Section navigation

Dr. John Owen 1615-1683:1. The Life of John Owen [1,2]

Category Articles
Date April 5, 2007

John Owen is worthy of our attention because of his example as a Christian man. In many respects he was a man of his times; in others he was far ahead of them. Nevertheless, he possessed qualities and lived by principles and embraced values which – because they were the fruits of grace – are in themselves timeless. As a Christian gentleman, and for his dignified, noble, active, principled, irenic spirit, Owen deserves our attention and emulation.1, 2

He is worthy of our attention for his brilliance as a theologian. In a galaxy of brilliant stars, Owen was one of the brightest. Owen was caught up with God revealed in Christ, and the fruit of this dedication spills over in his thinking and feeling as expressed in his life and work. He was exceeded by certain of his contemporaries in some respects, but he was unrivalled with regard to his intimate and profound knowledge of and acquaintance with revealed truth.

He deserves our attention for the enduring value of his written works. Many reformed Christians have heard of John Owen, many people have at least one of his books in one form or another, but too often those works sit gathering dust on the shelf. We live in an age terrified of application, too busy to persevere, too distracted for diligent study, and easily scared by the number of pages in a book. Owen’s works are like a vast and tangled orchard: the prospect of harvesting is very daunting, but each tree has much fruit. Some of John Owen’s works are being made more accessible in English through abridgement and revision of some of the language, and provide a good point of entry for those feeling their way. However, for those who are willing and able, Owen is worthy of study in the original, and well repays such study. Owen’s passing comments often carry more weight than pages of modern fluff. (See the Note below on Owen’s works published by the Trust.)

In trying to present something of the excellence of John Owen, I should point out that I am far from being an expert on John Owen. There is no ground-breaking research here, neither do I pretend to a mastery of his writings. Owen humbles me and exposes the poverty of my own thinking and feeling. I come to Owen to be instructed. Furthermore, in order to limit the length of this material, I have deliberately included few direct quotations from Owen’s works. I hope that this biographical study, and the more detailed consideration of just one of Owen’s books [see Part 3], will encourage you to read Owen privately, and there discover some of the riches he has to offer.

John Owen was born in 1615, the second son of Henry Owen, a non-conforming vicar3 in the Oxfordshire village of Stadhampton. By ancestry, Owen was – as his name suggests – Welsh. His father was the youngest of fifteen sons, but no record survives of his mother’s background. He was, however, probably educated at home before being sent to the private academy in Oxford of an eminent tutor called Edward Sylvester.

He soon outgrew the training his tutor could provide and, in an age that saw much dedicated study and precocious intellect – in which a child of brilliance might enter Oxford University at the age of fifteen or seventeen, to give some contemporary examples – Owen entered that university at the age of twelve. He immediately set out on a course of intense, almost ferocious application to his studies. He soon trained himself to survive on four hours sleep a night, which practice he continued for several years, although he also indulged in various means of relaxation: ‘leaping, throwing the bar,4 bell-ringing, and similar amusements, occasionally allured him from his books … [and] … he received lessons in music.’5

While we are impressed by his application, it is worth noting two things. Firstly, Owen was to declare later in life that he would be willing to give up his learning in return for the health he lost gaining it, so he seems to have recognised a certain lack of wisdom in his early attitude.6 Secondly, at this point in his history, Owen was fired by no more than earthly ambition, seeking before men mere advancement and honour in the church.

It was in his later years at Oxford that Owen probably first knew God dealing with his soul, although we do not know the precise means that God was pleased to use. Was it teaching that he had received at home before coming to Oxford? Did godly teachers and professors have some impact upon him? Was it the truth that he learned as he studied which began to impress itself by the Spirit’s power upon his heart? Religion was a matter of public interest: did the religious tenor of debate in the country stir him to more careful thought? Or was it that certain godly contemporaries were used to draw him to consider Christ for himself?

We cannot tell at this distance how God worked, but, by 1637, with William Laud as Chancellor at Oxford, Owen was clearly already a man of some conviction and principle. Laud, a persecutor of the godly, was introducing Roman Catholic practice into university life, which had to be observed on pain of expulsion. Owen received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1632 and his Master of Arts in 1635, at which point he began studying for his Bachelor of Divinity (a process which usually took seven years). He had already been ordained a deacon when, resolved to disobey the strictures of Laud for conscience’ sake, he left the university at the age of twenty-one.

