|« Prev||His Vice-Chancellorship||Next »|
The office of dean of Christ Church involved in it the duty of presiding at all the meetings of the college, and delivering lectures in divinity; while that of vice-chancellor virtually committed to the hands of Owen the general government of the university. A charge of inconsistency has sometimes been brought against him, as an Independent, for accepting such offices, especially that of dean; and even some sentences of Milton have been adduced to give sanction to the complaint. But the whole charge proceeds on a mistake. It should be remembered that the University of Oxford during the Commonwealth shared in those changes which befell so many other institutions, and had ceased to be a mere appendage and buttress of Episcopacy, and that the office as held by Owen was separated from its ecclesiastical functions, and retained nothing, in fact, of Episcopacy except the name. It is quite true that the emoluments of the deanery were still drawn from the same sources as at an earlier period; but Owen, in common with many of the Independents and all the Presbyterians of his times, was not in principle opposed to the support of the teachers of religion by national funds.5353 Discourse of Toleration, Owen’s Sermons, fol. ed. p. 308.
His scruples in accepting office in Oxford, and especially in consenting to be raised to the high position of vice-chancellor, arose from other causes; and it needed all the authority of Cromwell, and all the influence of the senate, completely to overcome them. It required him to do violence to some of his best affections and strongest predilections to tear himself away from the studious days and the happy pastorate of Coggeshall; and perhaps it demanded a higher pitch of resolution still to undertake the government of a university which had been brought to the very brink of ruin by the civil wars, and from which, during the intervening years, it had very partially recovered. During those years of commotion, learning had almost been forgotten for arms; and Oxford, throwing itself with a more than chivalrous loyalty into the cause of Charles, had drained its treasury, and even melted its plate, in order to retrieve his waning fortunes. The consequence had been, that at the end of the civil war, when the cause of the Parliament triumphed, many of its halls and colleges were closed; others of them had been converted into magazines for stores and barracks for soldiers; the studious habits of its youth had been completely disturbed, and the university burdened with a debt of almost hopeless magnitude. Some of the worst of these evils still remained, — others of them were only partially diminished; and when we add to this the spirit of destructive Vandalism with which a noisy party began to regard those ancient seats of learning, the licentiousness and insubordination which the students had borrowed from the armies of the Royalists, as well as the jealousy with which Owen was regarded by the secret friends of Episcopacy, and by Presbyterians who had been displaced by Cromwell from high positions in order to give place to Independents, it is easy to see that it required no common courage to seize the helm at such a moment, to grapple with such varied and formidable difficulties, and to reduce such discordant elements to peace.5454 Neal, iii. 360, 361. Walker’s Sufferings of the Clergy, pp. 122, 123, 128. Owen’s Oratio Quinta ad Academicos, anno 1657. “Per primum biennium vulgi fuimus et vulgaris fabula.” Such was the work to which Owen now betook himself.
It is only too evident that even at the present day it requires, in the case of many, something like a mental effort against early prejudice, to conceive of this Puritan pastor occupying the lofty eminence to which he was now raised with a suitable amount of dignity and grace. Not only the author of “Hudibras,” but even Clarendon and Hume, have written of the Puritans in the style of caricature, and cleverly confounding them under a common name with ignorant and extravagant sectaries whom the Puritans all along condemned and disowned, have too long succeeded in representing the popular type of the Puritans as that of men of affected sanctity, pedantic and piebald dialect, sour temper, and unpolished manner. Those who indulge these ignorant mistake forget that if the Puritan preachers were thus utterly deficient in matters of taste and refinement, they had received their training at Oxford and Cambridge, and that the reflection must, therefore, in all fairness, be extended to those seminaries. They forget, moreover, as has been well remarked, that “it is more reasonable, and certainly much more generous, to form our judgment with regard to religious parties from the men among them who make their bequests to posterity, than from such as constitute the weakness of a body rather than its strength, and who die, as a matter of course, in the obscurity in which they have lived.”5555 Vaughan’s Modern Pulpit, p. 87.
But it is remarkable, that all the leading men among the Puritan clergy were such as, even in the matter of external grace and polish, might have stood before kings. The native majesty of John Howe, refined by intercourse with families of noble birth, and his radiant countenance, as if formed meliore luto, linger even in his portraits. Philip Henry, the playmate of princes, bore with him into his country parish that “unbought grace of life,” which, in spite of his sterner qualities, attracted towards him the most polished families of his neighbourhood. Richard Baxter was the chosen associate of Sir Matthew Hale; and, contrary even to the popular notions of those whose sympathies are all on the side of Puritanism, Owen bore with him into public life none of the uncouth and lumbering pedantry of the recluse, but associated with his more solid qualities all the lighter graces of courtesy and taste. He is described by one contemporary as “of universal affability, ready presence and discourse, liberal, graceful, and courteous demeanour, that speak him certainly (whatsoever he be else) one that was more a gentleman than most of the clergy.”5656 “Authority of the Magistrate in Religion Discussed,” &c., by J. H.; whom Anthony Wood (Athen. Oxon., iv. 101) supposes to be John Humphrey. And Dodwell says, “His personage was proper and comely, and he had a very graceful behaviour in the pulpit, an eloquent elocution, a winning and insinuating deportment, and could, by the persuasion of his oratory, in conjunction with some other outward advantages, move and wind the affections of his auditory almost as he pleased.”5757 Wood’s Athen. Oxon., ibid. — We subjoin Wood’s own caricature: “While he [Owen] did undergo the same office, he, instead of being a grave example to the university, scorned all formality, undervalued his office by going in quirpo like a young scholar, with powdered hair, snakebone bandstrings (or bandstrings with very large tassles), lawn bands, a very large set of ribbons pointed at his knees, and Spanish leather boots with large lawn tops, and his hat mostly cock’d.” — Ibid. 98. It is with such a manner that we can conceive him to have addressed the assembled heads of colleges, when he assumed the helm at Oxford with tremulous hand, yet with firm determination to do his utmost to discharge his high stewardship.
