1902 Encyclopedia > Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter
English Puritan divine

RICHARD BAXTER, one of the most eminent of English divines, styled by Dean Stanley "the chief of English Protestant Schoolmen," was born at Rowton in Shropshire at the house of his maternal grandfather, on November 12, 1615. His family connections were favourable to the growth of piety. But his early education was much neglected, and he did not study at any university, a circumstance worthy of notice, considering the eminent learning to which he afterwards attained. His best instructor was a Mr. John Owen, master of the Free School at Wroxeter. His diligence in the acquirement of knowledge was remarkable; and from the first he had a strong bent towards the philosophy with which religion is concerned, -- Mr Francis Garbet of Wroxeter being the director of these studies. For a short time his attention was turned to a court life, and he went to London under the patronage of Sir Henry Herbert, master of the revels, to follow that course; but he very soon returned home with a fixed resolve to cultivate the pursuit of divinity. Practical rather than speculative theology seems to have occupied his mind, and he therefore presented himself for ordination without any careful examination of the Church of England system. He was nominated to the mastership of the Free Grammer School, Dudley, in which place he commenced his ministry, having been ordained and licensed by Thornborough, bishop of Worcester. His popularity as a preacher was, at this early period, very great; and he was soon transferred to Bridgnorth, where, as assistant to a Mr Madstard, he established a reputation for the vigorous discharge of the duties of his office.

Richard Baxter image

Richard Baxter

During this time he took a special interest in the controversy relating to Nonconformity and the English Church. He soon, on some points, became alienated from the Church; and after the requirement of what is called "the et cetera oath," he rejected Episcopacy in its English form. He could not, however, be called more than a moderate Nonconformist; and such he continued to be throughout his life. Though commonly denominated a Presbyterian, he had no exclusive attachment to Presbyterianism, and often manifested a willingness to accept a modified Episcopalianism. All forms of church government were regarded by him as subservient to the true purposes of religion.

One of the first measures of the Long Parliament was to effect the reformation of the clergy; and, with this view, a committee was appointed to receive complaints against them. Among the complainants were the inhabitants of Kidderminster, a town which had become famous for its ignorance and depravity. This state of matters was so clearly proved that an arrangement was agreed to on the part of the vicar, by which he allowed £60 a year, out of his income of £200, to a preacher who should be chosen by certain trustees. Baxter was invited to deliver a sermon before the people, and was unanimously elected as the minister of the place. This happened in 1641, when he was twenty-six years of age.

His ministry continued, with very considerable interruptions, for about nineteen years; and during that time he accomplished a work of reformation in Kidderminster and the neighbourhood which is as notable as anything of the same kind upon record. Civilized behaviour succeeded to brutality of manners; and, whereas the professors of religion had been but small exceptions to the mass, the unreligious people became the exceptions in their turn. He formed the ministers in the country around him into an association for the better fulfilment of the duties of their calling, uniting them together irrespective of their differences as Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Independents. The spirit in which he acted may be judged of from The Reformed Pastor, a book published in relation to the general ministerial efforts he promoted. It drives home the sense of clerical responsibility with extraordinary power. The result of his action is that, to this day his memory is cherished as that of the true apostle of the district where he laboured.

The interruptions to which his Kidderminster life was subjected arose from the condition of things occasioned by the Civil War. Worcestershire was a cavalier county, and a man in Baxter's position was, while the war continued, exposed to annoyance and danger in a place like Kidderminster. He therefore removed to Gloucester, and afterwards settled in Coventry, where he for the most part remained about two years, preaching regularly both to the garrison and the citizens. After the battle of Naseby he took the situation of chaplain to Colonel Whalley's regiment, and continued to hold it till February 1647.

His connection with the Parliamentary army was a very characteristic one. He joined it that he might, if possible, counteract the growth of the sectaries in that field, and maintain the cause of constitutional government in opposition to the republican tendencies of the time. He regretted that he had not previously accepted an offer of Cromwell to become chaplain to the Ironsides, being confident in his power of persuasion under the most difficult circumstances. His success in converting the soldiery to his views does not seem to have been very great, but he preserved his own consistency and fidelity in a remarkable degree. By public disputation and private conference, as well as by preaching, he enforced his doctrines, both ecclesiastical and political, and shrank no more from urging what he conceived to be the truth upon the most powerful officers than he did from instructing the meanest followers of the camp. Cromwell shunned his society; but Baxter having to preach before him after he had assumed the Protectorship, chose for his subject the old topic of the divisions and distractions of the church, and in subsequent interviews not only opposed him about liberty of conscience, but spoke in favour of the monarchy he had subverted. There is a striking proof of Baxter's insight into character in his account of what happened under these circumstances. Of Cromwell he says, "I saw that what he learned must be from himself.'" It is worthy of notice that this intercourse with Cromwell occurred when Baxter was summoned to London to assist in settling "the fundamentals of religion," and made the memorable declaration in answer to the objection, that what he had proposed as fundamental " might be subscribed by a Papist or Socinian." "So much the better," was Baxter's reply, "and so much the fitter it is to be the matter of concord."

