American Cyclopaedia Entry

From the 1861 Edition

OWEN, John, an English preacher and scholar, born in Stadham, Oxfordshire, in 1616, died in London, August 24, 1683. He was descended from a prominent family in North Wales. His precocious genius and his thirst for knowledge were so marked, that at the age of 12 he was entered at Queen’s college, Oxford, receiving his bachelor’s degree at 16, and his master’s degree at 19. In the university he became noted not only for his diligence in study and mastery of the ancient tongues, but also for skill and vigor in athletic sports. The lead which he took in resisting Archbishop Laud’s new academical regulations brought upon him the ill will of the high church party, and alienated the uncle to whose generosity his advancement thus far had been in some measure due. He was compelled to leave his place at Oxford, to accept orders in the church, and to support himself by private teaching and by officiating as chaplain, first to Sir Robert Dormer of Ascot, and afterward to Lord Lovelace.

In this period Owen’s mind was greatly exercised by doubts concerning his religious state and his duty in the crisis in national affairs, which resulted finally in his open adhesion to the side of the parliament against the king, and his adoption of nonconformist principles. The type of faith which he chose was strict Calvinism, and his first work, the Display of Arminianism (1642), was hailed as the sign of reaction against that wide-spread heresy. In reward for this service to the orthodox cause, he received the living of Fordham in Essex, where he remained a year and a half, and gained great fame as a pulpit orator.

This fame was increased when he removed to the larger neighboring town of Coggeshall; and the change which he here made from the Presbyterian to the Independent form of church government only made him more popular with the masses, and with the party rising in power. In April, 1646, he was first called to preach before the parliament, and his ability was so conspicuous that he was frequently summoned to preach to that assembly, and had the dangerous honor of addressing them on the day after the execution of Charles I. Cromwell favored him, took him as private chaplain on his expeditions to Ireland and Scotland, and, when he had received the office of dean in Christchurch college, made him in addition the vice-chancellor of the university.

Though his administration came in a time of bitter theological contest, he gained the good will of all by his conciliating manners, and was able to subdue hatreds, to prevent outbreaks, and to accomplish important reforms. The 5 years in which he held this office were years of great literary and pastoral activity; he preached constantly, and published several of his most important works, receiving moreover in 1653 the degree of D.D.

The favor which he had enjoyed with Oliver Cromwell did not continue with the protector’s son and successor. Presbyterian opposition deprived him of his vice-chancellorship, and at the restoration he was ejected from his deanery, and constrained to retire to his native town, where he purchased a small estate, and lived for a time in quiet. His passion for preaching nevertheless continued; and in spite of risks and prohibitions, and even attacks upon his house by royalist soldiers, he persevered in addressing assemblies of his friends, and in expounding the principles of that Savoy confession which he had assisted in preparing.

In a visit to London, he became acquainted with Lord Clarendon, from whom he received tempting offers. In the period of toleration from 1667 to 1670, he took charge of an important congregation in Leadenhall street, London, to which his reputation and eloquence largely added, securing the favor of many of the nobility, and even for a time of the king and his Catholic brother. He had repeated interviews with Charles II.

Though Owen’s constitution was naturally robust, he had so strained it by excessive labor that it failed prematurely, and the last 12 years of his life were years of weakness and pain. His work on the Glory of Christ was hardly prepared for the press when its author finally yielded to his disease. He was buried at Bunhill fields, where his grave is still conspicuously marked.

In personal appearance, Owen was tall, handsome, dignified, and courteous, and his royalist enemies all confessed the fascination of his manners. His strictness of opinion did not hinder him from being just and kind to opponents. He kept open house, aided poor students, and distributed favors to the Presbyterians, even when he denounced their principles. His learning was vast and accurate, not only in Christian divinity, but in rabbinical lore and in the classics. The reputation of his oratory is, it must be said, hardly justified by the style of his published writings, which, with all their wealth of thought and scholarship, are often dry, verbose, and tedious. Much of it, no doubt, was owing to his gifts of voice and manner. But even in the matter of style his writings will compare favorably with those of other Puritan divines.

He had a reputation in other countries than his own, was at one time invited to a professorship in Holland, and was only prevented from emigrating to New England by an express order of the council. The familiar title applied to him by his Puritan brethren was the ‘prince of divines.’ Owen’s works are very voluminous and on a great number of subjects. There were 7 volumes in folio, 20 in quarto, and 30 in octavo. The last edition was published in Edinburgh in 24 vols. 8vo. (1859).

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