‘A pen in God’s hand’

by
30 October 2015

Adrian Hill on the life of Richard Baxter, born 400 years ago

At rest: Richard Baxter, in his A Christian Directory (1673)

At rest: Richard Baxter, in his A Christian Directory (1673)

THE Nonconformist divine Richard Baxter (1615-91) was a poet, hymn-writer, controversialist, and perhaps the most influential theologian of his time. As the creator of popular Christian literature, he was described by Arthur Stanley, the 19th-century Dean of Westminster, as “the chief of English Protestant Schoolmen”.

Baxter was born 400 years ago, on 12 November, in the village of Rowton, Shropshire; educated at Wroxeter Free Grammar School; and became a pupil of Richard Wickstead, Chaplain to the Council of the Marches, at Ludlow Castle. At the age of 19, he moved to London to work for Sir Henry Herbert, Assistant Master of the Revels to Charles I, but intensely disliked this work, and soon returned home to care for his dying mother.

About this time, he became seriously ill, which had lifelong repercussions. Fearing death, he spent his time reading and debating with church ministers. On 18 December 1638, aged 23, he was ordained at Worcester, having obtained a licence to teach five days earlier.

His first appointment was as schoolmaster at Dudley Grammar School, and he preached his first sermon at St Thomas’s, Dudley. Here he met some Nonconformists, and began to examine the controversies in the Church, eventually becoming assistant to the free-thinking minister at St Leonard’s, Bridgnorth. In 1641, he was invited to become Preacher at St Mary’s, Kidderminster, where, in constant ill-health, he later wrote that he preached “to sinners with some compassion, as a dying man to dying men”.

This was a time of civil unrest, and he took refuge in the Parliamentary garrison town of Coventry, where, with the conviction that he should be meeting the spiritual needs of soldiers, he remained for two-and-a-half years as chaplain to Colonel Whalley’s regiment of Cromwell’s New Model Army.

As his illness got worse, and in constant fear of death, he set his thoughts on heaven, and wrote the book for which he has become renowned, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. So popular was it that it was translated into several languages and reprinted 12 times during his lifetime, and is still in print today. It has been described as “a masterpiece of style”, and has become a classic of English devotional literature. Soon afterwards, he published his widely read Reformed Pastor and A Call to the Unconverted.

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While Baxter had sympathies with Parliamentarians during the Civil War, he abhorred regicide. After Cromwell’s death, the political climate changed, and Baxter was invited by Parliament to give a sermon of repentance, the day before the vote to restore the monarchy. His text was Ezekiel 36.31: “Then shall ye remember your own evil ways.”

Days later, when Charles II was proclaimed King, Baxter preached in St Paul’s Cathedral before the Lord Mayor. Soon after his return, the King appointed Baxter one of his chaplains, and requested that he preach before him in Whitehall.

At the restoration of the monarchy came the re-establishment of the Church of England, but, in the Declaration of Breda, Charles had given a commitment to promoting religious tolerance. The King asked his Presbyterian chaplains to put their proposals to him. These proposals, largely written by Baxter, were moderate, conciliatory, and included a scheme of modified episcopacy.

The King called the Savoy Conference, at which the few surviving bishops were required to meet Presbyterian leaders to find a common liturgy for a pluralistic Church. Baxter was offered the see of Hereford, but declined it. In a few weeks, Baxter wrote, had printed, and presented to the conference his “Reformed Liturgy”; but it was never discussed, and the differences between the Episcopalians and Presbyterians were not resolved.

The result was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the Act of Uniformity, which required subscription by the clergy to the Thirty-Nine Articles. The unhappy ending to the conference resulted in much antipathy against Baxter. The Bishop of Worcester, George Morley, made the swift decree that Baxter should be silenced. In the so-called “Great Ejection” from the Church of England, about 2000 ministers who refused to subscribe to the Act were also deprived of their parishes and living (Features, 21 September 2012).

Baxter then devoted his time writing. He published 19 books over the next decade, including his magnum opus, A Christian Directory. From 1662 to 1687, except for brief interludes, he was forbidden to preach, and was under persecution with frequent fines and periods of imprisonment.

In the 1760s, recognising that her husband needed a pulpit, his wife, Margaret, rented property in Swallow Street, London, to be his personal chapel, although he was often prevented from preaching by officers of the law who stood at the door with a warrant for his arrest.

Margaret died in 1681, and Baxter dealt with his grief by writing a personal and compassionate Breviate of her. In the same year, he published his Poetical Fragments, which included his most popular hymn, “Ye holy angels bright”.

In 1685, with the new Roman Catholic King James II and the appointment of the infamous Lord Chief Justice Sir George Jeffreys, there was reduced tolerance of Nonconformity. The trial of Baxter before Judge Jeffreys was a travesty of justice. As a result, Baxter was imprisoned for 18 months.

By the time of his death in 1691, Baxter had written more than 150 books and pamphlets. He was described at his funeral as “a pen in God’s hand”. He was buried alongside his wife in Wren’s rebuilt Christ Church, Newgate Street, and his tomb was aptly inscribed “The Saint’s Rest”.

 

Professor Adrian R. Hill has had a long career in academia, as a vision scientist, and as an optometrist at the Radcliffe Infirmary in Oxford.

Churches in Kidderminster are holding events to mark the Baxter anniversary (Faith, 2 October).

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