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Prefatory note.

The following sermon was preached before the House of Commons on January 31, 1648, which had been appointed as a day of solemn humiliation in connection with the event of the preceding day, — the decapitation of Charles I. Accordingly, no sermon of Owen has excited keener discussion. Because he consented to preach in these circumstances, he is held to have connived at a great crime, and actually invested it with the sanctions of religion. In the opinion of Dr M’Crie (see “Miscellaneous Writings,” p. 501), his conduct in this instance was “the greatest blot on his public life,” and both his text and the title of his sermon could not fail to be interpreted as encouragement to those who had been accessory to the destruction of the unhappy monarch. On the other hand, some, like Mr Orme, urge that Owen preached by command; that no sentiment of the sermon can be construed as approval of the regicide; and that the very passages (see paragraph at the foot of p. 134 and on p. 136) adduced in proof that Owen concurred in it, indicate his desire to keep free and aloof from the expression of any positive opinion on the subject. A bolder line of defence has been instituted, according to which Owen, like Milton, might have regarded the death of Charles as only the appropriate penalty for a long career of violence and duplicity, during which he had made the blood of the best subjects in the realm to flow like water; and that our author, in preaching on this occasion, might have acted under a sense of duty, while discharging a task solemn and painful certainly, but still a task to which he might feel himself bound by higher considerations than mere regard to the authority which enjoined it. The argument to this effect is stated with great point and ability in his “Life,” etc., vol. i., p. 40. This much is clear, that after the Restoration he was never called to account for his public appearance on this occasion by a government whose measures of vindictive retaliation against the Puritans are notorious. Asty’s explanation of the fact has obvious weight:— “His discourse was so modest and inoffensive, that his friends could make no just exception, nor his enemies take an advantage of his words another day.” — Memoirs, p. 8. The only public expression of displeasure at this sermon was given in 1683, about a month before the grave closed over its author. In the school quadrangle of the University, — not too rich in honours to repudiate without serious loss the lustre shed upon it from the name of its great Puritan Vice-Chancellor, — a document containing some positions, extracted from the sermon and denounced as pernicious and damnable, was publicly burned. He suffered in good company; for propositions from the works of Knox, Buchanan, Baxter, and others, were condemned in the same decree, and committed to the same flames. Some reparation for the insult offered in this mean revenge was made, too late to soothe his feelings, had he needed solace under the affront, but tending so far to rescue his memory from unjust reproach, when, in 1710, by an order from the House of Lords, the Oxford decree was burned by the hands of the common hangman.

It is strange, that the appendix to a sermon preached, as some think, in the very consummation of license and misrule, should be an earnest and able pleading for toleration, in a tone of calmness and moderation rare at any time in controversy, and especially rare in the controversies of that stormy age.

The entire body of the Independents have been blamed for consenting to the death of Charles I., because Owen, the chief ornament of their denomination, was called, in such critical and delicate circumstances, to preach before the House of Commons. Mr Orme successfully disproves the justice of the charge. Whatever offence Owen may thus have committed, to visit it upon the religious body with which he generally acted, is in accordance neither with the principles of justice nor the facts of history. — Ed.

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