Richard Baxter (1615-1691) is legendary as a preacher, revivalist, and personal soul-winner. His classic couplet was: “I preached as never sure to preach again, And as a dying man to dying men.”
If we asked, who was the most forceful personality among the Puritans, or who was the most voluminous writer or who was the most skilled controversialist, I think in each case the answer might be: Richard Baxter. Baxter was the most outstanding undershepherd, evangelist and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism produced. In this spiritual ice age, we need men like him again.
Leonard Ravenhill devoted a chapter in one of his books to the life of Richard Baxter, where he said, “He lived, moved, and had his being in God. He had in his soul the blaze of a seraph.”
Richard Baxter was born near London, England, in 1615. About the time of his birth his father was converted, mainly through reading Scripture. Richard has not told us the exact time of his own conversion, but “he felt a great pull on his soul” about the year 1634. As a lean, lanky teenager, he listened to the preaching of Walter Craddock and poured over the writings of Bunny, Sibbes, and Perkins.
He did attend a school for a while as a teenager, but his vast learning came mostly through private, personal study. Ill-health and other causes kept him from a university training.
Baxter began preaching at Dudley and Bridgenorth. In 1640, he began to work at Kidderminster, a town of about 2000, near Birmingham. Four years after his personal surrender to Christ, he was “ordained” (1641) and appointed to the church at Kidderminster, where he labored for nineteen years. Later Baxter opposed the notion that in order to officially minister the Word of God a man must have the ordination of the bishops. And he especially opposed forcing men to pass through the schools of learning. He said that he feared no man’s displeasure nor hoped for any man’s preferment. This last phrase he lived up to when he refused a bishop’s miter.
Despite poor health and stinging trials, he enjoyed exceptional success. Visiting in 500 different homes each year, his public and then personal teaching transformed the congregation. Is it a bitter herb for us to chew if we say that converts often take on the likeness of their spiritual fathers? Baxter reported about those converted at Kidderminster: “Day and night they thirsted after the salvation of their neighbors.” Again Baxter says, “To the praise of my gracious Master . . . we had to build galleries to contain all the people. Our weekday meetings also were always full. On the Lord’s Day all disorder became quite banished out of the town. As you passed along the streets . . . you might hear a hundred households singing psalms at their family worship. In a word, when I came to Kidderminster, there was only about one family in a whole street that worshiped God and called upon His name. When I left, there were some streets where not a family did not do so.”
Baxter was a master of personal work. Dealing with individuals one by one, he tutored the rude and violent people of Kidderminster until it was said, “He found the place a desert and left it a garden.”
He urged the Christians to regularly come to him with their problems, and let him “check their spiritual health.” And he stressed the practice of church discipline to show that God will not accept sin. He said, “Christ never died to reconcile God to man’s sin.” Preaching once on Sunday and again on Thursday, he emphasized subjection and love to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, love to all men, concord with the church and with one another, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments.
In 1642, civil war broke out, and Baxter left Kidderminster and served two short periods as chaplain of the Parliamentary army. About that time, he had health problems. Armed with a Bible and a concordance, he then produced his classic devotional, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest.
After the Restoration in 1660, though he chose to remain at Kidderminster, he was denied being curate, and never again had a fixed pastorate. He preached before the House of Commons, before the lord mayor and the aldermen at St. Paul’s, became chaplain to Charles II for a time, and was offered the bishopric of Hereford, but declined. A leader among non-conformists, he preached frequently in different pulpits.
In 1662, upon the passage of the Act of Uniformity, he was expelled from the Church of England. The Act of Uniformity said that a revised prayer book had to be used and that all ministers not ordained by the Episcopalian Church should be unfrocked. Baxter, with 2,000 other ministers, withstood this act. The result? He found himself shut out of the state church as well as the building he had been preaching in. Henceforth he was maligned, misquoted, and misrepresented.
In what way was he maligned? Of course he was accused of robbing the cradle when he married Margaret Charlton (1636-1681) in 1662. If our math is correct, she was 26 and he was 47. Besides lechery, he was once accused of murdering a papist, and of organizing an insurrection. He was cleared of all accusations.
Taunted for idleness, he said, “The worst I wish you is that you had my ease instead of your labor. I have reason to take myself for the least of all saints, and yet I fear not to tell the accuser that in comparison to mine, I take the labor of most of the town’s tradesmen to be a pleasure to the body, though I would not exchange it with the greatest prince. Their labor preserveth health; mine consumeth it. They work in ease; I in continual pain. They have hours and days of recreation; I have scarce time to eat and drink. Nobody molesteth them for their labor; the more I do, the more hatred and trouble I draw upon me.”
It seems that every great saint has experienced his or her own thrilling escape. Characteristically, one of Baxter’s most hair-breadth deliverances happened in his library. “As he sat in his study, the weight of his greatest folio books broke down three or four of the highest shelves, when he sat close under them; and they fell down on every side of him, and not one of them hit him, except one upon the arm.
Whereas the place, the weight, and greatness of the books was such, and his head just under them, that it was a wonder they had not beaten out his brains, or done him an unspeakable mischief. One of the shelves just over his head having Dr. Walton’s Polyglot Bible, all Austin’s works, the Bibliotheca Patrum and Marlorate.” No doubt few of us have realized how much peril we may be subject to when we sit down in our libraries. Imagine being bludgeoned to death by a twenty-pound tome called Bibliotheca Patrum! It was a good thing that Baxter’s head remained intact. How many other would-be Bible students have had their scruples, dashed out by some unbalanced heavyweight author.
Strong cross currents drove men apart. The controversy between the Monarchy and the Commonwealth, between Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism, between the High Church and the Independents, and between Calvinism and Arminianism drove many eminent Puritans into fierce debates. To Baxter’s credit, he was a large-hearted brother who hated bigotry and bitterness. He forever advocated schemes and methods of toleration in an atmosphere of extremism.
But as Elihu said, “Great men are not always wise” (Job 32:9). I think it is safe to say that Baxter should have stuck to his local teaching and preaching and to have left alone those large-scale controversies. To quote J. I. Packer, “He was a big man, big enough to have big faults and make big errors.” A brilliant debater, Baxter had an astounding capacity for instant analysis. But he was a poor performer in public life. Though respected for his pastoral prowess, in debate he took a combative, “strike first–ask questions later” posture. It was a guarantee of failure every time. Packer says, “His lifelong inability to see that among equals a triumphalist manner is counter-productive was a strange blind spot.” Baxter’s well-intentioned interventions only deepened the rift. Worse still, no word that he wrote did he ever withdraw.
In 1685, he was arraigned on a charge of preaching sedition and for 21 months he languished in the Tower of London. This final humiliation came from the hands of a judge named Jeffries, infamous for his involvement in “the Bloody Assize.” It was Baxter’s Paraphrase of the New Testament that clinched the verdict (the prosecution cited his paraphrase to claim that his rendering of certain passages were actually coded messages to the evangelicals to incite them to rebellion!) For these false charges, Baxter was fined a sum of #400–a fortune in those days–and all his possessions were confiscated. Until the full fine was paid, he was to lie in prison, bound over to keep the peace for seven years. It was last-minute clemency that saved the 70-year-old from being tied to a cart’s tail and whipped through the streets of London. His stay in the Tower, however, broke his health, which steadily worsened. He died in 1691 but left behind him a heritage that still is used in blessing to this day.