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It is matter of just regret and complaint that no elaborate contemporary memoir of this great Puritan was ever written. Twenty years after his death, Cotton Mather, in his “Magnalia Americana Christi,” declared “that the church of God was wronged, in that the life of the great John Owen was not written;” and it was only when twenty years more had elapsed that a life of Owen at length appeared, from the pen of Mr Asty, a respectable Independent minister in London; which, though written under the eye of Sir John Hartopp, a particular friend of Owen, and for many years a member of his church, is chargeable with numerous inaccuracies, and so scanty withal, as “not to contain so many pages as Owen has written books.”11 Orme’s Memoirs of Owen, p. 2. In addition to this, an equally brief anonymous memoir has fallen into our hands, professing to have been written by one who “had the honour to know this eminent person well, and to hear him frequently; though he must confess that he had not then years and experience enough to conceive a suitable idea of the Doctor’s great worth.” But the student who should wish to search for voluminous contemporary records and early reminiscences of Owen, will look in vain for such full and accurate memorials as Dr Edmund Calamy has given us of Howe; for such an inexhaustible storehouse of incident, and almost redundance of mental portraiture, as Richard Baxter has given us of himself. The sources from which the modern biographer must draw his notices of Owen, besides those already named, are to some extent the representations of adversaries, who could not be silent on so great a name, or withhold reluctant praise; the not infrequent allusions to Owen in the lives of his contemporaries; the statements of general history and biography, — such as are to be found in the page of Neal, Calamy, Middleton, Palmer, and others; and, perhaps the most valuable and interesting of all, the many unconscious touches of autobiography which may be found in his prefaces to his various works. Of all of these Mr Orme has made excellent use in his Life of Owen; which is a remarkable specimen of untiring research, solid judgment and ability in the disposal of his materials, and, making some allowance for honest bias, of biographical fidelity: and from all of these, and especially from Mr Orme himself, we shall gather the details of our biographical sketch and estimate of Owen.
The genealogy of the subject of our memoir leads us back to a family of high rank and reputation in Wales, whose remoter links connect it with the five regal tribes. In the reigns of Henry VIII., Edward VI., and Queen Mary, we meet with the name of Lewis Owen as Vice-chamberlain and Baron of the Exchequer in North Wales, and High Sheriff of the county of Merioneth; as honoured by correspondence with those monarchs in reference to the affairs of Wales and as going forth on a commission to clear the country of those felons and outlaws who had sought refuge in great numbers among its mountains, during the turbulence and relaxed authority that had arisen from the long wars between the houses of York and Lancaster. At a later period this honoured ancestor fell a sacrifice to his fidelity as a magistrate; for, on his return from the assizes in Montgomeryshire, he fell into the hands of a band of outlaws, who had taken a vow of revenge against him on account of the capture of their companions, and, deserted by all but one faithful friend, was murdered by them in the woods of Monthrey.22 Asty’s Memoir, p. ii. Anonymous Memoir, p. v.
Humphrey Owen, a branch of this same family, married Susan, a granddaughter of Lewis Owen; and to him there were born in succession fifteen sons, the youngest of whom was Henry Owen. Henry was dedicated by his parents to office in the church, and having received an education, in language, philosophy, and divinity, at Oxford, in the course of time became vicar of Stadham, in Oxfordshire. Here he proved himself so “painful a labourer in the vineyard of the Lord,” and so uncompromising an advocate for reformation in the church, as to receive testimony to his fidelity in the jealousy and displeasure of the dominant ecclesiastical powers, and to be branded with the name of “Puritan.” To this worthy vicar there was born, at Stadham, in the year 1616, a second son, John Owen, the subject of this memoir, who was destined to shed a new renown on their ancient house, and to eclipse, by the more substantial glory of his virtues, learning, and genius, the dim lustre of their regal lineage.33 Ibid.
