Extended Biography of Richard Baxter
REV. RICHARD BAXTER. Baxter was one of the most extraordinary men that ever lived in this or in any other country. He was born at Rowton in Shropshire, Nov. 12, 1615. At a very early period he was the subject of religious impressions. Of his education, he thus speaks in a letter to Anthony Wood: “As to myself, my faults are no disgrace to any university, for I was of none; and have little but what I had out of books, and inconsiderable helps of country tutors. Weakness and pain helped me to study how to die; that set me on studying how to live; and that, on studying the doctrine from which I must fetch my motives and comforts; and beginning by necessities, I proceeded by degrees, and now am going to see that which I have lived and studied for.” When about sixteen years of age, he was attacked by a violent cough, with spitting of blood, and other indications of consumption. He became more concerned about his eternal welfare. “I was not then,” he says, “sensible of the incomparable excellence of holy love and delight in God; nor much employed in thanks giving and praise; but all my groans were for more contrition, and a broken heart; I prayed most for tears and tenderness.” At eighteen, he was persuaded to try his fortune at Court, and accordingly went to Whitehall, where he was kindly received by Sir Henry Herbert, then master of the revels; but the manners of Court did not suit his taste, and, at the end of a month, he returned to his father's house. Shortly after this, he was appointed master of the free-school at Dudley, where he preached his first sermon, having been ordained by Bishop Thornborough of Worcester. From Dudley he removed to Bridgenorth, where he officiated as assistant to Mr. Madstard, “a grave and severe divine, very honest and conscientious.” In 1640 he accepted of an invitation to become pastor of the church at Kidderminster, and, after continuing there two years, was obliged to leave the place, in consequence of his attachment to the Parliamentary interest. He retired to Coventry, and preached one part of the Lord's day to the soldiers in the garrison; and on the other part, to the inhabitants of the town. After the battle of Naseby, he, by the advice of several ministers, accepted the situation of chaplain to Colonel Whalley's regiment, but he was never in any engagement. He was, however, compelled to quit the army in 1647, in consequence of a sudden and dangerous illness: when he was recovered, he returned to Kidderminster, where he labored for fourteen years with unparalleled success. “When I came thither first,” he observes, “there was but about one family in a street, that worshiped God, and called upon his name; and when I came away, there were some streets where there was but one poor family in the side, that did not so; and that did not, by professing serious godliness, give us hopes of their sincerity.” His attachment to Kidderminster remained through all the changes of his future life. In his "Poetical Fragments” he thus touchingly speaks of it:
“But among all, none did so much abound
With fruitful mercies, as that barren ground,
Where I did make my best and longest stay,
And bore the heat and burden of the day.
Mercies grew thicker there than summer flowers,
They over-numbered my days and hours.
There was my dearest flock and special charge,
Our hearts with mutual love Thou didst enlarge:
'Twas there thy mercy did my labors bless,
With the most great and wonderful success.”
During the Commonwealth, Baxter was brought by Lord Broghill and the Earl of Warwick to preach before Cromwell, the Protector. “I knew not,” he remarks, “which way to provoke him better to his duty, than by preaching on 1 Corinthians 1:10, against the divisions and distractions of the Church, and showing how mischievous a thing it was, for politicians to maintain such divisions for their own ends. A little while after, Cromwell sent to speak with me, when I told him that we took our ancient monarchy to be a blessing, and not an evil to the land; and humbly craved his patience that I might ask him how England had ever forfeited that blessing, and unto whom that forfeiture was made? Upon that, he was awakened into some passion, and then told me it was no forfeiture, but God had changed it as pleased him; and then he let fly at the Parliament, which thwarted him; and especially by name, at four or five of those members who were my chief acquaintances, whom I presumed to defend against his passion; and thus four or five hours were spent.” He again visited London just before the deposition of Richard Cromwell, and preached to the Parliament the day previous to its voting the Restoration of Charles II. He preached also before the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, at St. Paul's. When the King was restored, Baxter became one of his chaplains, and preached once before him. He assisted at the Savoy Conference, and there drew up a Reformed Liturgy. He was offered the bishopric of Hereford, but refused to accept of it. He wished no higher preferment than liberty to preach in his beloved town of Kidderminster, but this he could not obtain. He therefore went to London, where he preached occasionally, chiefly for Dr. Bates at St. Dunstan's, Fleet-street. But Bartholomew-day approaching, he determined to set an early example of the conscientious part he intended to act, by preaching his farewell sermon at Blackfriars, May 15, 1662, and then retired to Acton. In September following, he entered into the marriage state with Margaret, the amiable and pious daughter of Francis Charlton, Esq. He says, “She consented to these conditions of our marriage: 1. That I should have nothing that before our marriage was hers; that I, who wanted no earthly supplies, might not seem to marry her for covetousness. 2. That she would so alter her affairs, that I might be entangled in no law-suits. 3. That she would expect none of my time which my ministerial work should require."
