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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

Church Unity and Intercommunion

It is somewhat surprising to find one whose own sensitive and exacting conscience led him to forsake the ministry of the National Church, strongly lamenting the evils of schism. “I am much more sensible,” Baxter declares, “of the evil of schism and of separating humour, and of gathering parties, and making sects in the Church, than I was heretofore. I am deeper afflicted for the disagreements of Christians than I was when I was a younger Christian.” But he declares that the suggested remedy, by the Papists, of “a coming over wholly to their Church” is “neither possible nor desirable.” It is therefore interesting to notice the three proposals which Baxter makes for restoring religious peace and concord.

In accordance with the prevalent Erastian and intolerant spirit of the age he would place all the coercive power about religion in the hands of Christian princes and governors, although he would allow bishops and their courts to act as executive officers in its exercise. He urged that a difference should be made between “approved” and “tolerated” churches, that their respective privileges should be settled by law, and peace be kept between them. The “approved” Churches should be those practising the special form of religion authorized by the State and they should receive maintenance and special encouragement.  “Tolerated” Churches should be those who used the two Sacraments and professed the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Decalogue, and did nothing to disturb the public peace. So far was Baxter from sharing the intolerant exclusiveness so typical of the seventeenth century, that in his consuming passion for unity, he confesses he would be content to live peaceably under a Church modelled on the times of Pope Gregory I before the division of the Greek and Latin Churches.

Popery in the seventeenth century was usually regarded, especially by the Puritans, as anti-Christian, yet we find Baxter not only allowing that “God hath many sanctified ones amongst them who have received the true doctrine of Christianity so practically, that their contradictory errors prevail not against them to hinder the love of God and their salvation”; but he also affirms that the doctrinal differences between Papists and Protestants have been made to appear by “their misexpression and misunderstanding of us, and our mistakings of them and inconvenient expressions of our own opinions, much greater than they are.”  He even suggested the possibility of communion between the Roman and Reformed Churches on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, the three Creeds, and the first four General Councils. But he admits that “nothing will satisfy them but our utter extirpation.”

Contrary to the general view then held, Baxter refused to identify the Papacy with Anti-Christ or to denounce the Roman Church as in no sense a true Church. When we recall the bitter censorious spirit which characterized both the Puritan and the Churchman at this time, we must be struck with the breadth and catholicity of Baxter's views. “I cannot,” he declares, “be so narrow in my principles of Church Communion as many are that are so much for a liturgy or so much against it that they can hold communion with no church that is not of their own mind and way. If I were among the Greeks, the Lutherans, the Independents, yea, the Anabaptists, I could hold sometimes occasional Communion with them as Christians . . . though my most usual Communion should be with that Society which I thought most agreeable to the Word of God, if I were free to choose.”

Baxter had also discovered the great danger of insincerity and hypocrisy which lurked behind the effusive and ostentatious piety of many Puritans of his day.  “I less admire,” he confesses, “gifts of utterance and bare profession of religion than I once did, and have much more charity for many, who by want of gifts do make an obscurer profession. I once thought that almost all that could pray movingly and fluently and talk well of religion, had been saints. But experience hath opened to me what odious crimes may consist with high profession, and I have met with divers obscure persons, not noted for any extraordinary profession or forwardness in religion, but only to live a quiet, blameless life, whom I have after found to have long lived, as far as I could discern, a truly godly and sanctified life, only their prayers and duties were by accident kept secret from other men's observations.”

Baxter was keenly interested in missionary work. He had been largely instrumental in obtaining in I 663 the restoration of the original Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, and he says that no part of his prayers are so deeply serious as “that for the conversion of the infidel and ungodly world, that God's name might be sanctified and His Kingdom come and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  “Could we but go among Tartariamy Turks and heathens and speak their language, I should be little troubled for the silencing of 1,800 ministers in England, nor for the rest that were cast out here, there being no employment in the world so desirable in my eyes as to labour for the winning of such miserable souls.”

We can truly say that the eternal value of the human soul was the consuming thought in Baxter's life and ministry. In fact J. H. Jowett's heart-searching and inspiring book, The Passion for Souls, might well describe Baxter's whole career. It was evidenced not only in his unceasing preaching but in his diligent and self-denying pastoral labours. And the wonderful results of his Kidderminster ministry were due to his realization of his Master's assertion,  “This kind cometh not out but by prayer and fasting.”  The wall in his church near his pew, was, we are told, discoloured through the constant of this consecrated servant of God.

The conversion of England, now so longed for, would be nearer realization if all ministers possessed Baxter's zeal.  “True pastors and bishops of the Church,” he declares, “do thirst after the conversion and happiness of sinners; not regarding worldly wealth and glory in comparison with the winning of one soul.” Again:  “I had rather serve in the Gospel and at the altar of my Lord, and be called dog and Devil, so He will but go on to bless my labours, than to he bowed to and honoured by all the world and be swelled with riches and titles.”  Such whole-hearted devotion, whether of a Baxter or of a St. Francis, will never lack the blessing of God.

This short sketch of Baxter's career, character, and teaching should serve, even to-day, as an example and inspiration to us. It should enable us the better to thank God for his great courage and for his wonderful life of service and selfsacrifice.  We shall also be able to appreciate more fully the

faith and personal experience expressed in the words of his still popular hymn, “Lord, it belongs not to my care” (which became fully true for him on December 8th, 1691), when he says :

Then shall I end my sad complaints,
And weary sinful days,
And join with the triumphant saints
That sing Jehovah's praise.
My knowledge of that life is small,
The eye of faith is dim ;
But 'tis enough that Christ knows all,
And I shall be with Him.

 

 

 

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Richard Baxter
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Early Life

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