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

Conclusion and Takeaways

In “The Furnace of Divine Wrath” Owen has laid out his diagnosis and prognosis of the times in terms of the biblical metaphor of the drossy silver and the furnace. He also locates his own congregation in relation to the coming trial. Toward the end of the sermon, he shifts his focus to what he believes to be the duty of his church in light of this coming trial. Their responsibility is to make themselves fit to be spared the furnace, strengthen the church, and to plead with God on behalf of the nation for clemency. He finishes his sermon on a note of hope. Although “we seem all to be ready … to be brought into the same furnace … yet there is room left for faith and prayer to plead with God in all the particulars mentioned.”[34] By prayer, faith, and repentance, the terrible things Owen saw approaching may be averted – if not for the nation, at least for themselves.

Although they are only explicitly mentioned twice, the fire and the plague that afflicted London in 1665–1666 are foundational to the major premise of the sermon. This premise is that such events are providentially arranged signs that warn of worse things to come. Their intended moral value is to prompt repentance expressed in renewed piety, which will either avert future temporal judgement or, failing that, allow the godly escape that judgement.

The future judgement upon England that Owen feared never transpired. It could not have been due to a penitent England or the piety of its professing Christians, for Owen was still lamenting the state of England and his church a decade later![35] Evidently his prognostication was mistaken. But what about his providential interpretation of the recent plague and fire? To a degree his providentialist thinking can be justified. There are ample biblical texts that do invite this way of interpreting disasters. While the theo-logic does make some sense and texts such as Amos 3:6 justify it, he was still left with the problem of transferring the explicit interpretation of specific events in the Bible to events outside of the biblical history. God has given no means in Scripture to discern his purposes in our own experience of disasters. Further, Owen was not one to claim divine inspiration for his interpretation (as he alluded to in this sermon). Very far from it. He does display caution by focussing his utilization of these disasters toward spurring the piety of his congregation rather than condemning his society’s sins – but then this could be because his primary purpose was not to avert national judgement but to strengthen his church.

The temptation to providentialist readings of disasters and national hardships remains today, although given modern thinking’s overbearing emphasis on natural causes this temptation is regarded by most as quaint and strange, if not dangerous.

In the case of New Zealand’s experience of Covid-19, nearly two years on, we have gotten off relatively lightly thus far – even if the lengthy 2021 lockdown centred around Auckland feels onerous. This apparent acquittal might be hard to square for those with an acute sense of our own nation’s sins.[36] If we are inclined to providentialist readings of current events, we can hazard a guess to their meaning based on what we know of the circumstances and the character of God. But at the end of the day, it remains just that: a guess, albeit a theologically informed one. The gap between what we know of theology and what has happened in our world is one we should be very cautious to fill ourselves. The basic philosophical problems of theodicy should also give reason for us to pause – righteous people sometimes do suffer along with the wicked, or even apart from the wicked, and that is not so simple to interpret with certainty.

Here, Owen’s sermon “The Furnace of Divine Wrath” can give us some pointers. While he certainly entertains the idea that the fire and plague came from God, this is not his focus – these seem rather to be the occasion for the sermon.

He is more interested in spurring the personal piety of his congregation and moving them to prayer for the nation. Shifting our focus to our own experience of disasters in the present, I think it is too bold to deny God can be acting in judgement in disasters, but also too bold to affirm that he definitely is acting.

It should not be too hard to say that without a word from God we are not permitted to say what God is or is not doing in any given event. We can (and ought) affirm God’s role as Judge over his world. But his loving and gracious role as Redeemer must be affirmed too – and even more so, given that his offered redemption is the message Christians have been commissioned to take to his world.

In the meantime, it is perhaps wiser to take cues from Owen – disasters can (at least) be reminders of God’s holy judgement on evil that prompt us to live rightly before him and pray seriously for those who dismiss him. This in keeping with Jesus’ directive to readiness rather than speculation for the onlookers of disaster in Luke 13:1–5. After all, now is the time of God’s patience – he will judge, but that is deferred until the end-of-history (Rom 2:4–5).

John Owen may or may not have been correct about his interpretation of the plague and the fire, but he was wise to find their significance most strongly in how they ought to incite a serious and active Christian faith.

[1] That is, until the day before this article was submitted!

[2] For John Owen in this period, see Crawford Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 209–33. For the situation of non-conformists, a helpful introduction is N. H. Keeble, The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth-Century England (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 25–67.

[3] John Gadbury, De Cometis: Or, a Discourse of the Natures and Effects of Comets, as They Are Philosophically, Historically & Astrologically Considered. With a Brief (yet Full) Account of the III Late Comets, or Blazing Stars, Visible to All Europe. And What (in a Natural Way of Judicature) They Portend. Together with Some Observations on the Nativity of the Grand Seignior (London: L. Chapman, 1665), 31–38.

[4] See the discussion by Gadbury, De Cometis, 26–30, 38–44. Gadbury gave extensive discussion on the significance of comets depending on what Zodiac they appear in, and an historical assortment of no less than forty comet sightings aligned with various wars, deaths, and disasters, concluding with a statement asserting that comets are intended by both God and nature most often to portend the deaths of kings and other great persons. Whether many people took the specificity of the astrologers’ prognoses seriously is unimportant; what is important is the fact that the appearance of such a sign in the heavens was believed to signal a troubled future.

[5] Owen’s earlier sermons had confidently (albeit at times cautiously) asserted that divine approval promoted the Puritan political cause. See Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism, 90–123, and for a detailed study of Owen’s earlier preaching see Martyn C. Cowan, John Owen and the Civil War Apocalypse: Preaching, Prophecy, and Politics, Religious Cultures in the Early Modern World (London; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2018).

