Richard Baxter (1615-1689)
Pastor, Writer, Theologian, Evangelist
Richard Baxter was born in 1615 in Rowton, Shropshire, the pome of his Grandfather and he lived there until he was nine years old when he moved to his father’s home at Eaton Constantine, Shropshire. There is a rumour that his father was violent, so that is why Baxter lived with his grandfather. In his biography he says that his father was addicted to gambling in his youth as was his grandfather so it is not beyond possibility that he would drink and get violent when he lost money. Baxter also says that through reading the Bible his father was changed which would tie in with the rumour and explain why he moved to his father’s house in 1626.
Most of the information about Baxter’s life comes from a detailed journal that he kept. He was taught locally by a succession of inadequate masters who were either immoral or drunk. His father, who was a freeholder, gave him religious instruction. Baxter’s father had no other book than the Bible to instruct him, but it was through his teaching that the boy came to a fear of sinning. His father set him to reading the History books of the Bible which interested him and from there he slowly began to love the whole Bible. Around the age of 14, in Wroxeter, he finally found a school with a good master and when he was 15 he read a book called ‘Bunny’s Resolution’ that ‘awakened his soul.’ He stayed at Wroxeter until he was 17 and then he was persuaded to study at Ludlow castle rather than go to Oxford. This proved to be a mistake as there was little teaching and he returned home after 18 months. It appears that from 1633 to 1638 Baxter studied at home although at 21 he suffered badly with consumption for two years. From this point he was to suffer many different illnesses that kept him in pain for much of his life.
After the Catholic reign of Queen Mary who died in 1558, her sister Elizabeth (1558-1603) became Queen. There was great hope that Elizabeth would fulfil the dreams of the Protestants, however Elizabeth was a Queen who had Anglo-Catholic beliefs and who wanted total control over her country and that included the Church. It was still a State Church and some reforms were instituted, but it was a long way from what many were hoping for. The Queen insisted upon rigid conformity; people were compelled to attend their parish church and they had to adhere to the liturgy of the Prayer Book. For those whose minds were opened through reading the scriptures there was no liberty of conscience and nonconformist congregations sprung up with those attending becoming known as Puritans.
By the time Elizabeth died in 1603 the two main Puritan parties were the Presbyterians, who believed in a rigid church structure and the Independents, who believed in more of a Congregational model which allowed congregations to choose their own pastors and make decisions for themselves. Puritans wanted to see the power of the bishops reduced, a change in church ritual and education of the clergy but James believed in the divine right of Kings and the bishops supported him in this so there was no hope of change. James said many times ‘no bishop, no king,’ so rigid conformity remained and several Puritans fled to the Continent. Under Elizabeth Puritans were only really interested in religious reform but under the Stuarts they increasingly wanted political reform because none of their demands were being met so they gravitated towards Parliament. They also began to show a new moral code which is why people began to link Puritans with anyone who took life too seriously.
Charles I succeeded on the death of his father in 1625. Charles believed passionately in the Divine right of Kings and like his father he believed that Parliament should be a docile committee to do his wishes. When Fox was 9 William Laud, who was a very high churchman, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Laud felt that he needed to force everyone to worship in the same way, to impose uniformity on the Church and because of his High Church ideals the Puritans were concerned that the Church was being turned towards Catholicism. He made matters worse by being intolerant to any opposition. In 1637 Laud punished three Puritans who criticised his plans for the Church by cutting off their ears and branding them on both cheeks. The Independent Puritan had to choose between resistance and emigration.
Up until the age of 20 Baxter had been happy to be a Conformist Anglican, but he then met some Nonconformists in Shrewsbury, ‘Whose fervent prayers and savoury conference and holy lives did profit me much. And when I understood that they were people prosecuted by the bishops, I found much prejudice arise in my heart against those that persecuted them, and thought those that silenced and troubled such men could not be the genuine followers of the Lord of Love.’ This persecution was prevalent in England throughout most of the century, with either the High Church Anglicans persecuting the Nonconformists or the other way around.