Little is known regarding the childhood of Owen; and no records whatever have descended to tell us of the mother to whom was committed the training of his most susceptible years, and who was to be the Monnica to this future Augustine. There is reason to think that he received the elements of a common education from the good vicar himself, under the domestic roof at Stadham; while, after a few years of home education, he was transferred to a private academy at Oxford, where he entered on his classical studies under the superintendence of Edward Sylvester, a tutor of eminence, several of whose pupils rose to the highest distinction, and even won for themselves at no distant date an undying fame. A comparison of dates makes it unlikely that the two were playmates; but it is interesting to notice, that the same quiet institution, in the parish of All-Saints, which now received within its walls the future great theologian of the Puritans, was also the place in which was initiated into the Greek and Roman tongues the immortal Chillingworth, — of whose great work, “The Religion of Protestants,” it is not too much to say, that it is sufficient to shed honour, not on a university merely, but on an age.44 Wood’s Athenæ Oxoniensis, p. 97. Orme, p. 7. One fact will suffice to show the energy with which the young pupil applied himself to his studies, as well as the unusually early development of his faculties, that, at the age of twelve, he was found to have outgrown the instructions of Sylvester and to be ripe for the university. He was, accordingly, entered a student at Queen’s College at this age, which, in the case of most youths, would have been most injudiciously premature, and, even at this period, must have seemed strangely early; for, in looking into the lives of some of the most eminent of his contemporaries, we meet with no instance of similar precocity. Bishop Hall, for example, enrolled himself at Cambridge at fifteen,55 Hamilton’s Memoir of Bishop Hall, p. viii. while his great Puritan contemporary, John Howe, did not enter Oxford until he had reached the riper age of seventeen.66 Urwick’s Life of Howe, p. vi.
Few men of great eminence appear to have occupied the chairs of the university at this period; but Owen was fortunate enough to have his studies in mathematics and philosophy superintended by a tutor of solid attainments and subsequent high distinction, — Thomas Barlow, then a fellow of Queen’s College, afterwards its provost, and who, in course of time, was elevated to the see of Lincoln.77 We have additional authority for many of the above facts in one of the larger epitaphs on Owen by his friend the Rev. T. Gilbert of Oxford; some lines of which we subjoin:— “Literis natus, literis innutritus, totusque deditus; Donec animata plane evasit bibliotheca: Authoribus classicis, qua Græcis, qua Latinis, Sub Edv. Sylvestro, scholæ privitæ Oxonii moderatore Operam navavit satis felicem: Feliciorem adhuc studiis philosophicis, Magno sub Barlovi, coll. reginalis, id tempus, socio.” The boy-student devoted himself to the various branches of learning with an intensity that would have unhinged most minds, and broken in pieces any bodily constitution except the most robust. For several years of his university curriculum he allowed himself only four hours of the night for sleep, though he had the wisdom so far to counteract the injurious influence of sedentary habits and excessive mental toil, by having recourse to bodily recreation in some of its most robust and even violent forms. Leaping, throwing the bar, bell-ringing, and similar amusements, occasionally allured him from his books; and it may perhaps surprise some, who conceive of the men of that age as unsocial and unfriendly to all the lighter graces and accomplishments, to learn that Owen received lessons in music from Dr Thomas Wilson, a celebrated performer on the flute, and the favourite preceptor in the same elegant and delightful art of Charles I. It may perhaps have been from grateful recollections of these youthful and fascinating exercises, in which the student had been accustomed to unbend from too protracted and severe studies, that Owen at a future period, when elevated to the vice-chancellorship of Oxford, appointed his early tutor professor of music in the university.88 Asty, p. iii. Orme, p. 9.
