Baxter, Richard (1615–1691)
BAXTER, RICHARD (1615–1691)
BAXTER, RICHARD (1615–1691), English Protestant clergyman and writer. Richard Baxter was at the heart of seventeenth-century Puritanism despite not having held a significant office. Born near Shrewsbury, in Shropshire, England, Baxter was brought up to fear sin and love the Bible. Such early influences led him to pursue a clerical career, although he did not attend university. In 1638 he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England; it is unlikely that he ever received ordination to the full priesthood. In 1641 Baxter was appointed preacher at Kidderminster in Worcestershire. On the outbreak of the English Civil War (1642–1649) he fled to Coventry, but he became a chaplain in the parliamentary army in 1645. Later he returned to Kidderminster and engaged in evangelical preaching and personal "conference" with his parishioners. By devoting Monday and Tuesday of each week to this counseling, he was able to erect a voluntary "discipline," but only six hundred of eighteen hundred potential communicants agreed to submit to examination before admission to the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. There was no tradition in the Church of England of giving an account to the minister of one's belief and behavior before being allowed to receive the sacrament, and many resented this Puritan intrusion into their spiritual lives.
In 1652 Baxter formed the Worcestershire Association of Ministers to encourage catechizing and discipline, and ministers in several other counties followed suit. These initiatives brought together clergy of different denominations and were an effective response to the challenge of sects such as the Quakers. In the winter of 1654–1655, Baxter met Archbishop James Ussher and they agreed (allegedly within thirty minutes) on a modified form of episcopacy that ought to be acceptable to both Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Baxter's prominence in moderate Puritan circles guaranteed that his views would be sought at the Restoration. He became a royal chaplain and prepared position papers for the Presbyterians, helping to argue their case at the Savoy Conference (1661) where the Episcopalians and Presbyterians failed to agree on revisions to the Prayer Book. Meanwhile the benefice of Kidderminster had been successfully reclaimed by its previous incumbent and, with the 1662 Act of Uniformity looming, Baxter retired from public preaching. Supported by his pious, resourceful, and wealthy wife Margaret, Baxter spent the 1660s in Acton outside London and attended the parish church while also preaching to his own circle. Under the royal indulgence of 1672, he began to preach publicly in London but suffered mounting persecution until in 1685 he was imprisoned for nearly two years. Old and frail, Baxter spent his last years indefatigably preaching and writing until his death on 8 December 1691.
Baxter's significance stems from three sources: his acknowledged leadership of the moderate wing of dissent; his voluminous and diverse writings, which numbered perhaps 111 publications; and his influence with respect to the way subsequent generations viewed the history and religion of seventeenth-century England. This last was a result of his controversial and practical works and even more importantly of Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696), his autobiography edited by Matthew Sylvester, which was in turn comprehensively rewritten by the English clergyman Edmund Calamy as An Abridgement of Mr. Baxter's History of His Life and Times (1702). Baxter's extensive correspondence, which has been cataloged, is housed at Dr. Williams's Library, London. Thus we know more about Baxter the man than we do about most individuals of his era. Prickly, awkward, a hypochondriac, and deficient in tact, humor, and a sense of proportion, Baxter could also genuinely claim to have labored for forty-five years in the cause of mutual understanding and the promotion of basic Christian piety. His sincere ecumenism followed from his conviction that "practical" religion and pastoral work were at the heart of the Protestant ministry. His work at Kidderminster and a stream of books such as The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1649), The Reformed Pastor (1656), and The Christian Directory (1673) manifest this belief, as does his repudiation of denominational labels in favor of such badges as "a mere Christian."
Baxter's pastoral focus had theological implications. He feared the antinomianism of the sects and the strict Calvinists on one hand and the superstition of "popery" on the other: his own theology could be described as a Puritan Arminianism. On several occasions he changed his view of the role of bishops and secular rulers in fostering godliness. Although he could accept a "reduced" episcopacy that would not circumscribe the pastoral efforts of the local minister, he soon turned against the lordly prelates who returned with the Church of England in 1662. He suspected that church of aiming at a French-style Catholicism under the authority of the monarchy. Although deeply worried by the proclivities of Charles II and James II, Baxter's faith in "Christian magistracy" as a vehicle for religious reformation was strong under the Protectorate (1653–1659) and once again after the Glorious Revolution (1688–1689) under William III. Baxter exemplifies some of the deepest impulses of seventeenth-century nonsectarian Puritanism.
See also Church of England ; Clergy: Protestant Clergy ; Dissenters, English ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Puritanism .
Baxter, Richard. The Autobiography of Richard Baxter. Abridged by J. M. Lloyd Thomas. Edited by N. H. Keeble. London and Totowa, N.J., 1974. Parts of the text of Reliquiae Baxterianae.
Keeble, N. H., and Geoffrey F. Nuttall. Calendar of the Correspondence of Richard Baxter. Two volumes. Oxford and New York, 1991.
Lamont, William. Puritanism and Historical Controversy. London, 1996. Sets Baxter against two of his contemporaries in a thought-provoking analysis.
Nuttall, Geoffrey F. Richard Baxter. London, 1965. The best biography.
The English theologian, pastor, and Nonconformist Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was an advocate of ecumenism and the author of more than 160 books.
