English Puritan church leader, poet, hymnodist, and theologian, Richard Baxter sadly died 8 December 1691. He was born born12 November 1615 in Rowton, Shropshire, and baptised at High Ercall. In February 1626 he went to his parents’ home (now called Baxter’s House) in Eaton Constantine. Richard’s early education was poor, being mainly in the hands of the local clergy, themselves virtually illiterate. He was helped by John Owen, master of the free school at Wroxeter, where he studied from about 1629 to 1632, and made fair progress in Latin. On Owen’s advice he went to Ludlow Castle to read with Richard Wickstead, chaplain to the Council of Wales and the Marches. He was reluctantly persuaded to go to court, and he went to London under the patronage of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, but soon returned home, resolved to study divinity.
After three months spent working for Owen as a teacher at Wroxeter, Baxter read theology with Francis Garbet, the local clergyman, adding to his reading (initially in devotional writings, of Richard Sibbes, William Perkins and Ezekiel Culverwell, as well as the Calvinist Edmund Bunny at age 14, and then in the scholastic philosophers) orthodox Church of England theology in Richard Hooker and George Downham, and arguments from conforming puritans in John Sprint and John Burges. Around 1634, he met Joseph Symonds (assistant to Thomas Gataker) and Walter Cradock, two Nonconformists.
In 1638, Baxter became master of the free grammar school at Dudley, having been ordained and licensed by John Thornborough, Bishop of Worcester. His success as a preacher was at first small; but he was soon transferred to Bridgnorth, in Shropshire, assisting Mr Madstard and remained at Bridgnorth for nearly two years, during which time he took a special interest in the controversy relating to Nonconformity and the Church of England. He disagreed with the Church on several matters; and rejected episcopacy in its English form becoming a moderate Nonconformist. Though regarded as a Presbyterian, he was not exclusively tied to Presbyterianism, and often seemed prepared to accept a modified Episcopalianism. He regarded all forms of church government as subservient to the true purposes of religion.
One of the first measures of the Long Parliament was to reform the clergy; with this view, a committee was appointed to receive complaints against them. Among the complainants were the inhabitants of Kidderminster. The vicar George Dance agreed that he would give £60 a year, out of his income of £200, to a preacher who should be chosen by certain trustees. Baxter was invited to deliver a sermon before the people, and in 1641 was unanimously elected as the minister of St Mary and All Saints’ Church, Kidderminster, Where he stayed for 19 years; accomplishing many reforms in Kidderminster and the neighbourhood. He formed the ministers in the country around him into an association, uniting them irrespective of their differences as Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Independents.
On the outbreak of the First English Civil War in 1642, Baxter blamed both parties and recommended the Protestation; however Kidderminster is in Worcestershire which was a Royalist stronghold, however Baxter’s comments angered many in Kidderminster so He temporarily moved to Gloucester. On 23 October 1642, he was preaching at Alcester, during the Battle of Edgehill and was evicted again and moved to Coventry (a Parliamentary stronghold) and found himself with 30 fugitive ministers, among whom were Richard Vines, Anthony Burges, John Bryan and Obadiah Grew. He became chaplain to the garrison, preaching a sermon each to the soldiery, and the townspeople and strangers. Included among the congregants were Sir Richard Skeffington, Colonel Godfrey Bosvile, George Abbot the layman scholar. Following the Battle of Naseby he became chaplain to Colonel Edward Whalley’s regiment, until 1647, he also wrote the controversial novel Aphorisms of Justification.
Baxter joined the Parliamentary army to maintain a constitutional government rather than a republic. However He regretted rejecting Oliver Cromwell’s offer to become chaplain to the Ironsides. Cromwell avoided Baxter after he argued with Cromwell about liberty of conscience, and even defended the monarchy he had subverted. In 1647, Baxter was staying at the home of Lady Rouse, wife of Sir Thomas Rouse, 1st Baronet, of Rous Lench in Worcestershire. There, though debilitated by illness, he wrote the most of a major work, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650). he was also an energetic campaigner for the establishment of a new University in Shrewsbury. After recovering he returned to Kidderminster, where he became a prominent political leader and his sensitive conscience led him into conflict with almost all the contending parties in state and church.
After the Restoration in 1660, Baxter, settled in London. He preached there until the Act of Uniformity 1662 took effect, and looked for such terms of comprehension as would have permitted the moderate dissenters with whom he acted to have remained in the Church of England. The goal of comprehension was obstructed by conforming churchmen and dissenters alike. The Savoy Conference resulted in Baxter’s Reformed Liturgy, and although it was rejected Baxter continued to advocate for a comprehensive “national church” until his death.
Baxter reputation grew in London, The power of his preaching was universally felt, and his capacity for business placed him at the head of his party. He had been made a king’s chaplain, and was offered the Position of Bishop of Hereford, but refused after which he was not allowed to be a curate in Kidderminster, and was prohibited from preaching in the Diocese of Worcester by Bishop George Morley. In 1662, Baxter married Margaret Charlton, sadly she died in 1681 whereupon Baxter composed the hymn Ye Holy Angels Bright. In 1687 He retired to Acton in Middlesex, where he was imprisoned for keeping a conventicle. After being freed He went to preach in London after the licences granted in 1672 were recalled by the King.
In 1680, he was taken from his house and books and goods were seized. In 1684, he was carried three times to the sessions house, being scarcely able to stand, and without any apparent cause was made to enter into a bond for £400 in security for his good behaviour. His worst encounter was with the Chief Justice, Sir George Jeffreys, in May 1685 when he was committed to the King’s Bench Prison on the charge of libelling the Church in his Paraphrase on the New Testament. Baxter was sentenced to pay 500 marks, and stay in prison till it was paid, and was bound to his good behaviour for seven years. Baxter was now approaching 70 years old, and remained in prison for 18 months, until the government, remitted the fine and released him.
Sadly Baxter’s health began to deteriorate however he wrote 168 or so separate works, including major treatises such as the Christian Directory, the Methodus Theologiae Christianae, the Catholic Theology and a Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter. He also published A slim devotional work in 1658 entitled Call to the Unconverted to Turn and Live which formed one of the core extra-biblical texts of evangelicalism until the 19th century. Richard Baxter sadly died in London and his funeral was attended by churchmen as well as dissenters