Still, the hours which are taken from needful rest are not redeemed, but borrowed, and must be paid back with double interest in future life; and Owen, when he began to feel his iron frame required to pay the penalty of his youthful enthusiasm, was accustomed to declare that he would willingly part with all the learning he had accumulated by such means, if he might but recover the health which he had lost in the gaining of it. And he was wont to confess with a far profounder sorrow, not unmixed with shame, that no holy oil at this time fed his midnight lamp; but that the great motive which had borne him up, during those days and nights of consuming toil, was an ambition to rise to distinction and power in the church. We can well believe that the severity of this self-condemnation would, by a judge more tender than himself, have so far been mitigated by the knowledge of another motive, which must have had considerable influence upon his mind, arising from the fact that his father had been unable to render him any adequate pecuniary assistance, and that he had hitherto been indebted for his support to the liberality of an uncle in Wales. But still, when more amiable motives have been allowed their full force, a mere earthly ambition must be acknowledged to have been the mainspring of all his past efforts; and we cannot doubt that, when he returned to the university at a future period, these condemnatory reminiscences arose strongly in his mind, and that, like Philip Henry in similar circumstances, while thanking God that his course had been unstained by vices, he could insert in his book, “A tear dropped over my university sins.”99 Bogue and Bennet’s History of Dissenters, ii. 211, 226.
And here let us pause for a moment, to look at the circumstances of another student, who was destined at a future day to shine with Owen in the same bright constellation. While Owen was walking amid the majestic structures and academic shades of Oxford, or bending over the midnight page, Richard Baxter might have been seen amid the enchanting scenery of Ludlow Castle, or, later still, in the small village of Wroxeter, with little help or guidance from man, but, under the promptings of an indomitable will, and with an omnivorous appetite for knowledge, allowing no difficulties or discouragements to damp the ardour of his pursuits. Without the advantage of the systematic training of a university, or the command of the rich stores of its libraries, this was almost compensated to his athletic soul by the more discursive and varied range which both his tastes and his necessities thus gave to his studies. In the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, and Duns Scotus, which to most minds would have been dry and barren as the sands of the desert, his acute intellect found high exercise and real delight, and rejoiced in whetting and exercising on them its dialectic powers, until he could rival in subtle and shadowy distinctions those ghostly schoolmen. Two years the senior of Owen, he was also “in Christ” before him; and while the Oxford student was still feeding the fires of an earth-born ambition, Baxter had learned from Sibbs’ Bruised Reed, and from his Bible, the art of holy meditation; and, even in the later years of his student-life, might have been seen at that hour when it was too dark to read and too early to light his lamp, devoting its sacred moments to thinking of heaven and anticipations of the “saints’ everlasting rest.”1010 Jenkyn’s Essay on the Life of Baxter, pp. iii.–v. But the same grace was soon to descend upon the soul of Owen, and, cooperating with providential occurrences, to withdraw him forever from the poor daydreams of a mere earthly ambition. While he was measuring out for himself a course which, if successful, would probably have made him a secular churchman, and even an intolerant persecutor, Christ had said of him, “I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.” Let us now trace the influences and events which brought about in the mind and outward circumstances of Owen this mighty change.
We have no minute information regarding the means by which his mind was first turned with serious personal interest to the supreme subject of religion. Perhaps the dormant seeds of early instruction that had been lodged in his mind under the roof of the humble vicarage now began to live; perhaps some of those truths which he was storing in his mind as matter of mere intellectual furniture and accomplishment had unexpectedly reached his heart; or the earnest struggles on religious questions that were beginning to agitate the kingdom had, in some measure, arrested the sympathy of the young recluse; or thoughts of a more serious kind than he had yet entertained had arisen in his mind, he knew not how, like invisible and life-awakening spring-breezes; or all these things combined may have been employed as influences in bringing him at length to “seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness.” At all events, we have Owen’s own testimony to the fact, that in the later years of his university life, the Divine Spirit began to work in his soul a new class of thoughts and emotions; and though it was not until a later period that he entered upon the full peace and holy liberty of the kingdom of God, he was brought even then to submit his life to the supreme control of religious principle, and to ask, “What wilt thou have me to do?”