In following this course, he was demonstrating that the principles learned in childhood had become a matter of personal conviction, effectively abandoning his ambition for preferment in the church, inviting the displeasure of the rich Welsh uncle (who had, until this time, supported him), and identifying himself to the enemies of the gospel of God. It was a heavy price, willingly paid.

Owen became chaplain and tutor to the family of Sir Robert Dormer at Ascot, Oxfordshire. He soon moved to become chaplain to Lord Lovelace of Hurly, in the county of Berkshire. These posts supported him until 1642, when civil war first broke out. He left the employ of Lovelace, a Royalist, and moved to London. His rich uncle, also a Royalist, finally and completely disinherited him at this point.

Owen moved to London still struggling with a ‘mental depression,’ a deep spiritual gloom which had settled upon him in his later years at Oxford and which had never been fully removed. There were outward causes (pressures and sickness), but it seems that the true cause was concern over his state before God.

Owen had no settled peace at this point, and it is difficult to ascertain why. It has been suggested that his treatise on The Forgiveness of Sin and An Exposition of the 130th Psalm offer the fullest insight into his struggles. We might also suggest that it is through such character-forming struggles as these that God puts on a man the edge he desires for the works of his life which God has designed, as we see in the examples of men like Luther and Spurgeon, not to mention the Apostle Paul.

In something approaching despair, Owen went to a church called St Mary’s, Aldermanbury, to hear the preaching of the celebrated Dr Edmund Calamy, one of the most eminent preachers of the day. Owen was disappointed when an unknown minister from the country entered the pulpit in Calamy’s place, but was too tired to follow a friend’s suggestion that they go elsewhere to find a preacher. The man in the pulpit prayed simply, then announced Matthew 8:26 as his text: ‘Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?’ Owen was transfixed, and prayed inwardly and earnestly that God would use the sermon to address his own condition. The preacher proceeded to identify and deal with all his doubts and fears! By the end of the sermon, Owen had been granted a new assurance of God’s love in Christ Jesus, and found settled peace with God. Despite his best efforts, he never discovered the identity of the man who stood to preach that morning. This was not the first and is unlikely to be the last time that God has used virtually unknown or overshadowed means to thrust out men into the harvest-field (think of Guillaume Farel and John Calvin, or of the sermon by means of which Charles Spurgeon was converted).

As Owen recovered mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually from this period of distressing trial, so he entered into his public literary labours, beginning in 1642 with the publication of The Display of Arminianism, in which he exposes this unbiblical doctrine. Archbishop Laud, Owen’s Chancellor at Oxford, was both Romish7 and vigorously Arminian (almost Pelagian – a ‘free-willer’).8 Owen’s first work has its flaws, and is somewhat unwieldy and academic, but it is based on solid Scriptural truth.

Perhaps partly on the basis of this work, Owen was appointed rector of a fairly small church in Fordham, Essex. In the same year, he married a lady called Mary Rooke (we know little of her, except that they had a happy marriage, and eleven children, only one of whom – a daughter – survived early youth. This daughter also died early after an unhappy marriage). Owen’s pastoral approach was typically Puritan: it was focused on house-to-house catechising and solid preaching.

In 1643 he published The Duties of Pastor and People Distinguished, together with two short catechisms. Here he demonstrated true greatness of intellect in his capacity to communicate with those at all levels of ability. It is easy for a learned man to confuse people, much harder for that man to communicate clearly to all those who hear him. Owen also showed a certain mastery of style, which was matched, to a degree, to the audience for which he wrote.

Slowly building a solid reputation, he was appointed to preach at Parliament’s monthly fast on 29 April 1646, aged only thirty-two. His text was Acts 16:9, and the sermon again displayed a capacity for popular eloquence. His evangelical zeal is evident as he pleads for those parts of the nation without sufficient religious instruction.

Soon after this he lost his living at Fordham, the victim of the Anglican (Episcopal) system of appointment. He was immediately invited to nearby Coggeshall, a charge previously in the care of faithful men. Here Owen built on a good foundation, and the congregation grew to about 2000, people of genuine religion and Christian intelligence.