“I am well aware,” said he, “gentlemen of the university, of the grief you must feel that, after so many venerable names, reverend persons, depositaries and preceptors of the arts and sciences, the fates of the university should have at last placed him as leader of the company who almost closes the rear. Neither, indeed, is this state of our affairs, of whatever kind it be, very agreeable to myself, since I am compelled to regard my return, after a long absence, to my beloved mother as a prelude to the duties of a laborious and difficult situation. But complaints are not remedies of any misfortune. Whatever their misfortune, groans become not grave and honourable men. It is the part of an undaunted mind boldly to bear up under a heavy burden. For, as the comic poet says, —
“ ‘The life of man
is like a game at tables. If the cast
Which is most necessary be not thrown,
“The academic vessel, too long, alas! tossed by storms, being almost entirely abandoned by all whose more advanced age, longer experience, and well-earned literary titles, excited great and just expectations, I have been called upon, by the partiality and too good opinion of him whose commands we must not gainsay, and with whom the most earnest entreaties to be excused were urged in vain, and also by the consenting suffrage of this senate; and, therefore although there is perhaps no one more unfit, I approach the helm. In what times, what manners, what diversities of opinion (dissensions and calumnies everywhere raging in consequence of party spirit), what bitter passions and provocations, what pride and malice, our academical authority has occurred, I both know and lament. Nor is it only the character of the age that distracts us, but another calamity to our literary establishment, which is daily becoming more conspicuous, — the contempt, namely, of the sacred authority of law, and of the reverence due to our ancestors; the watchful envy of Malignants; the despised tears and sobs of our almost dying mother, the university (with the eternal loss of the class of gownsmen, and the no small hazard of the whole institution); and the detestable audacity and licentiousness, manifestly Epicurean beyond all the bounds of modesty and piety, in which, alas! too many of the students indulge. Am I, then, able, in this tottering state of all things, to apply a remedy to this complication of difficulties, in which so many and so great heroes have, in the most favourable times, laboured in vain? I am not, gentlemen, so self-sufficient. Were I to act the part of one so impertinently disposed to flatter himself, nay, were the slightest thought of such a nature to enter my mind, I should be quite displeased with myself. I live not so far from home, nor am such a stranger to myself, I use not my eyes so much in the manner of witches, as not to know well how scantily I am furnished with learning, prudence, authority, and wisdom. Antiquity has celebrated Lucullus as a prodigy in nature, who, though unacquainted with even the duty of a common soldier, became without any difficulty an expert general; so that the man whom the city sent out inexperienced in fighting, him the army received a complete master of the art of war. Be of good courage, gentlemen. I bring no prodigies; from the obscurity of a rural situation, from the din of arms, from journeys for the sake of the gospel into the most distant parts of the island, and also beyond sea, from the bustle of the court, I have retreated unskilful in the government of the university; unskilful, also, I am come hither.
“ ‘What madness is this, then?’ you will say. ‘Why have you undertaken that which you are unable to execute, far less to adorn? You have judged very ill for yourself, for the university, and for this venerable senate.’ Softly, my hearers; neither hope nor courage wholly fails one who is swayed by the judgment, the wishes, the commands, the entreaties of the highest characters. We are not ourselves the sources of worthy deeds of any kind. ‘He who ministereth seed to the sower,’ and who from the mouths of infants has ordained strength, is able graciously to supply all defects, whether caused from without or felt within. Destitute, therefore, of any strength and boldness of my own, and of any adventitious aid through influence with the university, so far as I know or have deserved, it nevertheless remains to me to commit myself wholly to Him ‘who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not.’ He has appointed an eternal fountain of supply in Christ, who furnisheth seasonable help to every pious endeavour, unless our littleness of faith stand in the way; thence must I wait and pray for light, for strength, and for courage. Trusting, therefore, in his graciously promised presence, according to the state of the times, and the opportunity which, through divine Providence we have obtained, — conscious integrity alone supplying the place of arts and of all embellishments, — without either a depressed or servile spirit, I address myself to this undertaking.”5959 Oratio prima, translated by Orme, pp. 128–131.
The facts that have been preserved by Owen’s biographers sufficiently prove that this inaugural address was no mere language of dignified ceremony. By infusing that tolerant spirit into his administration which he had often commended in his days of suffering, but which so many in those times forgot when they rose to power, — by a generous impartiality in the bestowal of patronage, — by an eagerness to detect modest merit, and to help struggling poverty, — by a firm repression of disorder and licentiousness, and a steadfast encouragement of studious habits and good conduct, — he succeeded, during the few years of his vice-chancellorship, in curing the worst evils of the university, and restoring it to such a condition of prosperity as to command at length even the reluctant praise of Clarendon.
Among other honourable facts, it is recorded that he allowed a society of Episcopalians to meet every Lord’s day over against his own door,6060 “At the house of Dr Willis the physician, not far from his own lodgings at Christchurch.” — Biograph. Dict., x. 103. and to celebrate public worship according to the forms of the liturgy, though the laws at that period put it in Owen’s power to disperse the assembly; and there were not wanting those of a less enlarged and unsectarian spirit to urge him to such a course. In the same wise and conciliatory spirit he won the confidence of the Presbyterians, by bestowing upon their ablest men some of the vacant livings that were at his disposal, and taking counsel of them in all difficulties and emergencies. Many a poor and promising student was aided by him with sums of money, and with that well-timed encouragement which is more gratifying than silver and gold, and which, in more than one instance, was found to have given the first impulse on the road to fame. Foreign students of hopeful ability were admitted through his influence to the use of the libraries and to free commons; and one poor youth, in whose Latin epistle, informing Owen of his necessities, he had discovered an unusual “sharpness of wit,” was at once received by him as tutor into his own family.6161 Asty, pp. xi., xii. Calamy’s Noncon. Mem., i. 201. Wood’s Fasti, ii. 788.
