Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Evan Eric Owen (1901–1965)

by Davis McCaughey

This article was published:

John Evan Eric Owen (1901-1965), Presbyterian minister, was born on 4 April 1901 at Williamstown, Melbourne, second child of John John (sic) Owen (d.1914), a Welsh Presbyterian minister who was born in Wales, and his Victorian-born wife Margot Emily, née Roberts. John served the Welsh Church at Williamstown and in La Trobe Street, Melbourne. Following his father's death, Eric worked for the Victorian Railways to help support the household.

In 1919 Owen decided to become a minister of the Presbyterian Church of Australia. He enrolled at Scotch College, Hawthorn, and, after one and a half terms, matriculated, doing particularly well in Latin and Greek. In 1922 he entered Ormond College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1925; M.A., 1927), and studied divinity at the college's Theological Hall (B.D., 1936). He combined study with a love of sport and of acting, and exercised a gift for leadership which remained with him for life. Slight of stature, with freckles and red hair, he was often the centre of activity. At the university he met Mary (Molly) Helen Hamilton. Her maternal grandfather was Sir John Davies. Eric's marriage to Molly on 27 February 1930 at the Presbyterian Church, Malvern, introduced him to an extended family with different experiences of life in Victoria from those of the Welsh immigrants among whom he had been reared.

On completing his studies, Owen had ministered briefly at Manangatang. Late in 1929 he became assistant-minister to Rev. (Dr) John Walker in the Canberra parish of the Presbyterian Church. In 1933-54, while minister of St Andrew's Church, Gardiner, Melbourne, he served as acting-master (1944-45) of Ormond College and chairman (1948-54) of its council. During this ministry his three great passions were manifest.

First came his work as a parish minister. Owen was an outstanding preacher, with Welsh eloquence—and love for music. His commitment was infectious: a number of young men from the congregation decided to enter the ministry. He also lectured to deaconesses in training at Rolland House, Carlton. Among the governing bodies of the Church his ready tongue and passionate manner made him a redoubtable debater. In 1951-52 he was moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria.

Owen's second passion was for world peace. Throughout the 1930s he was a Christian pacifist. He made his position clear to his congregation in 1938 with an address entitled 'If War Comes!', subsequently published as a pamphlet. In doing so, however, he endorsed a current declaration: 'The Church must . . . hold together in one spiritual fellowship those of its members who take different views concerning their duty as Christian citizens in time of war'. St Andrew's congregation stayed loyal to him throughout World War II.

In the postwar years Owen's emphasis changed, from opposition to war to reconciliation between nations. With several leading ministers of the churches, he took part in preparations for the Australian Convention for Peace and War, held in Sydney in September 1953. He and others, including Frank Hartley, were attacked in the press and in parliament by those who believed that the peace movement was a communist front. Owen's account of the convention and of his attempt to persuade the prime minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies, to take a different view was given in his book, The Road to Peace (1954).

Owen's third passion was for the mission of the Church. In 1938 he had been a delegate to the International Missionary Conference, at Madras, India, one of the precursors of the World Council of Churches. He held senior appointments in the Board of Missions of the Presbyterian Church of Australia, and visited inland Australia and neighbouring churches overseas. In 1955-60 he worked as a missionary in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu); through his membership of the resident commissioner's advisory council, he exerted influence at a critical time in the country's transition to independence.

In 1960 the Owens returned to Victoria and Eric was inducted as minister of the Presbyterian Church at Warrnambool. There he made his characteristic contributions to church and community. He died of asthma (from which he had suffered for most of his life) on 3 May 1965 at Warrnambool and was cremated. His wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria, Messenger, 27, no 18, Nov 1953
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 May 1965
  • Canberra Times, 5 May 1965
  • V. O'Byrne, The Peace Parsons: Clergy Involvement in the Peace Movement of the Fifties (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1984)
  • Presbyterian Church of Victoria Archives
  • private information.

Citation details

Davis McCaughey, 'Owen, John Evan Eric (1901–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


4 April, 1901
Williamstown, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


3 May, 1965 (aged 64)
Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia

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