While his mind was undergoing this great change, events were occurring in the government of the university which were fitted to put his religious principle to the test, and to try it, as it were, by fire. William Laud having, by a succession of rapid advancements, been raised to the chancellorship of Oxford, hastened to introduce into it those Romish innovations which, as the privy councillor and principal adviser of Charles, and the intimate associate of Strafford, he had already done much to infuse into the general ecclesiastical policy of the nation. The naturally arrogant and domineering spirit of this narrow-minded ecclesiastic, whom even Clarendon describes as “rough of temper, impatient of contradiction, and arbitrary,”1111 Heylin’s Life of Laud, p. 252. had far more to do with those oppressive measures which marked his fatal ecclesiastical supremacy, than those mistaken views of the rights of conscience which at this period dragged so many better and more amiable men into the ranks of persecutors. Accordingly, we find him requiring the adoption, by the university, of many of those rites and ceremonials which savoured the most strongly of Popish superstitions, and in some instances were identical with them, and which the Reformers of England had soonest renounced and most severely condemned; the penalty of resistance to this demand being nothing less than expulsion from the university.
This bold innovation at once dragged Owen from the privacy of his student-life into all the stern struggles of a public career. And his mind, delivered by the fear of God from every other fear, was not slow in resolving on resistance to the bigoted prelate’s intolerant statutes. Many of the rites which Laud imposed were such as he in conscience believed to be divinely forbidden; and even things which, if left unimposed, might have been borne with as matters of indifference, when authoritatively enjoined as of equal obligation with divine appointment, he felt ought to be resisted as an invasion of the divine prerogative and the rights of conscience, — “a teaching for doctrines of the commandments of men.” This was the ground that had been occupied by the Puritans from the days of Elizabeth, when Ridley and Latimer had “played the man in the fire;” and though we have no record of Owen’s mental exercise at this period, yet, with the course that was actually taken by him before us, we cannot doubt that he now unconsciously felt his way to this first Puritan standing-point, and that the following passage, written by him long afterwards, expressed the principles which animated his mind and decided his movements:—
“They [believers] will receive nothing, practise nothing, own nothing in His worship, but what is of His appointment. They know that from the foundation of the world he never did allow, nor ever will, that in any thing the will of the creatures should be the measure of his honour, or the principle of His worship, either as to matter or manner. It was a witty and true sense that one gave of the Second Commandment, ‘Non imago, non simulachrum prohibetur, sed, non facies tibi;’ — it is a making to ourselves, an inventing, a finding out ways of worship, or means of honouring God, not by him appointed, that is so severely forbidden. Believers know what entertainment all will-worship finds with God. ‘Who has required this at your hand?’ and, ‘In vain do ye worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men,’ is the best it meets with. I shall take leave to say what is upon my heart, and what (the Lord assisting) I shall willing endeavour to make good against all the world, — namely, that that principle, that the church has power to institute and appoint any thing or ceremony belonging to the worship of God, either as to matter or to manner, beyond the orderly observance of such circumstances as necessarily attend such ordinances as Christ himself has instituted, lies at the bottom of all the horrible superstition and idolatry, of all the confusion, blood, persecution, and wars, that have for so long a season spread themselves over the face of the Christian world; and that it is the design of a great part of the Book of the Revelation to make a discovery of this truth.
