“The Zeal Of Richard Baxter”
I will outline Baxter’s life and then highlight his zeal, first by his exceptional pastoral work at Kidderminster, then as expressed in his classic work The Reformed Pastor.
A sketch of his life
Richard Baxter was born in 1615. Unlike almost all the better known English Puritan ministers he did not enjoy an education at Oxford or Cambridge Universities. He attended the modest Donnington Free School. Thereafter he was self taught. An avid reader he studied widely in a variety of subjects. In this way he became a man of exceptional knowledge and debating ability. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Worcester in 1638. For a brief time, 1641-1642, he worked as lecturer and curate at Kidderminster. In 1642 the country was embroiled in civil war. Richard served as a chaplain in the Parliamentary army until 1647 and then returned to Kidderminster as vicar. He served there until 1661. These fourteen years, aged 32 to 46, were remarkable because of the spiritual transformation wrought in the town. So blessed was that place that Kidderminster became a landmark in English evangelical history.
Toward the end of his time in Kidderminster a widow by the name of Mary Hanmer came to stay in the town in order to benefit from Baxter’s ministry. She was accompanied by her sixteen year old daughter Margaret who was worldly and indifferent to the gospel. Over the next four years Margaret was affected by the ministry and at the age of twenty was converted. She had in the process fallen in love with Richard who regarded celibacy as ideal for a minister. This he proclaimed with enthusiasm, a view in strong contrast with the English Puritans who affirmed strongly the biblical doctrine of marriage and the family. When Richard left Kidderminster to live in London in 1660 where he used what influence he could exert to gain a fair deal for the Puritans, Mary and her daughter Margaret followed him and lived nearby. The Act of Uniformity passed by Parliament in 1662 was rigid and violently against the consciences of the Puritans. It drove them out of the Church of England. About 2,000 Puritan ministers suffered the loss of their livings in what is historically called the Great Ejection. This of course included Baxter. Richard’s life was devastated. Now his raison d’être was cruelly stripped away. He was a natural pastor – without a parish; a born preacher – without a pulpit. His justification for celibacy was gone. He married Margaret on 19th September 1662. Now Margaret was always there for him; comforting him, caring for him in his frequent illnesses, shouldering all the practical concerns of his life. Living with Margaret was the chief consolation enjoyed by Baxter during the following grim years. The rest of Baxter’s life was one of harassment. He was imprisoned for about a week in Clerkenwell in 1669 and for 21 months at Southwark 1685-1686. He never enjoyed robust health and had to contend with serious bouts of illness.
In November 1672 Baxter preached openly for the first time in ten years. Margaret (1636-1681) generously put her considerable inheritance to use to ensure that Richard exercised an effective public ministry. She hired a public hall which could seat 800 in one of the most needy parts of London and employed a staff to assist Richard in his ministry.
During the times of exclusion from public ministry Richard used his time to write. His writings exceed those of John Owen for extent. Unlike Owen who is probably the best ever theologian in the English language, Baxter was Neonomian and Amyraldian. Sadly this caused theological confusion in the next generation or two.1 Readers of his three classic works The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, being an exposition of heaven, A Call to the Unconverted and The Reformed Pastor will not spot these errors. Baxter is easier to read than Owen. His most extensive writing is called A Christian Directory which covers every aspect of Christian living from a practical point of view. It is in practical application of the Scriptures that we see Baxter at his best. He possessed a tremendous gift for constraining and compelling the conscience to obedience.
Richard was always zealous about missionary work. He was a prime mover in the establishment of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. John Eliot, famous as ‘the apostle to the American Indians’, found in Richard Baxter a sterling supporter. In his last illness in 1691 Baxter read the Life of Eliot and wrote to Increase Mather the author, ‘I thought I had been near dying at twelve o’clock in bed; but your book revived me. I knew much of Mr Eliot’s opinions by many letters which I received from him. There was no man on earth I honoured above him. It is his evangelical work that is the apostolic succession for which I plead.’
Zealous Evangelism in Kidderminster
As a pastor Baxter was supreme. The success of the gospel in Kidderminster under his leadership is unique. It is hard to find anything in English evangelical history to compare with it.
The town consisted of about 800 homes and a population of between 2000 and 4000 people. Baxter found that they were ‘an ignorant, rude and revelling people’. An amazing change took place. ‘When I first entered on my labours I took special notice of every one that was humbled, reformed or converted; but when I had laboured long, it pleased God that the converts were so many, that I could not afford time for such particular observations; families and considerable numbers at once came in and grew up I scarce knew how.’ Baxter’s method was to visit house by house and to be very direct in the matter of knowing God with saving faith.
The building held 1000. Five galleries were added to accommodate the congregations.
When Baxter came to this poor town where weaving was the principal industry it was a spiritual wilderness. When he left it was a beautiful, well-tended garden. ‘On the Lord’s days, you might hear an hundred families singing psalms and repeating sermons as you passed through the streets. When I first came there, only about one family in a street worshipped God and called on his name, and when I left there were some streets where there was not a family which did not do so in that they professed serious godliness which gave us hope of their sincerity.’
