker’s sentiments. There is no passage, even in the writings of Locke, in which the province of the civil magistrate is more distinctly defined than in some portions of his reply;133133 Duod. ed., p. 92. and it is curious to notice how, in his allusions to trade, he anticipates some of the most established principles of our modern political economy.134134 Duod. ed., pp. 78–81. Owen’s work greatly increased his celebrity among his brethren; — even some of Parker’s friends could with difficulty conceal the impression that he had found more than a match in the strong-minded and sturdy Puritan; and Parker, worsted in argument, next sought to overwhelm his opponent with a scurrility that breathed the most LXXXIXundisguised vindictiveness. He was “the great bell-wether of disturbance and sedition,” — “a person who would have vied with Mahomet himself both for boldness and imposture,” — “a viper, so swollen with venom that it must either burst or spit its poison;” so that whoever wished to do well to his country, “could never do it better service than by beating down the interest and reputation of such sons of Belial.”135135 Defence and Continuation of Eccleisast. Polity, and Preface to Bamhall. Orme, p. 261. On this principle, at least, Parker himself might have ranked high as a patriot.
But the controversy was not over. Parker had not time to recover from the ponderous club of Owen, when he was assailed by the keen edged wit of Andrew Marvell. This accomplished man, the under-secretary and bosom friend of Milton, reviewed Parker’s work in his “Rehearsal Transposed,” — a work of which critics have spoken as rivalling in some places the causticity and neatness of Swift, and in others equalling the eloquent invective of Junius and the playful exuberance of Burke.136136 Campbell’s Essay on English Poetry, p. 241. D’Israeli’s Miscellanies of Literature, p. 238. The conceited ecclesiastic was overwhelmed, and a number of masked combatants perceiving his plight, now rushed to his defence; in all whom, however, Marvell refused to distinguish any but Parker. In a second part of his “Rehearsal,” he returned to the pen-combat, as Wood has called it; and transfixed his victim with new arrows from his exhaustless quiver. It is impossible to read many parts of it yet, without sharing with the laughers of the age in the influence of Marvell’s genius. Ridiculing his self-importance, he says, “If he chance but to sneeze, he prays that the foundations of the earth be not shaken. Ever since he crept up to be but the weather-cock of a steeple, he trembles and cracks at every puff of wind that blows about him, as if the Church of England were falling.” Marvell’s wit was triumphant; and even Charles and his court joined in laughing at Parker’s discomfiture.137137 Burnet, referring to this controversy, speaks of Marvell as “the liveliest droll of his age, who writ in a burlesque strain, but with so peculiar and so entertaining a conduct, that, from the king down to the tradesman, his books were read with great pleasure.” — Own Times, i. 382. “Though the delinquent did not lay violent hands on himself,” says D’Israeli, “he did what, for an author, may be considered as desperate a course, — withdraw from the town, and cease writing for many years,” secretly nursing a revenge which he did not dare to gratify until he knew that Marvell was in his grave.138138 D’Israeli’s Miscellanies, pp. 234, 239.
It was one thing, however, to conquer in the field of argument, and another thing to disarm the intolerance of those in power. The Parliament which met in 1671, goaded on by those sleepless ecclesiastics XCwho were animated by the malign spirit of Parker, confirmed all the old acts against the Nonconformists, and even passed others of yet more intolerable rigour.139139 A paper entitled, “The State of the Kingdom with respect to the present Bill against Conventicles,” was drawn up by Owen, and laid before the Lords by several eminent citizens; but without success. It is impossible to predict to what consequences the enforcement of these measures must soon have led, had not Charles, by his declaration of indulgence, of his own authority suspended the penal statutes against Nonconformists and Popish recusants, and given them permission to renew their meetings for public worship on their procuring a license, which would be granted for that purpose. This measure was, no doubt, unconstitutional in its form, and more than doubtful in the motives which prompted it; but many of the Nonconformists, seeing in it only the restoration of a right of which they ought never to have been deprived, — and some of them, like Owen, regarding it as “an expedient, according to the custom in former times, for the peace and security of the kingdom, until the whole matter might be settled in Parliament,” joyfully took shelter under its provisions.140140 Biographers make mention of letters addressed to Owen, inviting him to the presidency of Harvard College, New England; and also to a professorship in the United Provinces. But there is considerable vagueness in respect to details, as well as uncertainty about dates. A note, however, in Wood’s Athen. Oxon., seems to place beyond reasonable doubt the general accuracy of the statement. He is said by the same authority to have been prevented from accepting the former invitation by an order from court.
The Nonconformists were prompt in improving their precarious breathing-time. A weekly lecture was instituted at Pinner’s Hall by the Presbyterians and Independents, in testimony of their union of sentiment on fundamental truths, and as an antidote to Popish, Socinian, and Infidel opinions.141141 Two lectures preached by Owen in this series appear among his works, — the first entitled, “How we may Learn to Bear Reproofs,” Ps. cxli. 5; the other, “The Chamber of Imagery in the Church of Rome Laid Open,” 1 Pet. ii. 3. Owen began to preach more publicly in London to a regular congregation; and his venerable friend, Joseph Caryl, having died soon after the declaration of indulgence, the congregations of the two ministers consented to unite under the ministry of Owen, in the place of worship in Leadenhall Street.142142 Mr Orme supposes the place of worship to have been that in Bury Street, St Mary Axe; but the meeting-house was in Bury Street was not erected until 1708, when it was occupied by the same congregation under the ministry of Dr Isaac Watts. — Wilson’s History of Dissenting Churches, i. 252, 273. Owen’s church-book presents the names of some of the chiefs of Nonconformity as members of his flock, and “honourable women not a few.”143143 Orme, pp. 277–285. Among others, there have been found the names of more than one of the heroes of the army of the Commonwealth, — such as Lord Charles Fleetwood and Colonel Desborough; certain members of the Abney family, in whose hospitable mansion the saintly Isaac XCIWatts in after times found shelter for more than thirty years; the Countess of Anglesea; and Mrs Bendish, the grand-daughter of Cromwell, in whom, it is said, may of the bodily and mental features of the Protector remarkably reappeared. Some of these might be able at times to throw their shield over the head of Owen in those changeful and stormy years. And there were other persons more powerful still, — such as the Earl of Orrery, the Earl of Anglesea, Lord Berkeley, Lord Willoughby, Lord Wharton, and Sir John Trevor, one of the principal secretaries of state; who, though not members of Owen’s church, were religiously disposed, and Owen’s friends, and inclined, as far as their influence went, to mitigate the severities against the Nonconformists generally.144144 Asty, p. xxix. Noncon. Mem., i. 202.
Owen’s intimacy with these noblemen probably accounts for that interview to which he was invited by the King and the Duke of York, and which has been faithfully chronicled by all his biographers. Happening to be at Tunbridge Wells when his majesty and the duke were also there, he was introduced to the royal tent. The king freely conversed with him on the subject of religious liberty, and expressed his wish to see the Dissenters relieved of their disabilities. On his return to London, he invited Owen to repeated interviews, uttering the same sentiments as he had done during the first conversation, and at length intrusted him with a thousand guineas, to be employed by him in mitigating the sufferings of his poorer brethren. The general policy of Charles sufficiently accounts for these gleams of royal sunshine.