“And I doubt not but that the great controversy which God has had with this nation for so many years, and which he has pursued with so much anger and indignation, was upon this account, that, contrary to the glorious light of the Gospel, which shone among us, the wills and fancies of men, under the name of order, decency, and authority of the church (a chimera that none knew what it was, not wherein the power did consist, nor in whom reside), were imposed on men in the ways and worship of God. Neither was all that pretence of glory, beauty, comeliness, and conformity, that then was pleaded, any thing more or less than what God does so describe in the Church of Israel, Ezek. xvi. 25, and forwards. Hence was the Spirit of God in prayer derided, — hence was the powerful preaching of the gospel despised, — hence was the Sabbath-day decried, — hence was holiness stigmatized and persecuted. To what ends that Jesus Christ might be deposed from the sole power of lawmaking in his church, — that the true husband might be thrust aside, and adulterers of his spouse embraced, — that taskmasters might be appointed in and over his house, which he never gave to his church, Eph. iv. 11, — that a ceremonious, pompous, outward show-worship, drawn from Pagan, Judaical, and Antichristian observances, might be introduced; of all which there is not one word, tittle, or iota in the whole book of God. This, then, they who hold communion with Christ are careful of, — they will admit nothing, practise nothing, in the worship of God, private or public, but what they have his warrant for. Unless it comes in his name, with ‘Thus saith the Lord Jesus,’ they will not hear an angel from heaven.”1212 Owen on Communion with God, pp. 309, 310, fol. ed.
While the well-informed conscience of Owen thus distinctly forbade conformity, every consideration of seeming worldly interest strongly pleaded for pliant acquiescence in the statutes of Laud. To abandon Oxford, was to dash from him at once all those fair prospects which had hitherto shone before him in his career as a student, — to shut against himself the door, not only of honourable preferment, but, as it probably at this time appeared to his mind, of Christian usefulness, — to incur the inevitable displeasure of that prelate, whose keen and sleepless efforts to search out all who were opposed to his policy had already subjected every corner of the realm to a vigilant and minute inspection, and whose cruel and malignant spirit was already finding desolating scope in the unconstitutional measures and atrocities of the Star Chamber and the High Commission. And even though these latter perils might seem to be remote as yet from his head, yet could he not be blind to the fact, that, by such a step, he might incur the implacable displeasure of his Royalist uncle in Wales, who had hitherto supplied him with the principal means of support at Oxford, and expressed his intention, in case of continued satisfaction with his conduct, of making him heir to his estates. Yet all these probable consequences of non-compliance Owen was willing to incur, rather than violate his sense of duty, “esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt;” and, at the age of twenty-one, might have been seen leaving behind him all the daydreams and cherished associations of more than ten youthful years, and passing through the gates of Oxford self-exiled for conscience’ sake. God was now educating him in a higher school than that of Oxford, and subjecting him to that fiery discipline by which he tempers and fashions his most chosen instruments. But “there is no man that has left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifold more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” Ten years afterwards the banished student, who had thus nobly followed the light of conscience, lead where it might, was to be seen returning through those very gates to receive its highest honours, — to have intrusted to him the administration of its laws, and almost to occupy the very seat of power from which Laud had, in the interval, been ignominiously hurled.
Owen had “commenced master of arts” in his nineteenth year, and not long before leaving Oxford, had been admitted to orders by Bishop Bancroft. He now found a home unexpectedly opened to him in the house of Sir Philip Dormer of Ascot, who invited him to become chaplain to his family, and tutor to his eldest son; “in both which respects,” says one of the oldest notices of Owen, “he acquitted himself with great satisfaction to Sir Robert and his family.”1313 Anon. Mem., p. ix. After some time, he accepted the situation of chaplain in the family of Lord Lovelace of Hurly, in Berkshire, where he appears to have enjoyed much kindness, and to have been duly appreciated.1414 Wood’s Athen. Oxen., p. 97. But meanwhile the rent between Charles and his Parliament was widening apace. His frequent invasion of the constitutional rights of the other estates of the realm, his attempts to rule without a Parliament and to raise money by illegal means, his systematic violation of his most solemn pledges, his connivance at the innovating superstitions of Laud, and wanton violation of religious liberty, at length roused an impatient kingdom to resistance, drove the Parliament to the last resort of arms, and shook the land with the discord of civil war.1515 Vaughen’s Memorials of the Stuart Dynasty, I., ch. vii.–xi. At such a crisis it is impossible for any man to remain neutral, and it found Owen and his patron of opposite sentiments. Lord Lovelace took up arms on the side of Charles, and of royal prerogative; all the convictions and sympathies of Owen were naturally with the army of the Parliament, and the cause of public liberty. Two consequences immediately followed from this to Owen, — his leaving the family of Lord Lovelace, and the complete estrangement of his Royalist uncle in Wales, who now finally disinherited him, and bestowed his estates and wealth upon another.
