A fit instrument for this work presented himself in Samuel Parker, a man of menial origin, who had for a time been connected with the Puritans, but who, deserting them when they became sufferers, was now aspiring after preferment in the Episcopal Church, and whom Burnet describes as "full of satirical vivacity, considerably learned, but of no judgment; and as to religion, rather impious." In his "Discourse of Ecclesiastical Polity," the "authority of the civil magistrate over the consciences of subjects in matters of external religion is asserted, the mischief and inconveniences of toleration are represented, and all pretences pleaded in favour of liberty of conscience are fully answered." Such is the atrocious title-page of his book, and to a modern reader, the undertaking to which it pledges him must seem rather bold; but the confident author is reported to have firmly believed in his own success. Holding out his book to the Earl of Anglesea, he said, "Let us see, my lord, whether any of your chaplains can answer it;" and the bigoted Sheldon, sympathizing with its spirit, naturally believed also in the exceeding force of its arguments.
Dr Owen was chosen to reply to Parker; which he did, in one of the noblest controversial treatises that were ever penned by him, - "Truth and Innocence Vindicated, in a Survey of a Discourse on Ecclesiastical Polity," etc. The mind of Owen seems to have been whetted by his deep sense of wrong, and he writes with a remarkable clearness and force of argument; while he indulges at times in a style of irony which is justified not more by the folly than by the baseness and wickedness of Parker's sentiments. ... Owen's work greatly increased his celebrity among his brethren; - even some of Parker's friends could with difficulty conceal the impression that he had found more than a match in the strong-minded and sturdy Puritan; and Parker, worsted in argument, next sought to overwhelm his opponent with a scurrility that breathed the most undisguised vindictiveness. He was "the great bell-wether of disturbance and sedition," - "a person who would have vied with Mahomet himself both for boldness and imposture," - "a viper, so swollen with venom that it must either burst or spit its poison;" so that whoever wished to do well to his country, "could never do it better service than by beating down the interest and reputation of such sons of Belial." On this principle, at least, Parker himself might have ranked high as a patriot.
But the controversy was not over. Parker had not time to recover from the ponderous club of Owen, when he was assailed by the keen edged wit of Andrew Marvell. This accomplished man, the under-secretary and bosom friend of Milton, reviewed Parker's work in his "Rehearsal Transposed," - a work of which critics have spoken as rivalling in some places the causticity and neatness of Swift, and in others equalling the eloquent invective of Junius and the playful exuberance of Burke.
The conceited ecclesiastic was overwhelmed, and a number of masked combatants perceiving his plight, now rushed to his defence; in all whom, however, Marvell refused to distinguish any but Parker. In a second part of his "Rehearsal," he returned to the pen-combat, as Wood has called it; and transfixed his victim with new arrows from his exhaustless quiver. It is impossible to read many parts of it yet, without sharing with the laughers of the age in the influence of Marvell's genius. Ridiculing his self-importance, he says, "If he chance but to sneeze, he prays that the foundations of the earth be not shaken. Ever since he crept up to be but the weather-cock of a steeple, he trembles and cracks at every puff of wind that blows about him, as if the Church of England were falling." Marvell's wit was triumphant; and even Charles and his court joined in laughing at Parker's discomfiture.
"Though the delinquent did not lay violent hands on himself," says D'Israeli, "he did what, for an author, may be considered as desperate a course, - withdraw from the town, and cease writing for many years," secretly nursing a revenge which he did not dare to gratify until he knew that Marvell was in his grave
It was one thing, however, to conquer in the field of argument, and another thing to disarm the intolerance of those in power. The Parliament which met in 1671, goaded on by those sleepless ecclesiastics who were animated by the malign spirit of Parker, confirmed all the old acts against the Nonconformists, and even passed others of yet more intolerable rigour.
It is impossible to predict to what consequences the enforcement of these measures must soon have led, had not Charles, by his declaration of indulgence, of his own authority suspended the penal statutes against Nonconformists and Popish recusants, and given them permission to renew their meetings for public worship on their procuring a license, which would be granted for that purpose. This measure was, no doubt, unconstitutional in its form, and more than doubtful in the motives which prompted it; but many of the Nonconformists, seeing in it only the restoration of a right of which they ought never to have been deprived, - and some of them, like Owen, regarding it as "an expedient, according to the custom in former times, for the peace and security of the kingdom, until the whole matter might be settled in Parliament," joyfully took shelter under its provisions.
The Nonconformists were prompt in improving their precarious breathing-time. A weekly lecture was instituted at Pinner's Hall by the Presbyterians and Independents, in testimony of their union of sentiment on fundamental truths, and as an antidote to Popish, Socinian, and Infidel opinions. Owen began to preach more publicly in London to a regular congregation; and his venerable friend, Joseph Caryl, having died soon after the declaration of indulgence, the congregations of the two ministers consented to unite under the ministry of Owen, in the place of worship in Leadenhall Street.