THE REDEEMER'S TEARS WEPT OVER LOST SOULS
Biographical Sketch of John Howe
John Howe was born on May 17, 1630, in Loughborough, Leicestershire. His father was a minister with Puritan sympathies, who, in 1634, was suspended from the ministry by the High Commission Court for praying publicly "that God would preserve the prince in the true religion, of which there was cause to fear" that such would not be the case and that "the young prince might not be brought up in popery." The Howes fled to Ireland in 1635, lived there through the Irish rebellion of 1641, then returned to England in the early 1640s to settle in Lancashire.
Howe earned a bachelor's degree in 1648 at Christ's College, Cambridge. He was influenced there by Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, who were Cambridge Platonists. Howe then went to Brasenose College, Oxford, where he earned a master's degree in 1652. That year he was also elected a fellow at Magdalen College, where Thomas Goodwin was president. He became a member of the Congregational church that Goodwin pastored. During those years, he outlined a book of divinity for his private use, and deviated little from its emphases throughout his life.
At the age of twenty-three, Howe returned to Lancashire. He was ordained there by Charles Herle, the rector of Winwick who had embraced Presbyterian convictions. The next year Howe was asked to be minister of the parish church of Great Torrington, Devonshire. He joined a ministerial fraternal there and became close friends with George Hughes of Plymouth, a minister known for his piety and learning. Howe maintained weekly correspondence in Latin with Hughes; he also met Hughes's daughter Catherine, and married her a year later. They were blessed with four sons and a daughter.
When the Puritans held fast days, Howe worshiped with his flock from 9 A.M. to 4 P.M. He began with a fifteen-minute prayer, then spent forty-five minutes reading and expounding Scripture. After that, he prayed for an hour, preached for an hour, and prayed for half an hour. After a half-hour break, he prayed and preached for another three hours.
In 1656, Oliver Cromwell asked Howe to be one of his chaplains. Howe undertook that task with a profound understanding of the prophetic responsibilities of his ministry. For example, on March 12, 1657, he wrote to Richard Baxter, "I should be exceeding desirous to hear from you, what you understand to be the main evils of the nation that you judge capable of redress by the present government? What [do] you conceive one in my station obliged to urge upon them as matter of duty?"
Howe was a great peacemaker. He did everything he could to reconcile the Presbyterians and the Congre-gationalists. Yet he did not fear to speak out against wrongdoers, including Cromwell. After one particularly pointed sermon, someone told Howe that he feared Howe might have irrecoverably lost Cromwell's favor. Howe replied, "I have discharged my duty, and will trust the issue with God." Cromwell worked through his resentment, and Howe remained with him until Cromwell died in 1658.
Cromwell's son, Richard, could not successfully fill his father's place. For eighteen months after Cromwell's death, one crisis followed upon another. Richard eventually resigned, and the Presbyterians joined Monk's army in inviting Charles II to return. A brokenhearted Howe wrote to Baxter, "Religion is lost out of England, further than it can creep into corners.... I am returning to my old station, being now at liberty beyond dispute."
Howe returned to his former pastorate at Torrington until the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662. Then he left his congregation, saying, "I have consulted my conscience, and cannot be satisfied with the terms of conformity settled by law." In 1665, he took the oath of passive obedience prescribed by the Five Mile Act. For several years he continued to preach in private houses. Life was difficult for him, as it was for many Nonconformists. Howe wrote, "Many of them live upon charity, some of them with difficulty getting their bread." Unable to preach publicly, Howe prepared for publication sermons he had preached at Torrington. In 1668, he published The Blessedness of the Righteous.
In 1671, Lord Massereene of Antrim Castle invited Howe to become his chaplain in Ireland. On the journey to Ireland, high winds drove the ship off course to Holyhead. Having reached land, Howe received an unusual invitation from a stranger on horseback to preach the next Sunday. He preached two times that Sabbath. The ship could not sail the next week because of high winds. A much larger crowd gathered the following Sunday to hear Howe, but Howe was sick in bed. The local minister was so astonished to see so many people that he immediately sent for Howe, who got out of bed and went to preach two more sermons. He preached without notes--as a dying man to dying men. Howe later said, "If my ministry was ever of any use, it must have been then."
Howe found the Irish church less hostile to Nonconformists than the English church. Bishop Down gave him permission to preach in any of the parish churches of his diocese. The Presbyterian ministers valued Howe's presence so highly that he was asked to help preside over their theological seminary.
In 1674, Howe published Delighting in God, written from notes of sermons preached at Torrington twenty years before. Two years later, he published the first part of The Living Temple, which would become his best-known book.
In 1676, Howe accepted a call to the Silver Street Presbyterian church in London. At first, all went well. He preached to large numbers of people and was esteemed by both Anglicans and Dissenters. Gradually, however, persecution of the Dissenters intensified. In 1683, when the bishop of Lincoln wrote a pastoral letter urging that penal laws against Dissenters be activated, Howe protested.
