- John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Formation of English Nonconformity by Tim Cooper
The study of Puritanism has been a thriving scholarly industry for many years, but one area that has been comparatively neglected is that of the Puritans during the Restoration. There are a number of reasons for this: the Clarendon Code enforced Anglican conformity on England and thus moved the key intellectual and cultural architects of the 1650s to the margins of society; in so doing, it also ensured that Puritanism became little more than an embarrassment to later generations of English scholars and academics. [End Page 159]
Recent years, however, have seen a growth in interest in Puritanism as a theological movement, and this has brought to prominence a number of key figures. Perhaps the two most important of these—John Owen and Richard Baxter—are the subjects of this fine exercise in combined intellectual biography by Tim Cooper. Both were not only important influences on theological discussion in the 1650s; in the world of the Restoration they went on to be the leaders of the English nonconformists. Representing two quite different approaches to Protestant theology, they thereby also represented two possible paths for English non-Anglican Protestantism.
Various challenges face any intellectual biographer: the connection of the public and the private; and the relationship of ideas to the broader cultural, social, and economic contexts. Both subjects were men of their age who suffered both private and public pain. Cooper draws out neatly the difference in personality between the two men: Owen the intensely private but also urbane man; Baxter the autodidact who seems never to have had an unpublished thought on anything. He also touches on the irony that Owen, by far the doctrinally more narrow, was yet apparently a far more easygoing person than the theologically more concessive but personally more combative Baxter. Whereas Owen was an advocate for tolerance in the matter of church and state, woe betide anyone who did not agree with the latter on his moderate theological and ecclesiastical plans. Indeed, for all of his ecumenism, Baxter was ultimately less political than Owen and unable to realize that politics is really all about the art of the possible. His rigid moderation and his abhorrence of anything hinting at sectarianism meant that his voice was ultimately less effective than that of Owen, both in the 1650s (when he stood a realistic chance of being a significant player) and in the rather more marginal world of English nonconformity. That Owen could be welcomed at the court of Charles II, despite his close connection to Oliver Cromwell, whereas Baxter suffered terribly under the terms of the Clarendon Code, is both odd and, on further examination, an eloquent testimony to a basic difference of personality between the two men.
Cooper’s book is excellent. He has done much painstaking research in reconstructing the lives of these two men and, by juxtaposing them, has offered the reader profound insights into the theological and political dynamics of the time. What he makes clear, which has perhaps been missed by previous studies, is the fact that the Restoration shape of nonconformity was profoundly influenced by the personal conflicts between Baxter and Owen that stretched back through the Cromwellian years even to the late 1640s.
If this reviewer had one criticism, it would be that, at times, the author’s personal sympathies for Baxter show through rather too clearly. For example, in discussing the issue of the atonement, he is too quick to dismiss Owen for lack of exegetical sensitivity; whatever flaws Owen’s view may have had, willful ignorance of the biblical text was certainly not one of them. But this is a very minor cavil at an otherwise thoughtful, intelligent, and arguably groundbreaking monograph that helps the reader to understand the world of the Restoration from the perspective of [End Page 160] two leading intellectuals who had the misfortune to witness the dismantling of a world of which they were so much a...