It was at this point in his life that Owen formally adopted Congregational or Independent church polity. Although he shared much with the Presbyterians in his theology, he could no longer agree with them in their views of church government. He came to this conclusion after much reading, especially of a book by a Congregationalist John Cotton, called The Keys of the Kingdom of Heaven. He may awkwardly but accurately be described as a ‘modified Congregationalist.’ A slave to no man, with true independence of mind and in pursuit of biblical truth, Owen attempted to carve out a scriptural path.

He was also concerned that the Presbyterians, now very much in the ascendancy in the country, were themselves becoming somewhat intolerant. Owen condemned all enforced conformity and the punishment of heresy by the sword: ‘Heresy is a canker, but it is a spiritual one; let it be prevented by spiritual means: cutting off men’s heads is no proper remedy for it.’9

In 1647, he is in print again, as a theologian as much as a pastor, with The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, in which he sets out to demonstrate the nature and effectual extent of the death of the Lord Jesus. This was the result of some seven years of prayer, labour, and research. It brought him somewhat into contact and conflict with another prodigious writer, Richard Baxter, and the two continued a debate in print on the nature of the atonement. In this work ‘the characteristic excellencies of Owen’s mind shine out’:

Owen does not merely touch his subject, but travels through it with the elephant’s grave and solid step, if sometimes also with his ungainly motion; and, more than any other writer makes you feel, when he has reached the end of his subject, that he has also exhausted it.10

In 1648, Owen published Eshcol, in which he called men to their Christian duty growing out of their common fellowship in Christ. He was already displaying the irenic spirit which characterised so much of his relationship with others.

Soon after, the civil war drew nearer, with the Royalists fortifying Colchester. Coggeshall was made the headquarters of the Parliamentary general sent to restore order, and Owen got to know him fairly well.

As the war drew to a close, so it seemed that Owen’s reputation as a minister was cemented. Owen was one of two men appointed to preach before Parliament on Thursday 31 January 1649. On the previous day, Charles I had been executed. It is difficult for many modern readers to appreciate just what an earth-shattering occurrence it was for a king – whom many would have believed had a divine right to rule – not merely to be denied his throne, but actually to be executed by his ‘subjects,’ and for treason no less. It says something for the confidence that Parliament had in Owen that he was asked to preach after this event. His text was Jeremiah 15:19-20; his sermon focused on ‘Righteous Zeal Encouraged by Divine Protection,’ and was published with a ‘Discourse on Toleration’ as an annex (Owen’s contribution to the atmosphere of religious liberty under Cromwell should not be underestimated, and in these respects he was greatly ahead of his time). The sermon on Jeremiah 15:19-20 is – to a great extent – ominously silent on the king’s death, the burning issue of the hour: it is not possible to discern Owen’s opinion, and he has been accused of dishonesty and cowardice as a result. We do not have enough evidence to know what his opinion actually was.

On 19 April in the same year, Owen preached before Parliament again, this time with Cromwell in the congregation. This was probably the first time Cromwell had come across Owen publicly, and they met in person the following day. Owen must have made an impression, for Cromwell brushed through Owen’s customary humility and set about ensuring that Owen would go to Ireland with him as a chaplain. When Owen and his congregation showed their unwillingness, the suggestion became a simple command, and other ministers advised that Owen accept. He eventually did.

The army was due to leave for Ireland in August 1649. The day before they embarked was set aside for fasting and prayer. Three ministers prayed for God’s blessing, and then the three commanding officers expounded the Word of God to the men. Think of it: an army of 12,000 men spent the day – with swearing and cursing noticeably absent – in reading their Bibles, singing and engaging in religious conversation!11

After nine months, Cromwell returned from Ireland victorious (having conducted the campaign that excites bitter wrangling among historians) and was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the armies of the Commonwealth. Owen returned to Coggeshall, but was soon called into action once more when Cromwell headed north to deal with Scottish difficulties. The House of Commons required Joseph Caryl and Owen to attend Cromwell as his ministers. In Edinburgh, with the Scottish ministers besieged in the castle, Owen won the affection of many with his preaching in St Giles church. He tried to assist in allowing the Scottish ministers out from the castle to preach on the Lord’s days, but the offer was rejected. Eventually he returned again to his beloved people in Coggeshall, but his peace did not last long.

On 18 March 1651 the Commons ordered Owen settled in the deanery of Christ Church (the most prestigious of the Oxford Colleges).12 Shortly afterwards, Cromwell was appointed the Chancellor of the university, and on 9 September 1652, he nominated Owen as his Vice-Chancellor, effectively putting him in charge of the university which Owen had left for conscience’ sake some ten years before.