But the importance of those friendships is not seen by us until we have marked the use which Owen made of them in the cause of his suffering brethren. It is well known that when the Parliament again assembled, it expressed its strong displeasure at the king’s indulgence, and never ceased its remonstrances until the licenses to places of worship had been withdrawn. A disposition, it is true, began to show itself to distinguish between the Protestant Nonconformists and the Romanists, and to point restriction more particularly against the latter; but the act, which was professedly intended to bear against them was so clumsily constructed as to be capable of reaching all who did not conform, and Churchmen were not slow in giving it this direction. The Nonconformists were exposed anew to the persecuting storm; informers were goaded by increased rewards; and among thousands of less illustrious sufferers, Richard Baxter suffered joyfully the spoiling of his goods, and was condemned to what his ardent spirit did indeed feel bitterly, — a year of almost unbroken silence.145145 Jenkyn’s Essay on Life of Baxter, p. xx. Owen, however, appears to have been XCIIleft comparatively unmolested, — probably owing to the influences we have specified; and it is interesting to learn from an adversary with what zeal and constancy he employed his advantages to warn and succour the oppressed. “Witness his fishing out the king’s counsels, and inquiring whether things went well to his great Diana, liberty of conscience? — how his majesty stood affected to it? — whether he would connive at it and the execution of the laws against it? — who were or could be made his friends at court? — what bills were like to be put up in Parliament? — how that assembly was united or divided? And according to the disposition of affairs he did acquaint his under officers; and they, by their letters each post, were to inform their fraternity in each corner of the kingdom how things were likely to go with them, how they should order their business, and either for a time omit or continue their conventicles.”146146 Letter to a Friend, p. 34. Orme, p. 274. Surely this was being able to find nothing against him, except as concerning the law of his God.
There was no sufferer in whose behalf Owen exerted his influence more earnestly than John Bunyan. It is well known that, as a preacher, Bunyan excited, wherever he went, an interest not surpassed even by the ministry of Baxter. When he preached in barns or on commons, he gathered eager thousands around him; and when he came to London, twelve hundred people would be found gathered together at seven on the dark morning of a winter working-day, to hear him expound the Word of God. Among these admiring multitudes Owen had often been discovered; — the most learned of the Puritans hung for hours, that seemed like moments, upon the lips of this untutored genius. The king is reported to have asked Owen, on one occasion, how a learned man like him could go “to hear a tinker prate;” to which the great theologian answered “May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.”147147 Hamilton’s Life of Bunyan, p. xxix. For some years Bunyan’s confinement in the prison of Bedford had, through the kindness of his good jailer, been attended with many mitigations; but towards the latter part of it, its severities had been greatly increased, and Owen used every effort to engage the interest of his old friend and tutor, Dr Barlow, for his release. Some of the details of this matter have been questioned by Southey, and its date is uncertain; but the leading facts seem above reasonable suspicion, and it is pleasing to know, that after some perplexing delay, Owen’s interposition was successful in obtaining Bunyan’s enlargement.148148 Asty, p. xxx. Southey’s Life of Bunyan, p. lxiv.
During these chequered and anxious years, Owen’s untiring pen XCIIIhad been as active as ever. In 1669 he had published “A brief Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity; as also, of the Person and Satisfaction of Christ;” a little treatise, containing the condensed substance of his great controversial work against Biddle and the Continental Socinians, — the “Vindiciæ Evangelicæ.” There was wisdom in thus supplying the church with a less controversial manual on those vital questions. Many of Owen’s larger works remind us of some ancient castle, with its embrasures and port-holes, admirably fitting it for the purposes of defence, but in the same degree rendering it unsuitable as a peaceful habitation. In little more than forty years after Owen’s death, this little work had passed through seven editions.149149 Anon. Mem., p. xxix. In 1672 he had published “A Discourse concerning Evangelical Love, Church Peace and Unity,” etc.; a work combining enlarged and generous sentiment with wise discrimination, and in which Owen enters at great length into the question respecting the occasional attendance of Nonconformists on the parish churches, — a question which found him and Baxter once more ranged on opposite sides.
And there were other works whose origin dated from this period, in which we can trace the faithful watchman, piously descrying the coming danger, or seeking to rear bulwarks against the already swelling tide. Two of these were precious fragments broken off from his great work on the Epistle to the Hebrews, and enlarged to meet present exigencies. The first was his “Treatise on the Sabbath;” in which he joined with Baxter, and all the other great writers among the Puritans, in seeking to preserve this precious fence, which the goodness of God has drawn around the vineyard of his church, and which he found assailed on the one hand by fanatics, who denounced it as a mere ceremonial and carnal observance, and by the more numerous and noisy disciples of the “Book of Sports,” who hated it for its spirituality. The reader will be struck with the contrast between the Puritan Sabbath, as it is depicted in its staid and solemn cheerfulness by a Puritan divine, and as he often beholds it caricatured by the modern popular writer; and as he finds Owen arguing with the same classes of antagonists, and answering the same argument and objections as are rife at the present day, he will be disposed to subscribe to the theory, that errors have their orbits in which they move, and that their return may be calculated at a given juncture. The other work of this class to which we refer was, “The Nature and Punishment of Apostasy Declared, in an Exposition of Hebrews vi. 4–6.”150150 It is remarkable that in this treatise, p. 72–100, is to be found an explication of the last clause of the 6th verse of the 6th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is strangely omitted in all editions of the “Exposition.” The author has had this fact pointed out to him by his learned and venerated colleague, Dr Brown of Edinburgh. It was emphatically a book for the times; when the multitudes XCIVwho had merely played a part in religion in Cromwell’s days had long since thrown off the mask, and taken amends for their restraints in the most shameless excesses; when to be sternly moral was almost to incur the suspicion of disloyalty; when to be called a Puritan was, with many, more discreditable than to be called a debauchee; and when the noon-day licentiousness of Charles’ court, descending through the inferior ranks of life, carried every thing before it but what was rooted and grounded in a living piety.151151 Burnet’s Own Times, i. 262–264.