Leaving Berkshire, Owen now removed to London, and took up his residence in Charter-House Yard. Here he continued to suffer from that mental depression which had begun with his earliest religious anxieties at Oxford; and which, though partially relieved at intervals, had never yet been completely removed. Some influence is no doubt to be ascribed to the discouraging outward circumstances in which his uncle’s conduct had placed him, in deepening the gloom of those shadows which now cast themselves across his spirit; but the chief spring of his distress lay deeper, — in his perplexities and anxieties about his state with God. For years he had been under the power of religious principle, but he had not yet been borne into the region of settled peace; and at times the terrors of the Lord seemed still to compass him about. We have no means of ascertaining with certainty what were the causes of these dreadful conflicts in Owen’s mind; whether an overwhelming sense of the holiness and rectitude of God; or perverse speculations about the secret purposes of God, when he should have been reposing in his revealed truths and all embracing calls; or a self-righteous introversion of his thoughts upon himself, when he should have been standing in the full sun-light of the cross; or more mysterious deeps of anguish than any of these; — but we are disposed to think that his noble treatise on the “Forgiveness of Sin,” written many years afterwards, is in a great degree the effect as well as the record of what he suffered now. Nothing is more certain than that some of the most precious treasures in our religious literature have thus come forth from the seven-times-heated furnace of mental suffering. The wondrous colloquies of Luther, in his “Introduction to the Galatians,” reflect the conflicts of his own mighty spirit with unbelief; the “Pilgrim’s Progress” is in no small degree the mental autobiography of Bunyan; and there is strong internal evidence that Owen’s “Exposition of the 130th Psalm” — which is as full of Christian experience as of rich theology, and contains some of the noblest passages that Owen ever penned — is to a great extent the unconscious transcript of his present wanderings, and perplexities, and final deliverances.
But the time had come when the burden was to fall from Owen’s shoulders; and few things in his life are more truly interesting than the means by which it was unloosed. Dr Edmund Calamy was at this time minister in Aldermanbury Chapel, and attracted multitudes by his manly eloquence. Owen had gone one Sabbath morning to hear the celebrated Presbyterian preacher, and was much disappointed when he saw an unknown stranger from the country enter the pulpit. His companion suggested that they should leave the chapel, and hasten to the peace of worship of another celebrated preacher; but Owen’s strength being already exhausted, he determined to remain. After a prayer of simple earnestness, the text was announced in these words of Matt. viii. 26, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” Immediately it arrested the thoughts of Owen as appropriate to his present state of mind, and he breathed an inward prayer that God would be pleased by that minister to speak to his condition. The prayer was heard, for the preacher stated and answered the very doubts that had long perplexed Owen’s mind; and by the time that the discourse was ended, had succeeded in leading him forth into the sunshine of a settled peace. The most diligent efforts were used by Owen to discover the name of the preacher who had thus been to him “as an angel of God,” but without success.1616 Asty, p. v. Anon. Mem., p. x.
There is a marked divine selection visible in the humble instrument that was thus employed to bring peace to Owen’s mind. We trace in it the same wisdom that sent a humble Ananias to remove the scales from the eyes of Saul, and made the poor tent-maker and his wife the instructors of the eloquent Apollos. And can we doubt that when the fame of Owen’s learning and intellectual power had spread far and wide, so that even foreign divines are said to have studied our language in order that they might read his works the recollection of the mode of his own spiritual deliverance would repress all self-dependence and elation, and make him feel that the highest form of success in preaching was in no respect the monopoly of high intellectual gifts; but that in every instance it was, “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord?”
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