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John Howe

Extended Biography of John Howe

REV. JOHN HOWE, A.M. Among the “giants” of the seventeenth century, John Howe occupied a distinguished place. He was born May 17, 1630, at Loughborough, in the county of Leicester, of which parish his father was the minister. When seventeen years of age, he was admitted of Christ's College, Cambridge, where he became acquainted with the celebrated Dr. R. Cudworth and Dr. H. More. The following year he took the degree of A.B., and then removed to Brazen-nose College, Oxford; and not long after this, his attainments and his genius procured him a fellowship in Magdalen College. He proceeded A.M. in 1652, and was soon ordained by the Rev. Charles Herle, at his church in Warwick, Lancashire, assisted by several other ministers. He was accustomed to speak of his ordination with great satisfaction. He thought that but few of his contemporaries had received an ordination so truly primitive.

In a short time, he was called to Great Torrington, in Devonshire, where, though he was young, his preaching excited great attention, and produced the most beneficial results. He employed more than ordinary powers, both physical and mental, that he might fully do the work of an evangelist. On public fast-days, he would commence the service about nine in the morning, with prayer for about a quarter of an hour, and afterwards read and expounded a chapter, in which he spent about three quarters of an hour; then prayed for about an hour, preached for another hour, and prayed for about half an hour. After this he retired, and took some little refreshment, for about a quarter of an hour, the people singing all the while; and then he came again into the pulpit, and prayed for another hour; preached another sermon of about an hour's length; then spent about half an hour more in prayer, and concluded the service about four in the afternoon. To Katharine, the amiable and accomplished daughter of the Rev. George Hughes, of Plymouth, Howe was united in marriage March 1, 1654. About the close of 1656, having occasion to take a journey to London, he had the curiosity to attend the chapel at Whitehall. Cromwell was struck with the prepossessing countenance of the stranger, and, suspecting that he was a country minister, watched him narrowly. After the service was concluded, Cromwell requested an interview with Howe, and then desired that he would preach before him the next Lord's Day. At this request Howe was not a little surprised, and modestly declined the honor. Cromwell told him, that it was vain to attempt excuses, for he would take no denial. Howe pleaded, that having finished his business in town, he was tending homewards, and could not be absent any longer without inconvenience. Cromwell inquired what great damage he was likely to sustain by tarrying a little longer. Howe replied, that his people, who were very kind to him, would be uneasy, and think that he neglected them, and undervalued their esteem. Cromwell promised to write to them himself, and send down a minister to supply his place. But when he had given one sermon, Cromwell pressed for a second, and a third; and, at last, after a great deal of free conversation in private, nothing would serve him (who could not bear to be contradicted after he had once got the power in his hands) but he must have Howe to be his household chaplain, and he would take care that his place should be supplied at Torrington, to the full satisfaction of his people. Howe did all that lay in his power to excuse himself; but no denial would be admitted. At length, though not without great reluctance, he removed with his family to Whitehall, where several of his children were born; and where, difficult as was the station, he endeavored to be faithful, and to keep a good conscience. He was soon chosen lecturer at St. Margaret's, Westminster, where his great prudence, integrity, and uniform consistency of conduct, secured for him the highest respect. At the Restoration, he returned to his flock at Torrington; with whom he continued until the Act of Uniformity passed into a law, when he quitted his station in the Established Church. When Dr. Seth Ward, bishop of Exeter, expostulated with him on his nonconformity, saying, “Why, pray, Sir, what hurt is there in being twice ordained?” “Hurt, my lord!” said owe, “the thought is shocking! it hurts my understanding; it is an absurdity, for nothing can have two beginnings! I am sure I am a minister of Christ, and am ready to debate that matter with your lordship, if you please. I cannot begin again to be a minister.”

In 1665, without having committed any offence, Howe was imprisoned in the Isle of St. Nicholas, in Plymouth Sound. Having been much harassed, and reduced to straits, in 1671 he accepted the office of chaplain to Lord Mazarine, in Antrim, Ireland.

In 1675, he accepted an invitation to succeed Dr. Seaman, in the charge of a congregation in Silver-street, London. From 1681 to 1685, the Dissenters were persecuted with great severity; and Howe, seeing no prospect of a change for the better, accepted an invitation from Lord Wharton, to travel with him on the continent. He returned in 1687, upon King James's Declaration for liberty of conscience, and was received with the warmest affection by his congregation. At the Revolution in 1688, when William III. was seated on the British throne, Howe, at the head of the dissenting ministers, carried up an address to St. James's Palace, and delivered to his Majesty a most appropriate speech. Early in 1705, he published a discourse on Patience relating to the expectation of future blessedness; which was his last publication. He had now need of patience, being the subject of painful disease; but it was a learned disease, and full of true philosophy, which taught him more of real Christianity, and made his soul of a more strong, able, athletic habit and temper. On April 2, 1705, the weary wheels of life stood still, and his happy spirit was received by him who " hath the keys of hell and of death." He died in the seventy-fifth year of his age, and was interred in Allhallows Church, Bread-street.

