I love John Piper’s biographical sketches every year. At the 1994 Pastor’s conference, he did one on John Owen. The transcript was made into a book, Contending for Our All, but as is usually the case, the actual message that he delivered (on 3.5 hours of sleep!), is so much more dynamic and engaging than the printed manuscript. I highly recommend listening to the message, even if you’ve had a chance to read it.
I had no idea that John Owen’s and John Bunyan’s lives intersected so dramatically. I knew that Bunyan had written Pilgrim’s Progress while in jail. I never put the pieces together, that Owen was even a contemporary, much less the role he played as parts of God’s remarkable providence. Owen spoke highly of Bunyan’s preaching, and had a pivotal role in Bunyan’s getting published. Here’s how Piper tells it, transcripted directly from the talk, with lots of fun little Piperisms throughout:
This is another glorious illustration of “behind a frowning providence there hides a smiling face,” and we need all the stories we can get, because we are spring-loaded not to believe that. Owen finds out that Bunyan is in prison. He works and works and works with all his connections in high places to get him released, and he fails. Bad, right? Bad. The biography I was reading that told this story said, “and after his failure, in 1676, Bunyan walks out of the Bedford jail with a manuscript the worth and importance of which can scarcely be comprehended.” Was the failure to get Bunyan out of jail a failure? Ask yourself. After the Bible there is no other book in the world, I believe, printed so often or having such a widespread Christian influence as Pilgrim’s Progress. Had Owen succeeded, we wouldn’t have it, probably. Brothers, you must not judge quickly your prison experiences. You must not judge them quickly. I bet Bunyan died, he died 5 years after Owen, without knowing that it would have been worth it.
The story’s not over. Owen reads the manuscript, and says, “I think this is worth something.” But here’s a tinker, he knows zero about the publishing industry, he’s got no connections, Owen knows everybody in London, he’s a big wheel, he doesn’t get persecuted because he’s got such connections, he finds Nathaniel Ponder who’s been publishing his books now for a dozen years, and he says “Ponder, publish this book!” and Ponder makes a mint, and sends John Bunyan’s book into orbit. So Owen succeeded! After he failed. Or succeeded. He succeeded painfully and he succeeded pleasantly. And life is just made up like that for Christians. That’s all we do is succeed. Either painfully and regretfully or pleasantly. He died 1683, August 24, he was buried in Bunhill Fields, and 5 years later, Bunyan is buried in the same place, today.
Which I thought was just a tremendous little providence of the Lord to say, here’s a man who lived his whole life for tolerations’ sake, and here’s a Baptist tinker, and they’re lying dead beside each other and both of them today speaking majestically but Bunyan speaking a lot louder than the scholar.