But the greatest work of Owen at this period was one which we leave its elaborate title to describe, — “A Discourse concerning the Holy Spirit; in which an account is given of his name, nature, personality, dispensation, operations, and effects. His whole work in the Old and New Creation is explained; the doctrine concerning it vindicated from opposition and reproaches. The nature and necessity also of Gospel holiness, the difference between grace and morality, or a spiritual life to God in evangelical obedience and a course of moral virtues, is stated and explained.” The better part of two centuries have elapsed since this work of Owen’s was given to the world, and yet no English work on the same vital subject has approached it in exhaustive fulness.152152 An excellent posthumous work on the Holy Spirit, by the late Dr Jamieson of Edinburgh, edited with memoir by Rev. Andrew Sommerville, deserves to be better known. It displays more than one of the best qualities of Owen. Wilberforce owns his obligations to it as one of his great theological textbooks; and Cecil declares that it had been to him “a treasure-house” of divinity.153153 Cecil’s Works, ii. 514 — Remains. It was not merely the two common extremes of error that Owen grappled with in this masterly treatise, — that of the enthusiasts who talked of the inward light and of secret revelations, and that of the Socinians who did not believe that there was any Holy Ghost, and of whose scanty creed it has been severely said, that it is not likely often to become the faith of men of genius. There was a third class of writers at that time, from whom Owen apprehended more danger than either, — men who, in their preaching, dwelt much upon the credentials of the Bible, but little upon its truths, — who would have defended even the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as an article of their creed, and at the same time would have derided all reference to the actual work of divine grace upon a human heart as the “weak imagination of distempered minds.” Much of Owen’s treatise has reference to these accommodating and courtly divines, and is, in fact, a vindication of the reality of the spiritual life. He is not always able to repress his satire against these writers. Some of them had complained that they were reproached as “rational XCVdivines;” to which he replied, that if they were so reproached, it was, so far as he could discern, as Jerome was beaten by an angel for being a Ciceronian (in the judgment of some), very undeservedly.154154 Address to the readers, p. xli. The whole of Owen’s comprehensive plan, however, was not completed in this central treatise. New treatises continued to appear at intervals, giving to some important branch of this subject a more full discussion. In 1677 appeared “The Reason of Faith; or, an answer to the inquiry, Wherefore we believe the Scriptures to be the Word of God?” In 1678, “The Causes, Ways and Means of Understanding the mind of God as Revealed in his Word; and a declaration of the perspicuity of the Scriptures, with the external means of the interpretation of them.” In 1682, “The Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer; with a brief inquiry into the nature and use of mental prayers and forms.” At length, in 1693, two posthumous discourses, “On the Work of the Sprit as a Comforter, and as he is the Author of Spiritual Gifts.” filled up Owen’s elaborate outlines. — Orme, p. 293.
glimpses are given us of Owen’s domestic history; but it appears that, in
January 1676, he was bereaved of his first wife. One of his early biographers says that she “was an excellent and
comely person, very affectionate towards him, and met with suitable returns.”155155 Anon. Mem., p. xxxiv. Her epitaph by Mr
Gilbert helps to fill up the portrait:—
“Prima ætatis virilis consors Maria,
Rei domesticæ perite studiosa.
Rebus Dei domus se totum addicendi;
Copiam illi fecit gratissimam.”
There is a touching passage in a small work, remarkably well written, but little known, that leads us to think of Owen as an unusually tried parent. “His exercises by affliction were very great in respect of his children, none of whom he much enjoyed while living, and saw them all go off the stage before him.” — Vindication of Owen by a friendly Scrutiny into the merits and manner of Mr Baxter’s opposition to Twelve Arguments concerning Worship by the Liturgy, p. 38. He remained a widower for about eighteen months, when he married a lady of the name of Michel, the daughter of a family of rank in Dorsetshire, and the widow of Thomas D’Oyley, Esq. of Chiselhampton, near Stadham. This lady brought Dr Owen a considerable fortune; which, with his own property, and a legacy that was left him about the same time by his cousin, Martyn Owen, made his condition easy, and even affluent, so that he was able to keep a carriage during his remaining years. On all which Anthony Wood remarks, with monkish spite, that “Owen took all occasions to enjoy the comfortable importances of this life.”156156 Wood’s Athen. Oxon., iv. 100, 101.
Many symptoms were now beginning to make it evident that Owen’s public career was drawing to a close. The excitements and anxieties of a most eventful life, and the fatigues of severe study, were making themselves visible in more than one disease. Asthma afflicted him with such severity as often to unfit him for preaching; and stone, the frequent and agonizing disease of studious men in those times, gave no uncertain signs of its presence. In these circumstances it became necessary to obtain assistants, both in the pastorate of the church in Leadenhall street, and also to act as his amanuenses XCVIin preparing his remaining works for the press among those who, for brief periods, were thus connected with him, we meet with the names of two persons of rather remarkable history, — Robert Ferguson, who, beginning his life as a minister, became at length a political intriguer and pamphleteer, and, after undertaking some perilous adventures in the cause of William, ultimately became a Jacobite, and ended his eccentric and agitated course with more of notoriety than of honour; and Alexander Shields, a Scotchman, whose antipathy to Prelacy was surpassed by his piety, and whose name Scottish Presbyterians still venerate as the author of the “Hind let Loose.”157157 Orme, p. 301. Burnet sketches the character of Ferguson with his usual bold distinctness: “He was a hot and bold man, whose spirit was naturally turned to plotting,” etc. — Own Times, i. 542. These two probably laboured with Owen principally in the capacity of amanuenses; but the amiable and excellent David Clarkson shared with him the duties of the pastorate, and rejoiced to divide the anxieties and toils, and soothe the declining years, of the illustrious Puritan. Clarkson evidently won the generous admiration of Baxter; and Dr Bates beautifully spoke of him as “a real saint, in whom the living spring of grace in his heart diffused itself in the veins of his conversation. His life was a silent repetition of his holy discourses.”158158 Funeral Sermon by Mr Bates on John xiv. 2, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” &c. — Reliquæ Baxterianæ, part iii. p. 97.
With the help of his amanuenses, Owen completed and published, in 1677, “The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ, Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated,” — a work in which all the ratiocinative strength and command of resources of his best controversial days appear undiminished. We concur, indeed, to a certain extent, in the censure which has been charged against that part of it which treats of the nature of justifying faith, as tending to perplex a subject whose very simplicity makes explanation equally impossible and unnecessary. The censure, however, ought not to be confined to Owen; for on the subject of faith the Puritan divines, with their scholastic distinctions, were far inferior to the theologians of the Reformation. The great difficulty about faith is not a metaphysical but a moral one; and there is truth in the observation, that elaborate attempts to describe it are like handling a beautiful transparency, whose lustre disappears whensoever it is touched.
This great work was probably the ripened fruit of many years of thought But as we examine the productions of Owen during the few remaining years of his life, it is easy to discover that they belonged principally to three classes, and two of those especially, owed their origin to events that were occurring around him, and to dangerous tendencies which his ever-vigilant eye was quick to discover. First, there were his various writings against Popery, such as his XCVII“Church of Rome no Safe Guide;” his “Brief and Impartial Account of the Protestant Religion;” and, in some degree also, his “Humble Testimony to the Goodness of God in his Dealing with Sinful Churches and Nations.” In all of these we hear the watchman answering, “What of the night?” He is alive to the sympathies of Charles and his court with Popery, — to the readiness of not a few in the Church of England to move in the direction of Rome, — to the avowed so Romanism of the Duke of York, and his possible succession to the throne, — and to the dangers to religion, to liberty, and to every thing most dear to man, which these lowering evils portended. The wisdom and foresight of Dr Owen in many parts of these writings, which we now read in the light of subsequent events, strike us with surprise, often with admiration.
