How a Gift from an Elderly Anglican Clergyman Helped J. I. Packer Discover the Puritans

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Alister McGrath tells the story in his biography, J. I. Packer: A Biography (London: Hodder and Soughton, 1997; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 24–26.

C. Owen Pickard-Cambridge, formerly a scholar of Balliol College back in the 1880s, was a clergyman of the Church of England, whose distinguished career had include periods as a missionary in Japan and later as vice-principal of the Bible Churchmen’s College in Bristol (which later changed its name to Tyndale Hall). His final period of ministry was spent in Leicestershire, in the English east Midlands.

He had built up a large collection of seminal Christian books, many of which were classics dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Now in his eighties, his growing blindness forced him to face the question of what to do with his books. He himself could no longer benefit from them. So where should they go?

Rather than break up the collection, he decided to give it, in its entirety, to the OICCU [Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union] in 1944.

As a result, the OICCU suddenly found itself with a large acquisition of books.

Initially, nobody in the OICCU seems to have known what to do with them. They were piled up in the basement of the North Gate Hall, a meeting hall on St Michael’s Street in central Oxford, just opposite the Oxford Union Society. The North Gate Hall was then used for the daily prayer meetings, which had been held in the vestry of the nearly Wesley Memorial Church until 1938. It was large enough for the needs of the OICCU, and had a basement which could be used for storage purposes.

north gate hall oxford

The Senior Librarian of the OICCU was the Revd John Reynolds, then curate of St Clement’s church, an evangelical parish just outside Oxford city centre. He recalled that [18-year-old Jim] Packer was something of a bookworm, and was interested in books.

As Packer sorted through the dusty piles of old books in the basement of the North Gate Hall, he came across an uncut set of the edition of the writings of the Puritan divine John Owen (1616–83) which had been published in twenty-four volumes by W.H. Goold during the years 1850–5.

Although the pages had never been cut open, the contents of each volume were printed on the spine. As Packer browsed through the contents of the series, he was pulled up sharply by the titles of two treatises in volume 6—’On Indwelling Sin in Believers’ and ‘On the Mortification of Sin in Believers’. These titles seemed to promise a very different approach from that offered by the Keswick teachers. At this stage, Packer had become intensely aware of his own failings and character defects, and he felt the inadequacy of the ‘victorious living’ approach. There was a serious tension between the man he was, and the man he wanted to be—and Keswick had no answers to this dilemma.

Intrigued, Packer began to cut the pages of Owen’s writings, and to read what he found. Immediately, he found himself challenged by the realism of Owen’s analysis both of the problems arising from ‘indwelling sin’ and of the means of dealing with it (referred to by Owen as ‘mortification’).

So important was his discovery that he subsequently went on in his third year to type out a twenty-page précis of Owen’s arguments, which he circulated to his friends. Owen, it turned out, did not make quite the same impression on those friends as Packer had hoped. But that was not the point. Here was a writer who spoke to Packer’s condition, and offered a realistic solution to his concerns.

McGrath adds:

It must be appreciated that virtually no Puritan works were in print at this time; the rebirth of interest in Puritanism led to the reprinting of numerous Puritan works from 1957 onwards. Packer could not have made this discovery by browsing in his local bookstore!

The discovery of Owen must be regarded as marking a turning point in Packer’s Christian life. . . .

Packer himself later wrote of Owen’s work:

I owe more, I think, to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern, and I am sure I owe more to his little book on mortification than to anything else he wrote.

And it all started with the decision by a retired pastor, losing his eyesight, to donate his library to a ministry rather than selling them.


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