John Owen, perhaps the greatest of the Puritan theologians, was born sometime in 1616 — 400 years ago, next year — to a family of Puritans living in the tiny village of Stadhampton, in Oxfordshire.
The family was not especially wealthy, and neither were they especially rigorous in their religious views. Owen later described his father as a ‘a Nonconformist all his days, and a painful labourer in the vineyard of the Lord’ (Works, 13: 224), but this comment may reflect the kindness of a dimmed memory, for his father was not among those Puritans whose dissatisfaction with the Church of England drove them into exile in Holland or the new world.
Instead, Owen grew up in a religious community that had worked hard for the reformation of the Church of England, and had failed.
Owen began his university studies in Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of 12. His college days must have been tumultuous. During the late 1620s and 1630s, Queen’s College, with the rest of the university, passed through a religious revolution as the Reformed theological consensus which had dominated theological discussion for several decades was replaced by a new theological system, which seemed to its critics to mimic Catholic styles of worship.
Within Queen’s, the debate provoked threats of violence, with one academic threatening to stab the provost who was driving forward the liturgical changes. The threat was a sign of things to come, for England was about to enter a long civil war, in which religious ideas would be used to justify horrific levels of violence.
But, at the age of 21 and after years of preparation for an academic or clerical career, Owen felt he had to leave Oxford. He could not support the religious innovations. He plunged into a long period of despair, making decisions that seem peculiar in light of the principles that had driven him from the university.
For, within a year of abandoning his academic career, he sought ordination as a priest at the hands of Bishop of Oxford, one of the chief supporters of the religious innovations. He then found employment as a chaplain in the home of Sir Robert Dormer, a suspected Catholic whose recreational activities suggested no sympathy for puritan views.
By 1642, Owen had accepted another position as a household chaplain, this time in the home of Sir John Lovelace.
That summer, England drifted into the first civil war. Dormer and Lovelace both declared in favour of the king. Owen, who did not need to express any political preference, decided in favour of parliament. Having abandoned the university, he now left the Lovelace household and travelled to London, without prospects and almost entirely without friends.
He found lodgings in Smithfield. It was a cheap and unpleasant place to live, close to the red light district and to the place where so many of the Protestant martyrs had died. Here he worked on his first book (which was never published) and experienced conversion through the preaching of a minister whose identity he never discovered.
For the first time perhaps, Owen had come to understand how the doctrines that had been so fiercely debated during the previous decade could bring peace to a troubled soul.
With new resolve, he threw himself into another writing project, A display of Arminianism, which he dedicated to a committee of MPs who oversaw the religious health of the nation. Gaining their attention, he was appointed to his first parish, in Fordham, Essex.
Owen was quickly frustrated by the spiritual apathy of his parishioners. Within a few years he had married a girl from the neighbouring village of Coggeshall and had started a family. But, as poor weather and a series of bad harvests created the conditions of famine, John and Mary buried several of their children.
Moving to become pastor in Coggeshall, Owen was initially excited by the possibility of a new start, not least because the parish’s previous minister was now a member of the Westminster Assembly. Large crowds came to hear him preach, with some suggestions that over 2000 people attended his sermons. But this was not a sign of revival — his parishioners were legally compelled to attend worship. And, within a few years, he was again disappointed by the spiritual condition of his parish.
This disappointment developed as Owen changed his views on church order. In his early parish ministry, he moved from supporting a rather unformed Presbyterianism to adopt the vision of church life then being promoted by Independents.
This change involved much more than the question of whether or not individual congregations should be autonomous. Owen’s neighbouring minister, Ralph Josselin, recorded in his diary the ways in which the Coggeshall church was changing.
Owen installed an elder, John Sams, and had him preach without any ordination, even as he downplayed the importance of his own ordination. He gathered believers together for Bible study meetings, in which multiple people participated. And he revised his views on the Lord’s Supper, moving gradually to the position that it should be celebrated on a weekly basis.
Owen’s new vision of church life was developed in startling contrast to the clerical, formal and liturgical preferences of his Presbyterian colleagues. But he was not to remain as an obscure country preacher. In 1648 he witnessed the siege of Colchester, five miles from Coggeshall, during which were committed some of the worst war crimes of the period.
His sermons celebrating the achievements of the Parliamentary soldiers and their leader, Sir Thomas Fairfax, brought him to the attention of the army. As the political mood darkened, and the king was put on trial and executed, Owen’s new patrons identified him as the man to express their achievements in a political sermon.
Owen did preach on the day after the regicide, but he did not celebrate it. His new links with the army pulled him further from parish ministry and brought him into contact with Oliver Cromwell.
Owen’s links with this extraordinary and brilliant military leader were initially very close. He accompanied Cromwell on the invasion of Ireland in 1649, remaining in Dublin where for the first time he believed his ministry was being attended with conversions.
His journey to Scotland in 1650 was more complicated, and he was drawn into the complex politics and internal divisions of the kirk. He left the army, looking for new opportunities, and was awarded with positions of academic leadership in the university from which he had resigned less than 15 years before.
