JOHN HOWE, (1630-1705)
from
A History of Preaching
by
F. R. Webber

John Howe, whom Robert Hall declared to be "unquestionably the greatest of the Puritan divines," was born in Loughborough, Leics., where his father was a clergyman. The elder Howe was forced to flee to Ireland in order to escape the displeasure of Archbishop Laud. In 1641 the family returned to Lancashire, where the boy was educated. He attended Christ's College, Cambridge, and then Magdalen College, Oxford, from which he was graduated in 1650. At his ordination he was called, in 1654, to Great Torrington, Devonshire, as perpetual curate.

Edmund Calamy, the historian, gives us an account of the form of worship at Great Torrington, especially on fast days, and this is an interesting picture of a church service in Puritan times. The service began with a 15-minute prayer, at 9 a.m., then he expounded "a chapter or Psalm" for 45 minutes, then a prayer 60 minutes in length, then a sermon a full hour in length, then a third prayer 30 minutes in length. At the end of three and one-half hours, Howe allowed the congregation to sing for 15 minutes, during which time he retired for a little refreshment. He returned to the pulpit, prayed for an hour, then preached a second sermon an hour in length, and then prayed for 30 minutes. Then, at 4 p.m., after the congregation had been in church continuously for seven hours, the service was ended.

In 1656 John Howe went up to London, and while there Oliver Cromwell urged him to become his chaplain. Howe longed to return to Devon, but finally accepted the invitation, and preached at Whitehall for Oliver Cromwell, and then for his son Richard. After the fall of the latter, Howe returned to his congregation in Devon.

In 1662, at the Act of Uniformity, John Howe withdrew from the Church of England and became a Nonconformist, saying that there was little vital religion left in the State Church. He continued to preach in the homes of the people, however. Finally, in 1665 he took the Oxford Oath.

In 1671, on a trip to Ireland, his ship was detained for some days at Holyhead, Wales, because of contrary winds. Howe was invited by a local clergyman to preach for him. The word of his sermon spread through the town, and at the afternoon service, the congregation overflowed the church. On the following Sunday Howe was confined to his bed because of illness, but "there was a prodigious multitude gathered," hoping to hear him preach again. The resident pastor was terrified, and while the congregation waited, he went and urged Howe to preach. The latter arose from his sick bed and went to the church, and he himself declared later that never in his experience had he seen a congregation so greatly moved.

After his brief stay in Wales, Howe went to Antrim, where he served as chaplain to a nobleman, and preached in many places. In 1675 he was invited to London to preach to a dissenting congregation that gathered in Haberdasher's Hall. Troubles arose, and the Puritans were placed under restrictions. In 1686 Howe went to Utrecht, and preached to a congregation of English refugees there. A year later when religious toleration was restored in England by the Declaration of Indulgence, Howe returned to his native land. He died in 1705, declaring, "I expect my salvation, not as a profitable servant, but as a pardoned sinner." Of his work in the pulpit, Middleton says: "He could preach off-hand with as great exactness as many others upon the closest study. His sermons, which he always delivered without notes, were often of uncommon depth, especially at the beginning, but were plain in the sequel, and towards the close generally came home with great pungency to the consciences of the hearers. He had great copiousness and fluency in prayer. To hear him pray upon sudden emergencies might have abated the prepossession of those who venture to cavil at free prayer."

Pattison says of him: "Howe's practical pastoral experience saved him from becoming a mere dreamer, and his reverent study of the Bible as a preacher delivered him from the vagueness of thought and phrase in which many of the Cambridge students lost track alike of the times and of the truth."

Robert Hall says: "I have learned far more from John Howe than from any other author I have ever read. There is an astonishing magnificence in his conceptions. He had not the same perception of the beautiful as of the sublime; hence his endless subdivisions. . . . There was, I think, an innate inaptitude in Howe's mind for discerning minute graces and (also) improprieties, and hence his sentences are often long and cumbersome. Still he was unquestionably the greatest of the Puritan divines." Three well-known editions of Howe's collected writings exist, and his biography was written by Rogers.


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