After the Restoration in 1660 Baxter settled in London. He preached there till the Ejectment Act took effect in 1662, and was employed in seeking for such terms of comprehension as would have permitted the moderate dissenters with whom he acted to have remained in the Church of England. In this hope he was sadly disappointed. There was at that time on the part of the rulers of the church no wish for such comprehension, and their object, in the negotiations that took place, was to excuse the breach of faith which their rejection of all reasonable methods of concession involved. The chief good that resulted from the Savoy Conference was the production of Baxter's Reformed Liturgy, a work of remarkable excellence, though it was cast aside without consideration. The same kind of reputation which Baxter had obtained in the country he secured in the larger and more important circle of the metropolis. The power of his preaching was universally felt, and his capacity for business placed him at the head of his party. That he should have been compelled by the activity of party spirit to remain outside the National Church is to be deeply regretted. He had, indeed, been made a king's chaplain, and was offered the bishopric of Hereford but he could not accept the offer without virtually assenting to things as they were; after his refusal he was not allowed, even before the passing of the Act of Uniformity, to be a curate in Kidderminster, though he was willing to serve that office gratuitously. Bishop Morley even prohibited him from preaching in the diocese of Worcester. The whole case illustrates afresh the vindictive bitterness of ecclesiastical factions in the heat of party contests, and especially in the hour of secular triumph.

From the Ejectment of 1662 to the Indulgence of 1687, Baxter's life was constantly disturbed by persecution of one kind or another. He retired to Acton in Middlesex, for the purpose of quiet study, and was dragged thence to prison on an illegal accusation of keeping a conventicle. He was taken up for preaching in London after the licenses granted in 1672 were recalled by the king. The meeting-house which he had built for himself in Oxendon Street was closed against him after he had preached there but once. He was, in 1680, seized in his house, and conveyed away at the risk of his life; and though he was released that he might die at home, his books and goods were distrained. He was in 1684 carried three times to the sessions' house, being scarcely able to stand, and without any apparent cause was made to enter into a bond for £400 in security for his good behaviour.

But his worst encounter was with Judge Jeffreys in May 1685. He had been committed to the King's Bench Prison for his Paraphrase on the New Testament, which was ridiculously attempted to be turned into a seditious book, and was tried before Jeffreys on this accusation. The scene of the trial is well known as among the most brutal perversions of justice which have occurred in England. Jeffreys himself acted like an infuriated madman; but there were among his blackguardisms some sparks of intelligence.

Mr Rotheram, one of his counsel, said that Baxter frequently attended divine service, went to the sacrament, and persuaded others to do so too, as was certainly and publicly known, and had, in the book charged against him spoken very moderately and honourably of the bishops of the Church of England. "Baxter for bishops!" Jeffreys exclaimed, "that's a merry conceit indeed; turn to it, turn to it." Upon this, Rotheram read out:-- "That great respect is due to those truly called to be bishops among us," or to that purpose. "Ay," said Jeffreys, "this is your Presbyterian cant -- truly called to be bishops -- that is himself and such rascals, called to be bishops of Kidderminster and other such places, bishops set apart by such factious, snivelling Presbyterians as himself. A Kidderminster bishop he means."

That was sharp, however coarse; for, putting the case vulgarly, it was "a Kidderminster bishop" that Baxter meant. He was sentenced to pay 500 marks, to lie in prison till the money was paid, and to be bound to his good behaviour for seven years. It was even asserted at the time that Jeffreys proposed he should be whipped at the cart's tail through London. The old man, for he was now seventy, remained in prison for two years.

During the long time of oppression and injury which followed the Ejectment, Baxter was sadly afflicted in body. His whole life was indeed one continued disease, but in this part of it his pain and languor had greatly increased. Yet this was the period of his greatest activity as a writer. He was a most voluminous author, his separate works, it is said, amounting to 168. A considerable proportion of these, including folios and quartos of the most solid description, were published by him while thus deprived of the common rights of citizenship. How he composed them is matter of wonder. They are as learned as they are elaborate, and as varied in their subject as they are faithfully composed. Such treatises as the Christian Directory, the Methodus Theologiae Christianae and the Catholic Theology, might each have occupied the principal part of the life of an ordinary man. One earthly consolation he had in all his troubles; he was attended upon by a loving and faithful wife, whom he had married in the Ejectment year. She was much younger than himself, and had been brought up as a lady of wealth and station; but she adhered to him in all his wanderings, sharing his sufferings, and following him to prison; and she has her reward in that Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter, which, while it records her virtues, reveals on the part of her husband a tenderness of nature which might otherwise have been unknown.