During the plague in 1665, he went into Buckinghamshire, but afterwards returned to Acton. When the act against conventicles expired, his audience became so large that his house could not contain them. Many were reformed; but the worthless and the wicked were opposed to him, and he was seized and put in prison, but procuring a habeas corpus, was discharged. The following is a painful statement of what he endured: “I was so long wearied with keeping my doors shut against them that came to distrain on my goods for preaching, that I was fain to go from my house and to sell all my goods, and to hide my library first, and afterwards to sell it; so that if books had been my treasure, and I valued little more on earth, I had now been without a treasure. For about twelve years I was driven a hundred miles from them; and when I had paid dear for the carriage, after two or three years, I was forced to sell them.” In 1682, there was a warrant issued against his person, and five warrants against his goods. He says he had never the least notice of any accusation, or who were the accusers or witnesses, much less did he receive any summons to appear or answer for himself, or ever saw the justices or accusers. He sent the justice the written deeds, which proved that the goods of the house in which he was living were none of his, nor ever were; but this signified nothing, all was seized and sold. “In 1684,” he says, “while I lay in pain and languishing, the justices sent warrants to apprehend me. I thought they would send me six months to prison for not taking the Oxford oath, and dwelling in London; and so I refused to open my chamber door to them, their warrant not being to break it open: but they set six officers to my study door, who watched all night, and kept me from my bed and food, so that the next day I yielded to them, who carried me, scarce able to stand, to the sessions, and bound me in 400l. bond to my good behaviour."
Feb. 28, 1685, he was committed to the King's Bench prison, by warrant of the notorious Lord Chief Justice Jefferies. Fox, in his History of the Reign of James II., remarks, “Before this magistrate was brought for trial, by a jury sufficiently prepossessed in favor of Tory politics, the Rev. R. Baxter, a dissenting minister, a pious and learned man, of exemplary character, always remarkable for his attachment to monarchy, and for leaning to moderate measures in the differences between the Church and those of his persuasion. The pretense of this prosecution was a supposed reference of some passages in one of his works to the bishops of the Church of England; a reference which was certainly not intended by him, and which could not have been made out to any jury that had been less prejudiced, or under any other direction than that of Jefferies. Baxter being much indisposed, he moved by his counsel for further time; but Jefferies cried out in a passion, ‘I will not give him a moment's time more to save his life. We have had to do with other sorts of persons, but now we have a saint to deal with; and I know how to deal with saints as well as sinners. Yonder stands Oates in the pillory, and he says he suffers for the truth, and so says Baxter; but if Baxter did but stand on the other side of the pillory with him, I would say two of the greatest rogues and rascals in the kingdom stood there.’ When Baxter said, ‘My lord, I have been so moderate with respect to the Church of England, that I have incurred the censure of many of the dissenters upon that account,’ Jefferies exclaimed, ‘Baxter for bishops! that is a merry conceit indeed: turn to it, turn to it.' Upon this one of his counsel turned to the place where it is said, 'that great respect is due to those truly called to be bishops among us.’ ‘Ay,’ said Jefferies, ‘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 sniveling presbyterians as himself. A Kidderminster bishop he means.’ Baxter beginning to speak again, Jefferies reviled him; ‘Richard, Richard, dost thou think we'll hear thee poison the court? Richard, thou art an old fellow, an old knave; thou hast written books enough to load a cart; every one as full of sedition, I might say treason, as an egg is full of meat. Hadst thou been whipped out of thy writing trade forty years ago, it had been happy. Thou pretendest to be a preacher of the gospel of peace, and thou hast one foot in the grave: it is time for thee to begin to think what account thou intendest to give. But leave thee to thyself, and I see thou'lt go on as thou hast begun; but by the grace of God, I'll look after thee. I know thou hast a mighty party, and I see a great many of the brotherhood in corners, waiting to see what will become of their mighty don, and a doctor of the party (lookin to Dr. Bates) at your elbow; but by the grace of Almighty God, I'll crush you all. Come, what do you say for yourself, you old knave? come, speak up! What doth he say? I am not afraid of you for all the sniveling calves you have got about you:’ alluding to some persons who were in tears. ‘Your lordship need not,’ said Baxter; ‘for I’ll not hurt you. But these things will surely be understood one day; what fools one sort of Protestants are made to persecute the other.’ And lifting up his eyes to heaven, said, ‘I am not concerned to answer such stuff; but am ready to produce my writings for the confutation of all this; and my life and conversation are known to many in this nation.’ After the judge had addressed the jury, Baxter said to him, ‘Does your lordship think any jury will pretend to pass a verdict upon me upon such a trial?’ ‘I'll warrant you, Mr. Baxter,’ said he; ‘don't you trouble yourself about that.’ The jury immediately laid their heads together at the bar, and found him guilty. On the 29th of June, he had judgment given against him. He was fined five hundred marks, condemned to lie in prison till he paid it, and bound to his good behavior for seven years. Nov. 24, 1686, however, he was discharged; and again, as far as his health would permit, assisted Mr. Sylvester in his public labors."