In addition to beholding the Protestants duly inspirited and alarmed on the subject of Popery, Owen longed to see all alienations and divisions among them dispelled, and the various parts of the great Protestant community so united and mutually confiding, as to be prepared to resist their common adversary. Not that he was the less convinced of the necessity and duty of separation from the Episcopal Church; for in a controversy with Stillingfleet, into which an ungenerous assault of that able Churchman drew him, he had produced one of his best defences of Nonconformity;159159 This was a bulky pamphlet, entitled, “A brief Vindication of Nonconformists from the Charge of Schism, as it was managed against them in a Sermon by Dr Stillingfleet.” All the leading Nonconformists appear to have taken part in this controversy, from the grave Howe to witty Alsop. Stillingfleet replied in a clever work on the “Unreasonableness of Separation;” against which Owen brought his heavy artillery to bear with desolating effect, in “An Answer to the ‘Unreasonableness of Separation,’ and a Defence of the ‘Vindication of the Nonconformists from the Guilt of Schism.’ ” but he felt a growing desire, both to see the real differences between the various branches of the Nonconformist family reduced to their true magnitude, and, in spite of the differences that might, after all, remain, to behold them banded together in mutual confidence and united action. His work on “Union among Protestants” was written with this wise and generous design; and this, we are persuaded, was one of the chief ends contemplated by another work, — his “Inquiry into the Origin, Nature, Institution, Power, Order, and Communion of Evangelical Churches.”160160 A second part of this treatise, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church, and its Government,” was posthumous, and did not appear till 1689. We are quite aware that some have represented this highly valuable treatise as a recantation of Dr Owen’s views on church polity, and a return to those Presbyterian sentiments with which he had entered on his public life; but an examination of the treatise, we think, will make it evident that this was not in Owen’s thoughts, and that his aim was rather to show how far he XCVIIIcould come to meet the moderate Presbyterian, and to lay down a platform on which united action, in those times of trouble and of perils, which all division aggravated, could consistently take place. Accordingly we find him, while admirably describing the true nature of a Gospel church, as a society of professed believers, and refusing to any man or body of men “all power of legislation in or over the church,” avowing it as his conviction, that “the order of the officers which was so early in the primitive church, — viz. of one pastor or bishop in one church, assisted in rule and all holy ministrations with many elders, teaching or ruling only, — does not so overthrow church order as to render its rule or discipline useless.” And in reference to the communion of churches, while repudiating every thing like authoritative interference and dictation on the part of any church or assembly of rulers, he holds that “no church is so independent that it can always, and in all cases, observe the duties it owes to the Lord Christ and the church catholic, by all those powers which it is able to act in itself distinctly, without conjunction of others; and the church which confines its duty to the acts of its own assemblies, cuts itself off from the external communion of the church catholic.” He holds that “a synod convened in the name of Christ, by the voluntary consent of several churches concerned in mutual communion, may declare and determine of the mind of the Holy Ghost in Scripture, and decree the observation of things true and necessary, because revealed and appointed in the Scripture.” And farther, that “if it be reported or known, by credible testimony, that any church has admitted into the exercise of divine worship any thing superstitious or vain, or if the members of it walk, like those described by the apostle, Phil. iii. 18, 19, unto the dishonour of the Gospel and of the ways of Christ, the church itself not endeavouring its own reformation and repentance, other churches walking in communion therewith, by virtue of their common interest in the glory of Christ and honour of the Gospel, after more private ways for its reduction, as opportunity and duty may suggest unto their elders, ought to assemble in a synod for advice, either as to the use of farther means for the recovery of such a church, or to withhold communion from it in case of obstinacy in its evil ways.”161161 The True Nature of a Gospel Church, etc., chap. xi. We do not attempt to measure the distance between these principles and the Presbyterianism of Owen’s day, or the diminished distance between them and the modified Presbyterianism of our own; but we state them, with one of Owen’s oldest biographers, as an evidence of his “healing temper in this matter;”162162 Anon. Mem., p. xxxiv. The same writer adds, in illustration of this healing temper, “I heard him say, before a person of quality and others, he could readily join with Presbytery as it was exercised in Scotland. and we even XCIXventure to suggest whether, at some future period of increased spirituality and external danger, they may not form the basis of a stable and honourable union among the two great evangelical sections of modern Nonconformists.
But besides the outward dangers to Protestantism, which made Owen so eager for union among his friends, we discover another and more interesting explanation still in the increased occupation of his mind with the great central truths of the Gospel, and his growing delight in them. The minor distinctions among Christians come to be seen by us in their modified proportions, when we have taken our place within the inner circle of those great truths which constitute the peculiar glory and power of Christianity; and this inner and more radiant circle formed more and more the home of Dr Owen’s heart. This is evident from the three great doctrinal and devotional works which were produced by him at this period, and which we have yet to name.
First, there appeared his “Χριστολογία, or Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ, God and man, with the infinite wisdom, love, and power of God in the constitution thereof. As also, of the grounds and reasons of his incarnation; the nature of his ministry in heaven; the present state of the church above thereon; and the use of his person in religion,” etc. The root from which the whole discourse springs, is the memorable declaration of our Lord to Peter, Matt. xvi. 18, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it:” — a declaration in which Owen finds three great truths, whose illustration forms the substance of the volume; — that the person of Christ is the foundation of his church; that opposition will be made by the powers of earth and hell to the church, as built on the person of Christ; and that the church built on the person of Christ shall never be separated from it or destroyed. It is easy to see what a rich field of doctrinal statement, learned illustration, and devout reflection, is opened for Owen’s mind in these themes; and he expatiates in it with all the delight of a mind accustomed to high and heavenly communion. It is pleasing to mark how he casts off the cumbrous armour of a sometimes too scholastic style, that had kept him down in some of his earlier treatises; and, rising from the simply didactic into the devotional, aims to catch joyful glimpses of the glory that is soon to be revealed.
Then followed his heart-searching, heart-inspiring treatise on “The Grace and Duty of being Spiritually-minded,” first preached to his own heart, and then to a private congregation; and which reveals to us the almost untouched and untrodden eminences on which Owen walked in the last years of his pilgrimage, — eminences for reaching which, Cit has been said by one of the humblest and holiest of men of our own times, “it would almost appear indispensable that the spiritual life should be nourished in solitude; and that, afar from the din, and the broil, and the tumult of ordinary life, the candidate for heaven should give himself up to the discipline of prayer and of constant watchfulness.”163163 Introductory Essay to Owen on Spiritual-mindedness, by Dr Chalmers, p. xxiv.
The last production of Owen’s pen was his “Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ.”164164 “Weakness, weariness, and the near approaches of death, do call me off from any farther labour in this kind.” — Preface to reader. It embodies the holy musings of his latest days, and in many parts of it seems actually to echo the presses of the heavenly worshippers. We may apply to Owen’s meditations, as recorded in this book, the words of Bunyan in reference to his pilgrim, — “Drawing near to the city, he had yet a more perfect view thereof.” It is a striking circumstance, that each of the three great Puritan divines wrote a treatise on the subject of heaven, and that each had his own distinct aspect in which he delighted to view it. To the mind of Baxter, the most prominent idea of heaven was that of rest; and who can wonder, when it is remembered that his earthly life was little else than one prolonged disease? — to the mind of Howe, ever aspiring after a purer state of being, the favourite conception of heaven was that of holy happiness; — while to the mind of Owen, heaven’s glory was regarded as consisting in the unveiled manifestation of Christ. The conceptions, though varied, are all true; and Christ, fully seen and perfectly enjoyed, will secure all the others. Let us now trace the few remaining steps that conducted Owen into the midst of this exceeding weight of glory.
