Tag Archives: Puritan

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.

The Course of Empires: Whig View of History

John-Locke-Second-Treatise-of-Government-Cover-Page    The dissenters had a sharp and heightened view of political tyranny. We are talking about people who were sensitive to the abuse of power. By the 1720s, the Whigs were amassing a body of political thought that linked together political and ecclesiastical tyranny with the accumulation of executive power surrounding the monarch. Looking at the precedents of ancient Athens and Rome, they saw that republican governments tended to be subverted if that republic acquired an empire. The massive colonial administration would bring accumulation of power around an executive, and corruption would quickly set in. There would be buying and selling of offices and privileges. This is what happened to their native England. Its combination of monarchy and parliament was losing its balance of power towards growing executive power and arbitrary privilege. The wealthy Church of England was on the side of this executive power. When it comes to theology, they were not as strict as their Puritan predecessors, but they did share with the Puritans the belief that high-handed monarchial power is always supported by ecclesiastical privilege. Therefore these men of the commonwealth were the champions of the inalienable rights of humanity to life, liberty and property, in the footsteps of John Locke, and the inalienable rights of conscience in the traditions of English religious dissent.

George Marsden writes that “one could hardly overstate the importance of this Commonwealth heritage in shaping American revolutionary political thought.” Most Americans were dissenters. Even those who were Anglicans, like the Virginia gentry, were outsiders to royal privilege. Those who held political or social power in America stood to lose if the full-fledged English system was exported to the colonies. So when the English authorities, after 1763, began to take more interest in reorganizing her new expanded North American colonies, many colonists were understandably alarmed. And they stated their alarm in the terms and language of their Commonwealth or Real Whig heritage. This dissenting tradition would become the basis for the republican outlook that long dominated American political thought.

These fears were compounded by the militant anti-Catholic sentiments of many colonial revolutionaries. In a real sense of sad irony, those who were the champions of freedom and liberty did not extend these natural rights to those who they considered to be their mortal enemies. The Catholic population, who lived mostly in the middle colonies, was often discriminated against and generally tolerated. They were not the problem. Some Catholics, such as the influential Carroll family in Maryland, supported the Revolution and had hopes of making the American Catholic Church more republican. The real problem was that the thirteen English colonies were still Protestant enclaves in a mostly Catholic hemisphere. One could say a cold war mentality lingered. This was especially true in New England, home of the Congregationalists, the Puritans. On multiple occasions in the course of the eighteenth century, amidst much religious fanfare, the men of New England mobilized the militia for military action against French Catholics in Canada. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, they rejoiced that French Canada (Quebec) was finally in British i.e. Protestant hands. But the rejoicing soon ended and they were quite chagrined that the Quebec Act of 1774 the British government of Canada allowed for continued tax support of the Catholic Church and allowed for the continued spread of Catholicism in the trans-Appalachian west (upper Midwest).

Most of the American revolutionaries took for granted a republican (Whig) view of history that had grown out of the British religious and political experience. They associated tyranny with the Middle Ages and the marriage of ecclesiastical and royal power. “Thus,” as John Adams wrote, “was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to the pope and his subordinate tyrants.” Revolutionary thinkers like Adams saw Protestantism as crucial to the rise of freedom. According to this view, Protestantism opened the door for reason and common sense to challenge superstition and privilege. Here and elsewhere dissenting Protestant and Enlightenment views would blend more than they would disagree. Both parties saw superstition as the problem and common-sense reason as the answer. Both saw Catholicism (and to some degree Anglicanism) as defending monarchy and the authoritarianism of the Middle Ages and dissenting Protestantism was on the side of liberty and freedom.