But, amid these generous and conciliatory measures, Owen knew how, by acts of wholesome severity, to put a curb upon licentiousness, and to invigorate the whole discipline of the university. At a public Act, when one of the students of Trinity College was Terræ filius, he stood up before the student began, and told him in Latin that he was at liberty to say what he pleased, on condition that he abstained from all profane and obscene expressions and personal reflections. The student began, but soon violated all the conditions that had been laid down to him. Owen repeatedly warned him to desist from a course so dishonouring to the university; but the youth obstinately persisting in the same strain, he at length commanded the beadles to pull him down. This was a signal for the students to interpose; on which Owen, determined that the authority of the university should not be insolently trampled on, rose from his seat, in the face of the remonstrances of his friends, who were concerned for his personal safety, drew the offender from his place with his own hand, and committed him to Bocardo, the prison of the university, — the students meanwhile standing aloof with amazement and fear at his resolution.6262 Asty, pp. xi., xii. Was there not something, in this scene, of that robust physical energy which had distinguished Owen at Oxford in earlier days in bell-ringing and the leaping of bars?
But the aims of the vice-chancellor rose far above the mere attempt to restrain licentiousness within moderate bounds; — his whole arrangements were made with the anxious desire of awakening and fostering among the students the power of a living piety. His own example, as well as the pervading spirit of his administration, would contribute much to this; and there are not wanting individual facts to show with what earnestness he watched and laboured for the religious well-being of the university. It had been customary for the Fellows to preach by turn on the afternoon of the Lord’s day in St. Mary’s Church; but, on its being found that the highest ends of preaching were often more injured than advanced by this means, he determined to undertake this service alternately with Dr Goodwin, the head of Magdalen College, and in this way to secure to the youth of Oxford the advantage of a sound and serious ministry. It is interesting to open, nearly two hundred years afterwards, the reminiscences of one of the students, and to read his strong and grateful testimony to the benefits he had derived from these arrangements of the Puritan vice-chancellor. We have this privilege in the “Memoir of Philip Henry, by his son.” “He would often mention, with thankfulness to God,” says the quaint and pious biographer, “what great helps and advantages he had then in the university, — not only for learning, but for religion and piety. Serious godliness was in reputation; and, besides the public opportunities they had, many of the scholars used to meet together for prayer and Christian conference, to the great confirming of one another’s hearts in the fear and love of God, and the preparing of them for the service of the church in their generation. I have heard him speak of the prudent method they took then about the university sermons on the Lord’s day, in the afternoon, which used to be preached by the fellows of colleges in their course; but that being found not so much for edification, Dr Owen and Dr Goodwin performed that service alternately, and the young masters that were wont to preach it had a lecture on Tuesday appointed them.”6363 Life and Times of Philip Henry, p. 60.
But the combined duties of his two onerous offices at Oxford did not absorb all the energies of Owen. His mind appears to have expanded with his position, and to have shown resources that were literally inexhaustible. The few years which saw him the chief agent in raising the university from the brink of ruin, were those in which he was most frequently summoned by Cromwell to his councils, and in which he gave to the world theological works which would have been sufficient of themselves in the case of most men, to occupy and to recompense the energies of a lifetime. We now turn with him, then, for a little to the platform of public life, and to the toils of authorship.
On the 25th of August 1563 we again find him preaching, by command, before Parliament, on occasion of that celebrated victory over the Dutch fleet which established the reputation of the arms of the Commonwealth by sea, and paved the way for an honourable and advantageous peace with Holland. In October of the same year he was invited by Cromwell to London, to take part, along with some other ministers, in a conference on Christian union. The matter is stated in such interesting terms in one of the newspapers of the day, and, besides, affords such a valuable incidental glimpse of Cromwell’s administration, that we prefer giving it in the words of that document:— “Several ministers were treated with by his Excellency the Lord-General Cromwell, to persuade them that hold Christ, the head, and so are the same fundamentals, to agree in love, — that there be no such divisions among people professing godliness as has been, nor railing or reviling each other for difference only in forms. There were Mr Owen, Mr Marshall (Presbyterian), Mr Nye (Independent), Mr Jessey (Baptist), Mr Harrison, and others; to whom the advice and counsel of his Excellency were so sweet and precious, and managed with each judgment and graciousness, that it is hoped it will much tend to persuade those that fear the Lord in spirit and truth to labour for the union of all God’s people.”6464 Cromwelliana, Orme, p. 109.
It does not appear that any immediate practical measures resulted from this conference. The mistake, by which many such laudable attempts were defeated, was that of attempting too much incorporation was sought, when they should have been satisfied with mutual Christian recognition and co-operation up to the point of agreement; and sometimes a constrained silence on matters of difference, where there should rather have been a generous forbearance. But it is wrong to speak of such conferences and communing, when they failed of their immediate object, as either useless or fruitless. To the good men who mingled in them, it must have deepened the feeling of unity even where it did not increase its manifestation, and even unconsciously to themselves must have lowered the walls of division. Nor is it without interest and instruction to remark, that the best men of that age and of the next were ever the readiest to give themselves to movements that had this aim. Owen, by the reproaches which he brought upon himself on this account from weaker brethren, showed himself to be before his age. The pure spirit of Howe, which dwelt in a region so far above the petty passions of earth, has expressed its longings to see the church made “more awful and more amiable” by union, in his essay “On Union among Protestants,” and “On the Carnality of Religious Contentions.” Baxter, with all his passion for dialectics, felt and owned the power of these holy attractions and longed the more for the everlasting rest, that he would there at length see the perfect realization of union.6565 His spirit is expressed in the following tender words, with which he closed one his debates: “While we wrangle here in the dark, we are dying, and passing to the world that will decide all our controversies; and the safest passage thither is by a peaceable holiness.” And the saintly Usher, prompted in part by the sublime seasonings of Howe, actually proposed a scheme of comprehension, of which, though defective in some of its provisions, and not permitted to be realized, God doubtless said, “It was good that it was in thine heart to do it.” The Puritans did more than make unsuccessful experiments of union: they expounded in their writings many of the principles on which alone it can be accomplished; and it seems now only to need a revival of religion from on high in order to accomplish what they so eagerly desired. They were the Davids who prepared the materials of the temple, — shall the Christian of this age be the sons of peace who shall be honoured to build?