We have already mentioned Lord Wharton, as one of those noblemen who continued their kindness to the Nonconformists in the midst of all their troubles. His country residence at Woburn, in Buckinghamshire, afforded a frequent asylum to the persecuted ministers; just as we find the castles of Mornay and De Plessis in France opened by their noble owners as a refuge to the Huguenots.
During his growing infirmities, Owen was invited to Woburn, to try the effect of change of air; and also that others of his persecuted brethren, meeting him in this safe retreat, might enjoy the benefit of united counsel and devotion. It appears that while here his infirmities increased upon him, and that he was unable to return to his flock in London at the time that he had hoped; and a letter written to them from this place, gives us so vivid a reflection of the anxieties of a period of persecution, and so interesting a specimen of Owen’s fidelity and affection to his people, in the present experience CIof suffering, and in the dread of more, that we have peculiar delight in interweaving it with our narrative:—
“Beloved in the Lord, — Mercy, grace, and peace be multiplied to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ, by the communication of the Holy Ghost. I thought and hoped that by this time I might have been present with you, according to my desire and resolution; but it has pleased our holy gracious Father otherwise to dispose of me, at least for a season. The continuance of my painful infirmities, and the increase of my weaknesses, will not allow me at present to hope that I should be able to bear the journey. How great an exercise this is to me, considering the season, he knows, to whose will I would in all things cheerfully submit myself. But although I am absent from you in body, I am in mind, affection, and spirit, present with you, and in your assemblies; for I hope you will be found my crown and rejoicing in the day of the Lord; and my prayer for you night and day is, that you may stand fast in the whole will of God, and maintain the beginning of your confidence without wavering, firm unto the end. I know it is needless for me, at this distance, to write to you about what concerns you in point of duty at this season, that work being well supplied by my brother in the ministry; you will give me leave, out of my abundant affections towards you, to bring some few things to your remembrance, as my weakness will permit.
“In the first place, I pray God it may be rooted and fixed in our minds, that the shame and loss we may undergo for the sake of Christ and the profession of the Gospel is the greatest honour which in this life we can be made partakers of. So it was esteemed by the apostles, — they rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name’s sake. It is a privilege superadded to the grace of faith, which all are not made partakers of. Hence it is reckoned to the Philippians in a peculiar manner, that it was given to them, not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for him, — that it is far more honourable to suffer with Christ than to reign with the greatest of his enemies. If this be fixed by faith in our minds, it will tend greatly to our encouragement. I mention these things only, as knowing that they are more at large pressed on you.
“The next thing I would recommend to you at this season, is the increase of mutual love among yourselves; for every trial of our faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ is also a trial of our love towards the brethren. This is that which the Lord Christ expects from us, — namely, that when the hatred of the world does openly manifest and act itself against us all, we should evidence an active love among ourselves. If there have been any decays, any coldness herein, if they are not recovered and healed in such a season, it can never be expected. I pray God, therefore, that your mutual love may abound more and more in all the effects and fruits of it towards the whole society, and every member thereof. You may justly measure the fruit of your present trial by the increase of this grace among you; in particular, have a due regard to the weak and the tempted, — that that which is lame may not be turned out of the way, but rather let it be healed.
“Furthermore, brethren, I beseech you, hear a word of advice in case the persecution increases, — which it is like to do for a season. I could wish that, because you have no ruling elders, and your teachers cannot walk about publicly with safety, that you would appoint some among yourselves, who may continually, as their occasions will admit, go up and down, from house to house, and apply themselves peculiarly to the weak, the tempted, the fearful, — those that are ready to despond or to halt, and to encourage them in the Lord. Choose out those to this end who are endued with a spirit of courage and fortitude; and let them know that they are happy whom Christ will honour with this blessed work. And I desire the persons may be of this number who are faithful men, and know the state of the church; by this means you will know what is the frame of the members of the church, CIIwhich will be a great direction to you, even in your prayers. Watch, now, brethren, that, if it be the will of God, not one soul may be lost from under your care. Let no one be overlooked or neglected; consider all their conditions, and apply yourselves to all their circumstances
“Finally, brethren, that I be not at present farther troublesome to you, examine yourselves as to your spiritual benefit which you have received, or do receive, by your present fears and dangers, which will alone give you the true measure of your condition; for if this tends to the exercise of your faith, and love, and holiness, if this increases your valuation of the privileges of the Gospel, it will be an undoubted token of the blessed issue which the Lord Christ will give unto your troubles. Pray for me, as you do; and do it the rather, that, if it be the will of God, I may be restored to you, — and if not, that a blessed entrance may be given to me into the kingdom of God and glory. Salute all the church in my name. I take the boldness in the Lord to subscribe myself your unworthy pastor, and your servant for Jesus’ sake,
“P.S. — I humbly desire you would in your prayers remember the family where I am, from whom I have received, and do receive, great Christian kindness. I may say, as the apostle of Onesiphorus, ‘The Lord give to them that they may find mercy of the Lord in that day, for they have often refreshed me in my great distress.’ ”
His infirmities increasing, he soon after removed from London to Kensington, for country air; occasionally, however, he was able still to visit London; and an incident which happened to him on one of these visits presents us with another picture of the times. As he was driving along the Strand, his carriage was stopped by two informers, and his horses seized. Greater violence would immediately have followed, had it not been that Sir Edmund Godfrey, a justice of the peace, was passing at the time, and seeing a mob collected round the carriage, asked what was the matter? On ascertaining the circumstances, he ordered the informers, with Dr Owen, to meet him at the house of another justice of the peace on an appointed day. When the day came, it was found that the informers had acted so irregularly, that they were not only disappointed of their base reward, but severely reprimanded and dismissed. Thus once more did Owen escape as a bird from the snare of the fowler.
