1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Baxter, Richard
BAXTER, RICHARD (1615–1691), English puritan divine, called by Dean Stanley “the chief of English Protestant Schoolmen,” was born at Rowton, in Shropshire, at the house of his maternal grandfather, in November (probably the 12th) 1615. His ancestors had been gentlefolk, but his father had reduced himself to hard straits by loose living. About the time of Richard’s birth, however, he changed decisively for the better. The boy’s early education was poor, being mainly in the hands of the illiterate and dissolute clergy and readers who held the neighbouring livings at that time. He was better served by John Owen, master of the free school at Wroxeter, where he studied from about 1629 to 1632, and made fair progress in Latin. On Owen’s advice he did not proceed to Oxford (a step which he afterwards regretted), but went to Ludlow Castle to read with Richard Wickstead, the council’s chaplain there. Wickstead neglected his pupil entirely, but Baxter’s eager mind found abundant nourishment in the great library at the castle. He was persuaded—against his will—to turn his attention to a court life, and he went to London under the patronage of Sir Henry Herbert, master of the revels, to follow that course; but he very soon returned home with a fixed resolve—confirmed by the death of his mother—to study divinity. After three months’ schoolmastering for Owen at Wroxeter he read theology, and especially the schoolmen, with Francis Garbet, the local clergyman. About this time (1634) he met Joseph Symonds and Walter Cradock, two famous Nonconformists, whose piety and fervour influenced him considerably. In 1638 he was nominated to the mastership of the free grammar school, Dudley, in which place he commenced his ministry, having been ordained and licensed by John Thornborough, bishop of Worcester. His success as a preacher was, at this early period, not very great; but he was soon transferred to Bridgnorth (Shropshire), where, as assistant to a Mr Madstard, he established a reputation for the vigorous discharge of the duties of his office.
He remained at Bridgnorth nearly two years, during which time he took a special interest in the controversy relating to Nonconformity and the Church of England. He soon, on some points, especially matters of discipline, became alienated from the Church; and after the requirement of what is called “the et cetera oath,” he rejected episcopacy in its English form. He could not, however, be called more than a moderate Nonconformist; and such he continued to be throughout his life. Though commonly denominated a Presbyterian, he had no exclusive attachment to Presbyterianism, and often manifested a willingness to accept a modified Episcopalianism. All forms of church government were regarded by him as subservient to the true purposes of religion.
One of the first measures of the Long Parliament was to effect the reformation of the clergy; and, with this view, a committee was appointed to receive complaints against them. Among the complainants were the inhabitants of Kidderminster, a town which had become famous for its ignorance and depravity. This state of matters was so clearly proved that an arrangement was agreed to on the part of the vicar (Dance), by which he allowed £60 a year, out of his income £200, to a preacher who should be chosen by certain trustees. Baxter was invited to deliver a sermon before the people, and was unanimously elected as the minister of the place. This happened in April 1641, when he was twenty-six years of age.
His ministry continued, with very considerable interruptions, for about nineteen years; and during that time he accomplished a work of reformation in Kidderminster and the neighbourhood which is as notable as anything of the kind upon record. Civilized behaviour succeeded to brutality of manners; and, whereas the professors of religion had been but small exceptions to the mass, the unreligious people became the exceptions in their turn. He formed the ministers in the country around him into an association for the better fulfilment of the duties of their calling, uniting them together irrespective of their differences as Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Independents. The spirit in which he acted may be judged of from The Reformed Pastor, a book published in relation to the general ministerial efforts he promoted. It drives home the sense of clerical responsibility with extraordinary power. The result of his action is that, to this day his memory is cherished as that of the true apostle of the district where he laboured.
The interruptions to which his Kidderminster life was subjected arose from the condition of things occasioned by the civil war. Baxter blamed both parties, but Worcestershire was a cavalier county, and a man in his position was, while the war continued, exposed to annoyance and danger in a place like Kidderminster. He therefore removed to Gloucester, and afterwards (1643-1645) settled in Coventry, where he preached regularly both to the garrison and the citizens. After the battle of Naseby he took the situation of chaplain to Colonel Whalley’s regiment, and continued to hold it till February 1647. During these stormy years he wrote his Aphorisms of Justification, which on its appearance in 1649 excited great controversy.
