December 8 – Richard Baxter

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Richard Baxter, faithful servant

Richard Baxter, born in Shropshire in England on 12 November 1615, was one of the most learned and well-read divines of the seventeenth century. His family’s impoverished circumstances saw him brought up by his maternal grandparents until the age of about ten. It is in his Reliquiae Baxteriannae, or Mr Richard Baxter’s narrative of the most memorable passages of his life and times published posthumously in 1696, that Baxter reflected upon his upbringing.

Baxter’s mother Beatrice had died when he was just 15, and he was greatly affected by his father, Richard Baxter’s ‘serious speeches of God and life to come’. His father encouraged him to read, especially the Bible, and so ‘without any means but Books’ Baxter’s spirituality developed, and God was ‘pleased to resolve me for himself’. Baxter’s education was indifferent, and yet his keen intellect and application saw him acquire a great knowledge and understanding of theological debates and controversies. A constant regret throughout his life, however, was his ‘wanting’ of ‘Academical Honours’ as he was persuaded at 16 against attending university. Yet his wide and voracious reading of books and pamphlets over his lifetime nourished his intellect and debating skills. He amassed a personal library at the time of his death of no fewer that 1400 books.

Although ordained a deacon on 23 December 1638 at Worcester, there is no record of any subsequent ordination, however it is assumed he did enter the ministry. His impressive oratory style of preaching demonstrated his ability to gather and built congregations of like-minded Christians around him.

It was in the early 1660s that Baxter met Margaret Charlton (1636-1681), and corresponded with her on spiritual matters. They were married on 10 September 1662. Margaret Baxter would prove to be a driving force in Baxter’s life and ministry. During the civil wars in the British Isles 1642-9, Baxter had sided with the Parliamentarians, and although refusing an offer made by Oliver Cromwell to be a Chaplain of his troop in the New Model Army, Baxter later would act as a Chaplain for Edward Walley’s regiment. Even after the Restoration (1660), when he was prosecuted for sedition and briefly imprisoned, he maintained his beliefs and continued preaching, and was supported and encouraged in all of this by Margaret.

These life experiences further developed Baxter’s emphasis on morals and grace within his ministry, as well as his desire to seek unity amongst Christians of differing persuasions. Baxter also took great spiritual enjoyment and comfort from psalm singing. He was an advocate for the composition of hymns to enable congregational singing, at a time when only psalms were set to music. In Saints Everlasting Rest (1650) Baxter considered that ‘a singular help to furthering of the work of Faith’ was ‘to call in our Senses to its assistance’. His poem ‘Ye holy angels bright’, from his text ‘A Psalm of Praise’ from Poetical Fragments (c1681) was set to the music of the 136th and 148th psalms respectively from the early eighteenth century onwards.

Baxter’s life-long ill-health, which on a number of occasions saw him ‘expecting to be so quickly in another World’, influenced both his evangelical approach to his preaching and his pastoral ministry. He not only joined in common prayer, but also preached at home to those in his household including his neighbours. 

Baxter published some 130 volumes on varying themes ranging from the art of writing and preaching sermons, and religious instruction, to the study of religion. He received no income from his prolific publications, preferring instead to receive free copies that he then gave away. Some of his works continue to be reprinted today. When Margret died aged 45 in 1681 Baxter wrote A Breviate of the Life of Margaret Baxter (1681), which was a moving tribute about her life. Baxter died ten years later on 8 December 1691, aged 76, and was buried, like his wife, in Christ Church Greyfriars, London.

Dolly MacKinnon