Retiring still farther from the scenes of public life, Owen soon after took up his abode in the quiet village of Ealing, where he had a house of his own and some property. Only once again did persecution hover over him, and threaten to disturb the sacredness of his declining days, by seeking to involve him and some other of the Nonconformists in the Rye House plot; but the charge was too bold to be believed, and God was about, ere long, to remove him from the reach of all these evils, and to hide him in his pavilion, from the pride of man and from the strife of tongues. Anthony Wood has said of Owen that “he did very unwillingly lay down his head and die,” but how different was the spectacle of moral sublimity presented to the eyes of those who were actual witnesses of the last days of the magnanimous CIIIand heavenly-minded Puritan! In one of his latest writings, when referring to the near approach of the daily expected and earnestly desired hour of his discharge from all farther service in this world, he had said, “In the continual prospect hereof do I yet live, and rejoice; which, among other advantages unspeakable, has already given me an inconcernment in those oppositions which the passions or interests of men engage them in, of a very near alliance unto, and scarce distinguishable from, that which the grave will afford.” And all the exercises of his deathbed were the prolonged and brightening experience of what he here describes. In a letter to his beloved friend Charles Fleetwood, on the day before his death, he thus beautifully expresses his Christian affection, and his good hope through grace:—
“Dear Sir, — Although I am not able to write one word myself, yet I am very desirous to speak one word more to you in this world, and do it by the hand of my wife. The continuance of your entire kindness, knowing what it is accompanied withal, is not only greatly valued by me, but will be a refreshment to me, as it is, even in my dying hour. I am going to Him whom my soul has loved, or rather who has loved me with an everlasting love, — which is the whole ground of all my consolation. The passage is very irksome and wearisome, through strong pains of various sorts, which are all issued in an intermitting fever. All things were provided to carry me to London today, according to the advice of my physicians; but we are all disappointed by my utter disability to undertake the journey. I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm; but whilst the great Pilot is in it, the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live, and pray, and hope, and wait patiently, and do not despond; the promise stands invincible, that He will never leave us, nor forsake us. I am greatly afflicted at the distempers of your dear lady; the good Lord stand by her, and support and deliver her. My affectionate respects to her, and the rest of your relations, who are so dear to me in the Lord. Remember your dying friend with all fervency. I rest upon it that you do so, and am yours entirely,
The first sheet of his “Meditations on the Glory of Christ” had passed through the press under the superintendence of the Rev. William Payne, a Dissenting minister at Saffron Waldon, in Essex; and on that person calling on him to inform him of the circumstance on the morning of the day he died, he exclaimed, with uplifted hands, and eyes looking upwards, “I am glad to hear it; but, O brother Payne! the long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing, in this world.”165165 Middleton, iii. p. 480. Still it was no easy thing for that robust frame to be broken to pieces, and to let the struggling spirit go free. His physicians, Dr Cox and Sir Edmund King, remarked on the unusual strength of that earthly house which was about to be dissolved; while his more constant attendants on that consecrated hour were awe-struck by the mastery which his mighty and heaven-supported spirit maintained over his physical agonies. “In respect of CIVsicknesses, very long, languishing, and often sharp and violent, like the blows of inevitable death, yet was he both calm and submiss under all.”166166 Vindication of Owen by a friendly Scrutiny, etc., p. 38. At length the struggle ceased; and with eyes and hands uplifted, as if his last act was devotion, the spirit of Owen passed in silence into the world of glory. It happened on the 24th of August 1683, the anniversary of St. Bartholomew’s Day; — a day memorable in the annals of the Church of Christ, as that in which the two thousand Nonconformist confessors had exposed themselves to poverty and persecution at the call of conscience, and in which heaven’s gates had been opened wide to receive the martyred Protestants of France. Eleven days afterwards, a long and mournful procession, composed of more than sixty noblemen, in carriages drawn by six horses each, and of many others in mourning coaches and on horseback, silently followed the mortal remains of Owen along the streets of London, and deposited them in Bunhill-fields, — the Puritan necropolis.167167 Stoughton’s Spiritual Heroes.
“We have had a light in this candlestick,” said the amiable David Clarkson, on the Sabbath following; “we have had a light in this candlestick, which did not only enlighten the room, but gave light to others far and near: but it is put out. We did not sufficiently value it. I wish I might not say that our sins have put it out. We had a special honour and ornament, such as other churches would much prize; but the crown has fallen from our heads, — yea, may I not add, ‘Woe unto us, for we have sinned?’ ”168168 “Funeral Sermon on the most lamented death of the late reverend and learned John Owen, D.D., preached the next Lord’s day after his interment.” By David Clarkson, B.D.
Dr Owen had only reached the confines of old age when he died; but the wonder is, that a life of such continuous action and severe study had not sooner burned out the lamp. It may be remarked of him, as Andrew Fuller used to say of himself, that “he possessed a large portion of being.” He is said to have stooped considerably during the later years of his life; but when in his full vigour, his person was tall and majestic, while there was a singular mixture of gravity and sweetness in the expression of his countenance. His manners were courteous; his familiar conversation, though never deficient in gravity, was pleasantly seasoned with wit; and he was admired by his friends for his remarkable command of temper under the most annoying provocations, and his tranquil magnanimity in the midst of all the changes of fortune to which, in common with all his great Puritan contemporaries, he was exposed. “His general frame was serious, cheerful, and discoursive, — his expressions savouring nothing of discontent, much of heaven and love to Christ, and saints, and all men; which came from him so seriously and CVspontaneously, as if grace and nature were in him reconciled, and but one thing.”169169 Vindication of Owen by a friendly Scrutiny, etc., p. 38. Such is the portrait of Owen that has descended to us from those who best “knew his manner of life;” and our regret is all the greater, that we are constrained to receive the description in this general form, and that biography has opened to us so few of those glimpses of his domestic and social life which would have enabled us to “catch the living manners as they rose,” and to fill up for ourselves the less strongly defined outlines of his character.
Our business, however, is more with Dr Owen in his various public relations, and it seems to be a fit conclusion of this Memoir, that we should now attempt, in a few closing paragraphs, to express the estimate which a review of his conduct in these relations warrants us to form of his character. One of the most natural errors into which a biographer is in danger of being betrayed, is that of asserting the superiority of the individual who has been the subject of his memoir to all his contemporaries; and it would probably require no great stretch of ingenuity or eloquent advocacy to bring out Dr Owen as at least “primus inter pares.” In finding our way, however, to such conclusions, almost every thing depends on the particular excellence on which we fix as our standard of judgment; and we are persuaded that were we allowed to select a separate excellence in each case our standard, we could bring out each of the three great Puritans as, in his turn, the greatest. Let impressive eloquence in the pulpit and ubiquitous activity out of it be the standard, and all this crowned with successes truly apostolical, and must not every preacher of his age yield the palm to Richard Baxter? Or let our task be to search for the man in that age of intellectual giants who was most at home in the philosophy of Christianity, whose imagination could bear every subject he touched upwards into the sunlight, and cover it with the splendours of the firmament, and would we not lay the crown at the feet of the greatly good John Howe? But let the question be, who among all the Puritans was the most remarkable for his intimate and profound acquaintance with the truths of revelations who could shed the greatest amount of light upon a selected portion of the Word of God, discovering its hidden riches, unfolding its connections and harmonies, and bringing the most abstruse doctrines of revelation to bear upon the conduct and the life who was the “interpreter, one amongst a thousand?” or let other excellencies that we are about to specify be chosen as the standard, and will not the name of Dr Owen, in this case, obtain an unhesitating and unanimous suffrage? Such a mode, therefore, of expressing our estimate is not only invidious, but almost certain to fail, after all, in conveying a distinct and accurate conception of the character we CVIcommend. We prefer, therefore, to contemplate Dr Owen in his principal relations and most prominent mental features, and to paint a portrait without fashioning an idol.