It was in all likelihood while Owen was attending in London on the meetings of this conference, that the senate embraced the opportunity of diplomating him Doctor of Divinity. For we find it recorded by Wood in his “Fasti Oxoniensis,” that, “On Dec 23, John Owen, M.A., dean of Ch. Ch., and vice-chancellor of the university, was then (he being at Lond.) diplomated doct. of div.” He is said in his diploma to be “in palæstra theologia exercitatissimus, in concionando assiduus et potens, in disputando strenuus et acutus.”6666 Wood’s Fasti, ii. 179. Owen’s fiend, Thomas Goodwin, president of Magdalen College, was diplomated on the same occasion; and the honoured associates are sneeringly described by Wood, after his manner, as “the two Atlases and Patriarchs of Independency.”6767 Wood’s Athen. Oxon., iv. 98.
In the midst of these engagements, Dr Owen produced and published, in Latin, one of his most abstruse dissertations, — “Diatriba de Divina Justitia, etc.; or, the Claims of Vindicatory Justice Asserted.” The principle which it is the design of this treatise to explain and establish is, that God, considered as a moral governor, could not forgive sin without an atonement, or such provision for his justice as that which is made by the sacrifice of Christ. It had fallen to his lot some months before, in certain theological discussions to which he was called by his office, “to discourse and dispute on the vindicatory justice of God, and the necessity of its exercise on the supposition of the existence of sin;” and his hurried treatment of the subject, in the brief hour which was allowed him, had the rare success of bringing many over to his views. Owen was convinced that his principle “struck its roots deep through almost the whole of theology.”6868 Preface, p. viii. He saw plainly that its effect, if established, was to raze the very foundations of Socinian error; — yet he was grieved to find that many excellent divines, who held views in common with him on all the great truths of the evangelical system, wavered on this, and that some honoured names had lately given a new sanction to the opposite opinion; among whom were Dr Twisse of Newbury, prolocutor of the Westminster Assembly, in his “Vindicicæ Gratiæ, Potestatis, ac Providentiæ divinæ,” and the venerable Samuel Rutherford of St Andrew, in his “Disputatio Scholastica de divina Providentia.”6969 Orme, p. 153. This made him the more readily accede to the wishes of those who had received benefit and confirmation from his verbal exposition of the subject, that he would enter on its more orderly and deliberate investigation. We do not wonder that the future expositor of the Epistle to the Hebrews should have been strongly prompted to contend for this principle, since it seems wrought up with more than one part of that colossal argument of inspired theology.
In pursuing his argument, he evidently felt himself dazzled at times by the lustre of those interior truths to which his thoughts were turned. “Those points,” he remarks, “which dwell in more intimate recesses, and approach nearer its immense fountain, the Father of light, darting brighter rays by their excess of light, present a confounding darkness to the minds of the greatest men, and are as darkness to the eyes breaking forth amidst so great light. For what we call darkness in divine subjects is nothing else than their celestial glory and splendour striking on the weak ball of our eyes, the rays of which we are not able in this life, which is but a vapour and shineth but a little, to bear.”7070 Many readers will be struck by the resemblance between this noble passage and that of Owen’s greatest contemporary:— “Thee, Author of all being, Fountain of light, thyself invisible Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sittest Throned inaccessible; but when thou shadest The full blaze of thy beams, and through a cloud, Drawn round about thee like a radiant shrine, Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear; Yet dazzle heaven, that brightest seraphim Approach not, but with both wings veil their eyes.” Par. Lost., book iii. 374–382.
In other places we can trace indications, that when he was rising to the height of his great argument, his fertile mind was revolving new treatises, which he afterwards gave to the world, and longing for the hour when he would descend from his present altitudes to those truths which bear more directly and powerfully on the spiritual life: “There are, no doubt, many other portions and subjects of our religion, of that blessed trust committed to us for our instructions on which we might dwell with greater pleasure and satisfaction of mind. Such, I mean, as afford a more free and wider scope of ranging through the most pleasant meads of the holy Scripture, and contemplating in these the transparent fountains of life and rivers of consolation; — subjects which, unencumbered by the thickets of scholastic terms and distinctions, unembarrassed by the impediments and sophisms of an enslaving philosophy or false knowledge, sweetly and pleasantly lead into a pure, unmixed, and delightful fellowship with the Father and with his Son, shedding abroad in the heart the inmost loves of our Beloved, with the odour of his sweet ointment poured forth.”7171 Preface, p. xx.
The usual number of replies followed the appearance of this treatise, in which Baxter once more stood forth equipped in his ready armour.
In the following year Dr Owen gave to the world another work, of much greater magnitude, extending over nearly five hundred folio pages. He has himself supplied its best description and analysis in its ample title-page, — “The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed; or, the certain permanency of their acceptation with God and sanctification from God manifested and proved, from the eternal principles, the effectual causes, and the external means thereof; in the immutability of the nature, decrees, covenant, and promises of God; the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ; the promises, exhortations, and threats of the Gospel: improved in its genuine tendency to obedience and consolation.” The work was immediately called forth by the “Redemption Redeemed” of John Goodwin, an Arminian writer, to whom Owen allows nearly all the most brilliant qualities of a controversialist, except a good cause. He describes him as not only clothing every conception of his mind with language of a full and choice significance, but also trimming and adorning it with all manner of signal improvements that may render it keen or pleasant, according to his intendment and desire, and happily applies to him the words of the Roman poet:—
“Monte decurrens velut amnis, imbres
Quem super notas aluêre ripas,
Fervet, immensusque ruit profundo
The treatise, however, would be almost as complete were every part of it that refers to Goodwin expunged, and undeniably forms the most masterly vindication of the perseverance of the saints in the English tongue. Even Goodwin, with all his luxuriant eloquence, is sadly shattered when grasped by the mailed hand of the great Puritan.
“Luxuriant artus, effusaque sanguine laxo
The style of argument is much more popular than that of the former treatise; partly because of the insinuating rhetoric of his adversary, and also because Owen knew that Arminian sentiments had found their way into many of the churches, and that if he was to convince the people, he must write for the people. The following weighty sentence refers to his avoidance of philosophical terms and scholastic forms of argument, and is worthy of Owen’s sanctified wisdom: “That which we account our wisdom and learning may, if too rigorously attended, be our folly: when we think to sharpen the reason of the Scripture, we may straiten the efficacy of the spirit of it. It is oftentimes more effectual in its own liberty, than when restrained to our methods of arguing; and the weapons of it keener in their own soft breathing, than when sharpened in the forge of Aristotle.”7272 Epistle Dedicatory to the Heads of Colleges, etc., at Oxford, p. 8.