Despite his admiration for the Nonconformists, Baxter decided to be Ordained into the Church of England. By his own admission he did not take the study for Ordination seriously and so did not understand the controversial points that Nonconformists took issue with the Anglicans. In 1638 he was Ordained in Worcester and then proceeded to Dudley to take up position as headmaster of a new school. Baxter spent nine months at the school, teaching and preaching in the neighbourhood and around this time he decided that there were some parts of being an Anglican that he could not subscribe to and so he became in part a Nonconformist. His next position was in Bridgnorth, Shropshire as an assistant to the pastor, however the congregation was a ‘dead-hearted people,’ and although he was passionate in his sermons and ministries, he had little success.
In 1640 while he was at Bridgnorth, Archbishop Laud introduced the ‘Et cetera oath’ which meant that ministers had to swear an oath that they would never consent to the alteration of the government of the Church by Archbishops, Bishops, Deans etc. This made ministers think about how they viewed diocesan hierarchy of the Church. Baxter was already unhappy with different parts of the Church (serving Communion to drunkards, signing the cross at baptisms and wearing a surplice) but he was able to perform his duties without doing things he disagreed with. However he also would not agree with the hierarchy of the clergy and so he was unable to take the oath. A malicious man knew that he and the pastor were not conforming and reported them to the authorities but no action was taken. The Long Parliament of that year received the agreement of King Charles I to reform the corrupt clergy and a committee was to receive complaints against them. It also abolished the ‘Et cetera oath.’ The parishioners of Kidderminster in Worcestershire, drew up a petition against their vicar and curate, but they came to an agreement with the vicar that he could stay so long as they could choose a new curate. He agreed and they chose Baxter as their new vicar.
So in 1641 Baxter left Bridgnorth and moved ten miles south to Kidderminster. The ‘dead-hearted’ people of Bridgnorth suffered greatly five years later when they were attacked by Parliamentary troops and part of the church blew up and the resulting fire destroyed most of the houses in the upper part of the town. Soon after Baxter moved the Civil War began and he spent a few years away from his parish because Worcestershire was Royalist and his sympathies were with Parliament and then he joined the army as a chaplain for the last two years of the war. 1647 found him back in Kidderminster with his parishioners, ministering to their bodies and their souls as he acted as the local doctor for several years until he could persuade a physician to settle in the town.
Overall he spent about 19 years in the parish. He was a wonderful pastor, preacher and evangelist. He was a servant to his flock and this was seen in his attitude towards money. Although he did not earn very much Baxter was often giving money away to those in his Parish, whether they were believers or not. He had concern for the poor all his life and often wrote and spoke about the need to relieve the poor of the main things that oppressed them. His attitude to the elderly former vicar was typical of his generosity. As mentioned the vicar was incompetent and after a few years the parishioners removed him as vicar and installed Baxter but Baxter insisted that he kept his house and his former salary. Sadly Baxter did not reap from this kindness and when the High Church people gained power on the restoration of Charles II in 1660 the old vicar was reinstated and despite a petition from his parishioners he refused to appoint Baxter as a mere lecturer.
When he arrived in the Parish he said that on Sunday, ‘There was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on His name.’ When he left he said ‘You might hear an hundred families singing palms and repeating sermons as you passed through the streets.’ There were about 800 families in Kidderminster at that time and it appears that most of them became believers. His church was large and because of the success of his ministry they had to build five galleries in the church to cater for demand and he recounts in his Biography that the church was full each Sunday and he had a meeting each Thursday in his home that was always full. In addition a group of younger parishioners met once a week to pray for three hours. The Holy Spirit was certainly moving in his Parish; Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said ‘Surely we must agree that in England in the case of Rogers of Dedham and Baxter at Kidderminster we are entitled to speak of revival.’
Baxter’s success as an Evangelist was in part due to his manner of preaching that was full of urgency; which was due to the fact that he often thought that he had but only a short time to live and so when he preached it was, ‘As a dying man to dying men,’ telling the people boldly what they were facing if they did not give their lives to Jesus. Baxter’s extraordinary ministry was all the more amazing considering the illnesses that debilitated him for most of his life. Baxter learned a lot about various diseases and actually practised as a doctor in his Parish for several years until he could persuade one to come and live in the town. Typically he never charged for this work and because of this many unsaved people came for treatment and he was able to speak to them about the Lord.