Owen was not happy with these appointments, but his scruples were those of a loving pastor and a studious theologian, not primarily an ecclesiological controversialist: the deanery, despite its title, retained nothing more of episcopacy. The university itself was in a terrible state: it had been Royalist, had drained its treasuries in support of the king, was racked with intrigues and jealousies, and had more than its fair share of bad students.

Owen demonstrated himself to be far from a boorish pedant, as many paint the Puritans. He showed himself a man of courtesy and taste, a true gentleman:

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.13

In his initial speech as Vice-Chancellor to the assembled heads of the colleges he clearly casts his hope upon Christ alone, and it was by this attitude of vigorous, Christ-dependent activity that he made progress. Owen showed himself genuinely tolerant, but a firm disciplinarian. On one occasion a student was warned to avoid all profane and obscene expressions and personal reflections in an oration, and the student promptly proceeded to ignore all the restrictions placed upon 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 [Owen] 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.14

Obviously all the strenuous bell-ringing had paid off.

He laboured tirelessly for the spiritual well-being of the university. Unsatisfied by the standard of preaching to the students, he and Dr Thomas Goodwin took it in turns to fill the pulpit of St Mary’s in Oxford. We do well to remember that Owen’s treatises on Mortification and Temptation were probably based largely on sermons first preached to mainly teenage congregations of university students.

Owen’s output during these years was immense, especially when we consider that his position as Vice-Chancellor did not excuse him from other affairs of state. For example, in 1653 he preached before Parliament again on 25 August, on the occasion of victory over the Dutch fleet. In October he was in London at Cromwell’s invitation to participate in a conference on Christian union, one of the more significant issues of the day. It seems fair to say that the best men on all sides pursued this goal most fervently but – although not fruitless – the conference did not achieve its stated aims. (We must be careful not to rank the pursuit of Christian unity that characterised a man like Owen with the blind and undiscerning ecumenism of today.) On 23 December 1653 Owen and Goodwin were made Doctors of Divinity (DD). In this year, Owen published one of his most difficult works, The Claims of Vindicatory Justice Asserted: even by Owen’s standards, this is profound. In 1654, he published The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed.

Again, to convince the people, he wrote for the people: he adapted his style (but never compromised his content) in order to serve Christ the more effectively. In 1653, Cromwell finally dissolved the so-called Long Parliament and in 1654 (when a new Parliament was elected, and the two universities of Oxford and Cambridge were permitted to return a member) he was briefly elected as a Member of Parliament, until someone realised that the aforementioned J. Owen MP was the highly esteemed Dr John Owen, and that ministers of religion could not continue as members of that House! Still, Owen played a part as one of the ‘Triers,’ a commission established to ensure that only good and godly men filled the pulpits of the land. During these years he was often a member of Cromwell’s councils (for example, in helping to decide whether or not Jews should be allowed to trade with and settle in England). He published his Vindiciae Evangelicae against Socinianism.15 Oxford regained much of its former glory: among Owen’s contemporaries at the university were men of the calibre of Thomas Goodwin and Stephen Charnock. Students of the time included Christopher Wren, William Penn, John Locke, Philip Henry, and Joseph Alleine, who would go on to excellence, accomplishment and acclaim in their chosen fields and pursuits.

At the end of this period Owen published his treatise On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. In it we see something of the source of Owen’s confidence and power:

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 … 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 … here he is the skilful physician, applying the medicine to the cure of soul-sickness.16

Owen did not just know what he believed; he believed what he knew. The doctrine he taught was the truth that he loved with all his soul. The work on Mortification was, for once, not the product of necessity, but of choice. It manifests the closeness of his walk with God in the midst of these heaviest of labours. It admirably avoids the tendency to legalism of some works of the same nature produced at the same time: holiness is not made to consist in the observation of countless man-made rules. This book is manna to the soul of the man or woman striving after godliness, helping to understand and assess the true nature of the process of putting sin to death, and giving equal challenge and encouragement.

Throughout this period Owen continued regularly to produce works which most of us should be glad to have made the product of an uninterrupted lifetime of labour. He demonstrated himself more than equal to the demands placed upon him. The easiest way to describe this seems to be that his mind expanded with his position. The pressures of his various responsibilities so stretched his capacities as to render them permanently enlarged. When he finally laid aside these burdens, the prodigious capacities developed as a result of carrying them continued to be employed at maximum.