The first excellence we have to name is one in regard to which, we are persuaded, the modern popular estimate has fallen considerably below the truth. We refer to the qualities of Owen as a preacher. No one who is familiar with his printed sermons, and has marked the rich ore of theology with which they abound, will refuse to him the praise of a great sermon-maker; but this gift is not always found united in the same person with that other excellence which is equally necessary to constitute the preacher, — the power, namely, of expressing all the sentiment and feeling contained in the words by means of the living voice. And the general impression seems to be, that Dr Owen was deficient in this quality, and that his involved sentences, though easily overlooked in a composition read in secret, must, without the accompaniments of a most perfect delivery, have been fatal to their effect upon a public audience. It is even supposed that his intellectual habits must have been unfavourable to his readiness as an orator, and that while, like Addison, he had abundance of gold in the bank, he was frequently at a loss for ready money. But Owen’s contemporaries report far differently; and the admiring judgment of some of them is the more to be relied on, that, as in the case of Anthony Wood, it was given with a grudge. Their descriptions, indeed, would lead us to conclude his eloquence was of the persuasive and insinuating, rather than, like Baxter’s, of the impassioned kind, — the dew, and not the tempest; but in this form of eloquence he appears to have reached great success. His amiable colleague, Mr Clarkson, speaking of “the admirable facility with which he could discourse on any subject,” describes him as “never at a loss for language, and better expressing himself extempore than others with premeditation;” and retaining this felicity of diction and mastery of his thoughts “in the presence even of the highest persons in the nation.” We have already had occasion to quote Wood’s representation of Owen’s oratory, as “moving and winding the affections of his auditory almost as he pleased;”170170 The words seems to be Dodwell’s, but they are quoted by Wood with approval. and a writer of great judgment and discrimination, who had often heard Owen preach, speaks of him as “so great an ornament to the pulpit, that, for matter, manner, and efficacy on the hearers, he represented indeed an ambassador of the Most High, a teacher of the oracles of God. His person and deportment were so genteel and graceful, that rendered him when present as affecting, or more than his works and fame when absent. This advanced the lustre of his internal excellencies, by shining through so bright a lantern.”
CVIIIndeed, the sermons of Owen and his compeers, not only compel us to form a high estimate of the preachers, but of the hearers of those times, who could relish such strong meat, and invite its repetition. And seldom perhaps on earth has a preacher been called to address more select audiences than Owen. We do not now refer to the crowding multitudes that hailed his early ministry at Fordham and Coggeshall, or to those little secret audiences meeting in upper chambers, to whom truth was whispered rather than proclaimed, but to those high intellects that were wont to assemble around him at Oxford, and to those helmed warriors and heroes of the commonwealth, who, on days of public fasting and thanksgiving, or on high occasions of state, would stand in groups to hear the great Puritan discourse. Many of these earnest souls were no sciolists in divinity themselves, and had first drawn their swords to secure the liberty of prophesying and uncontrolled freedom of worship.
We should form a very imperfect estimate of the character of Dr Owen, and of the beneficent influence which he exerted, did we not advert to his greatness as a man of affairs. In this respect we need have no hesitation in asserting his superiority to all the Puritans. Attached from principle to that great party whose noble mission it was to assert and to vindicate the rights of conscience and freedom of worship, he soon rose to be its chief adviser on all occasions of great practical exigency. He combined in a remarkable degree that clear perception and firm grasp of great abstract principles, that quick discernment of character and detection of hidden motive in others, which acts in some men with all the promptitude and infallibility of instinct, — that fertility of resources, that knowledge of the times for vigorous action and of the times in which to economize strength, which, when found in great prominence and happy combination in the politician, fit him for the high duties of statesmanship. He was the man who, by common consent, was called to the helm in a storm. Baxter was deficient in more than one of those qualities which are necessary to such a post; while his ardent nature would, on some occasions, have betrayed him into practical excesses, and at other times his love of nice and subtle distinction would have kept him discussing when he should have been acting; — while Howe’s elevation above the affairs of daily life, his love of solitude, which made him almost wish even to die alone in some unfrequented wood, or on the top of some far remote mountain, disinclined, if it did not unfit him, for the conduct of public affairs. But Owen’s singular excellence in this respect was early manifested, — and to no eye sooner than to that of Cromwell. We have seen him inviting his counsels on the affairs of Dublin University; taking him with him to Scotland, not only as his chaplain, but as his adviser in the affairs of that campaign, CVIIIwhen he found it more difficult to manage its theologians than to conquer its armies; and at length intrusting to him the arduous and almost desperate enterprise of presiding over Oxford, and raising it from its ruins. And throughout more than thirty years of the long struggle of the Puritans and Nonconformists, he was the counsellor and presiding mind, to whom all looked in the hour of important action and overwhelming difficulty.
Some have accused Owen and other Nonconformists of his age as too political for their office. But who made them such? Was it not the men who were seeking to wrest from them their dearest civil rights, and to make it a crime to worship God according to their consciences? With such base ingenuity of reproach were the Huguenots of France accused of holding secret meetings, after they had been forbidden to meet in public. It was no small part of Owen’s praise, that he saw and obeyed the necessity of his position; and that perhaps, of all the Puritans of his age, he was the most quick to “observe the signs of the times, and to know what Israel ought to do.” This is the estimate we should be disposed to form from a simple retrospect of the facts of our narrative; but it appears to have been the judgment which some of the best of Owen’s contemporaries were not slow to express. In that admirable letter to Baxter from which we have already quoted, referring more particularly to Owen’s vice-chancellorship, the writer says, “And though his years, piety, principles, and strait discipline, with the interest he adhered to, affected many of the heads and students with contempt, envy, and enmity at the first; his personal worth, obliging deportment, and dexterity in affairs that concerned him in that station, so mastered all, that the university grew not only content with, but proud of such a vice-chancellor. And, indeed, such were his temper and accomplishments, that whatever station or sort of men his lot, choice, or interest, should place him in or among, it were no small wonder that he were not uppermost:— that was his proper sphere, which those with whom he was concerned generally courted him into, and few envied or corrived.”171171 “Corrived” is an obsolete English word for “rivalled.”
But the aspect in which we most frequently think of Owen, and from which our highest estimate of him is formed, is that of a theological writer. Even the mere material bulk of his works fills us with surprise; and when we consider the intensely active life which Owen led, their production strikes us as almost incredible. In Russell’s editions together with the edition of his “Exposition” by Wright, his works fill no fewer than twenty-eight goodly octavo volumes, though we almost sympathize with the feeling that the folio form, in which many of them originally appeared, more fitly represents their intellectual stature. “Hew down the pyramids,” says Sir James CIXStephen, with a feeling which every lover of the old divinity will understand, — “Hew down the pyramids into a range of streets! divide Niagara into a succession of water privileges! — but let not the spirits of the mighty dead be thus evoked from their majestic shrines to animate the dwarfish structures of our bookselling generation.”
