Great Churchmen (No
Published by Church
Book Room Press
Today the name of Richard Baxter, even in Christian circles, is little known and there are few homes where a copy of The Saints' Everlasting Rest, once so widely read, can be found on the bookshelves. But in the seventeenth century Baxter was an outstanding and prominent character and a great spiritual force and influence on the religious life of the nation. Because of the contentious part he took at the Savoy Conference many Churchmen regard him merely as the leader of a factious Puritan party out to narrow the comprehensiveness and radically change the Catholic character of the Church of England; but this is a very partisan and mistaken verdict. Baxter associated himself with the Puritans, but he was certainly not a typical representative of their school. He lived through a most stormy and eventful period of English history.
Born on November 12th, 1615, when James I was angering his Parliaments with his theory of divine hereditary right and the exercise of the irresponsible royal prerogative, Baxter passed his young manhood during the fierce duel between the King and Parliament for predominance, which after the fateful and fratricidal struggle of the Civil War, ushered in the unhappy totalitarian regime of military dictatorship during the Commonwealth. In the prime of life Baxter witnessed the “happy” Restoration of Charles II, with its alarming reaction in a wave of religious persecution and licentious living. As he lived till 1691 he was able in his old age to rejoice in the overthrow of the Popish conspiracy of James 11 by the “glorious” Revolution of 1688.
With a half-century full of so many dangerous and startling crises, English national life in Baxter’s period was sufficiently exciting to satisfy the most restless lover of change. The family traced its descent from the Baxters of Henry VI and was of the “gentle” class. Baxter spent the first ten years of his life in his grandfather's house at Rowton, and afterwards went to school at Wroxeter. At the age of eighteen he had the opportunity of adopting a public career, as Sir H. Herbert, brother of the celebrated poet-parson, George Herbert, who was Master of the Revels, invited him to Court. But a month's experience of the frivolous and dissipated life which he found there cured him of any desire for such a career. He had received a careful religious upbringing as his father at this time was a pious and godly man, and Baxter owed it to his early teaching that he read and loved his Bible. He therefore returned home and for the next four years devoted his time to study. It was during this period (in May, 1634) that his mother died and his father re-married.
From 1636-8 he was in such a poor, weak state of health that “he expected not to live above a year”; and he records that “weakness and pain helped me to study how to die, and that set me on studying how to live”. This turned Baxter's thoughts to the Ministry, as he became anxious to preach to “careless sinners”. But he hesitated to follow this call because of his “want of academical honours and degrees”, thinking that without such qualifications " he would be contemptible with the most”. But in the end “the thirsty desire of men's conversion and salvation” could not be checked and it overcame all his doubts. If, he argued, “only one or two souls might be won to God” it would compensate for any popular contempt for his lack of degrees. Just before this time he was greatly influenced by reading Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, and he also read widely in the Schoolmen and became acquainted with Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Ockham. In 1638 he secured the post of headmaster of a school at Dudley and was ordained by the Bishop of Worcester. He also began preaching in the neighbouring village churches, with much appreciation. It was now for the first time that he met several nonconforming clergy. Until the age of twenty Baxter had never met a Nonconformist, but after he had come across some who were persecuted for their convictions by the bishops, Baxter entertained a prejudice against the bishops. And so he began a careful study of the Puritan controversy, with the result that he decided to conform and subscribe, since he was convinced that episcopacy in itself was right. He was prepared to use the ring in marriage and kneeling at Communion as lawful, and he regarded the use of the surplice and the sign of the Cross in baptism as “things indifferent”, although he preferred to dispense with the former and would not refuse to baptize any who scrupled the sign of the Cross. Neither did he utterly condemn images in churches unless they were abused for idolatry.
But Baxter was greatly scandalized by the careless and inconsistent lives of many of the neighbouring clergy. “In the village where I was born,” Baxter records, “there were four Readers successively in six years’ time, ignorant men, and two of them immoral in their lives, who were all my schoolmasters”. The curate of his parish was “the best stage player and gamester in all the country”. There were “only three or four competent preachers” in his district, and the “vulgar rabble“ jeered at those who went to hear them as “Puritans”. Even Baxter's own father, a scrupulous observer of common prayer and an upholder of the bishop, was reviled as a “Puritan, Precisian, and a hypocrite” simply because he read the Scriptures and prayed out of the Prayer Book on Sundays at home. Baxter was also antagonized by the harsh persecuting policy which Archbishop Laud and many of the bishops employed in their efforts to drive the Calvinistic clergy from the Church, although on the other hand he deplored and condemned the censoriousness of so many of the nonconforming ministers against the bishops-as contrary to Christian charity on the one side, as their persecution was on the other.