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 Issues | Church History | Richard Baxter

 

Great Churchmen (No 12)

Richard Baxter

by C Sydney Carter

Published by Church Book Room Press

Kidderminster Pastorate

In 1639 he became Assistant Minister at Bridgenorth and in 1641 he was unanimously chosen as Lecturer at Kidderminster, where the Vicar was leading a negligent and careless life. Baxter describes the people as “ignorant, rude and revelling” and their moral condition as bad. It was a town of weavers, with no rich people. His ministry at once produced a great change in the town, and although his sermons were an hour long and always read from a manuscript, great crowds flocked to hear him, whereas before barely one person in each street had attended church. Five new galleries were erected for their accommodation. His method was to instruct the mind and then appeal to the conscience. He made a deep impression on the youth, although he incurred the hostility of the vicious and ungodly. In the great political struggle then so acute, Baxter threw in his lot with the Parliament, because he regarded the sovereign power of the people as superior to that of the King. But he was a Constitutionalist and had no desire to overthrow the King or abolish the House of Lords. The course of the Civil War compelled him to retire to Gloucester and later on to Worcester, and again to Coventry, where he was able to preach, He spent two-and-a-half years in this latter town, and then moved to Naseby. Here he was unpleasantly surprised to find in Cromwell's “Model Army” a number of “sectaries” who were anxious to subvert “Church and State”. In order to counteract this influence Baxter soon after accepted the post of Army Chaplain in the Parliamentary forces with the hope of arresting “the corruption of the Army”. But his ministry was not welcomed by the Sectaries or the Cromwell “hotheads”. Baxter found himself quite out of harmony with the extravagant and fanatical opinions which were now rife among the soldiers. Besides Independents, Anabaptists and Antinomians, he found “Seekers, Ranters, Behmenists and Vanists” - “fiery hot men hatched among the old Separatists, fierce with pride and conceit and uncharitableness, great preachers, but of no settled principles of religion”. Baxter followed the Parliamentary Army to the West, but this roving life sadly undermined his feeble health, which soon completely broke down; and so, much to his sorrow, his Army career ended in 1646. His period of enforced leisure was, however, most profitably employed, in spite of his serious illness, in writing his famous Saints’ Everlasting Rest.

In 1647 he was so far recovered that he was able to return to his ministerial labours at Kidderminster. His fifteen years' ministry here was nothing less than apostolic and certainly marks him off as one of the greatest saints of the seventeenth century. Like the great Apostle, he was “in labours more abundant, in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in fastings often”. He certainly pleased not himself but became the servant of all. His zeal and self-sacrifice were unfailing. The love and disinterested devotion with which he carried out his pastoral duties remind us of the ministry of George Herbert of Bemerton, whom Baxter eulogizes as one “who speaks to God like a man that really believes in God and whose business in the world is most with God”. This testimony exactly describes Baxter himself. His generosity and selflessness were Christlike. Like Fletcher of Madeley, in the next century, he refused livings worth £500 a year and lived on £90 a year, a great part of which he gave away to the poor; and he even helped to maintain scholars at the University. By his own example he illustrated George Herbert's lines - “Gold and Gospel never did agree, Religion sides always with poverty”. The sequestered “scandalous” old Vicar was permitted by Baxter to reside in the Vicarage, was given his “Fifths” of £40 a year, and was even allowed to preach occasionally.

Baxter's earnest evangelical and practical sermons drew his parishioners in crowds to hear him. He wisely held “that the plainest words were the profitablest oratory in weightiest matters”, and that especially “with ignorant people we can't speak too plainly”, He spent many hours a week in visiting and individually catechizing the members of his flock and in stressing the importance of “open confession for open sins”. Copies of the Catechism were delivered to every family, and later the Minister called and questioned the parishioner. This personal dealing had great results, even more than his heart-searching preaching.

His knowledge of medicine also often enabled Baxter to relieve the bodily ailments of his flock.

He preached on Sundays and Thursdays, and every first Wednesday of the month a meeting was held for parish discipline. In addition, he had a lecture and prayer-meeting in his own house on Thursday. Days of humiliation, long letters of reproof or exhortation, besides hours spent in his abundant literary labours, are a record sufficiently exacting for a strong man. But Baxter was in constant bodily suffering which he used as a special warning to speak to sinners “as a dying man to dying men”. He acquired great fame as a preacher. In 1655 he preached to large audiences at St. Paul's and at St. Martin's-in-the-Fields, and when he preached at St. Lawrence Jewry and at Westminster Abbey there was no standing room.

Baxter regarded Cromwell as a Usurper and was obstinately prejudiced against him as a “mixture of piety, hypocrisy and ambition”; yet he frankly testified to the beneficent results of the stricter Commonwealth ministry. Indeed, he asserted that godliness and holy living were ten times as great as before. “I do not believe”, he wrote, “that ever England had as able and faithful a ministry since it was a nation as it hath this day.”  But Baxter had nothing in common with the long-faced “kill joy” Puritan. He was a full believer in a joyous Christian faith. “Keep company”, he urges, “with the cheerful sort of the godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers”

It was during his ministry at Kidderminster that Baxter formed the Worcester Association of Ministers in his passionate desire to promote visible church unity and to establish some worthy form of church discipline. He deplored the prevalent sectarian spirit. But his efforts, at that very controversial and intolerant period, met with little success. No Presbyterians or Independents would join his Association. Nearly twenty years later he uttered a lament which other pioneers and enthusiasts in this Christlike cause would re-echo, when he says: “The poor Church of Christ, the sober sound religious part, are like Christ that was crucified between two malefactors. The profane and formal persecutors on the one hand and the fanatic dividing sectary on the other, have in all ages been grinding the spiritual seed as corn is ground between the millstones.”

However, Baxter did not feel that his monthly meetings in different towns to discuss a uniform system of discipline with the Independents, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians, were all wasted. Writing to his former parishioners in later years, he recalls the happy memories of those days as a great comfort. “How willingly,” he says, “you received the word of truth, how peaceably you all lived, without any schism or separated meeting, or any erroneous sect, and how all the attempts of Anabaptists and Quakers, etc., never to my knowledge prevailed to the perverting of any among you. It rejoices me to think, how by your concord and freedom from heresy and schism, living in love and unity, your example confuteth those that would now persuade the ignorant that there was nothing but schism and confusion in those times . . . as also in what comfortable order we did live, and how willingly many hundreds of you submitted to church discipline. But yet it comforteth me more to remember what society I had there with humble, I peaceable, painful ministers of Christ, how lovingly we met together. . . . How free those ministers were from all heresy, schism, contention and difference with one another, never engaging in any faction or dividing party, but holding communion with all true Christians on the terms of primitive simplicity, purity and love.”  It is perhaps permissible to wonder if Baxter did not view these earlier experiences through rather rose-coloured spectacles, since they are in direct conflict with his former sad reflection on the divided state of “the poor Church of Christ”.

There is, however, no doubt that he possessed a perfect passion for harmony, peace and concord amongst Christians. “Labour,” he finely says, “to be as skilful in the work of pacifying and agreeing men, as most are in the work of I dividing and disagreeing. Know it to be part of your Catholic work to be peacemakers, and therefore study how to do it as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed. Be sure that you see the true state of the controversy and distinguish I all that is merely verbal from that which is material . . . and that which is about inferior truths, though mighty, from that which is about the essentials of Christianity. . . , Especially learn the master duty of self-denial, for it is self that is the greatest enemy to Catholicism.”  “The members of the Catholic Church,” he says again, “are united. They have but one God, one Saviour, one Mediator, one Holy Ghost dwelling in them, and they are animated by this one Spirit.”

 

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