The only son of a gentleman of "competent estate, " Richard Baxter was born in Rowton, Shropshire, on Nov. 12, 1615, and was largely self-educated "out of books" with the "inconsiderable help of country tutors." After "it pleased God to awaken" his soul at age 15, he studied theology. Ordained in the Anglican ministry in 1638, 2 years later he began assisting the vicar in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. During the Puritan Revolution he served as a regimental chaplain, but 2 years of campaigning broke his ever-precarious health. Convalescing in 1647 he wrote The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1650), a huge tome which comforts the afflicted and reflects on life here and hereafter.
Although ordained in the Church of England, Baxter objected to its "diocesan episcopacy, " whereby a bishop's authority extended over a diocese containing many parish churches. This, he believed, was contrary to what was practiced in the early ages of Christianity. In his view the rector of every parish ought to be a bishop, and no bishop could validly exercise authority over more than one established congregation.
Baxter resumed his pastoral work at Kidderminster. His "awakening ministry, " "moving voice, " handsome features, and sincerity built up a tremendous congregation. He continued to write prolifically; his writings, while often diffuse and digressive, are forceful, rational, and well informed. He began a series of ecumenical works in which he advocated the "True Catholicism" of a broad, universal Christian church. The Reformed Pastor (1656) and A Call for the Unconverted (1657) were popular and influential.
In A Holy Commonwealth (1659) Baxter defended monarchy as the best form of government—but only if the king subordinated himself to the law of "God, the Universal Monarch." In 1660 Baxter was summoned to London to cooperate in plans to restore the monarchy. He worked for a Restoration Church of England which would be moderately episcopalian, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and moderate Baptists not as sects but as members of one mutually acceptable catholic body. But the Anglican hierarchy vehemently opposed this plan, and Baxter and others of like mind were forced into Nonconformity. Stringent laws ousted more than 2000 ministers, denying them the right to preach. Baxter, like John Bunyan, was ruthlessly persecuted. Under James II he was imprisoned for more than a year because he had allegedly attacked church and state covertly in his Paraphrase of the New Testament (1684).
Baxter's sufferings had been mitigated by marriage in 1662 to a woman 20 years his junior. Despite their differences of age and temperament, they found ideal companionship. She died in 1681, and he lovingly memorialized her "cheerful, wise, and very useful life."
Among Baxter's major works were Methodus theologiae (1665), Reason for the Christian Religion (1667), The Christian Directory (1673), Catholick Theology (1675), A Treatise of Episcopacy (1681), and his autobiography, Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696).
Baxter died on Dec. 8, 1691. He was too outspoken and intense to succeed in his own time as a "reconciler." But if he had been heeded, the split between Anglicanism and Dissent, which has sullied British Christianity and is being healed only today, would have been avoided.
A study of Baxter should begin with The Autobiography of Richard Baxter, edited by J.M. Lloyd Thomas (1925; new ed. 1931), followed by F.J. Powicke, A Life of the Reverend Richard Baxter (1924). Hugh Martin, Puritanism and Richard Baxter (1954), untangles 17th-century politics and theology and provides basic bibliographical guidance. Richard Schlatter, ed., Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics (1957), admirably treats A Holy Commonwealth and related works. For the religious context see Irvonwy Morgan, The Nonconformity of Richard Baxter (1946).
Baxter, Richard, The autobiography of Richard Baxter, London, Dent; Totowa, N.J., Rowman & Littlefield 1974. □
Puritan divine; b. Rowton, Shropshire, England, Nov. 12, 1615; d. London, Dec. 8, 1691. His crude education under incompetent curates was compensated for by J. Owen at the Wroxeter free school and by a lifetime of private study. Baxter developed his theological views through scrupulous introspection. He entered the ministry in 1638, accepting the establishment's tenets despite private tendencies toward moderate presbyterianism, which grew from his sympathy with nonconformists. He favored latitudinarian views that might fuse Protestant sects into one national church based on fundamental doctrines in the Creed, Lord's Prayer, the Decalogue, and the Bible as revelation. He favored tolerance of Romanists if they worshiped privately. Baxter avoided political controversy in the civil war and supported the parliamentarians.
After 1653, he criticized Oliver cromwell and lamented the demise of legally constituted monarchy. Baxter cheered the Restoration but questioned the episcopacy. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 turned him from the state Church to the persecuted nonconformists with whom he suffered until the Toleration Act of 1690. Baxter spent most of his life, after 1653, in extensive literary productivity, virtually unequaled then in quality or quantity. Prominent among his more than 200 works are Saints' Everlasting Rest (1650), The Reformed Pastor (1656), and the autobiographical Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696).
Bibliography: r. baxter, The Practical Works of the Late Reverend and Pious Mr. Richard Baxter, ed. w. orme, 23 v. (London 1830); The Autobiography of Richard Baxter, ed. j. m. lloyd thomas (New York 1931); Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics, ed. r. schlatter (New Brunswick, N.J. 1957). a. b. grosart, comp., Annotated List of the Writings of Richard Baxter (London 1868); The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 (London 1885–1900) 1:1349–57. f. j. powicke, A Life of the Reverend Richard Baxter (London 1924).
[m. j. havran]
Revd Dr William M. Marshall