I have a fascination with the life of the 17th century poet, writer and theologian Richard Baxter. Born in 1615, his childhood education was mixed with the atmosphere of political and faith-led debate. His family regularly held meetings for people that wanted to explore ideologies concerning justice and the expression of belief. Years before the English Civil War and the rise of Oliver Cromwell, Baxter was already being exposed to the varied arguments that were brewing across the land.
During the war, Baxter became the curate for Kidderminster. His passionate preaching described as
'a dying man to dying men'.
The division he noticed during the conflict, as both sides used increasingly aggressive tactics under the name of God to win their argument, provoked him into seeking ways of tackling intolerance. It was a decision that carried deep consequences.
Not only did he upset some around Cromwell as he delivered a sermon to the ‘Protector’, highlighting that his role was nothing more than the king in masquerade, but he also found himself marginalised when the monarchy was restored a few years later. Continued debates raged in the country, as opposing religious factions each blamed the other for causing a utopia to be lost before it was truly gained. As the established church attempted to find ways of safeguarding positions post the return of King Charles 2nd, (due to some of their involvement in the removal of his father), an idea was implemented that only furthered division within the faith.
The Clarendon Code demanded that the Book of the Common Prayer was to be compulsory. It also required all to swear an oath of allegiance to the king, made it unlawful for people to gather for worship that was not state authorised, and restricted non-conformist ministers from preaching or teaching in schools. Baxter fought vehemently to change the code, but failed, and his attempt of bridging the gap between different expressions of the faith became more difficult as the code was enforced.
The years that followed saw persecution, oppression, confiscation of his books and possessions, criminal charges for writing a paraphrase of the New Testament, and imprisonment for holding a Conventicle (unofficial worship meeting). Through it all he remained steadfast in his pursuit of encouraging people to walk in unity. The passing of the Toleration Act in 1689 gave him a couple of peaceful years before his death in 1691. On a winter’s day in December 1691, he was buried in the sight of established clergymen, dissenters and non-conformists. These opposing groups had battled in recent years, yet on that funeral day they gathered together around the grave of a man who had worked tirelessly to persuade them to stand side by side.
There are many things that could be said of Baxter (some are covered in Revival’s Symphony), but three things shine bright for me today. The first is Baxter’s response to friend during his final days of life. His friend reminded him of the impact his writings had upon the country. Baxter simply replied
"I was a pen in God’s hand, and what praise is due a pen?"
The second is a description that the chaplain E.M.Bounds gave of Baxter (Bounds a man who lived through the same challenges during the American Civil War). He spoke of Baxter as a man who
"stained his study walls with a praying breath".
The third, it’s the story of two people the following century who both pursued their callings for transforming society through the Gospel message, yet found disagreement with each other in so many ways. John Wesley and George Whitefield had an erratic partnership that sometimes meant silence between each other for long periods of time. Yet no matter the distance or disagreement in theology, they walked a path of unity and respect that contributed to a diverse revolution within both the UK and USA. There are many suggestions of how they did it, particularly through such heated disagreements, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they both spoke with deep affection concerning the writings of the same author. An author by the name of Richard Baxter.