No part of this elaborate work is more characteristic of Dr Owen than his preface to the reader, which extends over forty folio pages, until you begin to fear that “the gate shall become wider than the city.” It contains an account of the treatment which the doctrine had received from the first Christian century to his own; and in its pages, which are literally variegated with Greek and Latin citations, displays an immense research. But what most surprises the reader, is to find the Doctor, when about the middle of his way, deliberately turning aside to discuss with Dr Hammond the genuineness of the Epistles of Ignatius, and to weigh the evidence which they would afford, on the supposition of their genuineness, for a primitive Episcopacy. One is tempted to trace a resemblance between the theological writing of those times and their modes of journeying. There was no moving in those days with all possible directness and celerity to the goal. The traveller stopped when he pleased, diverged where he pleased, and as often as he pleased, whenever he wished to salute a friend or to settle a controversy. — The work is dedicated to Cromwell. The strong language in which Owen speaks of his religious sincerity is interesting, as showing the estimate which was formed of the Protector’s character by those who had the best opportunities of judging regarding it.7373 “In the midst of all the changes and mutations which the infinitely wise providence of God doth daily effect in the greater and lesser things of this world, as to the communication of his love in Jesus Christ, and the merciful, gracious distribution of the unsearchable riches of his grace, and the hid treasures thereof purchased by his blood, he knows no repentance. Of both these you have had full experience. And though your concernment in the former hath been as eminent as that of any person whatever in these later ages of the world, yet your interest in and acquaintance with the latter is, as of incomparably more importance in itself, so answerably of more value and esteem into you.” —Dedication to His Highness, Oliver, Lord Protector.
The mention of Cromwell’s name naturally brings us back to public events, and to an occurrence which, more than almost any other in Owen’s life, laid him open to the reproaches of his enemies. Cromwell having dissolved the Long Parliament in the end of 1653, had a few months after issued writs for a new election. The university of Oxford was empowered to return one member to this Parliament, and Dr Owen was elected. That he did not evince any decided unwillingness to accept this new office may be presumed for the fact that he at once took his seat in the House, and continued to sit until the committee of privileges, on account of his being a minister of religion, declared his election annulled. His systematic detractors have fastened on this part of his conduct with all the instinct of vultures, and even his friends have only ventured, for the most part, on a timid and hesitating defence. Cawdrey and Anthony Wood, not satisfied with commenting on the fact of his seeming eagerness to grasp at civil power, accuse him, on the authority of public rumour, of refusing to say whether he was a minister or not, — a charge which he left at first to be answered by its own absurdity, but which, on finding some actually crediting it, he repelled with a pardonable amount of vehement indignation, declaring it to be “so remote from any thing to give a pretence or colour to it, that I question whether Satan have impudence enough to own himself its author.”7474 Wood’s Athen. Oxon., iv. 99. Pref. to Cotton’s Defence, Orme, p. 112.
But there have been others, who, while disowning all sympathy with these birds of evil omen that haunted the path of the noble Puritan, have questioned the propriety and consistency of one in Owen’s circumstances, and with all his strongly-professed longings for the duties of a tranquil pastorate, so readily “entangling himself with the affairs of this life;” and this is certainly a more tenable ground of objection. And yet, to judge Owen rightly, we must take into view all the special elements of the case. All except those who see in ordination a mysterious and indissoluble spell, and hold the Romish figment of “once a priest, always a priest,” will admit that emergencies may arise in a commonwealth when even the Christian minister may, for the sake of accomplishing the highest amount of good, place in abeyance the peculiar duties of his office, and merge the pastor in the legislator. Persons had sat with this conviction in the immediately previous Parliament; and in the last century, Dr Witherspoon, one of the purest and most conscientious of Scottish ecclesiastics, after emigrating to America, united the duties of pastor and president of Jersey College with those of a member of Congress, and was only second to Washington and Franklin in laying the foundations of the infant republic.7575 Life of Dr Witherspoon, prefixed to works, pp. xix.–xxiii. Dr Owen, in all likelihood, acted on principles similar to those which swayed the Scottish divine; and when we consider the avowed and fanatical animosity with which Oxford was regarded by a turbulent party in the state, as well as the active interest which Cromwell and his, Parliament took in the religious condition of the nation, it is easy to conceive how Owen felt that he was only placing himself in a better position for watching over the well-being of the university, and for promoting the interests of religion and of religious liberty, by being there to bear his part in the deliberations regarding it. At the same time, with all these facts before us to qualify our censure, we cannot help thinking that when Owen saw the validity of his election so vehemently questioned, he would have consulted his dignity more had he declined to sit.
In the “Instrument of Government” presented by Cromwell to this Parliament, it was proposed that all who professed faith in God by Jesus Christ should be protected in their religion. In the debates which took place on this part of the instrument, its language was interpreted as recommending toleration to those only who were agreed on the fundamentals of Christian doctrine, — an interpretation which, there is reason to think, injuriously restricted the Protector’s meaning. But the question immediately arose, what were fundamentals? and a committee of fourteen was appointed to prepare a statement for the House on this subject; who, in their turn, committed the work to fourteen divines of eminence. Owen was on this committee; and, according to Baxter, had the principal share in “wording the articles.” He has been blamed for seeking to limit the blessings of toleration, on the now generally-admitted principle, that a man’s religious belief ought not to be made the condition of his civil privileges. But the censure is misplaced. Owen was responsible for the correctness of his answers, — not for the use which the Parliament might make of them; but the abrupt dissolution of the Parliament which, disappointed Cromwell’s expectations, prevented their being embodied in any legislative measure.7676 Baxter’s own Life, p. 205. Neal, iv. 88–91.