At the end of his ministry in Kidderminster he believed that the vast majority of believers were very solid in their faith. The reason for this was his discipleship programme, involving his assistant and himself teaching 14 families between them two days every week. He met with people in his home and his assistant went out into the Parish. On his leaving Kidderminster the Bishop encouraged people to speak out against Baxter to undermine his work, but the seed he sowed bore great fruit and almost a hundred years later the great Evangelist George Whitfield came to Kidderminster and declared, ‘I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr. Baxter’s doctrine, works and discipline remain to this day.’
Although Baxter had an unsatisfactory education he was an avid reader and he consumed an extraordinary number of theological and other books. He loved books; stating how much he would miss books when he died and showing great concern at the number of books that were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666. He was one of the foremost doctrinal and moral theologians and he was a considerable philosopher. He was the most prolific writer of his day writing dozens of books, the first of which was, ‘The Saints’ Everlasting Rest.’ Baxter had no intention of writing books but during one of his bouts of sickness he had nothing else to do and being told by the doctors that he was going to die he decided to write about the heaven that he was going to go to shortly. This book proved to have a considerable affect on people’s lives. An 11 year old boy, knowing he was dying said, ‘I pray, let me have Mr. Baxter’s book, that I may read a little more of eternity before I go into it.’ We are told about Matthew Henry, the famous Bible commentator that, ‘the Bible and Mr. Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest used to lie daily before him on the table in his parlor.’ You can read more about this book and read an abridged version of the book at http://www.reformed.org/documents/saintsrest/saints_index.html.
Another of his famous books was, ‘A Call to the Unconverted’ which he wrote on being encouraged to do so by Archbishop Usher. In a little more than a year 20,000 copies were printed. Baxter says, ‘Through God’s mercy I have had information of almost whole households converted by this small book, which I set so light (little) by.’ John Eliot, the Apostle to the Indians, after translating the Bible into local languages then translated, ‘A Call to the Unconverted.’ Not only were many converted though this book in Baxter’s lifetime, it was still read down the centuries. The great preacher C H Spurgeon who was born in 1834 used to read this book when he was young; he said, ‘’I remember when I used to awake in the morning the first thing I took up was Alleine’s Alarm or Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted. Oh, those books, those books! I read and devoured them.’
Other very popular books were his Autobiography and ‘The Reformed Pastor’. The latter book was a guide to how to be a good Pastor and was a huge success. You can read an abridged version of this book at http://www.reformed.org/books/baxter/reformed_pastor/index.html. The two abridged versions were written in the 18th and 19th Centuries respectively, so if you want more up to date versions all four books are still published today, 350 years later, by Sovereign Grace Publishers http://www.sovgracepub.com/ or at www.amazon.co.uk.
Baxter was a strong advocate for unity in the Body of Christ. Not only must he have had in mind what Jesus said in John 17:21 but he also grew up and lived in a time of great division both politically and within the Church. In 1652 he called together the ministers in Worcestershire, of whatever denomination, to meet so that they could work together for the benefit of the people. Many of the ministers in the county came together once a month and even ministers from surrounding counties would join them. This was the time before the restoration of the King and the High churchmen in 1660, when there was largely a freedom to worship as you wanted. According to Baxter the Association meetings were of ‘considerable great benefit and comfort to us.’ He discovered that similar meetings were going on in Cumberland and Westmorland and then many other counties, desiring unity, began to associate with them. The Spirit of God was working in the land but freedom of worship ended in 1662 with the Act of Uniformity and the move towards unity ended.
Baxter also worked tirelessly for unity in the nation. At the restoration of Charles II he was made one of the Chaplains to the King and at this time the King asked some of the Nonconformist leaders, including Baxter, to come to an agreement about Church government. At this time Charles II was talking about his desire for freedom to worship and he said he wanted the Nonconformists to come to agreement with the Episcopal Bishops. They met at Sion College for two or three weeks and then came up with proposals for the King. They were expecting to have a counter proposal from the Bishops but this never happened, instead they were later called to the Bishop of London’s residence to meet with a selection of Bishops. Unfortunately, although Baxter had a great intellect and a massive desire for unity, he did not have the gift of tact and he was often prone to speak out exactly how he felt, a tendency that made him unpopular with his friends as well as those that opposed him. This weakness was to be a problem in all his work for unity and the Worcestershire Association was his only success in this area. He did recognise this weakness and asked his colleagues to be excused from these discussions but they insisted he took part in them. To be fair the Bishops had no intention of allowing the Nonconformists any say in Church government, but Baxter’s involvement did not help and discussion ended with no agreement. However the King recognised his worth and offered him the Bishopric of Hereford but he could not accept without agreement on Church Government.