Later Baxter could write: ‘Though I have now been absent from them for about six years, and they have been assaulted with pulpit-calumnies and slanders, with threatenings, yet they stand fast and keep their integrity. Many of them have gone to God, some are removed and some in prison, but not one that I hear of have fallen off, nor forsaken their uprightness.’ When, in December 1743, George Whitefield visited Kidderminster he wrote to a friend: ‘I was greatly refreshed to find what a sweet savour of good Mr Baxter’s doctrine, works and discipline remained to this day.’
The main difference between Baxter and most other pastors, then and now, is that he combined personal direct witness, one on one, with preaching. Too often pastors are content to confine their gospel witness to the pulpit. Baxter’s attitude and practice comes out clearly in his book The Reformed Pastor.
Richard Baxter and his book The Reformed Pastor
The members of the Worcester Association, the clerical fraternity of which Baxter was the moving spirit, had committed themselves to adopt the policy of systematic parochial catechising on Baxter’s plan. They fixed a day of fasting and prayer, to seek God’s blessing on the undertaking, and asked Baxter to preach. When the day came, however, Baxter was too ill to go: so he published the material he had prepared, a thorough exposition and application of Acts 20:28. It bore the title The Reformed Pastor and was published in 1656. It turned out to be a famous book and has been used in every generation up to the present time. For instance the Banner of Truth edition with a superb introduction by J I Packer appeared in 1974 and editions have followed in 1979, 1983, 1989, 1994, 1997, 1999 and 2001.
The word ‘Reformed’ in the title does not mean Calvinistic in doctrine, but renewed in practice. This treatise is spiritual dynamite and was recognised as such from its inception. In the month after its publication a correspondent wrote, ‘O man greatly beloved! The Lord has revealed his secret things to you, for which many thousand souls in England, shall rise up and bless God for you.’
This has proved to be correct. Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor is still the best manual for the pastor’s duty in the English language. Nothing has exceeded its power and effectiveness. It is a must for every pastor.
J I Packer in the Banner of Truth edition, suggests that its energy and evocative power leaps across three centuries. He describes three outstanding qualities.
The first is its energy. ‘Its words have hands and feet.’ Baxter had piercing eyes and he certainly had piercing words. ‘His book blazes with white hot zeal, evangelistic fervour, and eagerness to convince.’
The second quality is that the book has reality. ‘it is honest and straight. It is often said, quite fairly, that any Christian who seriously thinks that without Christ men are lost, and who seriously loves his neighbour, will not be able to rest for the thought that all around him people are going to hell, but will lay himself out unstintingly to convert others as his prime task in life: and any Christian who fails so to live undermines the credibility of his faith. For if he himself cannot take it seriously as a guide for living, why should anyone else? Nowhere is this consistency more forcefully exposed than in The Reformed Pastor: for here we meet a passionate love and a terribly honest, earnest, straightforward Christian, thinking and talking about the lost with perfect realism, insisting that we must be content to accept any degree of discomfort, poverty, overwork and loss of material good, if only souls might be saved, and setting us a marvellously vivid example in his own person of what this may involve.’
Third, the book is a model of rationality. By this I take Packer to mean that it makes sense. Responsibility is spelled out clearly. ‘Grace enters by the understanding.’ Baxter insisted that ministers must preach about eternal issues as men who feel what they say, and are earnest about matters of eternal life and death. He also insisted that church discipline be practised to show that God will not accept sin.
In his exposition of Acts 20:28 Baxter expounds the exhortation, ‘Keep watch over yourselves.’ He then opens up the meaning of what it is to watch all the sheep of the flock. He begins with the unconverted and includes them in his sights. He then exhorts to careful oversight of families and insists that we must be faithful in admonishing offenders. As to the manner in which oversight is to be maintained this must be with plainness and simplicity, with humility, with a mixture of severity and mildness, with seriousness, earnestness and zeal, with tender love to our people, with patience, reverence and spirituality, with earnest desires for success and with a deep sense of our own insufficiency. Finally he calls for labouring in unity with other ministers of the gospel which is exceedingly important today when divisions are maintained for less than biblical reasons.
The zeal of Richard Baxter blazes in this book. His exhortations ring with sincerity because he practised what he preached. Like a military officer he led his soldiers into battle. He did not give commands from a safety zone.
The manner in which Baxter addressed people in public or in private is reflected in his book A Call to the Unconverted 20,000 copies of which were sold in the first year and which was translated into a number of languages. The text opened up is Ezekiel 33:1: ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they may turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ This text from Ezekiel in its pathos is very much like the burning zeal which the Holy Spirit engendered in Richard Baxter.
For a discussion of Baxter’s doctrinal divergence see Iain Murray in the 1991 Westminster Conference Papers.
Reformation Today, Jan-Feb 2005
On Eagles’ Wings January 20, 2023
In Exodus 19:4 God says that he bore his people on eagles’ wings. What does that mean? It’s a picture he returns to in Deuteronomy 32:11, where he says he dealt with Israel Like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over its young, spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on […]
A Pastoral Mistake January 19, 2023
I often make the same pastoral mistake. It is not deliberate, it is often well-intentioned, sometimes it is even hopeful. It is this: to presume upon the biblical knowledge of the people to whom I speak. I do not at all mean by this to deliver a backhanded insult, appearing to confess a shortcoming of […]