The Narrative of a Remarkable Puritan Romance
An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. (Proverbs 31:10)
Richard Baxter, the tireless, heavenly minded Puritan minister of the seventeenth century, was a confirmed bachelor,1 devoting himself completely to the ministry of the gospel in Kidderminster, England. When going there in 1641 the parish was notorious for godlessness and debauchery. However the soul-searching preaching, under the convicting and regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, wrought a remarkable change in the town. By the time of his departure some nineteen years later, one could walk down the streets at night and hear family worship being conducted in nearly every home. Baxter’s work was tireless,2 including not only pastoral visitation but extensive writing, preaching, and the practice of primitive medicine. No real doctor lived in the town for many years.
In 1657, after Baxter had been in Kidderminster for sixteen years, young Margaret Charlton moved there from nearby Apley Castle, with her mother, Mary Hanmer. Mary was from aristocratic stock. Her first husband had died when Margaret was only six years old and her second husband died during a siege of their castle in 1644 at the hands of Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentary army which was fighting against Charles I. Apley Castle was less than twenty miles from Kidderminster and no doubt Mary had heard of Baxter’s remarkable ministry. She decided that she would put herself under his preaching ministry. Within a few weeks, young, beautiful though frivolous Margaret, aged 21, came to live with her mother and also began to sit under Baxter’s preaching. It was not long before Margaret began to be concerned about her soul, putting off her love for extravagance in the form of expensive clothing, realizing her lost condition, and eventually gaining an assurance of her eternal salvation. Margaret began to show remarkable growth in her walk with Christ, recording in her journal words of supreme devotion to him. However in December, 1659, at the age of twenty-three she became deathly ill (probably tuberculosis) and her pastor urged the congregation to pray and fast for her healing and deliverance. God heard their prayers and in April, 1660, a service of thanksgiving was conducted by Baxter for Margaret. A few days after this, Baxter was summoned to London and urged to support the call of Charles II from exile. Cromwell had died a year or so earlier and many believed the time was ripe for the restoration of the crown in England. Later Baxter regretted his support of Charles II and suffered dearly for it.
Through the journal entries of young Margaret, it is clear that she had fallen in love with her pastor who was twenty years older than she. She tried for so long to repress these feelings, reminding herself that devotion to Christ must have no rival, that ‘creature comforts, though they may be roses, have pricks or thorns.’ She constantly chastised her carnal heart, telling herself that love to God alone was transcendent. Shortly after Baxter left for London, Margaret and her mother followed him there, taking a residence not far from where he regularly preached, and attended his ministry. Did Baxter know of Margaret’s affection for him? It seems so, because he gently but firmly told her that coming to London was an idle deed. At some point (and we don’t know exactly when) Baxter began having feelings for Margaret. This must have been a shock to him and terribly disconcerting. He had always believed that marriage was unnecessary for him, that it would take his heart away from supreme devotion to Christ. When Mary, Margaret’s mother, died unexpectedly in the winter of 1661, who better to comfort the grieving daughter than Baxter, her pastor and friend! Soon they were seen everywhere together and this became quite a scandal in London – the confirmed bachelor, the great man of God, twice her age, was in love with the beautiful, out-going, and wealthy Margaret Charlton!
Baxter still resisted marriage as long as possible, fighting the conflict in his own heart, believing that he had far too much to do in the Kingdom of God, not wanting anything to curb his zeal. But the loving affection only grew between them. Finally, in August, 1662 the Act of Uniformity came down from Charles II, requiring all ministers in England to submit to the regulations of the Book of Common Prayer. Baxter and some two thousand Puritan preachers (Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists) refused and were ejected from their pulpits, forced to live in penury, imprisonment, and squalid living conditions for the rest of their lives. But now that Baxter was not allowed to preach, he believed he had the time available to marry this young woman who had stolen his heart. So on September 10, 1662, forty-six year old Richard Baxter married twenty-six year old Margaret Charlton, and theirs was a marriage made in heaven.
Immediately Baxter was harassed by the British government, arrested and imprisoned on several occasions. For the first ten years of their marriage Richard and Margaret lived on the run from the authorities, sleeping in cold, damp farm houses, eating whatever they could find, living among the poor. Not once, according to Baxter, did Margaret who was born with so much, complain. In fact she did all she could to encourage him. When the persecution lifted for a season, she rented a large room for her husband to use in his preaching. Hundreds came to hear him. Soon, however, the persecution would start anew and they were once again on the run. She freely gave of her wealth and health in support of her husband. Baxter says that Margaret suffered what we would now call migraine headaches two or three days every two weeks; and had often been given over to depression for many years. However, as she continued to grow in Christ and as her marriage flourished in hardship, this depression all but left her.
The difficult living conditions – the poor diet and damp places of residence – finally took their toll on Margaret and she died at the age of forty-five, after having been married for only nineteen years. Richard Baxter would live another ten years, but never remarried, and was exposed to persistent suffering, persecution, and imprisonment. Shortly after her death, he wrote a tribute to Margaret. He said, ‘I know not that she ever came to any place where she did not extraordinarily win the love of the inhabitants.’ She was winsome, kind, and gracious, one who brought her husband out of his introverted and studious tendencies. She displayed remarkable spiritual insight and wisdom and her husband was able to say, ‘She was better at resolving a case of conscience than all the divines (pastors, theologians) that ever I knew in all my life.’ May this brand of God-centred love and affection mark all our marriages!
- Baxter at Kidderminster said, ‘The work of the sacred ministry is enough to take up the whole man.’
- He along with his associate spent two full days each week, taking between them fourteen families, and fully catechizing them, praying for them, instructing them in the Biblical faith. See Makers of Puritan History, Marcus L. Loane, page 178. The full essence of Baxter’s methodology is found in his classic entitled The Reformed Pastor.
Rev. Allen M Baker is Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.
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