The time of laying aside came swiftly enough. Owen was one of a group of men who worked to prevent Oliver Cromwell from being offered the crown, and to persuade him from taking it when it was finally offered to him. This left Owen out of favour. When Cromwell was inaugurated as Lord Protector, Owen (who had been involved in or preached at almost every significant Parliamentary and governmental decision and occasion for many years) was not even an invited guest. In July 1657, Cromwell resigned from his Oxford Chancellorship. Within two months, Owen had been replaced as Vice-Chancellor. His departure demonstrates a genuine dignity. However, he was now at liberty to labour, and to employ all his expanded capacities, demonstrating what his biographer calls ‘miraculous fertility of authorship.’17 In this very year he published his work on Communion with God. His work On Temptation was not long behind (1658).

In September 1658, with Thomas Goodwin and other Independents, he worked in the Savoy Palace in the Strand, London, to prepare a confession of faith. Each morning he and Goodwin would draft a statement of doctrine, which would then be discussed, amended, and approved by the Assembly. In a tribute to the grasp of truth displayed by the Westminster divines, much of what is known as the Savoy Declaration quotes the Westminster Confession.

Overshadowing all this was the sickness and – finally, on 3 September 1658 – the death of Oliver Cromwell. With the country soon in disarray, there was little to stop an army general called Monck entering England from the north and heading for London, his inclinations largely unknown. On arrival in London, Monck showed himself a friend of Charles Stuart, son of the executed king. The monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II took the throne, but power was returned to him with little thought for the preservation of religious liberties, other than vague spoken promises that he had given.

Owen, meanwhile, now formally ejected from his deanery at Oxford, had retired to a small estate in Stadhampton, where he ministered to a small congregation. Soon the persecution of the non-conformists under the restored monarchy began to bite, perhaps most famously in the Act of Uniformity of 1662. Over 2000 godly ministers lost their livings, not counting those who had not survived even to that point. Owen continued to preach secretly, showing himself a man of the same principle in all circumstances. It was during this time that a Franciscan friar produced a volume called Fiat Lux, which invited men back to Rome as an answer to the divisions in the church. Owen answered it anonymously. The friar responded, including an attack on the anonymity of his opponent. Owen fought back under his own name, and ‘entered largely into the whole Popish controversy.’18

One tested Owen at one’s peril – it seemed that he constantly held all his immense learning at his immediate disposal.19 He seemed able to draw in a systematic and organised fashion from all his prodigious knowledge to address the situations he faced, holding a complete answer in his own mind which he slowly turned – all the while comprehending the whole – exposing each facet in its place in his writing. This makes him profitable to read, while rarely easy. His anti-Catholicism (remember that the establishment was itself at least nominally anti-Catholic, if often for political reasons only) earned the positive attention of the Lord Chancellor, Clarendon. Clarendon offered Owen high preferment (some say a bishopric) in the national church if he would conform to the requirements of the Church of England. Owen offered to dispute with any man about the validity of Independency, claiming it was the form of church government in the two centuries after Christ, and asked ‘not for preferment within the church, but simple toleration without it.’20

At the same time, he was invited to Boston, New England, by the first Congregational church there. His exact response is unknown, but he decided not to go, or was not able to do so.

Persecution developed, keeping pace with the bubonic plague which now raged through London. While their opposers fled, the Puritans emerged to minister to the desperate and dying masses. During 1665, Parliament met at Oxford, and issued the Five Mile Act, a barbarous piece of legislation which effectively exiled men of God within their own country by forbidding them to preach within five miles of any place returning a member to Parliament (i.e. most cities and towns), or within five miles of any place in which they had previously preached.

Further woe followed: the Fire of London devastated the city in 1666. In its wake, tabernacles were erected in the ashes and ruins, where men like Owen, Manton, Caryl, Baxter, Vincent, and Charnock stood to preach in the ruins of the city to the sober multitudes.

Owen never stopped writing. Three of his best works were published in 1668: On Indwelling Sin, An Exposition of the 130th Psalm, and volume one of his monumental commentary on Hebrews, a work the gigantic strength of which is matched by its gigantic size. It was, more than anything else, the fruit of a lifetime’s labours. In 1669, his Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity appeared, and in 1672, a treatise on Evangelical Love, followed by works on the Sabbath and apostasy.