Baxter’s connexion with the Parliamentary army was a very characteristic one. He joined it that he might, if possible, counteract the growth of the sectaries in that field, and maintain the cause of constitutional government in opposition to the republican tendencies of the time. He regretted that he had not previously accepted an offer of Cromwell to become chaplain to the Ironsides, being confident in his power of persuasion under the most difficult circumstances. His success in converting the soldiery to his views does not seem to have been very great, but he preserved his own consistency and fidelity in a remarkable degree. By public disputation and private conference, as well as by preaching, he enforced his doctrines, both ecclesiastical and political, and shrank no more from urging what he conceived to be the truth upon the most powerful officers than he did from instructing the meanest followers of the camp. Cromwell disliked his loquacity and shunned his society; but Baxter having to preach before him after he had assumed the Protectorship, chose for his subject the old topic of the divisions and distractions of the church, and in subsequent interviews not only opposed him about liberty of conscience, but spoke in favour of the monarchy he had subverted. There is a striking proof of Baxter’s insight into character in his account of what happened under these circumstances. Of Cromwell he says, “I saw that what he learned must be from himself.” It is worthy of notice that this intercourse with Cromwell occurred when Baxter was summoned to London to assist in settling “the fundamentals of religion,” and made the memorable declaration, in answer to the objection that what he had proposed as fundamental “might be subscribed by a Papist or Socinian,”—“So much the better, and so much the fitter it is to be the matter of concord.” In 1647 he was staying at the home of Lady Rouse of Rouse-Lench, and there, in much physical weakness, wrote a great part of his famous work, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650). On his recovery he returned to his charge at Kidderminster, where he also became a prominent political leader, his sensitive conscience leading him into conflict with almost every one of the contending parties in state and church. His conduct now, as at all times, did “credit to his conscientiousness rather than to his wisdom.”
After the Restoration in 1660 Baxter, who had helped to bring about that event, settled in London. He preached there till the Act of Uniformity took effect in 1662, and was employed in seeking for such terms of comprehension as would have permitted the moderate dissenters with whom he acted to have remained in the Church of England. In this hope he was sadly disappointed. There was at that time on the part of the rulers of the church no wish for such comprehension, and their object in the negotiations that took place was to excuse the breach of faith which their rejection of all reasonable methods of concession involved. The chief good that resulted from the Savoy conference was the production of Baxter’s Reformed Liturgy, a work of remarkable excellence, though it was cast aside without consideration. The same kind of reputation which Baxter had obtained in the country he secured in the larger and more important circle of the metropolis. The power of his preaching was universally felt, and his capacity for business placed him at the head of his party. He had been made a king’s chaplain, and was offered the bishopric of Hereford, but he could not accept the offer without virtually assenting to things as they were. This he could not do, and after his refusal he was not allowed, even before the passing of the Act of Uniformity, to be a curate in Kidderminster, though he was willing to serve that office gratuitously. Bishop Morley even prohibited him from preaching in the diocese of Worcester. Baxter, however, found much consolation in his marriage on the 24th of September 1662 with Margaret Charlton, a woman like-minded with himself. She died in 1681.
From the ejectment of 1662 to the indulgence of 1687, Baxter’s life was constantly disturbed by persecution of one kind or another. He retired to Acton in Middlesex, for the purpose of quiet study, and was dragged thence to prison for keeping a conventicle. The mittimus was pronounced illegal and irregular, and Baxter procured a habeas corpus in the court of common pleas. He was taken up for preaching in London after the licences granted in 1672 were recalled by the king. The meetinghouse which he had built for himself in Oxendon Street was closed against him after he had preached there but once. He was, in 1680, seized in his house, and conveyed away at the risk of his life; and though he was released that he might die at home, his books and goods were distrained. He was, in 1684, carried three times to the sessions house, being scarcely able to stand, and without any apparent cause was made to enter into a bond for £400 in security for his good behaviour.
