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Prefatory note.

The occasion on which this sermon was delivered is mentioned in the “Life of Owen,” vol. i., p. 34. From the title-page of the original edition of the sermon, Owen appears to have been “minister of the gospel at Coggeshall, in Essex,” when it was published. By some inadvertency, Mr Orme, in his valuable memoir of our author, represents him as called to preach this sermon to the House of Commons before he left the parish of Fordham; a statement which can be reconciled with the original title-page only by the supposition that his removal to Coggeshall had occurred in the interval before the publication of the sermon. Asty, however, distinctly informs us that he was settled at Coggeshall when he first preached before the House of Commons.

The sermon was preached on Wednesday the 29th of April 1646; and the time is important, as it was the close of the first civil war. During the previous month, Hopton and Astley, the last generals who kept the field in the interest of Charles I., had been compelled to surrender. “You have now done your work,” said Astley to his victors, “and may go to play, — unless you will fall out among yourselves.” So truly was the work done, that Oliver Cromwell had returned to his place Parliament on the 22d of April, and on the following Monday the king left Oxford in disguise, and, after some hesitation of purpose, found his way to the Scots army.

A sufficient interval had hardly elapsed to give Owen an opportunity of exhibiting in his sermon any reflection of these memorable events. It is perhaps more to his credit, that, when summoned from the obscurity of his pastoral duties at Coggeshall to preach the gospel in “the chief place of concourse,” and before the rulers of the land, he seizes the opportunity to portray the spiritual destitution which existed in Wales, and large districts of England, and to make an appeal for “help,” in a strain of holy fervour and commanding eloquence, that will bear comparison with the best productions of the British pulpit. The reasoning at the outset is somewhat abstract, — not unsuited, perhaps, to an assembly of the leading men in the country; but throughout the discourse there is conspicuous that happy combination of argument and declamation which constitutes genuine oratory. Bogue and Bennett have remarked, “Those who are only acquainted with the general strain of Owen’s writings, would not suppose him capable of pouring forth that flood of lucid, glowing, popular eloquence, which is displayed in this sermon.” — History of Dissenters, vol. 2, p. 228.

In the “Defensative,” or preface to the “Country Essay,” etc., Owen assigns reasons on account of which he had not felt himself free to petition Parliament in reference to the establishment of an ecclesiastical polity for England. In the “Country Essay,” etc., he condemns very strongly the infliction of civil penalties for religious belief. In the first part of it, he describes a form of church government which commended itself to his judgment. Owen purposely refrained from describing it either as Presbytery or Independency, deeming himself competent to satisfy all men respecting it; “unless such as shall be so simple or malicious as to ask whether this way be that of the Presbyterians or Independents.” By his own admission, the scheme proposed in the “Essay” would not exactly agree with either of the two forms of church government which were then competing for national favour and the sanction of the state. There can be no doubt, however, that he was at this time undergoing the change of view which led him in the end to profess Congregationalism. It is simple justice to add, that a comparison of the “Country Essay” with his “Inquiry into Evangelical Churches,” published towards the close of his life, effectually redeems his name from any charge of vacillation in regard to his church principles. The peculiar modifications which appear in the Congregationalism of Owen, are conspicuous elements in the first scheme of ecclesiastical polity which he ever broached. See also his “Review of the Nature of Schism,” chap. ii., vol. xiii. — Ed.

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