The remainder of Baxter's life, from 1687 onwards, was passed in peace and honour. He continued to preach and to publish almost to the end. He was surrounded by attached friends, and reverenced by the religious world. His saintly behaviour, his great talents, and his wide influence, added to his extended age, raised him to a position of unequalled reputation. He died in London on the 8th of December 1691, being seventy-six years old, and was buried in Christ Church. His funeral was attended by a very large concourse of people of all ranks and professions including churchmen as well as dissenters. A similar tribute of general esteem was paid to him nearly two centuries later, when a statue was erected to his memory at Kidderminster in July 1875. On that occasion clergy of all denominations, among whom the bishop of Worcester and the dean of Westminster were conspicuous, took part in the proceedings.

There are few persons of whom we can form a more distinct conception than we can of Richard Baxter. His face is quite familiar to us. His thin and stooping figure we seem to have seen. We can imagine the glance of his piercing eye. Who has not smiled at the intensity of his argumentative nature? He thought every one was amenable to reason--bishops and levellers included. See him contending with the military sectaries in the church at Chesham, from morning to night, when " he took the reading-pew, and Pichford's cornet and troopers took the gallery." Follow him, undeterred by his former want of success, to the church at Bewdley, where he disputed all day with Mr Tombs about infant baptism. Read his correspondence with Dr John Owen relative to the union of Presbyterians with Independents, in which his eagerness amusingly contrasts with Owen's hesitation. Watch him hour after hour in hand-to-hand controversy with Dr Gunning at the Savoy Conference, when all the town looked at them as at two boxers in a ring. These are but specimens of other like exhibitions. And yet he was as far as possible from being a quarrelsome man. It was in charity for his opponents that he fought. His pertinacity in contention was the fruit of the sincerity of his aims. He must have been a delightful companion to those who shared his religious or scholastic sympathies. How pleasant and profitable it would have been to witness the intimate intercourse at Acton between him and Sir Matthew Hale! He was at once a man of fixed belief and large appreciation, so that his dogmatism and his liberality sometimes came into collision. There was a universality in his genius which distinguishes him from most other men. His popularity as a preacher was deservedly pre-eminent but no more diligent student ever shut himself up with his books. He was singularly fitted for intellectual debate but his devotional tendency was equally strong with his logical aptitude. Some of his writings, from their metaphysical subtilty, will always puzzle the learned; but he could write to the level of the common heart without loss of dignity or pointedness. His Reasons for the Christian Religion is still, for its evidential purpose, better than most works of its class. His Poor Man's Family Book is a manual that continues to be worthy of its title. His Saints' Everlasting Rest will always command the grateful admiration of pious readers. Perhaps no thinker has exerted so great an influence upon Nonconformity as Baxter has done, and that not in one direction only, but in every form of development, doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and practical. He is the type of a distinct class of the Christian ministry, -- that class which aspires after scholarly training, prefers a broad to a sectarian theology, and alheres to rational methods of religious investigation and appeal. The rational element in him was very strong. He had a settled hatred to fanaticism. Even Quakerism he could scarcely endure. An infusion of ideal sentiment would have been beneficial to the conduct of his life, as well as to his expositions of truth. The ministers of whom he was the type are to be found in all divisions of the Christian church, but with characteristic modifications. Sometimes their rationalism is most distinctive, sometimes their learning, sometimes their sympathetic feeling. But Baxter excels most of the men he thus represents in his union of those qualities, as well as in the intense sense of religion by which he was actuated. Religion was with him all and in all,--that by which all besides was measured, and to whose interests all else was subordinated.

A good Life of Baxter, by the Rev. William Orme, was prefixed to his Practical Works (published in 23 volumes); Dr Calamy abridged his Life and Times. The abridgment forms the first volume of the account of the ejected ministers, but whoever refers to it should also acquaint himself with the reply to the accusations which had been brought against Baxter, and which will be found in the second volume of Calamy's Continuation. Sir James Stephen's interesting paper on Baxter, contributed originally to the Edinburgh Review, is reprinted in the second volume of his Essays. The best recent estimates of Baxter are those given by Principal Tulloch in his English Puritanism and its Leaders, and by Dean Stanley in his address at the inauguration of the statue to Baxter at Kidderminster.

But most valuable of all is Baxter's autobiography, called Reliquiae Baxterianae, or Mr Richard Baxter's Narrative of the most memorable Passages of his Life and Times. It is almost as real as a personal knowledge of its subject could have been. The account he gives at the end of Part I. of the spiritual changes he had undergone will never cease to be regarded as a rare and profoundly interesting instance of faithful self-knowledge, and it has served the cause of Christian charity more, probably, than any treatise ever written on the subject.

There are two testimonies to Baxter's worth which, though they have frequently been quoted, cannot be omitted from any fair notice of him. Dr Barrow said that "his practical writings were never mended, and his controversial ones seldom confuted," and Bishop Wilkins asserted that "if he had lived in the primitive time he had been one of the fathers of the church." (--)

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