Persecution, though, continued to increase rather than decrease. There was little relief until 1672, when Charles II declared an indulgence, which allowed non-conformists to preach if they held a licence. Needless to say, men of the character of John Owen and his friends were not slow to take advantage of this freedom! Joseph Caryl died soon afterward, and in 1673, his and Owen’s congregations united.

Owen had friends in high places, and even obtained interviews with the king, but could not prevent persecution increasing again. Owen exerted all his influence on behalf of men like John Bunyan, in whose preaching he greatly delighted. One well known story tells of how Owen used to go to hear Bunyan preach when the tinker declared God’s Word to several hundred people gathered in the early morning of a winter’s day in London. The king apparently asked Owen how a learned man could bear to go to hear a tinker chatter away. Owen replied, ‘May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.’21

1674 saw the publication of Owen’s Pneumatologia, or A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit. This war was fought on three fronts: against the enthusiasts, who abused the doctrine of the Spirit; against the Socinians, who denied the personhood of the Holy Spirit; and, significantly, against those who professed an orthodox creed in this regard, but showed no taste or desire for its practical outworking.

In January 1676 Owen was widowed. We know very little about his marriage, except that his wife was spoken of as ‘an excellent and comely person, very affectionate towards him, and met with suitable returns.’22 Perhaps some sense of Owen’s love for his wife, and the closeness of his relationship to her, is gleaned from the fact that he barely lasted eighteen months unmarried, such was his appreciation of the married state. On 21 June 1677, Owen married a widow. Coincidentally, this marriage, together with a legacy he received at about the same time, made Owen financially comfortable, even affluent, for the remainder of his life.

That life, though, was drawing to a close. An existence of constant excitement, of fluctuation between the greatest extremes of power and poverty, and of constant hard study, began to take its toll. Severe asthma often made preaching impossible, and he suffered the agonising distress of ‘the stone’ (gallstones). Using assistants and scribes, he worked on.

In 1677 he published Justification by Faith. His final controversial works were mainly against Popery and in support of genuine unity among true believers. But, as he grew weaker, he showed an increased pre-occupation with and delight in the simple and central truths of the gospel. To this period belong the works Christologia: or, A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ – God and Man (1679), The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded (1681), and Meditations on the Glory of Christ (published after his death in 1684).

Owen was invited by a sympathetic nobleman to Woburn, Buckinghamshire, for rest, and to take counsel with other persecuted brethren, but his infirmities only increased. From there, he wrote a letter to his congregation which is too long to quote, but which breathes the most sanctified and earnest desires for their spiritual well-being. God continued to watch over him and spare him after his return to London, but eventually he left for property he owned in Ealing. He died hard. As was said of another physically strong minister, Andrew Fuller, Owen possessed a large portion of being,23 and he fought to the end, resisting death with calm vigour, despite his pain, and writing to his friend Charles Fleetwood on the day before his death:

Although I am not able to write one word myself, yet I am very desirous to speak one word more to you in this world, and do it by the hand of my wife. The continuance of your entire kindness, knowing what it is accompanied withal, is not only greatly valued by me, but will be a refreshment to me, as it is, even in my dying hour. 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 all my consolation. The passage is very irksome and wearisome, through strong pains of various sorts, which are all issued in an intermitting fever. All things were provided to carry me to London to-day, according to the advice of my physicians; but we are all disappointed by my utter disability to undertake the journey. 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. I am greatly afflicted at the distempers of your dear lady; the good Lord stand by her, and support and deliver her. My affectionate respects to her, and the rest of your relations, who are so dear to me in the Lord. Remember your dying friend with all fervency. I rest upon it that you so do, and am yours entirely – J. Owen.24

Death came at last on 24 August 1683, when he passed into the presence of his beloved Lord Jesus with his eyes and his hands lifted up. It was the twenty-first anniversary of St Bartholomew’s Day, on which the Act of Uniformity had had its dreadful effects. Eleven days later, Owen was buried in the dissenting burial grounds at Bunhill Fields.