Dr. Bates says, “He continued to preach so long, notwithstanding his wasted, languishing body, that the last time he almost died in the pulpit. It would, doubtless, have been his joy to have been transfigured in the mount. This excellent saint was the same in his life and death; his last hours were spent in preparing others and himself to appear before God. He said to his friends that visited him, ‘You come hither to learn to die; I am not the only person that must go this way. I can assure you that your whole life, be it ever so long, is little enough to prepare for death. Have a care of this vain deceitful world, and the lusts of the flesh; be sure you choose God for your portion, heaven for your home, God's glory for your end, his word for your rule, and then you need never fear but we shall meet with comfort.’ When a friend was comforting him with the good many had received by his preaching and writings, he said, ‘I was but a pen in God's hands, and what praise is due to a pen?’ When asked how it was with his inward man, he replied, ‘I bless God I have a well-grounded assurance of my eternal happiness, and great peace and comfort within.’” He expired on Tuesday morning, about four o'clock, Dec. 8, 1691, aged seventy-six, and was buried in Christchurch, Newgate-street.
Baxter's person was tall and slender; his countenance was composed and grave, somewhat inclining to smile. He had a piercing eye, a very articulate speech, and his deportment was rather plain than complimentary. But the mind is the standard of the man: this in him was acute, penetrating, powerful, comprehensive, inventive, buoyant, and unwearied. Dr. Bates says, “His prayers were an effusion of the most lively, melting expressions of his intimate, ardent affections to God: from the abundance of the heart his lips spake. His soul took wing for heaven, and wrapt up the souls of others with him. Never did I see or hear a holy minister address himself to God with more reverence and humility with respect to his glorious greatness; never with more zeal and fervency, correspondent to the infinite moment of his requests, nor with more filial affiance in the Divine mercy. In his sermons there was a rare union of arguments and motives to convince the mind and gain the heart: all the fountains of reason and persuasion were open to his discerning eye. There was no resisting the force of his discourses, without denying reason and Divine revelation. He had a marvelous felicity and copiousness in speaking. There was a noble negligence in his style, for his great mind could not stoop to the affected eloquence of words. He despised flashy oratory; but his expressions were clear and powerful, so convincing the understanding, so entering into the soul, so engaging the affections, that those were as deaf as adders who were not charmed by so wise a charmer. He was animated with the Holy Spirit, and breathed celestial fire, to inspire heat and life into dead sinners, and to melt the obdurate in their frozen tombs.”
Grainger gives him the following character: “Richard Baxter was a man famous for weakness of body and strength of mind; for having the strongest sense of religion himself, and exciting a sense of it in the thoughtless and the profligate; for preaching more sermons, engaging in more controversies, and writing more books, than any other Nonconformist of his age. He spoke, disputed, and wrote with ease; and discovered the same intrepidity when he reproved Cromwell and expostulated with Charles II, as when he preached to a congregation of mechanics. His zeal for religion was extraordinary, but it seems never to have prompted him to faction or carried him to enthusiasm. This champion of the Presbyterians was the common butt of men of every other religion, and of those who were of no religion at all. But this had very little effect upon him: his presence and his firmness of mind on no occasion forsook him. He was just the same man before he went into a prison, while he was in it, and when he came out of it; and he maintained a uniformity of character to the last gasp of his life. His enemies have placed him in hell; but every man who has not ten times the bigotry that Mr. Baxter himself had must conclude that he is in a better place. This is a very faint and imperfect sketch of Mr. Baxter's character. Men of his size are not to be drawn in miniature. His portrait, in full proportion, is in his Narrative of his own Life and Times, which, though a rhapsody, composed in the manner of a diary, contains a great variety of memorable things, and is in itself, as far as it goes, a history of Nonconformity."
Dr. Barrow said, “His practical writings were never mended, and his controversial ones seldom confuted.” The Honorable Robert Boyle declared, “He was the fittest man of the age for a casuist, because he feared no man's displeasure, nor hoped for any man's preferment.” Bishop Wilkins observed of him, “That he cultivated every subject he had handled; that if he had lived in the primitive times, he would have been one of the fathers of the church, and that it was enough for one age to produce such a person as Mr. Baxter.” Dr. A. Clarke said of his works, “They have done more to improve the understanding, and mend the hearts of his countrymen, than those of any writer of his age. While the English language remains, and scriptural Christianity and piety to God are regarded, his works will not cease to be read and prized by the wise and pious of every denomination." When Boswell asked Johnson what works of Baxter he should read? “Read any of them,” said the great lexicographer, “for they are all good.” The celebrated Wilberforce says, “I must beg to class among the brightest ornaments of the Church of England this great man, who with his brethren was so shamefully ejected from the church in 1662, in violation of the royal word as well as of the dear principles of justice. It would be a most valuable service to mankind to revise them; and perhaps to abridge, to render them more suitable to the taste of modern readers.” Baxter was beyond comparison the most voluminous of all his contemporaries. His works were one hundred and sixty-eight in number, and could not be comprised in less than sixty volumes octavo, of above five hundred closely-printed pages each. His sermons in the Morning Exercises are:—What is that light which must shine before men in the works of Christ's disciples?—What are the best preservatives against melancholy and overmuch sorrow?—Christ, and not the pope, universal head of the church.
Source: Samuel Dunn. Memoirs of the Seventy-Five Eminent Divines Whose Discourses Form The Morning Exercised at Cripplegate, St. Giles in the Fields, and at Southwark. London: John Snow, 1844.