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

The Fire and the Plague – Providential Warning Signs

It is in connection to such warning that the fire and plague are brought forward within the sermon.[21] The fire and the plague receive two explicit mentions, both times as a linked pair. The first is on the failure of his congregation to godly living:

“And [as for] the utter impossibility that appears by any other way to separate the silver from the dross, to separate us from the world, the plague, the fire, have not done it; signs in the heavens above and in the earth beneath have not done it; the sincere preaching of the gospel, though in weakness, hath not done it; entreaties, beggings, exhortations, have not done it; our prayers have not done it: we cleave unto the world still.”[22]

Owen believed his congregation had failed to separate themselves from worldliness despite ample warnings to do so. The warnings have been delivered in the form of explicit words from ministers, and implicit warnings from God in the form of the two recent disasters, and “signs” in heaven and on earth – quite probably the comet and the tumultuous political changes of recent years.[23]

The second reference to the fire and plague comes only shortly after and in the same vein of thought – Owen fears that England is destined for God’s furnace, and that professing Christians have not proven worthy of being spared. The specific thought that they are placed within is drawn from Ezekiel 21:9–13, which mentions people thinking lightly of divine judgement. Owen laments that:

“It is strange that it should be such stupidity upon us, that when the sword is furbished and made bright for the slaughter, and given into the hands of the slayer, we should not so much as think that it will be a trial, but make mirth. The reason is this, plainly, Because we have escaped former trials and the plague, and fire, and in the wrath of man. But saith the prophet, ‘This shall contemn every rod,’—go beyond all those rods we have undergone, and despise them… you have had no trial; neither your confidence nor your grace has been tried: but this will be a trial. I do not believe these things are a vain divination.”[24]

The warning to his audience is clear: these prior trials should have roused their piety, yet they have proved too stupid to regard them with appropriate gravity. Yet these events pale in comparison to what is coming, and then they really will be tried like drossy silver in a furnace. Will they prove themselves to be silver, or dross to be incinerated?

Both times the fire and the plague are mentioned to make a point: these disasters should have prompted them to a more serious faith; one that was prepared for worse things to come. The second instance also mentions the persecutions undergone by non-conformists in the 1660s for abstaining from the Established Church. History is here being read providentially and tropologically.[25] The fire did not happen simply because a baker’s fire got out of hand. The plague did not happen simply because a flea-borne disease jumped to a crowded population with poor hygiene. These are merely the “formal” causes of these events. Early modern Christians like Owen readily understood events also in terms of divine agency and purpose. In this way God was seen to be acting behind the formal causes and did so with the moral purpose of providing warning and spurring piety for those with eyes to see it.

Christian Duty in the Shadow of an Impending Furnace

Owen believed that he was one such person with eyes to see God’s stern cautionary purposes in the fire and plague, but he feared his congregants were not. If Owen was prepared to acknowledge he might possibly be mistaken that the Lord’s furnace was coming, he was certain beyond doubt as to what duty the Lord required of his people regardless.

So, he echoes in his sermon the warning he sees implied in these disasters and urges them to be prepared for what he dreaded could be coming next. As the sermon drew to a close, he impressed on his hearers what it was they were to do in light of England’s (and their own) ripeness for judgement.

One suggested duty Owen makes was that “it is certainly our duty to be building an ark,”[26] alluding to the ark built by Noah and regularly understood by pre-critical Christian interpreters to allegorically represent the church. His suggestion is that the work of building, strengthening, and supporting the church as a place of safety from God’s (ultimate?) judgement is one task that sober-minded listeners should commit themselves to.

His foremost desire was that the church should be praying for the nation.[27] He is chiefly worried about external political threats to England, identified as “workmen” who are unclearly introduced in the reference to Noah building his ark:

“Beg of God to divert them, otherwise to employ them; beg of God to take them off,—that fierce, cruel men may not have the execution of God’s judgements upon this poor land,—that God would take us into his own hands… cry mightily unto the Lord, that, if it be his will, the furnace may depart from this nation.”[28]

The comment “that God would take us into his own hands” is a striking allusion. In 2 Samuel 24 and its parallel in 1 Chronicles 21, an indicted King David is given a choice of punishments. He opts to avoid suffering divine punishment at the hands of invading enemies, but instead to “fall now into the hand of the LORD” (2 Sam 24:14 (AV); cf. 1 Chron 21:13); which was “three days’ pestilence in thy land.” Owen is not explicit, but this allusion reinforces his comment following Ezekiel 21:9–13 that worse disaster than the fire and plague might be coming. A return to the plague is a mercy compared with what God is otherwise preparing for them. In line with this thinking, an invasion of England (presumably by a Catholic power such as France or Spain) would be understood providentially as a divine punishment on the nation.[29]

John Owen sees hope in the story of Abraham interceding with God for Sodom to be spared, and an example in the bold faith of Abraham’s manner of asking.[30] Abraham’s intercession for Sodom is a model for the church to follow for England, and Owen urges upon his congregation the importance of their duty to plead with God for mercy for their nation so that worse disaster may not happen. God’s character was so holy that some people might despair of hope, but this holiness was not inconsistent with his mercy, and it is in this that Owen directs their faith in their prayers.[31] Owen may have been the age’s foremost defender of Reformed orthodoxy, but his views of divine sovereignty did not exclude the relevance of earnest intercessory prayer. It is worth noting the concern that Owen displayed for England in his urgings to intercession. It is not an aloof and self-preserving faith that he promotes to his dissenting co-religionists, but one that loves an enemy and shows it by serious prayer for the enemy – for England had turned its back on their efforts to religious reform and watched with indifference while the Restoration authorities had hounded them into hiding, exile, prison, or the gallows.

If their intercession for England should fail, he also hopes that they themselves might be spared the furnace along with the rest of England and instead be granted the milder discipline of the “fining pot” (an allusion to Isa 31:9, mentioned earlier in the sermon). This too they should plead and pray for, and to do so in light of the fearful prospect of the complete destruction: “Cry for that! … tremble to think that there seems to me to dispensation remaining but the oven, but that which shall consume, and leave neither root nor branch.”[32] Owen sees this as something that would come about “by prayer, by the preaching of the word, by continual warnings, before the day comes, before the decree brings forth, before it is too late.”[33] The congregation must heed the ministry that they had lately thought lightly of, despite the providential warnings to be found in the signs God had provided.