Shortly after the Parliament had its way and the Act of Uniformity was passed, requiring Pastors to be ordained in the Church of England and to adhere to the Common Prayer Book. Baxter and around 2,000 other ministers, mostly very able clerics, would not agree with this and were thrown out of their churches. Baxter was considered by many to be a Presbyterian but in fact he was a moderate Episcopalian, and although he agreed with much of the Prayer Book he could not agree to it being forced onto the churches. This was followed by the Conventicle Act that made it illegal to have a religious meeting that exceeded four people plus the family. The situation was made even worse by the Five Mile Act that said that none of the ousted Ministers could go within five miles of any incorporated town or anywhere where they had been a Minister.
So from 1662 Baxter stopped preaching and concentrated on his writing. At this time he met a woman called Margaret who was many years his junior, they fell in love and were married. They had a good marriage and she died in 1681. They moved to Acton so that he could write in quiet, but if he thought he could do this in peace he was mistaken as he was to suffer a deal of persecution in the coming years. The authorities heard that he was going to pray for a dying woman and laid wait to arrest him but he was unable to go so they missed him. In 1670 he was accused of holding a meeting and put in Clerkenwell prison. His time there was much more comfortable than it might have been in that he had a large room, his wife was allowed to stay with him and he was allowed to walk in the garden. He was released two weeks later through a writ of ‘Habeas Corpus.’
Shortly after this one of his friends obtained the King’s permission to offer him a Bishopric or any other position he wanted in Scotland. For the same reasons as before he refused. In 1672 Charles II issued the Declaration of Indulgence that allowed licensed Nonconformists to preach in approved places; this was a political move and nothing to do with freedom of worship. Baxter obtained a licence and began to preach again. In 1674 the King’s licences were recalled and he was the first to be arrested and he was fined although they could not prove him guilty of anything. Because of the popularity of his preaching Margaret encouraged him to build a church of his own which he did, but he had only preached there once when his enemies decided to arrest him and put him in jail for six months, however he was sick and did not preach. Someone preached in his place and was arrested and put in jail for three months. Having been kept from preaching in his chapel for a year he started to preach elsewhere. In 1682 Baxter was arrested again for being in a city and for preaching. He was very sick and a Doctor told the court that he would probably die if he went to prison; the King said that he could die at home. Again he was fined and they sold everything he owned, including his sick bed to pay the court. His enemies continued to threaten and so he left to stay with a friend. He was arrested again in 1684 although he was so sick they had to carry him to court and he was fined again.
In 1685 Charles II died and his Catholic brother James II became King. On his accession there was renewed persecution against Nonconformists. Baxter, by this time a very sick and decrepit 70 year old, was the chosen target to make an example of. He was arrested under the warrant of Judge Jeffries for publishing a seditious book called, ‘Paraphrase of the New Testament’; a ludicrous charge. Jeffries was Lord Chief Justice and a vile, merciless man who sent many innocent people to Australia, many of whom died on the way or at their place of destination. Baxter’s trial is famous in legal history for its injustice. In the Appendix of his Autobiography there are eye-witness accounts of the proceedings. He was fined and had to stay in prison until it was paid, but Baxter refused to pay it. He was in the King’s Bench prison for 18 months and again he was treated well and was more comfortable than could reasonable be expected. In the end the King waived the fine and Baxter was released and moved to Charterhouse Yard and assisted a friend in his ministry until he died in 1691 and was buried in Christ Church.
Richard Baxter was a giant of his day, not without faults, but a man who made a significant impact on this nation. More than 300 years later there is much we can learn from him through his writings, standing fast against persecution, his love of unity and through giftedness as a pastor and evangelist.
Recommended Reading: The four books mentioned above and on the web http://www.pietyhilldesign.com/baxter/pages/bio.html.