It is only, however, when we have acquired some considerable familiarity with the contents of these volumes, and when we remember that on almost every one of the great controversies, — such as the Arminian, the Socinian, the Popish, and the Episcopalian, — he has produced works which, after the lapse of nearly two centuries, are still regarded by unanimous consent as masterpieces on the themes on which they treat, that we feel unhesitating confidence in placing the name of Owen among the first names of that age of amazing intellectual achievement. In some of his controversies he had to do with men of inferior ability, of whom it might be said, as of some of Fuller’s opponents, that “they scarcely served him for a breakfast;” but in other controversies, such as that with Goodwin on the perseverance of the saints, he was called to grapple with some of the best and most accomplished men of his age. But he never quailed before any opponent. More than one of his works put an end to the controversy by driving his adversaries to despair; and only once — viz., in his rash encounter with Walton — did he retire undeniably vanquished from the field. It is unnecessary to repeat observations that have been made in the narrative on Owen’s various works; but this seems to be the place at which to indicate what seem to have been the most distinguishing qualities of Owen as a theological writer.
Perhaps no better word could be found to express one of the most striking characteristics of Owen, than that which Mackintosh has used to describe the writings of Bentham, — exhaustiveness. He goes through his subject “in the length thereof, and in the breadth thereof.” It was his custom to read all the works that had been written on his particular subject, — especially the writings of opponents, — and then to pass deliberately from point to point of his theme, and bring the whole concentrated light of Scripture to bear upon its elucidation and establishment. He leaves nothing to be added by one who shall follow in the same path, not even little gleanings at the corners of the field. — We venture to describe another feature of Owen’s works by the phrase, Theological conservatism. In an age remarkable for its intellectual excitement, which gave birth to all manner of extravagances in opinion, like the ocean in a storm, bringing to the surface monsters, and hydras, and chimeras dire, and then producing in due season a reaction into the shallows of Rationalism, Owen displayed no disposition to change. There is no writer in whose opinions throughout life there is more of consistency and unity. There is everywhere CXvisible strong intellect and profound thought; but it is intellect, not sporting itself with novelties, and expending itself in presumptuous speculation, but reasoning out and defending what apostles taught, and feeling that there is enough in this to fill an angel’s grasp. Various causes combined to work out this quality in Owen, especially his profound reverence for the authority of Scripture, leading him to travel over its ample field, but restraining him from passing beyond it; the influence of the truth upon his own heart, as a living power writing its divine witness within him; and also his vast learning, which enabled him to trace opinions to their source, and to detect in that which the ignorant and half-learned looked upon as a dazzling discovery, the resurrection of an exploded error, whose only novelty was in its name.
Allied to this, and in part accounting for it, was what we would style the devout Calvinism of Owen’s cast of thought. Baxter and he held substantially the same truths, their views, even when they seemed the most divergent, differing in form and complexion more than in substance; but still it is evident that the two great men had each his distinct and favourite standing-point. With Baxter, the initial thought was man in need of a great restorative system; and this led him outwards and upwards, from step to step of the Christian salvation. The initial thought with Owen was God in the past eternity devising a scheme of salvation through a Mediator; which he unfolded in its wondrous arrangements and provisions from age to age of the world, and whose glorious results were to continue to be enjoyed for ever and ever. This gave a comprehensiveness and an elevation to Owen’s whole theology, and accounts in part for the fact that Baxter seems greatest when bearing upon the duties of the sinner, and calling him to repentance, — “now or never;” while Owen comes forth in his greatest strength when instructing and building up those who have already believed.
And this suggests another of his most remarkable excellencies, — the power, namely, of bringing the various doctrines of the Christian system, even the most abstruse, to bear, in the form of motive and consolation, upon the affections and active powers of our human nature. Great as Owen is when we see him as the gigantic polemic, putting forth his intellectual might in “earnestly contending for the faith once delivered unto the saints;” we have not seen him in all his greatness until, in such practical works as his treatise on the “Mortification of Sin in Believers,” he brings the truth into contact, not so much with the errors of the heretic, as with the corruption and deceitfulness of the human heart. Then we have hesitated which most to admire, — his intimate knowledge of the Word of God, or his profound acquaintance with the heart of man, or the skill with which he brings the CXIone into vigorous and healing action upon the other; while all his great qualities, as the expositor of the Scriptures, as the defender of the faith, as the profound theologian, and as the wise practical instructor, have seemed to manifest themselves at once in single and united greatness, in that noble intellectual pyramid, his “Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews.”
Yet some of the excellencies that we have named stand closely connected with Owen’s chief defect, — which is to be found in his manner, rather than in his matter. His wish to exhaust his particular theme has made him say every thing on a subject that could be said, and betrayed him into an occasional prolixity and discursiveness, the absence of which would have made his works far more popular, and far more useful. He wants perspective in composition, and does not seem to know the secret of touching on themes, without laboriously handling them. This, with an occasionally involved and parenthetical style, has formed, as we conceive, the chief barrier to Owen’s yet wider acceptance. The sentiment of Dr Vaughan is a just one, that had the fluency and elegance of Bates been united to the massive thoughts of Owen, we should have had a near approach to the perfect theological writer. But let us admit this occasional defect; and let us even farther concede, that in other qualities he is not equal to others of the Puritans, — that he is surpassed by Baxter in point and energy, by Flavel in tenderness, by Howe in majesty, by both the Henrys in proverb and epigram, by Bates in beautiful similitudes; — still, where shall we find, in the theological writers of his own or of any age, so much of the accumulated treasures of a sanctified learning, — of the mind of God clearly elucidated and invincibly defended, — of profound and massive thought? His works are like a soil which is literally impregnated with gold, and in which burnished masses of the virgin ore are sure to reward him who patiently labours in it.
John Owen belonged to a class of men who have risen from age to age in the church, to represent great principles, and to revive in the church the life of God. The supreme authority of the Scriptures in all matters of religion, — the headship of Christ, — the rights of conscience, — religion as a thing of spirit, and not of form, resulting from the personal belief of certain revealed truths, and infallibly manifesting itself in a holy life, — the church as a society distinct from the world; — these principles, often contended for in flames and blood, were the essence of that Puritanism which found one of its noblest examples in Owen. Puritanism, it has been finely said, was the feeling of which Protestantism was the argument. But even then, it was an old spirit under a new name, which, heaven-enkindled, has ever borne the two marks of its celestial origin, in blessing the world and CXIIbeing persecuted by it. It was the spirit which breathed in the Lollards of Germany; in the Hussites of Bohemia, — in those saints, who
“On the Alpine mountains cold,
Kept God’s truth so pure of old,
When all our fathers worshipp’d stocks and stones;”
in the Huguenots of France; and in the stern Scottish Covenanters; — and which God has sometimes sent down since, like a benignant angel, when the church at any time has begun to stagnate in a cold orthodoxy, to trouble the waters of the sanctuary, that the lame might be healed. It is a spirit which the inert orthodoxy and the superficial evangelism of the church even now greatly needs to have breathed into it from heaven. And the laborious and prayerful study of the writings of the Puritans might do much to restore it. Only let the same truths be believed with the same faith, and they will produce the same men, and accomplish the same intellectual and moral miracles. A due appreciation of the most pressing wants of our age, and a timely discernment of its most serious perils, would draw from us the prayer which is said to have once escaped the lips even of the cold and calculating Erasmus, — “O, sit anima mea cum Puritanis Anglicanis!”
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