About the same period Dr Owen was invited by the Protector and his Council to form part of a committee, from whose labours the cause of religion in England reaped great and permanent advantage. We refer to the commission appointed to examine candidates for ordination; whose powers soon after included the ejection of ministers and schoolmasters of heretical doctrine and scandalous life. Cromwell has been condemned for thus invading the proper functions of the church; and undoubtedly he did in this measure boldly overstep the province of the legislator; at the same time, he was right in thinking that the true greatness of his kingdom, and the stability of his government, depended on the pervading influence of religion among the people; and that it was better that the church should in this irregular manner be purged of its hirelings and moneychangers, than left to sink into inefficiency and corruption.
About forty ministers, “the acknowledged flower of Puritanism,” were united with a few Puritan laymen, and appointed to this most delicate office. Undoubtedly, the power committed to them was tremendous, and, in the hands of unscrupulous men, might have been turned to purposes the most inquisitorial and vile. But seldom has power been less abused, or the rare and incidental mischief arising from its exercise, more immeasurably outweighed by its substantial benefits. It afforded, indeed, a tempting theme for the profane genius of Hudibras, to represent the triers, in their inquiries regarding the spiritual life of candidates, as endeavouring —
“To find, in lines of beard and face,
The physiognomy of grace;
And, by the sound of twang and nose,
If all be sound within disclose;”
and high Royalists and partisans like Bishop Kennet, who had probably smarted under their investigations, in their eagerness to find matter of accusation against them, might blunder out unconscious praise. But the strong assertion of the historian of the Puritans has never been disproved, — that not a single instance can be produced of any who were rejected for insufficiency without being first convicted either of immorality, of obnoxious sentiments in the Socinian or Pelagian controversy, or of disaffection to the present government. Cromwell could, before his second Parliament, refer to the labours of the commissioners in such strong terms as these: “There has not been such a service to England since the Christian religion was perfect in England! I dare be bold to say it.” And the well-balanced testimony of Baxter, given with all his quaint felicity, may be held, when we consider that he had looked on the appointment of the triers with no friendly eye, as introducing all the shadings necessary to truth: “Because this assembly of triers is most heavily accused and reproached by some men, I shall speak the truth of them; and suppose my word will be taken, because most of them took me for one of their boldest adversaries. The truth is, though some few over-rigid and over-busy Independents among them were too severe against all that were Arminians, and too particular in inquiring after evidences of sanctification in those whom they examined, and somewhat too lax in admitting of unlearned and erroneous men that favoured Antinomianism or Anabaptism; yet, to give them their due, they did abundance of good in the church. They saved many a congregation from ignorant, ungodly, drunken teachers, — that sort of men who intend no more in the ministry then to read a sermon on Sunday, and all the rest of the week go with the people to the alehouse and harden them in sin; and that sort of ministers who either preached against a holy life, or preached as men who were never acquainted with it. These they usually rejected, and in their stead admitted of any that were able, serious preachers, and lived a godly life, of what tolerable opinion soever they were; so that, though many of them were a little partial for the Independents, Separatists, Fifth-monarchy Men, and Anabaptists, and against the Prelatists and Arminians, yet so great was the benefit above the hurt which they brought to the church, that many thousands of souls blessed God for the faithful ministers whom they let in, and grieved when the Prelatists afterwards cast them out again.”7777 Neal, iv. 92–97. Baxter’s own Life, part i. p. 72. Orme, pp. 116–119. Vaughan’s Stuart Dynasty, pp. 247–250. D’Aubigné’s Protectorate, pp. 231–236.
Every student of the Puritan history is familiar with the magnanimous act of Howe, in recommending Fuller the historian for ordination, though a Royalist, because he “made conscience of his thoughts;”7878 Calamy’s Life of Howe, prefixed to works, p. v. Neal, iv. 97. and an equally high-minded and generous act of impartiality is recorded of Owen. Dr Pocock, professor of Arabic in Oxford, and one of the greatest scholars in Europe, held a living in Berks, and was about to have hard measure dealt to him by the commissioners for that county. No sooner did Owen hear of this than he wrote to Thurloe, Cromwell’s secretary, imploring him to stay such rash and disgraceful procedure. Not satisfied with this, he hastened into Berkshire in person, warmly remonstrated with the commissioners on the course which they seemed bent on pursuing, and only ceased when he had obtained the honourable discharge of the menaced scholar from farther attendance.7979 Biog. Dict., x. 103. Orme, p. 118.
Owen’s wisdom in council involved the natural penalty of frequent consultation; and, accordingly, we find him in the following year again invited to confer with Cromwell on a subject which, in addition to its own intrinsic interest, acquires a new interest from recent agitation. Manasseh Ben Israel, a learned Jew from Amsterdam, had asked of Cromwell and his government permission for the Jews to settle and trade in England, from which they had been excluded since the thirteenth century. Cromwell, favourable to the proposal himself, submitted the question to a conference of lawyers, merchants, and divines, whom he assembled, and whom he wished to consider it in relation to the interests which they might be held respectively to represent. The lawyers saw nothing in the admission of the Jews contrary to the laws of England, some of the merchants were friendly, and some opposed; and though a living historian has described the theologians as unanimous in their opposition, they were, in fact, divided in their opinion too; some, like Mr Dury, being fierce in their opposition, even to fanaticism; and others, of whom there is reason to think Dr Owen was one, being prepared to admit them under certain restrictions. Cromwell, however, was on this subject in advance of all his counsellors, and indeed of his age, “from his shoulders and upward he was higher than any of the people,” and displayed a faith in the power of truth, and an ingenuity in turning the timid objections of his advisers arguments by which they might at once have been instructed and rebuked. “Since there is a promise in holy Scripture of the conversion of the Jews,” he said, “I do not know but the preaching of the gospel, as it is now in England, without idolatry or superstition, may conduce to it.” “I never heard a man speak so well,” was the future testimony of Sir Paul Ricaut, who had pressed into the crowd. The good intentions of the Protector were defeated; but, as an expression of his respect for the rabbi he ordered £200 to be paid to him out of the public treasury.8080 Whitelock’s Memorials, p. 673. Neal, iv. 126–128.