[6] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 16 vols. (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 16:431.

[7] Crawford Gribben has written that in this period Owen would “preach to his small congregation messages that he could not dare to commit to print, messages that experimented with prognostication and the sometimes politically charged interpretation of providence.” Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism, 239. He has written about on this topic in his “John Owen, Plague, and the Meanings of Disaster,” in Kathleen Miller (ed.), Medicine and religion in the trans-Atlantic world (forthcoming).

[8] Owen, Works, 16:425-431. In the original edition published by Goold in 1850-1853, this sermon was found in volume 17. The Banner of Truth edition removed the Latin works found in volumes 16-17 and collected the remaining English works into the present vol. 16.

[9] Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism, 226–28.

[10] Gordon Goodwin, “Hartopp, John,” in Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900 (London: Macmillan, 1891), 74.

[11] Prefatory note, Owen, Works, 16:424. Cf. Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism, 238–39.

[12] Owen, Works, 16:430.

[13] Owen, Works, 16:429.

[14] There is also a note in the prefatory note to the series stating that “the first sermon in the series is evidently identical with Owen’s posthumous treatise ‘On the Mortification of Sin’” (1721, does not appear to be included in the Works. “The Mortification of Sin in Believers” (1656, Works 6:1–86) does not bear resemblance to “The Furnace of Divine Wrath.” Cf. Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism, 238.

[15] Owen, Works, 16.426.

[16] In Owen’s view OT Israel and the NT church were “not two distinct peoples but are essentially one spiritual community predicated on the same basic covenant.” John W. Tweeddale, John Owen and Hebrews: The Foundation of Biblical Interpretation (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2019), 109–10; cf. Owen, Works, 18:119 –124. It appears that Owen sees a difference between the Roman conquest (which ended the “Jewish Church”), and the Babylonian conquest that is in view in his sermon text (which disciplined and refined it).

[17] Owen, Works, 16:426. Owen cites Mal. 4:1 and 3:3 in support of this idea. To identify the destruction of Jerusalem as that by the Romans he alludes to the casualty numbers given by Josephus in Jewish War 4:9:3. He also seems to suggest that the English Republic of the 1660s likewise suffered “the coming of his oven” (Works, 16:426), not in terms of the destruction of the people, but in the dissolution of the religious order established by it.

[18] See Owen’s comments in Works, 16:427-428.

[19] Owen, Works, 16:428. Owen had reason to be cautious after his supportive providentialist preaching about the revolution in the late 1640s and early 1650s. Cf. n. 5 above. Crawford Gribben (“Becoming John Owen: The Making of an Evangelical Reputation,” WTJ 79 (2017): 312.) suggests that by 1681 Owen had given up on providentialist analysis. My own reading of the relevant citation (from Owen, Works, 16:492) and surrounding text suspects this may not be the case. 

[20] Owen, Works, 16:427, 429. Cf. his other comments in Works, 16:431: “(for this separation from the world and outward worship, if it be all, signifies nothing)”, and his later sermon “The Death of the Righteous” (July 1, 1681), where he paraphrases Amos 3:2 “You have I known of all the congregations in London in  a peculiar manner, and therefore I will punish you for all your sins” in Works, 16:492.

[21] Owen also referred or alluded to the fire and plague several times in a popular level work A Practical Exposition upon Psalm 130 (published 1669 and found in Owen, Works, 6.576, 628, 632). Two of the references are in the contexts of practical spirituality in relation to the character of God, while a third is in a discussion on the effects of afflictions on people’s spirituality. He also referred to them in his 1679 sermon “National Sins and National Judgements” (Works, 16:482-483).

[22] Owen, Works, 16:428.

[23] “Signs in the heavens above and on the earth beneath” could be taken in a purely “on earth” manner, since John Owen had used a similar phrase in his 1649 sermon “Ουρανων ουρανια: The Shaking and Translating of Heaven and Earth” (Owen, Works, 8:243-279), where he refers to “the heavens” as political powers and “the earth” as their supporting populations. However, it is hard to image that the comet would not come to mind in this context.

[24] Owen, Works, 16:429-430.

[25] “Tropological” readings search for the moral significance in a text, or in this case, an event understood providentially to be a divine action.

[26] Owen, Works, 16:429.

[27] He also more briefly mentions two other duties. One is that “it is certainly our duty to be building an ark”, in light of the story of Noah (Works, 16:429). The other is that if the furnace must come, that they would beg of God that they may still have “the light of God’s countenance in Christ”, drawing on the report of the lamp that accompanies the smoking furnace in Abraham’s dream in Gen 15:17 (Works, 16:431).

[28] Works 16:430. These otherwise unidentified “workmen” are introduced on the previous page.

[29] As he seems to suggest in Works, 16:430. Although he may have looked favourably on what was effectively a Dutch (Protestant) invasion at the Glorious Revolution in 1688 to depose the openly Catholic King James II.

[30] Owen, Works, 16:430. Cf. Gen 18:22–33.

[31] The “grace and mercy that will bear a consistency with the essential holiness and righteousness of God may be drawn out by faith and prayer.” Owen, Works, 16:430.

[32] Owen, Works, 16:431. Owen does not seem to retain a consistent use of his earlier distinction between the “furnace” and the “oven” on p. 426.

[33] Owen, Works, 16:431.

[34] Owen, Works, 16:431.

[35] Owen, Works, 16:480-488. We see similar comments in his 1676 “The Nature of Apostasie” (Works, 7:1-259, e.g., 98, 164–165). The sense of impending disaster is diminished in these later sources.

[36] Many will remember especially the non-Covid-19-related legislation rushed through parliament while a distracted New Zealand was descending into an unprecedented lockdown.