Richard Baxter was born on November 12, in 1615. The place was Shropshire, England.
Born to parents who had little regard for education, Baxter was largely self-educated, suffered with various bodily infirmities, and knew the reality of persecution in his lifetime … but nevertheless he was to become “one of the foremost Puritan spokesmen within the Church of England”.
Richard Baxter has been described as “one of the most successful preachers and pastors of the Christian church” (Who was Who in Church History, by E. Moyer).
During his education at a free school and then the royal court he became disgusted at the frivolity he saw around him. He left to study divinity and was ordained into the Church of England ministry at age 23. There he found common ground with the Puritans, who at that time were a faction within the church who opposed the church’s form of government. The Puritan movement was at that time splintering into factions.
Baxter did his best to avoid the disputes between Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and other denominations, promoting cooperation between local ministers where he could. He was fond of saying, “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity”.
However Baxter held strong personal convictions, even being opinionated in his theology.
Ordained by the Presbyterian Church, he served as minister at Kidderminster from 1641 until 1660. But “The Act of Uniformity” of 1662 put an end to his official ministry. This Act demanded that every clergyman must give “unfeigned consent and assent” to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and accept ordination by a bishop, among other issues.
Suffice to say Baxter – and something like 2000 others – refused to bow the knee to this attack on religious freedom and were ousted from their parishes. He stood for liberty of conscience in worship and church government. And it cost him his freedom. Twice, in 1685 and again in 1686, he was imprisoned for continuing to preach although ‘unlicensed’ to do so – this latter time for two years.
He penned over 160 books – many of them best sellers in his day, and some still being re-printed more than 400 years later … and he had 60 written against him! (Heroes of the Faith, by F. Ballard, page 24).
Because of his moderate stand he became a peacemaker during the English Civil Wars, believing in the monarchy but wanting their powers limited. He was chaplain to the Parliamentary army, but then helped to restore the King.
Several classics came from his pen. The Saints’ Everlasting Rest was one of the most widely read books of the century. A Call to the Unconverted later influenced the young Spurgeon, as he tells us in his autobiography. Reformed Liturgy was written in a mere two weeks in response to a question about what deviations should be permitted from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. His Christian Directory contains over one million words. The Reformed Pastor is his autobiography and his pastoral guide, and is still widely read today.
Theologically Baxter is described as, wait for it, Latitudinarian! He saw society as a large family under a loving father, and in his theology, he tried to balance the extremes. He eventually registered himself as “a mere Nonconformist“, which was a technical term for those who were “not Anglican”. He broke with the Church of England mainly due to disempowerment of parish clergy.
One of his most famous sayings bears repeating – “I preached as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man pleading with dying men.”
On 8 December, 1691, Richard Baxter went home to “the Saints’ Everlasting Rest”.
This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History, which I previously considered to be a little stuffy and of little practical value. I find in the process of updating Don’s Christian Diary that I am being constantly refreshed, illuminated or challenged by the lives of those who have gone before.