John Owen’s return to Oxford was a moment of triumph. As dean of Christ Church, and later vice-chancellor of the university, he was being given the opportunity to reshape the institution, so as to protect Reformed theology and promote godliness among the staff and students. He pursued these ends with diligence, and sometimes with a lack of scruple.
The move to Oxford had pushed him from the moral clarity of civil war into the ambiguous and complex world of academic politics. There is some evidence that he struggled to know how best to negotiate his new environment. For all that these appointments represented the apex of his career, they also represented his greatest challenges.
Owen preached and wrote relentlessly throughout his years in Oxford. A number of the books he completed during the 1650s have become spiritual classics, including Communion with God and his work on sanctification.
But he was becoming increasingly critical of the government. It was obvious that the army, not the parliament, held the real political power. Cromwell’s government was increasingly similar to that of the king it had replaced.
Owen grew worried, but then over-reached himself. In 1654 he was elected as a MP for the first Protectorate parliament. In his few months in the Commons, he was associated with radical republicans, men who were alarmed by the monarchical trappings of the Cromwell family.
Owen was expelled from Parliament on the basis that he was a clergyman — a status he rejected. He was, he insisted, a layman.
Sent back to Oxford, he became ever more critical of Cromwell and the direction his government was taking. He condemned the frivolity of Cromwell’s court and intervened on behalf of army republicans to stop Cromwell being crowned as king. The breach with his old patron and friend was complete.
Owen did not see Cromwell as he gradually sickened and in September 1658 died. When Oliver was replaced by Richard Cromwell, his son, who wished to continue the conservative trend, Owen moved immediately to gather a congregation of disaffected republicans, who, in a complex series of events, worked to undermine the new government.
The army had brought down governments before. In fact, almost every parliament since the regicide had been ended by the army’s intervention. But, this time, the officers gambled and lost. Their coup created chaos until Charles II returned.
The restoration of the monarchy in May 1660 ended the English revolution. Its leaders were tried, found guilty of treason and publicly butchered. Meanwhile, the ejection of Puritan ministers from the Church of England in August 1662 ended any hope that the godly could be accommodated within the established church.
Owen, who was in some personal danger, struggled to know how best to respond to the new circumstances. His activities in the early 1660s reveal his mental conflict. In January 1661, while conducting a conventicle, his house was raided and the militia carried away half-a-dozen cases of pistols.
Throughout the same period, his books advocated a surprising range of positions. In Animadversions on Fiat Lux (1662) and its Vindication (1664), for example, he praised the new king as the greatest Protestant in Europe, defended his role as the head of the established church, and denied the need for confessions of faith.
In other publications from this period, he defended Independent church order and called for congregations to strenuously defend Reformed theology. All of these works were published anonymously, and some of them were published illegally. Owen passed by the impaled heads of many of his old friends every time he passed in and out of London. Who is to say he did not fear that he too could become a victim?
By the mid-1660s, however, the political situation began to settle. Nonconformists gained courage to begin public preaching again, even in London. Owen kept his head down, kept writing, and found time in 1668 to pose for a portrait by one of the most fashionable and dissolute of the court painters.
By the early 1670s, his situation had changed again. His small congregation, which comprised around 30 individuals, many of them prominent republicans, combined with a congregation of around 100 individuals, which had been led by the recently deceased Joseph Caryl. They began to meet in their city premises.
His preaching changed. His sermons were shorter, more focused and geared very directly to the pastoral needs of his listeners. In many ways, these sermons, which are mostly collected in volume 9 of the Banner of Truth edition of his Works, represent some of the best of his work.
John Owen was surrounded by death. Mary, his wife, died in the later 1670s and their only surviving child died shortly later. He quickly remarried, but his friends remarked on his continuing depression. He had lost so much — a wife, each of his children, and, it seemed, the work of a lifetime.
When he died, in August 1683, he believed that the English reformation was almost over and that the puritan project had failed.
Of course, events proved otherwise. The Glorious Revolution secured the British Protestant constitution, but it did not secure the integrity of the British churches. Owen’s congregation was not long to continue in his footsteps, but eventually became Unitarian. Surprisingly perhaps, it was John Wesley who kept Owen’s reputation alive. Wesley republished parts of Owen’s writing in his Christian library (1750). Throughout the eighteenth century, Scottish publishers kept his ecclesiastical works in print, while a much smaller number of English publishers occasionally reprinted his devotional and exegetical works.
In the nineteenth century, Owen was praised by the Exclusive Brethren leader William Kelly, even as he was abominated by liberal evangelicals within the Church of Scotland. In the early twentieth century, he found appreciative readers among A. W. Pink in the 1920s, Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1930s, and Jim Eliot, the future missionary martyr, in the early 1950s.
When the Banner of Truth republished The Death of Death (1959), the stage was already set for his return.
Today, it is easier than ever before to read this greatest of Puritan theologians. Owen’s books, in both original and modernised editions, are readily available. And he deserves to be read. For Owen was extraordinary.
His work repays all the close attention it requires. And when better to begin to read Owen than in the year of his 400th birthday?
Professor Crawford Gribben is head of school and professor of early modern British history at Queens University, Belfast. His forthcoming biography, John Owen and English Puritanism: experiences of defeat is to be published by Oxford University Press next year.