In the midst of these public events, Owen’s pen had once more been turned to authorship by the immediate command of the Council of State. The catechisms of Biddle, the father of English Socinianism, had given vogue to the errors of that school; and though various writers of ability, such as Poole and Cheynel in England, and Cloppenburg, Arnold, and Maretz on the continent, had already remarked on them, it was deemed advisable that they should obtain a more complete and sifting exposure; and Owen was selected, by the high authority we have named, to undertake the task. His “Vindiciæ Evangelicæ,” a work of seven hundred quarto pages, embracing all the great points of controversy between the Socinian and the Calvinist, was the fruit of this command; and was certainly a far more suitable and efficient way of extinguishing the poor heresiarch, than the repeated imprisonments to which he was subjected. Dr Owen, however, does not confine himself to the writings of Biddle, but includes in his review the Racovian catechism, which was the confession of the foreign Socinians of that age; and the Annotations of Grotius, — which, though nowhere directly teaching Socinian opinions, are justly charged by him with explaining away those passages on which the peculiar doctrines of the Gospel lean for their support, and thus, by extinguishing one light after another, leaving you at length in midnight darkness. An accomplished modern writer has pointed out a mortifying identity between the dogmas of our modern Pantheists and those of the Buddhists of India.8181 Vaughan’s Age and Christianity, pp. 79–82. It would be easy to show that the discoveries of our modern Neologists and Rationalists are in truth the resurrection of the errors of Biddle, Smalcius, and Moscorovius.8282 Princeton Theol. Essays, First Series. Essay on the Doctrines of the Early Socinians. Again and again, in those writings, which have slumbered beneath the dust of two centuries, the student meets with the same speculations, supported by the same reasonings and interpretations, that have startled him in the modern German treatise, by their impious hardihood.
You pass into the body of this elaborate work through one of those learned porticoes in which our author delights, and in which the history of Socinianism is traced through its many forms and phases, from the days of Simon Magus to his own. No part of this history in of more permanent value than his remarks on the controversial tactics of Socinians; among which he especially notices their objection to the use of terms not to be found in Scripture; and to which he replies, that “though such terms may not be of absolute necessity to express the things themselves to the minds of believers, they may yet be necessary to defend the truth from the opposition and craft of seducers;” their cavilling against evangelical doctrines rather than stating any positive opinions of their own, and, when finding it inconvenient to oppose, or impossible to refute a doctrine, insisting on its not being fundamental. How much of the secret of error in religion is detected in the following advice: “Take heed of the snare of Satan in affecting eminency by singularity. It is good to strive to excel, and to go before one another in knowledge and in light, as in holiness and obedience. To do this in the road is difficult. Many, finding it impossible to emerge into any consideration by walking in the beaten path of truth, and yet not able to conquer the itch of being accounted τινες μεγαλοι, turn aside into by-ways, and turn the eyes of men to them by scrambling over hedge and ditch, when the sober traveller is not at all regarded.”8383 Preface, pp. 64, 65, quarto ed. And the grand secret of continuing in the faith grounded and settled, is expressed in the following wise sentences: “That direction in this kind which with me is instar omnium, is for a diligent endeavour to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts; — that we may not contend for notions, but what we have a practical acquaintance with in our own souls. When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth, — when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us, — when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts, when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for, — then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.”8484 Preface, p. 69.
This secret communion with God in the doctrines contended for was the true key to Owen’s own steadfastness amid all those winds of doctrine which unsettled every thing but what was rooted in the soil. We have an illustration of this in the next treatise, which he soon after gave to the world, and in which he passes from the lists of controversy to the practical exhibition of the Gospel as a life-power. It was entitled, “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers;” and contains the substance of some sermons which he had preached on Rom. viii. 13. He informs us that his chief motives for this publication were, a wish to escape from the region of public debate, and to produce something of more general use, that might seem a fruit “of choice, not of necessity;” and also, “to provide an antidote for the dangerous mistakes of some that of late years had taken upon them to give directions for the mortification of sin, who, being unacquainted with the mystery of the gospel and the efficacy of the death of Christ, have anew imposed the yoke of a self-wrought-out mortification on the necks of their disciples, which neither they nor their forefathers were ever able to bear.”8585 Preface. We have no means of knowing what were the treatises to which Owen here refers; but it is well known that Baxter’s mind at an early period received an injurious legal bias from a work of this kind; nor is even Jeremy Taylor’s “Holy Living” free from the fault of minute prescription of external rules and “bodily exercise, which profiteth little,” instead of bringing the mind into immediate contact with those great truths which inspire and transform whatever they touch. Nor have there been wanting teachers, in any age of the church, who
“— do but skin and film the ulcerous place,
While rank corruption, mining all within,
Owen’s work is a noble illustration of the Gospel method of sanctification, as we believe it to be a living reflection of his own experience. In his polemical works he was like the lecturer on the materia medica; but here he is the skilful physician, applying the medicine to the cure of soul-sickness. And it is interesting to find the ample evidence which this work affords, that, amid the din of theological controversy, the engrossing and perplexing activities of a high public station, and the chilling damps of a university, he was yet living near God, and, like Jacob amid the stones of the wilderness, maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and invisible.