[to be continued]


  1. This is the first of three parts of the full English language version of an article edited to appear in the Tamil language in The Bible Lamp magazine. The substance of the biographical material was originally delivered in adult Sunday School classes at Maidenbower Baptist Church, and revised for this piece.
  2. I have been particularly reliant in what follows on the biographical record of Andrew Thomson’s ‘Life of Dr Owen’ in The Works of John Owen, Vol. 1, ed. William H. Goold (1850-1853, reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967).
      • The Works of John Owen

        Volume 1: The Glory of Christ

        by John Owen

        price $25.20


        John Owen is worthy of our attention because of his example as a Christian man. In many respects he was a man of his times; in others he was far ahead of them. Nevertheless, he possessed qualities and lived by principles and embraced values which – because they were the fruits of grace – are […]

  3. At this point in history (before the so-called Great Ejection of 1662), the term ‘non-conformist’ would have described an Anglican clergyman who ignored some of the demands of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, thereby avoiding remnants of what were considered popish superstition.
  4. I cannot presently find what ‘throwing the bar’ means in this context, although the phrase seems still to be used in weight-training (and, in a different sense, in gymnastics).
  5. Owen, Works, 1:xxiv.
  6. Owen, Works, 1:xxiv.
  7. Holding to the doctrines and/or practices of the Roman Catholic Church.
  8. Pelagianism is named after a British monk named Pelagius who live in Rome in the early 5th century. Pelagius was one of the key opponents of Augustine. Pelagius denied original sin, teaching that man has no bias toward evil. Semi-Pelagianism suggested that – although God’s grace was needed to save people – it still remained with man to decide whether or not he would be saved. Arminianism is named after the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), credited with leading the reaction against John Calvin’s teaching on the sovereignty of God in salvation. Arminians locate the beginnings of salvation in the will of man, rather than in the will of God. In this regard, Arminian teaching has its roots in Pelagian theology, even though Arminianism is generally considered a softer version.
  9. Owen, Works, 1:xxxvii.
  10. Owen, Works, 1:xxxviii. A more detailed consideration of this book will appear in Part 3.
  11. Owen, Works, 1:xliii.
  12. The office of Dean of Christ Church involved presiding at college meetings and delivering lectures in divinity.
  13. Owen, Works, 1:xlviii. In other words, he looked well, behaved well, spoke well, related well, and easily moved the minds and hearts of those to whom he spoke.
  14. Owen, Works, 1:lii.
  15. At heart the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity, one key implication being a denial of the true divinity of the Son, Jesus Christ, as well as the personhood of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, since – in this view – Jesus is not divine, then his sacrifice could not be effectual in redeeming his people. Socinians therefore claim that Christ’s sacrifice was not a substitutionary atonement but an exemplary self-sacrifice. What is today called Unitarianism has its roots in Socinian heresy.
  16. Owen, Works, 1:lxiv.
  17. Owen, Works, 1:lxviii.
  18. Owen, Works, 1:lxxx.
  19. Owen, Works, 1:lxxx.
  20. Owen, Works, 1:lxxxi.
  21. Owen, Works, 1:xcii.
  22. Owen, Works, 1:xcv.
  23. Owen, Works, 1:civ.
  24. Owen, Works, 1:ciii.

Note: The Trust publishes not only the 16 volumes of The Works of John Owen (available as the set, or singly):

but also the following abridgements in the Puritan Paperbacks series:-

…and due for publication in May 2007:

Owen’s 7-volume commentary on Hebrews is also available,

as is The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, which will be the subject of the third part of this study.

Books by other authors, focusing on specific aspects of Owen’s teaching are:-

There is also a chapter on Owen – ‘John Owen on Schism’ – in The Puritans: Their Origins & Successors:

This was a lecture delivered by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the Puritan Conference in 1963.

Jeremy Walker is one of the pastors of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley, West Sussex, UK

Latest Articles

What Can We Learn from John Knox? November 24, 2022

If it were to be asked what is the recurring theme in Knox’s words and writings the answer is perhaps a surprising one. Sometimes he could be severe, and sometimes extreme. Given the days and the harshness of the persecution he witnessed, it would be understandable if these elements had preponderated in his ministry. But […]

Reformed, But Ever Reforming October 31, 2022

It is rather audacious to claim that we are reformed. It can also be misleading when we call ourselves Reformed Churches. For this might imply that we believe that our denominations are truly reformed; or, even worse, that at some point in the past we were or became reformed and that the task of reform […]