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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

Literary Achievements

The record of Baxter's literary achievements is amazing. Bishop Burnet reports that “he wrote near two hundred books, and many of these large folios, and if he had not meddled in too many things he would have been esteemed one of the learned men of the age.”   He put forth treatises on Church and civil government, as well as a long and erudite ecclesiastical history, works on Christian evidences, Church unity, and controversial topics. In spite of his want of a University education the range of his reading was immense and most comprehensive. As Sir James Stephen said, “He proposed to himself and executed the task of exploring the whole circle of the moral sciences; logic, ethics, divinity, politics, and metaphysics. And this toil he accomplished amidst public employments of ceaseless importunity and bodily pains almost uninterrupted.”

Baxter's excuse for his numerous books and tracts was his burning desire to deliver his “message”; and as the pulpit was denied him his only chance of teaching and witnessing was by his pen. Not only to have witnessed, but to have been actively associated with and seriously affected by all the sudden and violent changes that occurred during the stormy period of the seventeenth century, was an experience likely to have produced a profound and lasting impression on a mind given to serious reflection. That such was its effect on Baxter is abundantly clear from the perusal of the masterly “Self-Review” which he introduces into his Life and Times.  Dean Stanley well described the latter as “that admirable summary of Christian experience which ought to be in the hands of every student of ecclesiastical history, one might well add of every student of theology, of every minister of religion. . . . See how he there corrects the narrowness, the sectarianism, the dogmatism of his youth by the comprehensive wisdom acquired in long years of persecution, labour and devotion.”  Consequently if the accounts given in contemporary history of Baxter's conduct are apt to leave us with the impression of him as an intolerant, censorious and dogmatical Puritan, we find that the severe discipline through which he passed and the unjust persecutions which he endured had the unusual and remarkable effect of softening and moulding his character, so that he appears later as a conspicuous advocate of humility, charity, and toleration. Although in the extent and depth of his knowledge he had probably few superiors, yet in this “Self-Review” Baxter frankly confesses

that the mistakes and shortcomings of his earlier writings are due “to his unfurnished mind or his emptiness or insufficiency.”

“I am more sensible,” he says, “that most controversies have more need of right stating than of debating.” And he thus deplores his youthful ardour in stirring up religious controversies, since he says, “I did not sufficiently discern then how much in most of our controversies is verbal and upon mutual mistakes. . . . I knew not how hardly men's minds are changed from their former apprehensions, be the evidence never so plain.” He also discovered that “nothing so much hindereth the reception of the truth so much as urging it on men with too harsh importunity and falling too heavily on their errors.”  He learnt the invaluable lesson of endeavouring to find points of agreement with others rather than those of difference.  “I am much more sensible than ever,” he says, “of the necessity of living upon principles of religion which we are all agreed in, and uniting these, and how much mischief men that overvalue their own opinions have done by their controversies in the Church. How some have destroyed charity, some caused schisms, most have hindered godliness in themselves and others and used them to divert men from the serious prosecuting of a holy life.”  “That church is happy,” he says, “where all are in Christ's School in the distinct ranks of teachers and learners, for in a learning way men arc ready to receive the truth, but in a disputing way they come armed against it with prejudice and animosity.”  If these obvious truths had always been realized, the pages of Church history in every age could have been delivered from many unsavoury records.

“In my youth,” says Baxter, “I was running up into a multitude of controversies and greatly delighted with metaphysical and scholastic writings. Now it is the fundamental doctrines of the Catechism which I highest value, and daily think of and find most useful to myself and others. The Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments do find me now the most acceptable and plentiful matter for all my meditations ; they are to me as my daily bread and drink, and as I can speak and write of them over and over again, so I had rather read or hear of them than of any of the School niceties which once so much pleased me. I find,” he adds, “in the daily practice and experience of my soul, that the knowledge of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit and the truth of Scripture and of a holy life is of more use to me than all the most serious speculations. . . . My daily trouble now is for my ignorance of and want of a greater love to God . . . and I see more need that I should look oftener upon Christ, God and heaven than upon my own heart.” He mentions “by way of penitent confession” that in controversial writings he had been too much inclined to use words “which are too keen and apt to provoke the person whom I write against.” Such pious and charitable sentiments seem more suited to the devout Catholic churchman than to the contentious Puritan nonconformist of the seventeenth century.


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