Howe's mind was of the first order: his understanding was clear, vigorous, acute, and comprehensive; capable of penetrating subjects the most important; of unravelling their intricacies, of surmounting their difficulties, and of grasping them in all their vastness. His memory was ready and retentive, and his imagination was fertile and splendid. He possessed, indeed, such a rich and harmonious assemblage of high, intellectual endowments, as are seldom found in the same person. Among his contemporaries he had no superior, and it will be difficult to find men in modern times uniting a judgment so sound and discriminating to an imagination so strong and brilliant. His literary and scientific acquirements were evidently of the highest rank; and as to his religious character, but one opinion will be entertained. Having laid the foundation of his religion in repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, he raised thereon a superstructure of holiness: he diligently cultivated the graces of the Spirit, till they attained a very blessed maturity in his heart, and appeared in all their attractive beauty in his life and conversation. He always showed the greatest reverence for the Divine Being, and continually kept up a spirit of prayer. The recollection of “Thou God seest me,” gave him no uneasiness; he most delightfully realized the presence of Him on whom he had set his affections; it was the congenial element of his soul, the atmosphere in which he loved to breathe. In a blank page of his Bible he had written, “What I felt, through the admirable bounty of my God, and the most pleasant comforting influence of the Holy Spirit, on October 22, 1704, far surpassed the most expressive words my thoughts can suggest. I then experienced an inexpressibly pleasant melting of heart, tears gushing out of mine eyes, for joy that God should shed abroad his love abundantly through the hearts of men; and that, for this very purpose, mine own should be so signally possessed of, and by, his blessed Spirit, Romans 5:5.”

His disinterestedness was conspicuous all through life. His integrity was not disputed even by his adversaries; he held it fast with an inflexible hand, without the least compromise of principle, though often called to walk in slippery places. But while he maintained his independence, he breathed the purest benevolence. Towards his opponents he never manifested any asperity or bitterness of mind. In the several meetings he attended with his brethren during those critical times, he invariably proposed measures that were the least likely to irritate. He objected to everything as a test or boundary of Christian communion but what has its foundation in plain reason or express revelation. In many cases, it is said, he discovered uncommon sagacity in detecting character, and was always remarkable for his genuine humility and consummate prudence.

He was very faithful, and often very successful, in his reproofs. Being at dinner one day with some persons of quality, there was a gentleman who, in extolling the character of Charles II., intermixed a great many oaths with his conversation. Howe observed, that, in his humble opinion, he had wholly omitted the mention of one very great excellence of that prince. The gentleman impatiently inquired what that was; when Howe replied, “He never used profane language in his discourse.” The gentleman took the reproof, and promised to forbear swearing for the future. At another time, as he was passing by two persons of quality, who were talking with great earnestness, and using some very profane language, he, pulling off his hat, and addressing them with great civility, said, “I pray God save you both.” This so struck them that they joined in returning him thanks.

Howe's ministerial abilities were extraordinary. It is said that he could preach extempore with as great exactness as many others upon the closest study. He delivered his sermons without notes, though he did not impose that method upon others. It has been said, “that as Shakspeare is among the poets, so is Howe among the divines.” His style is too labored and involved, and his numerous parentheses tend to perplex the reader; but, notwithstanding these defects, there are in his writings such propriety, grandeur, copiousness, and strength of language, such originality of conception, fertility of invention, exuberance of thought, soundness of judgment, depth of penetration, and force of reasoning, as are seldom to be met with elsewhere. An inimitable devotional ardor and spirituality pervade his practical treatises. From the word of God he borrowed many of his beautiful and striking illustrations, and to its authority, on all points, he ever bowed with absolute submission. In short, it is not easy to meet with an author who has so many excellences, and so few defects. He seems scarcely to have written a line, which, dying, he would have wished to blot. But his right hand has long since forgot its cunning and his hallowed spirit has passed into the skies, there to enjoy, in all its fullness, The Blessedness of the Righteous.

Dr. Doddridge observes: “Howe seems to have understood the gospel as well as any uninspired writer; and to have imbibed as much of its spirit. The truest sublime is to be found in his writings, and some of the strongest pathos. He has a great variety of uncommon thoughts; and, on the whole, is one of the most valuable writers in our language, and, I believe, in the world.” The Rev. Robert Hall passes this eulogy: “As a minister, I have derived more benefit from the works of Howe, than from those of all other divines put together. There is an astonishing magnificence in his conceptions. He had not the same perception of the beautiful, as of the sublime; and hence, his endless subdivisions. There was an innate inaptitude in his mind for discerning minute graces and proprieties; and hence, his sentences are often long and cumbersome. He is distinguished by calmness, self-possession, majesty, and comprehensiveness.”

His works: The Blessedness of the Righteous;—The Vanity of this Mortal Life;—Delighting in God;—The Living Temple;—God's Prescience;—Thoughtfulness for the Future;—Self Dedication;—The Redeemer's Tears;—The Case of the Protestants;—Humble Requests to Conformists and Dissenters;—Religious Contentions;—The Duty of Civil Magistrates;—The Redeemer's Dominion over the Invisible World;—Occasional Conformity;—Mrs. Baxter's, Mrs. Sampson's, Mrs. Hamond's, Rev. R. Fairclough's, Rev. R. Adams's, Dr. Bates's, Rev. M. Mead's, Rev. P. Vink's funeral sermons;—Several single sermons.—Posthumous works: Seventeen Sermons on the Love of God, etc.;—Thirty-four, on the Work of the Holy Spirit;—Eight, on the Vanity of a Formal Profession of Religion;—Seven, on the Gospel recommending itself to every Man's Conscience;—The Gospel Hidden to Lost Souls; six Sermons;—Hope; fourteen Sermons;—Friendship with God; ten Sermons;—Regeneration; thirteen Sermons;—Family Religion; six Sermons;—Thirteen Sermons on various subjects;—The Principles of the Oracles of God; seventy Lectures. His sermons in the Morning Exercises are:—What may most hopefully be attempted to allay animosities among Protestants, that our divisions may not be our ruin?—Man created in a holy, but mutable state.

Source: Samuel Dunn. Memoirs of the Seventy-Five Eminent Divines whose Discourses form the Morning Exercises at Cripplegate, St. Giles in the Fields, and in Southwark. London: John Snow, 1844.