To the affairs of Oxford we must now return for a little. In the midst of his multifarious public engagements, and the toils of a most ponderous authorship, Owen’s thoughts had never been turned from the university, and his efforts for its improvement, encouraged by the Protector and his council, as well as by the co-operation of the heads of colleges, had been rewarded by a surprising prosperity. Few things, indeed, are more interesting than to look into the records of Oxford at this period, as they have been preserved by Anthony Wood and others, and to mark the constellation of great names among its fellows and students; some of whom were already in the height of their renown, and others, with a strangely varied destiny awaiting them, were brightening into a fame which was to shed its lustre on the coming age. The presiding mind at this period was Owen himself, who, from the combined influence of station and character, obtained from all around him willing deference;8686 “He was reckoned the brightest ornament of the university in his time.” — Dr Calamy. while associated with him in close friendship, in frequent conference, and learned research, which was gradually embodied in many folios, was Thomas Goodwin, the president of Magdalen College. Stephen Charnock had already carried many honours, and given token of that Saxon vigour of intellect and ripe devotion which were afterwards to take shape in his noble treatise on the “Divine Attributes.” Dr Pocock sat in the chair of Arabic, unrivalled as an Orientalist; and Dr Seth Ward taught mathematics, already noted as an astronomer, and hereafter to be less honourably noted as so supple a timeserver, that, “amid all the changes of the times he never broke his bones.” Robert Boyle had fled hither, seeking in its tranquil shades opportunity for undisturbed philosophic studies, and finding in all nature food for prayer; and one more tall and stately than the rest might be seen now amid the shady walks of Magdalen College, musing on the “Blessedness of the Righteous,” and now in the recesses of its libraries, “unsphering the spirit of Plato,” and amassing that learning and excogitating that divine philosophy which were soon to be transfigured and immortalized in his “Living Temple.” Daniel Whitby, the acute annotator on the New Testament, and the ablest champion of Arminisnism, now adored the roll of Oxford, — Christopher Wren, whose architectural genius has reared its own monument in the greatest of England’s cathedrals, — William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and the father of the gentlest and most benignant of all our Christian sects, — John Locke, the founder of the greatest school of English metaphysics, to whom was to belong the high honour of basing toleration on the principles of philosophy, — William South, the pulpit satirist, whom we alternately admire for his brawny intellect and matchless style, and despise for their prostration to the lowest purposes of party, — Thomas Ken, the future bishop of Bath and Wells, whose holiness drew forth the willing homage of the Puritans, and whose conscientiousness as a nonjuror was long after to be proved by his sufferings in the Tower, — Philip Henry, now passing to the little conference of praying students, and now receiving from Dr Owen praises which only make him humbler, already delighting in those happy alliterations and fine conceits which were to be gathered from his lips by his admiring son, and embalmed in the transparent amber of that son’s immortal Commentary, — and Joseph Alleine, who, in his “Alarm to the Unconverted,” was to produce a work which the church of God will not willingly let die, and was to display the spirit of a martyr amid the approaching cruelties of the Restoration, and the deserted hearths and silent churches of St. Bartholomew’s Day.8787 Wood’s Fasti, part ii., pp. 169–197.
But events were beginning to transpire in the political world which were to bring Owen’s tenure of the vice-chancellorship to a speedy close. He had hitherto befriended Cromwell in all his great measures, with the strong conviction that the liberties and general interests of the nation were bound up with his supremacy. He had even, on occasion of the risings of the Royalists under Colonel Penruddock in the west, busied himself in securing the attachment of the university, and in raising a troop of horse for the defence of the county, until one of his Royalist revilers, enraged at his infectious zeal, described him as “riding up and down like a spiritual Abaddon, with white powder in his hair and black in his pocket.”8888 Orme, p. 120. But when a majority of the Parliament proposed to bestow upon Cromwell the crown and title of king, and when the Protector was evidently not averse to the entreaties of his Parliament, Owen began to suspect the workings of an ambition which, if not checked, would introduce a new tyranny, and place in jeopardy those liberties which so much had been done and suffered to secure. He therefore joined with Colonel Desborough, Fleetwood, and the majority of the army, in opposing these movements, and even drew up the petition which is known to have defeated the measure, and constrained Cromwell to decline the perilous honour.8989 Burnet’s Own Times, i. 98. Ludlow’s Memoirs, p. 248. Neal, iv. 151, 152.
Many circumstances soon made it evident, that by this bold step Dr Owen had so far estranged from himself the affection of Cromwell. Up to this time he had continued to be, of all the ministers of his times, the most frequently invited to preach on those great occasions of public state which it was usual in those days to grace with a religious service. But when, soon after this occurrence, Cromwell was inaugurated into his office as Protector, at Westminster Hall, with all the pomp and splendour of a coronation, those who were accustomed to watch how the winds of political favour blew, observed that Lockyer and Dr Manton were the divines who officiated at the august ceremonial; and that Owen was not even there as an invited guest.9090 Neal, iv. 157. Orme, p. 126. This was significant, and the decisive step soon followed. On the 3rd of July Cromwell resigned the office of chancellor of the university; on the 18th day of the same month, his son Richard was appointed his successor; and six weeks afterwards Dr Owen was displaced from the vice-chancellorship, and Dr Conant, a Presbyterian, and rector of Exeter College, nominated in his stead.9191 Neal, iv. 165.
Few things in Owen’s public life more became him than the manner in which he resigned the presidency of Oxford, and yielded up the academic fasces into the hands of another. He “knew both how to abound, and how to be abased.” There is no undignified insinuation of ungracious usage; no loud assertion of indifference, to cover the bitterness of chagrin; no mock humility; but a manly reference to the service which he was conscious of having rendered to the university, with a generous appreciation of the excellencies of the friend to whom the government was now to be transferred. In his parting address to the university, after stating the number of persons that had been matriculated and graduated during his administration, he continues: “Professors’ salaries, lost for many years, have been recovered and paid; some offices of respectability have been maintained; the rights and privileges of the university have been defended against all the efforts of its enemies; the treasury is tenfold increased; many of every rank in the university have been promoted to various honours and benefices; new exercises have been introduced and established; old ones have been duly performed; reformation of manners has been diligently studied, in spite of the grumbling of certain profligate brawlers; labours have been numberless; besides submitting to the most enormous expense, often when brought to the brink of death on your account, I have hated these limbs, and this feeble body, which was ready to desert my mind; the reproaches of the vulgar have been disregarded, the envy of others has been overcome: in these circumstances I wish you all prosperity, and bid you farewell. I congratulate myself on a successor who can relieve me of this burden; and you on one who is able completely to repair any injury which your affairs may have suffered through our inattention… But as I know not whither the thread of my discourse might lead me, I here cut it short. I seek again my old labours, my usual watchings, my interrupted studies. As for you, gentlemen of the university, may you be happy, and fare you well.”9292 Conclusion of Oratio quinta, translated by Orme. — Six Latin orations, delivered by Owen at Oxford while he presided over the university, have been preserved, and used to be printed at the end of the volume that contained his sermons and tracts. They will appear in the seventh volume of the present edition of Owen’s works.
|« Prev||His Vice-Chancellorship||Next »|