Richard Baxter Preaches with the Puritans

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.

Matthew Henry Gives Us His Grand Commentary

This is the day that Matthew Henry was born in a Welsh farmhouse in Shropshire, England, close to the border of England and Wales, in 1662.

His father, Philip, had been ejected from his church for refusing to ‘bow the knee’ to the king’s demands. His non-conformist views would not allow him to recognize the king as “Head of the Church” nor be compelled to use the Prayer Book. Submitting to ordination by a bishop was also anathema to him.

Along with nearly two thousand other ministers, Philip Henry had refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity, which had come into effect on 24 August 1662 and was radically opposed to all that Puritans like Henry stood for.

So young Matthew grew up in a godly home where Christian principles and conscience were adhered to – regardless of the consequences.

Matthew apparently suffered from a weak constitution during his childhood. But what he lacked in physical health he made up for in spiritual vigour. There is credible evidence that he could read the Scriptures when only three years old. His conversion took place before he turned eleven. Ion Henry’s words, one of his father’s sermons ‘melted’ him and caused him to ‘enquire after Christ’.

Taught at first by his father, an excellent educator, Matthew gained further education from nonconformist schools and at one time studied law. But he kept his focus on the ministry calling, taking occasion to preach where ever he could. The dissenters of Chester liked what they heard and invited him to be their minister.

Henry began his ministry with Presbyterian ordination on 9 May, 1687. Over the course of the next two decades his Chester congregation increased to more than 350 members. Not surprisingly, his success as a pastor caused other churches to seek him as their minister.

His first wife died in childbirth, in 1689. The following year he wed Mary Warburton – and all three children born to them died in infancy.

For 25 years he ministered at Chester. After rejecting many calls by other churches he finally chose to pastor a dissenting church in Hackney, London, so he could be closer to printers, in view of the large commentary he was composing.

Ill health plagued him. He suffered from diabetes and repeated attacks of kidney stones.

In June, 1714, while on a preaching tour of Cheshire, he was thrown from his horse and taken to the house of a nearby parson, where he died the following morning, 22 June, 1714, aged 52.

While Henry wrote a number of worthy works, his memory lives on in his monumental Commentary, The Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. Henry had begun this massive work in November 1704. By the time of his death ten years later, the project had got as far as the end of the book of Acts. It would be finished by a number of ministers after his death.

The commentary is quintessentially Puritan. It focuses on biblical spirituality and is alert to the need to glorify God in the whole of life. It is also chock-full of the terse and piquant aphorisms that the Puritans delighted to use to penetrate the hearts of their hearers and readers. Here are a few examples:
‘God’s grace can save souls without preaching, but our preaching cannot save them without God’s grace, and that grace must be sought by prayer’ (on Ezekiel 37:1-14).

‘Ministers may be serving Christ, and promoting the great ends of their ministry, by writing good letters, as well as by preaching good sermons’ (on Acts 18:7-11).

‘It is easier to build temples than to be temples to God’ (on 2 Chronicles 24:1-14).

‘The pleasures of sense are puddle-water; spiritual delights are rock water, so pure, so clear, so refreshing — rivers of pleasure’ (on Exodus 17:1-7).

‘The beauty of holiness is that which the grave, that consumes all other beauty, cannot touch, or do any damage to’ (on Psalm 49:6-14).

George Whitefield, we are told, read Henry’s commentary through four times … on his knees!

Spurgeon speaks of Matthew Henry’s Commentary as “first among the mighty” – and recommends that every minister of the gospel should read it through “once at least”.

Charles Wesley (1707-1788) was so moved by Henry’s comments on Leviticus 8:35 that he based one of his most famous hymns on them. Henry had written: ‘we have every one of us a charge to keep, an eternal God to glorify, an immortal soul to provide for, needful duty to be done, our generation to serve; and it must be our daily duty to keep this charge, for it is the charge of the Lord our Master, who will shortly call us to an account about it’. Gripped by this comment, Wesley sat down to write “A charge to keep I have”.

One does not have to agree with everything this great Puritan said to be blessed indeed by his Scriptural reflections.

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.