By 1685, Howe's life was in such danger that he could not walk openly in the streets of London. His health suffered. The ascent of James II to the throne promised even worse things, so Howe accepted an invitation from Philip, Lord Wharton, to tour Europe with him. The arrangements were made in such secret that he could only say farewell to his congregation by letter, in which he exhorted them not to give way to bitterness under persecution.
After traveling in Europe for a year, Howe realized he still could not return to England, so he settled in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He preached occasionally in the English church in Utrecht and oversaw the theological studies of several English students at the University of Utrecht. Bishop Burnet, the historian, visited Howe in Utrecht. William of Orange, who later became king of England, also befriended Howe. The prince, who admired Cromwell, wanted to hear everything that Howe could tell him about the Protector.
In 1687, James II published the Declaration of Indulgence suspending penal laws against Roman Catholics and Protestant Dissenters. Howe's congregation sent him letters, pleading with him to return, but William warned Howe that this was another strategy for the Roman Catholics to gain influence. Howe returned home, only to discover that William was right. The king would have been greatly strengthened if Howe had been willing to declare the legality of the royal dispensing power, but Howe refused to do that. He and the majority of the Dissenters saw that toleration based upon the king's overruling of Parliament would have no lasting force. Soon, the king offended the majority of his subjects by attacking the liberty of the church and the prerogatives of Parliament. Leading men of the kingdom invited William to occupy the throne. On November 5, 1688, William landed at Torbay. Howe led the deputation of dissenting ministers who greeted William, and, in a moving address, assured him of their support.
Howe hoped that a ruling would be passed granting toleration to dissenters within the Church of England, but the House of Commons threw out the bill. Howe published his concerns in The Case of the Protestant Dissenters Represented and Argued, emphasizing agreement in doctrine between church and dissent, and how it was wrong to impose uniformity of worship upon those whose consciences led them in another direction.
Despite their efforts, the dissenters gained minimal toleration. The Act of Toleration exempted them from persecution for not attending their parish churches. They could build meetinghouses and use them for worship, provided they registered them with the authorities. Dissenters, however, were still barred from state or municipality offices, and universities were closed to them. Nevertheless they were grateful for the relief offered by the act. In response, Howe published Humble Request to both Conformists and Dissenters touching their temper and behaviour towards each other upon the lately passed Indulgence, showing that he was more concerned with the fellowship of Christians than with the advantage of any ecclesiastical party.
Howe was fifty-nine years old when the Act of Toleration was passed. In 1690, he and others drew up "Heads of Agreement between Presbyterians and Congregationalists," but it was in vain. Disputes between Calvinists and Arminians and arguments about the writings of Tobias Crisp complicated the situation. Theological pamphlet wars and debates entered the fray. Howe remained on the cutting edge of current discussions on predestination, the Trinity, and conformity, often writing books or lecturing at the weekly Broad Street Merchants' Lecture on such subjects. His last book, Of Patience in Expectation of Future Blessedness, was published in 1705, the year of his death.
Meantime, Howe continued preaching twice each Sabbath at Silver Street. The closer he came to death, the more his fellowship with God increased. At the last Communion that he administered, he so dwelt on heaven that some people were afraid that he would die during the service.
Like many Puritans, Howe was blessed with the presence of God in the midst of excruciating pain. "I expect my salvation," Howe said, "not as a profitable servant, but as a pardoned sinner." Once he told his wife that though he thought he loved her as well "as it was fit for one creature to love another," yet if he had to choose whether to die that moment or live for another seven years, he would choose to die. After a temporary respite, he pointed to his body and said, "I am for feeling that I am alive, and yet I am most willing to die and to lay aside this clog."
Before he died, Howe made his son George promise that he would burn all his private papers, except for his sermons and manuscripts, "stitched up in a number of small volumes." Consequently, few of Howe's numerous letters survived. Those that did survive are printed in Henry Rogers's Life and Character of John Howe (London: Religious Tract Society, 1863), the definitive biography on Howe, which Solid Ground Christian Books plans to reprint in the Fall of 2005.
Howe's dying words were those of one who already belonged to another world. As one biographer says, "He dwelt with great frequency, and almost superhuman eloquence, upon his favorite theme, the happiness of heaven, and spake as if he were already in the veil." Howe had several remarkable visits with Richard Cromwell, in which the tears of both men flowed freely as they conversed about the glory of the life to come. On April 2, 1705, God granted Howe his wish. He died without a struggle.
The Redeemer's Tears Wept over Lost Souls, this moving book, first printed in 1683, contains Howe's essay on Luke 19:41-42, telling how Jesus wept over Jerusalem because the city didn't recognize what belonged to peace in its day. It begins with a long exposition on the great gospel truths that "belong to men's peace." It then focuses on the short "day" we have in this life, which will decide our eternal destiny. It admonishes readers to flee to the willing, yearning Savior.
This is Howe's most searching and compelling book for wooing a sinner to Christ. He stresses the responsibility of man within the framework of divine sovereignty. It makes for a compelling read. We are grateful to Solid Ground Christian Books for bringing it back into print this century.
Joel R. Beeke