A guest post by Crawford Gribben
Over the last few years—and with the benefit of my summer Folger fellowship—I’ve been thinking about the network of friends and rivals that had at its centre the puritan theologian, John Owen (1616-83).
Owen was one of the most productive writers of the seventeenth century, and the Folger holds one of the largest collections of his work. His eight million words were published in English and Latin in around 80 titles, and ranged from poetry to theology, and from biblical commentary to political polemic. But Owen was also a controversial figure. He preached for Parliament on the day after the execution of Charles I (1649), acted as Cromwell’s chaplain during the invasions of Ireland and Scotland (1649-50), was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, worked as architect of the religious settlement during the eleven-year republic, and found himself on the wrong side of the law in the decades after the Restoration, during which his opposition to the new regime may have drawn him, along with members of his family and congregation, into the attempt upon the life of Charles II and James, duke of York, that become known as the Rye House Plot (1682-83).
Owen was widely respected, but not widely admired. He had numerous critics. Some of these complaints were occasional, as when Milton addressed a sonnet to Cromwell to complain of Owen’s efforts to create a national confession of faith. Other criticisms were more enduring, as in Richard Baxter’s decades-long campaign to traduce Owen’s reputation and achievements. Owen was prepared to learn from his enemies, and in the aftermath of the publication of Paradise Lost briefly suspended his opposition to the idea that angels could continue to communicate divine revelation. But Owen also had numerous friends. Their number included John Bunyan, whose Pilgrims Progress Owen recommended for publication, and Andrew Marvell, whose The Rehearsal Transprosed Owen saw through the press.
Lucy Hutchinson might be one of the most curious nodes in Owen’s social network.
After her husband’s death, in 1664, Hutchinson began to move away from the rather conventional Calvinism of her earlier life, to adopt and defend in her theological writing a number of positions that by the standards of the time would have been deeply unorthodox. In the later 1660s, Hutchinson was experimenting with some of the key tenets of hyper-Calvinism, such as the doctrine of eternal justification, which was routinely used to defend antinomianism. But it was also during this period that she seems to have made her first connections with Owen’s little conventicle, entering its fellowship, while never becoming a member, and finding buyers for one of her estates, a tutor for her son, and a supportive community of friends and fellow-travellers, being willing to overlook former rivalries as she sought a religious port in the Restoration storm.
Over the last few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which Hutchinson’s work during this period were influenced by her participation in the life of this congregation. Last year, following on from my having attended a brilliant Folger seminar on “Lucy Hutchinson and the English revolution,” which was convened by David Norbrook, I reconstructed her changing religious views in an article in The Review of English Studies. Stimulated and informed by the seminar’s brilliant conversations, I argued that Hutchinson’s theology in the later 1660s was more complex and problematic than many of us had realised, and that this often overlooked body of writing showed her developing a religious voice that was quite independent of the opinions of her husband or of the defining confessional and catechetical statements with which she continued to engage. The argument of the article concluded in the early 1670s, just as Hutchinson’s relationship with members of Owen’s congregation became more immediate, and as she may have begun attending its services of public worship.
This summer, I used my Folger fellowship to think more clearly about the next few years of Hutchinson’s religious experience. In a forthcoming article in The Review of English Studies, I will show how, in the early 1670s, Hutchinson was participating in the life of a congregation that, though extremely small in number, included a number of individuals who pursued literary activities that were very similar to her own. Drawing from material in Dr Williams’s Library, London and New College, Edinburgh, I show how others in the congregation were also collecting Owen’s sermons and engaging in practices of transcription, memorialisation and biography in commonplace books that demonstrated a much broader cultural engagement than scholarship on the “literary culture of nonconformity” sometimes suggests.
This contextual work suggests that Hutchinson was pursuing literary projects that were entirely normal within the nonconformist cultures of the later seventeenth century. But, in showing how quickly members of Owen’s congregation began to engage with secular poetry, or the work of the Royal Society, it also suggests how quickly they abandoned the values that their minister had promoted. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that Hutchinson retained some of Owen’s principles longer than he did. His pragmatic reconciliation with the restored monarchy—at least until it became obvious that Charles would be followed on the throne by his openly Catholic brother—contrasts sharply with the critique of monarchy that Hutchinson maintained throughout her later work. So Hutchinson was engaged in many of the same kinds of literary projects as were her members of the congregation in the life of which she participated—but she might have retained their theological and political principles for longer than they were prepared to do.
There are some puzzles in this record. We cannot be sure, for example, whether Hutchinson ever attended the sermons by Owen that her commonplace book recorded. But perhaps the most significant puzzle relates to the significance of Hutchinson’s most extensive engagement with Owen’s work—her partial translation into English of Owen’s most demanding work, Theologoumena pantodapa (1661). This translation, which appears in volume 2 of the Oxford Works, first appeared in 1817, as the transcription of a manuscript that has since disappeared. It is impossible to date with certainty. But it seems to fit into a particular moment in Hutchinson’s life—a moment in which she was moving away from the intellectual curiosity that was represented by her translation of Lucretius to take up the expression of godliness that were inflected in her elegies for her husband and appeared with full force in her epic poem, Order and Disorder. For Theologoumena pantodapa was a history of culture—and her translation of the text represented an effort to take seriously a theory of cultural decline that would shape her thinking about the how poetry should be reformed.
Of course, many early modern readers engaged with Owen’s writing. The Owen texts that are held in the Folger contain some of the most amusing evidence of readerly engagement—and boredom. One early reader of Owen’s Σύνεσις πνευματική: Or the causes, waies & means of understanding the mind of God as revealed in his word (1678), for example, used its margins to create a list of bonnets and cravats (Folger 137- 959q). But other writers found Owen’s work inspiring. And perhaps, as in the case of Hutchinson, it was enabling important literary work.
Crawford Gribben taught Renaissance literature at the University of Manchester and Trinity College Dublin before taking up his current position in early modern British history at Queen’s University Belfast. He is the author of several books on the religious history of Britain, Ireland and the United States, including most recently The Rise and Fall of Christian Ireland (Oxford University Press, 2021). His long-standing interest in John Owen has recently broadened out to consider Owen’s relationship to other nonconformist writers, and has resulted in articles published or forthcoming in Milton Quarterly and The Review of English Studies.