John Owen, called the “prince of the English divines,” “the leading figure among the Congregationalist divines,” “a genius with learning second only to Calvin’s,” and “indisputably the leading proponent of high Calvinism in England in the late seventeenth century,” was born in Stadham (Stadhampton), near Oxford. He was the second son of Henry Owen, the local Puritan vicar. Owen showed godly and scholarly tendencies at an early age. He entered Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of twelve and studied the classics, mathematics, philosophy, theology, Hebrew, and rabbinical writings. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1632 and a Master of Arts degree in 1635. Throughout his teen years, young Owen studied eighteen to twenty hours per day.
Pressured to accept Archbishop Laud’s new statutes, Owen left Oxford in 1637. He became a private chaplain and tutor, first for Sir William Dormer of Ascot, then for John Lord Lovelace at Hurley, Berkshire. He worked for Lovelace until 1643. Those years of chaplaincy afforded him much time for study, which God richly blessed. At the age of twenty-six, Owen began a forty-one year writing span that produced more than eighty works. Many of those would become classics and be greatly used by God.
Though he embraced Puritan convictions from his youth, Owen lacked personal assurance of faith until God directed him in 1642 to a church service at St. Mary Aldermanbury, London. He expected to hear Edmund Calamy preach, but a substitute was in the pulpit. Owen’s friend urged him to leave with him to hear a more famous minister some distance away, but Owen decided to stay. The substitute preacher chose as his text, “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” God used that sermon to bring Owen to assurance of faith. Later, Owen tried in vain to learn the identity of the preacher.
In 1643, Owen published A Display of Arminianism, a vigorous exposition of classic Calvinism that refuted the Arminians by examining the doctrines of predestination, original sin, irresistible grace, the extent of the atonement, and the role of the human will in salvation. This book earned Owen nearly instant recognition as well as a preferment to the living of Fordham, a pastoral charge in Essex. His ministry was well-received in Fordham, and many people came from outlying districts to hear him. He also excelled in catechizing his parishioners and wrote two catechism books, one for children and one for adults.
At Fordham, Owen took the Solemn League and Covenant. There, too, he took Mary Rooke as his bride. Of the eleven children born to them, only a daughter survived into adulthood. After an unhappy marriage to a Welshman, the daughter returned to live with her parents. She died of consumption shortly afterwards.
When the sequestered incumbent of Fordham died, the rights of presentation reverted to the patron, who dispossessed Owen and appointed Richard Pulley instead. Owen became vicar of the distinguished pulpit of St. Peter’s, Coggeshall (1646), where his predecessor, Obadiah Sedgwick, had ministered to nearly two thousand souls. At Coggeshell, through John Cotton’s Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven (1644) and other political influences, Owen openly converted from Presbyterianism to Congregationalism. He wrote about this change in Eshcol; or Rules of Direction for the Walking of the Saints in Fellowship. He also began remodeling his church on Congregational
Owen’s fame spread rapidly in the late 1640s through his preaching and writings, gradually earning him a reputation as a leading Independent theologian. While he was still in his early thirties, more than a thousand people came to hear his weekly sermons. Yet Owen often grieved that he saw little fruit upon his labors. He once said that he would trade all his learning for John Bunyan’s gift for plain preaching. Clearly, he underestimated his own gifts.
Owen was asked to preach before Parliament on several occasions, including the day following the execution of King Charles I. The sermon he preached before Parliament on Hebrews 12:27 greatly impressed Oliver Cromwell. The next day Cromwell persuaded Owen to accompany him as chaplain to Ireland to regulate the affairs of Trinity College in Dublin. Owen traveled with 12,000 psalm-singing, Puritan soldiers who descended upon Ireland. Though he spent most of his time at Trinity College reorganizing it along Puritan lines, he also did considerable preaching. He ministered to the troops during the terrible massacre at Drogheda. That dreadful event so stirred his soul that, upon his return to England after a seven-month stay, Owen urged Parliament to show mercy to the Irish.
In 1650, Owen was appointed as an official preacher to the state. The position provided lodgings in Whitehall. The duties consisted primarily of preaching on Friday afternoons in Whitehall Chapel and offering daily prayers at the meetings of the Council of State.
In the summer of 1650, Owen accompanied Cromwell on his Scottish expedition. He assisted Cromwell in trying to convince Scottish leaders and people of the rightness of cutting off the monarchy.
