John Owen, the 17th century pastor and theologian, apparently doesn’t take any crap from smart @$$ kids who decide they can do whatever they want to in the classroom. After taking over as vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, amidst a time of hardship which included a nearly empty treasury, mounting debt, and many empty halls and colleges being closed, Owen set out to bring order to the licentious and insubordinate attitude that had covered much of the university. He was given occasion to prove who was in charge of the university early on, as Andrew Thomas recounts in his Life of Owen:
But, amid these generous and conciliatory measures, Owen knew how, by acts of wholesome severity, to put a curb upon licentiousness, and to invigorate the whole discipline of the university. At a public Act, when one of the students of Trinity College was Terrœ filius, he stood up before the student began, and told him in Latin that he was at liberty to say what he pleased, on condition that he abstained from all profane and obscene expressions and personal reflections. The student began, but soon violated all the conditions that had been laid down to him. Owen repeatedly warned him to desist from a course so dishonouring to the university; but the youth obstinately persisting in the same strain, he at length commanded the beadles to pull him down. This was a signal for the students to interpose; on which Owen, determined that the authority of the university should not be insolently trampled on, rose from his seat, in the face of the remonstrances of his friends, who were concerned for his personal safety, drew the offender from his place with his own hand, and committed him to Bocardo, the prison of the university,—the students meanwhile standing aloof with amazement and fear at his resolution. Was there not something, in this scene, of that robust physical energy which had distinguished Owen at Oxford in earlier days in bell-ringing and the leaping of bars?
John Owen, vol. 1, The Works of John Owen., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburg: T&T Clark), li–lii.
But it wasn’t by mere force that Owen sought to bring peace and order to the Oxford. He knew that it was only through the gospel that the students and university had any true hope.
But the aims of the vice-chancellor rose far above the mere attempt to restrain licentiousness within moderate bounds;—his whole arrangements were made with the anxious desire of awakening and fostering among the students the power of a living piety. His own example, as well as the pervading spirit of his administration, would contribute much to this; and there are not wanting individual facts to show with what earnestness he watched and laboured for the religious wellbeing of the university. It had been customary for the Fellows to preach by turns on the afternoon of the Lord’s day in St Mary’s Church; but, on its being found that the highest ends of preaching were often more injured than advanced by this means, he determined to undertake this service alternately with Dr Goodwin, the head of Magdalen College, and in this way to secure to the youth of Oxford the advantage of a sound and serious ministry. It is interesting to open, nearly two hundred years afterwards, the reminiscences of one of the students, and to read his strong and grateful testimony to the benefits he had derived from these arrangements of the Puritan vice-chancellor. We have this privilege in the “Memoir of Philip Henry, by his son.” “He would often mention, with thankfulness to God,” says the quaint and pious biographer, “what great helps and advantages he had then in the university,—not only for learning, but for religion and piety. Serious godliness was in reputation; and, besides the public opportunities they had, many of the scholars used to meet together for prayer and Christian conference, to the great confirming of one another’s hearts in the fear and love of God, and the preparing of them for the service of the church in their generation. I have heard him speak of the prudent method they took then about the university sermons on the Lord’s day, in the afternoon, which used to be preached by the fellows of colleges in their course; but that being found not so much for edification, Dr Owen and Dr Goodwin performed that service alternately, and the young masters that were wont to preach it had a lecture on Tuesday appointed them.”
John Owen, vol. 1, The Works of John Owen., ed. William H. Goold (Edinburg: T&T Clark), lii.
I love that John Owen took his charge seriously. It was out of his concern for the spiritual well being of the students that he risked injury and disgrace by physically removing a rebellious student from the class. It was the very same concern that caused him to labor in the teaching and preaching of the gospel. May we have more preachers with “the anxious desire of awakening and fostering among the students [church] the power of a living piety.”
*Photo from Washington Post.