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The Reformed Pastor: Richard Baxter (1615-1691)

NPG D681,Richard Baxter,by; after Jonathan Spilsbury; John Riley

Richard Baxter represents Puritanism at its very best. He was born at Rowton, Shropshire on November 12, 1615, he lived through one of the stormiest and most creative periods in English history. Baxter was an English Puritan church leader, poet, hymn-writer, theologian and controversialist.   He made his reputation by his ministry at Kidderminster and at that same time started a long and prolific career as theological writer. Baxter served as a chaplain in the Parliamentary Army during the English Civil War. He was very distrustful of King Charles I but had little love for Oliver Cromwell (who avoided him). Baxter lived through the Commonwealth and played a leading part in the recall of Charles II.

After the Restoration, of which he took a major role, he returned to his parish at Kidderminster. He actually declined an invitation to become bishop of Hereford, due to the fact that he could not in good conscience accept the requirement that episcopal ordination was essential for the Christian ministry. Nor could he state that the Book of Common Prayer was perfect and beyond criticism and that he would not seek its revision. So, along with 1,800 others, he with much sadness became a nonconformist, and suffered much persecution, distraint and imprisonment. But he became one of the most influential of the nonconformist camp.

Baxter was a learned man with a wide-ranging curiosity and an eager interest in all that was happening around him-politics, science and literature. Yet above all he was a zealous pastor and preacher. His zealousness stemmed from his belief that his precarious health presaged an early death. His parish ministry at Kidderminster was one of the most noteworthy in church history. The most bitter fruit of his nonconformity was that he was forbidden to preach. Baxter believed in a moderate episcopacy and an ordered liturgy and he tried to take the middle path between the two camps. This resulted in him taking fire from both sides. His eagerness would often overcome his tact and even when he made attempts to promote reconciliation his olive branches were apt to be fired from a catapult, as a contemporary of his commented. Baxter played a great part in the political, theological, and religious life of England, and the influence of his writings was powerful for generations after his death in 1691.

Richard Baxter wrote 168 separate works including his Autobiography. The most famous and influential was The Reformed Pastor written in 1655, at the age of 41. By the term ‘reformed’ he did not mean Protestant. Rather he meant recalled to faithful service. “If God would but reform the ministry, ‘ he wrote, ‘and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed. All churches either rose or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall (not in riches or worldly grandeur) but in knowledge, zeal, and ability for their work.” This is indeed the theme of this work. And that the ministry was in sad need of reform during the seventeenth century is borne out by much evidence.

It has been said that Baxter was not just an upholder of lofty ideals but also offered helpful practical advice from an experienced minister in the conduct of congregational life. This little book has searched the hearts of Christian pastors and rekindled the flame of service for over three hundred and fifty years. One editor has written, “Behind his criticism and advice lies the experience and authority of his remarkable ministry at Kidderminster. He reproaches some of his brother ministers with being dull and drowsy preachers. At least there is no drowsiness here. The book blazes with white hot zeal, evangelistic passion, and eagerness to convince his readers. And he still has much to say to us.” Here are some quotes from the work:

To the lay reader: “Entertain not any unworthy thoughts of your pastors, because we here confess our own sins. You know it is men and not angels that are put by God in the office of church guides; and you know that we are imperfect men.”

“Though we teach our people, as officers over them in the Lord, yet we may teach one another, as brethren in office, as well as in faith…We have the same sins to kill and the same graces to be quickened and corroborated, as our people have.”

“See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. Take heed to yourselves lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach…Take heed to yourselves lest you perish while you call upon others to take heed of perishing.”

All the flock, even each individual member of our charge, must be taken heed of and watched over by us in our ministry. To which end it is necessary that we should know every person that belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed to them if we do not know them?”

“Maintain your innocency, and walk without offense. Let your lives condemn sin, and persuade men to duty. Would you have your people be more careful of their souls, then you will be of yours?”

On September 24, 1662, he married Margaret Charlton, a like-minded woman. She died in 1681. Baxter wrote the the words for the hymn Ye Holy Angels Bright in that same year.

Richard Baxter died on December 8, 1691 in London at the age of 76. His funeral was attended by churchmen as well as Dissenters. He is commemorated on December 8.