“The Furnace of Divine Wrath”: Providence in John Owen’s Preaching on the Plague and Fire of London

A Message for a Day of Darkness, Gloominess, and Anguish

“The Furnace of Divine Wrath” is part of a collection published after Owen’s death and is now found in volume 16 of the 1968 Banner of Truth edition of The Works of John Owen.[8] It is not clear where this sermon was delivered. In the early-mid-1660s, Owen moved between London, Stoke Newington (then separate and just north of London), and Stadhampton (a village some fifty miles away in southern Oxfordshire), where in 1665 he was caught preaching illegally to a congregation of around thirty. By late 1666, nonconformist congregations could apparently meet in London without fear of arrest, and Owen had regathered a congregation of former associates.[9] The presence of the stenographer, John Hartopp, would suggest a venue in or near London – he had connections to Owen’s Leadenhall Street church in London as well as to his church in Stoke Newington.[10]

No date is given for “The Furnace of Divine Wrath,” but it is placed first in a chronological series of sermons dated between 1669–1681. The second and third are from 1669 and 1672 respectively. These sermons survive as a collection preserved and bound by the granddaughter of the stenographer.[11] This placement in the collection likely indicates that the earliest handlers of the sermon manuscripts believed that this sermon was chronologically first in the series – prior to February 27, 1669.

A remark towards the end of the sermon also offers an unclear hint at the circumstances. Owen refers to the day of this sermon as “this day of darkness, of gloominess, this day of anguish,” and a day on which the congregation has come together “to cry to God for mercy.”[12] These words suggest that this occasion was not a regular Lord’s Day gathering.

One possibility is that the occasion was simply a special gathering for self-abasement and prayer – a common enough occurrence for a seventeenth century Puritan congregation.

Another possibility is that “this day of darkness … gloominess … anguish” could be some other crisis that affected the congregation personally – clear enough not to need identifying, but not so pressing as to need more than a passing allusion.

A third possibility is that it could have been a gathering called together in the aftermath of and in response to the fire of London – although the designation of “day” is not easy to align with a fire that lasted for most of a week. The fire had starting in the early hours of a Sunday (2 September) and was under control by Wednesday as it burned itself out within a perimeter made by a fire break. The sermon could have been from the following Sunday. Yet, Owen’s other remark about “former trials in the plague, the fire, and in the wrath of man”[13] seem to indicate that enough time has passed to deem these events as properly part of the past.

Whichever way we identify this “day,” Owen’s comment is clearly significant for the dating of the sermon, but ultimately unclear as to what that significance might be. Nonetheless, given this sermon’s placement in the series, its subject matter, and the references to the fire and the plague, it is probable that the original delivery of the sermon was given not long after the fire and plague of London, and so possibly as early as 9 September 1666, and probably before February 1669.[14]

Drossy Silver: Potentially Precious 

For his text, Owen selected Ezekiel 22:17-22. This passage expresses God’s displeasure with sixth–century Israel who remained in Judea after much of the population was deported to Babylon, and what he planned to do to them. They are likened to “drossy silver” – precious metal sufficiently mixed with unwanted impurities to be discarded if it cannot be refined. These people are to be gathered up into Jerusalem to be “melted” beneath the wrath and fury of the Lord – presumably understood in terms of the returning Babylonian army. Their testing by fire will determine their value to the Lord.

Owen extrapolates this metaphor of “drossy silver” in light of smelting practices and biblical uses of the same and similar metaphors. He identifies two kinds of dross.

The first is the waste metal left after it has been through the furnace – this is for discarding and represents the supposed people of God proving themselves to be an apostate people after a trial to test their nature. This is not what he sees in Ezekiel 22 or in English society.

The second kind is the crude ore that exists before it is put into the furnace to be refined, so that the base metals can be removed from the precious silver – this represents a people of mixed quality. It is this second kind that he sees in Ezekiel 22:17–22. Owen clearly understands England in this way (as crude ore prior to refining), but he also sees the individual members of his own congregation of dissenting Christians in this metaphor. They too are like unrefined ore. He writes:

“When the dross be increased, and the silver will not otherwise be separated from it, both dross and silver must [go] into the same furnace. That is the case here; and you will excuse me if I judge it to be the case with ourselves.”[15]

Owen also observes that God has a “furnace” for refinement as well as an “oven” for incineration. The furnace God uses on his church (being, for Owen, the people of God in both Testaments[16]), while the oven is for those God has finally rejected. This is a pattern he sees played out in Malachi, which he sees foretelling the coming of God’s oven at the dissolution of the “wicked, apostate church” at the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, because they would not be refined by Christ while he was with them.[17] 

The threat he sees for Jerusalem in Ezekiel 22:17–22 (and in Owen’s view, likewise for England) is not the oven but the furnace. And his congregation would not be exempt from this danger. The point he is moving toward is that his church of non-conformists have become too worldly and too unwilling to part with their worldliness. They too are like silver that clings to the dross. Hence, they must be refined from it – if they will – by trial in the furnace. Ultimately, this sermon is not about berating society at large but indicting and directing the flagging piety of a complacent congregation. Owen makes it clear that he believed that (albeit in the cautious manner of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:12a – he allows the possibility that he is mistaken[18]) “we are all going in to the same furnace with all the brass, and tin, and lead, and iron, in the nation,—going into the same furnace.”[19] They, godly dissenters though they may be, will not be spared:

“When all endeavours fail, warnings fail, preaching of the word fails, and the silver is not separated from the dross; when men can scarce, when professors can scarce, bear to be warned; when they think of others’ sins, but will not think of their own; when they will do nothing towards reformation, but say they shall have peace… there is no way but we must all into the same furnace; nothing else will do… prepare yourselves; a trial it will be, a trial that will try all your carnal confidences, and consume them. It will try your profession of what sort it is; and if it be found false, will consume it also. It is to try all your graces to the utmost,—all your faith, all your trust, all your self-resignation, all your readiness to leave the things of the world and to part with them. It will be a trial, friends.”[20]