But his worst encounter was with the chief justice, Sir George Jeffreys, in May 1685. He had been committed to the king’s bench prison on the ridiculous charge of libelling the Church in his Paraphrase on the New Testament, and was tried before Jeffreys on this accusation. The trial is well known as among the most brutal perversions of justice which have occurred in England, though it must be remembered that no authoritative report of the trial exists. If the partisan account on which tradition is based is to be accepted, it would appear that Jeffreys himself acted like an infuriated madman. (See Jeffreys, Sir George.) Baxter was sentenced to pay 500 marks, to lie in prison till the money was paid, and to be bound to his good behaviour for seven years. It was even asserted at the time that Jeffreys proposed he should be whipped at the cart’s tail through London. The old man, for he was now seventy, remained in prison for eighteen months, when the government, vainly hoping to win his influence to their side, remitted the fine and released him.
During the long time of oppression and injury which followed the ejectment, Baxter was sadly afflicted in body. His whole life was indeed one continued illness, but in this part of it his pain and languor had greatly increased. Yet this was the period of his greatest activity as a writer. He was a most voluminous author, his separate works, it is said, amounting to 168. They are as learned as they are elaborate, and as varied in their subjects as they are faithfully composed. Such treatises as the Christian Directory, the Methodus Theologiae Christianae, and the Catholic Theology, might each have occupied the principal part of the life of an ordinary man. His Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter records the virtues of his wife, and reveals on the part of Baxter a tenderness of nature which might otherwise have been unknown. His editors have contented themselves with re-publishing his “Practical Works,” and his ethical, philosophical, historical and political writings still await a competent editor.
The remainder of Baxter’s life, from 1687 onwards, was passed in peace and honour. He continued to preach and to publish almost to the end. He was surrounded by attached friends, and reverenced by the religious world. His saintly behaviour, his great talents, and his wide influence, added to his extended age, raised him to a position of unequalled reputation. He helped to bring about the downfall of James II. and complied with the Toleration Act under William and Mary. He died in London on the 8th of December 1691, and his funeral was attended by churchmen as well as dissenters. A similar tribute of general esteem was paid to him nearly two centuries later, when a statue was erected to his memory at Kidderminster in July 1875.
Baxter was possessed by an unconquerable belief in the power of persuasive argument. He thought every one was amenable to reason—bishops and levellers included. And yet he was as far as possible from being a quarrelsome man. He was at once a man of fixed belief and large appreciation, so that his dogmatism and his liberality sometimes came into collision. His popularity as a preacher was deservedly pre-eminent; but no more diligent student ever shut himself up with his books. He was singularly fitted for intellectual debate, but his devotional tendency was equally strong with his logical aptitude. Some of his writings, from their metaphysical subtilty, will always puzzle the learned; but he could write to the level of the common heart without loss of dignity or pointedness. His Reasons for the Christian Religion is still, for its evidential purpose, better than most works of its kind. His Poor Man’s Family Book is a manual that continues to be worthy of its title. His Saints’ Everlasting Rest will always command the grateful admiration of pious readers. It is also charged with a robust and manly eloquence and a rare and unsought felicity of language that make it a masterpiece of style. Perhaps no thinker has exerted so great an influence upon nonconformity as Baxter has done, and that not in one direction only, but in every form of development, doctrinal, ecclesiastical and practical. He is the type of a distinct class of the Christian ministry—that class which aspires after scholarly training, prefers a broad to a sectarian theology, and adheres to rational methods of religious investigation and appeal. The rational element in him was very strong. He had a settled hatred of fanaticism. Even Quakerism he could scarcely endure. Religion was with him all and in all—that by which all besides was measured, and to whose interests all else was subordinated. Isaac Barrow said that “his practical writings were never minded, and his controversial ones seldom confuted,” and John Wilkins, bishop of Chester, asserted that “if he had lived in the primitive time he had been one of the fathers of the church.”