The 1650s were Owen’s most productive years. In 1651, he became dean of Christ Church College, Oxford and eighteen months later was made vice-chancellor of Oxford University, under the chancellorship of Cromwell. He replaced Daniel Greenwood, who, being a Presbyterian, was not considered to be sufficiently supportive of the government. Owen presided at most university meetings, served as administrator, and restrained worldly students from excesses. Through his lectures in theology, he promoted Reformed theology and Puritan piety. He set up several boards to regulate the religious life of the university. Undergraduates were required to repeat Sunday sermons to “some person of known ability and piety.” They were to have private evening prayers with their tutors, and every home where students lodged was to offer frequent preaching.
Owen himself preached regularly at Christ Church in Oxford and on alternate Sundays with Thomas Goodwin at St. Mary’s. Those sermons were the seeds of later treatises on mortification and temptation. Owen was a good manager; under his leadership, the university’s treasury “increased tenfold, its salaries were restored, its rights maintained, its studies and its discipline improved” (Mallet, 2:396). Owen’s godly leadership brought peace, security, and spiritual growth to the university during the difficult recovery from the chaotic civil war years.
In 1653, Owen was granted a Doctor of Divinity degree by the university. According to his own testimony, this was against his wishes. Throughout the 1650s, Owen was frequently called to London by Cromwell to settle a variety of disputes and to participate in various attempts at church settlement.
Owen published numerous books in the 1650s, including major works on the perseverance of the saints, Christ’s satisfaction, mortification of sin, communion with the Trinity, schism, temptation, and the authority of Scripture. In 1658, Owen helped write The Savoy Declaration. He was probably the primary author of its lengthy preface.
Owen lost favor with Cromwell in the Protector’s last year when he opposed Cromwell’s becoming king. Owen’s stature diminished further when Cromwell resigned from the chancellorship and his son, Richard, was appointed to succeed him. Under Richard Cromwell’s leadership, Owen and his group soon lost their ecclesiastical positions to Presbyterian divines. Within two months, Richard Cromwell had replaced Owen as vice-chancellor with John Conant, Presbyterian rector of Exeter College. The Sunday afternoon sermons of Owen and Goodwin at St. Mary’s Church were abolished soon after that.
In 1660, Owen was replaced as Dean of Christ Church by Edward Reynolds. Owen apparently then retired to his small estate at Stadhampton, where he continued to preach despite the Great Ejection of 1662. He lived there in relative seclusion. Every position of influence had been taken from him. He was offered a bishopric as well as a call to John Cotton’s church in Boston, Massachusetts, but he declined both.
In 1665, Owen was indicted at Oxford for holding religious conventicles in his home. He escaped without imprisonment. However, like many other Puritan pastors, he returned to London to preach after the Plague and the Great Fire. He started a small congregation, engaged in ongoing theological battles against the Arminians, and wrote several anonymous tracts on behalf of religious liberty as well as
numerous edifying treatises for the spiritual growth of believers. His Indwelling Sin, Exposition of Psalm 130, and the first volume of his massive commentary on Hebrews were written during this period.
In 1673, Owen’s congregation in London merged with a group that Joseph Caryl had served as pastor. David Clarkson and other Puritans assisted him. He devoted much time to helping Independent ministers such as Robert Asty and John Bunyan, offering them financial assistance as well as spiritual advice. This earned him the title of “prince and metropolitan of Independency.”
In 1674, Owen published Pneumatologia, a classic on the work of the Holy Spirit. Two years later, his wife died. Within eighteen months, he married Dorothy, the widow of Thomas D’Oyley of Chislehampton near Stadham.
Owen suffered much from asthma and gallstones in his last years, both of which often kept him from preaching. He kept writing, however, producing major works on justification, spiritual-mindedness, and the glory of Christ. The day before his death, Owen wrote to a friend, “I am going to Him whom my soul has loved, or rather who has loved me with an everlasting love—which is the whole ground of my consolation….I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm; but whilst the great Pilot is in it, the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live, and pray, and hope, and wait patiently, and do not despond; the promise stands invincible, that He will never leave us, nor forsake us.”
On August 24, 1683, William Payne, a Puritan minister of Saffron Waldon, arrived to tell Owen that the first sheets of Meditations on the Glory of Christ had passed through the press. With uplifted eyes and hands, Owen replied, “I am glad to hear it; but, oh brother Payne, the long wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing, in this world.” Owen was buried in Bunhill Fields beside many of his Puritan contemporaries.