Find Books on Richard Baxter from Amazon.com and international bookstore sites.
  Hermeneutics |   Church & Pastoral |   Missions & Evangelism Bookstore

Richard Baxter: A Puritan Preacher

      

Never in the history of England were times more chaotic than during the lifetime of Richard Baxter.  Yet in spite of war, division, persecution, and ill health, Baxter became one of history’s most memorable preachers (Currier 1912:125).  As Kenneth Latourette depicts, the Puritan Richard Baxter (1615-1691) had a noted record as a pastor during the Commonwealth in reforming morals and religion within his parish.  He refused a bishopric under the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, was forbidden to preach, and was fined and imprisoned.  He was a voluminous author, but it is significant that with him his best remembered work was on Christian life and prayer, Saint’s Everlasting Rest (1975:824).  Above all things, he was a preacher who saw virtually the whole people in his parish converted.


His Formative Years

During Baxter’s lifetime (1615-1691), the religious and political life of England fragmented into scores of warring camps.  In 1603 James Stewart ascended the English throne.  James, a devout believer in the divine right of kings, committed himself to the establishment of an absolute government.  One of the king's first acts was to announce a policy of opposition to Puritanism.  The Church of England then was composed of two highly different groups: high church Anglicans, who leaned toward formality and ritual; and the Puritans, who craved a simpler service (Fant 1971:231-32).

        Richard Baxter lived during the turmoil in the reign of James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, James II, and the coming of William of Orange.  He was born on November 12, 1615 at Rowtown, Shropshire in England (Fant 1971:235). Shropshire, where he spent his youth, was a part of England then comparatively little influenced by the Puritan movement.  His parents were pious, middle-class people who gave him careful religious training.  In childhood, however, he heard the word ‘Puritan’ usually as a term of scorn in his neighborhood (Murray 1991:13).[1] 

Books, however, did penetrate where there was no worthy preacher.  About the age of fifteen Baxter was awakened and went ‘many a-day with a throbbing conscience’ through a reading of Edmund Bunny’s Resolution.  It was Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed  which resolved this state of sorrow.  The book, he says, opened the love of God to him and gave him a livelier apprehension of the Mystery of Redemption (Murray 1971:13-14). 

Currier explains that Baxter’s decision to enter the ministry in his nineteenth year was due to the serious impressions made by his mother’s death and his narrow escape from death occurred about the same time (1912:113).

In Baxter we find a case of rather unusual leadership formation.  He received no university training.  He was self-educated.  Yet he was better educated than many who went through the formal disciplines of academic life because he read widely in all fields.  When he was twenty-three year, he was ordained in Worcester Cathedral.  After two years of preaching in various places without holding a settled pastorate, he went to Kidderminster in 1640 as pastor (Fant 1971:235).

There were many dark shadows in Baxter’s life.  He suffered from a life-long health problem.  Yet the aggravating weakness, the excruciating pain, the coughing and spitting of blood, and the constant ill irritations of a large kidney stone in later life, contributed to the urgency of his preaching as “a dying man to dying man” (Rooy 1965:67-68).


His Pastoral Theology of Mission

Baxter indicates his strong emphasis on mission in his pastoral theology.   In his farsightedness, he advocates what we can call ‘a mission/evangelism structure within the church.’

The Foundation for the Minister’s Duty

Baxter uses the commission of Christ as the foundation for the minister’s duty to spread the gospel to unbelievers at home and abroad.  He holds the position that the authority conveyed by the commission did not end with the apostles but carries validity to the end of the world and necessitates preaching to the whole world (Rooy 1965:154).  This requires our attention that this position was contrary to what many were teaching then.

Baxter acted on what he believed.  As his philosophy of ministry was evangelism, so was his direction of ministry.  In addition to his preaching, visiting and conferences, Baxter developed other approaches to ministry and evangelism.  He utilized laymen intensively in his ministry.  He believed that laymen should visit those around them and share the Christian faith with them.  In short, he was mobilizing the evangelistic force of laymen.  Furthermore, He began prayer meeting throughout the area and these prayer meetings for evangelism (Fant  1971:236).             

Baxter believes that the primary message of the gospel is one of good news and hope.  We proclaim life and not death, salvation and not damnation, pardon and not judgment, is the first, great, and primary doctrine that is to be proclaimed.  There is indeed a message of wrath and death.  But this is not the principle message.  As Baxter puts it, “There is mercy in God, there is sufficiency in the satisfaction of Christ, the promise is free, full, and universal: You may have life if you will but turn” (1888: II. 516).[2]

Two Sorts of Ministers

Baxter seems to imply that there is often a ‘sodality structure’ within a  ‘modality structure’ of the Church.  He classifies two sorts of ministers: the unified ministers “who employ themselves in converting infidels and in an itinerant service of the churches, “and the stated, fixed ministers “having a special charge of each particular church” (1888: I. 556).  The former is in the general ministry and, as such, is “a pastor in the universal church,” (641) preaching to the unbelieving world as the one who is dedicated, separated, and set apart to that ministry (IV. 383).[3]

The latter preaches to the congregation as their ordinary teacher.  However, a man may be made at once “a minister in general, and the pastor of this or that church in particular: and in kingdoms wholly unchurched and Christian, it is usually fittest so to do…” (I. 641). 

For Baxter, the first duty of the sacred ministry is to make the world Christian and gather men into the church by teaching and baptizing them (1888: IV. 151).  He says, “Alas!  The misery of the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest to us for our compassion” (: IV. 381).[4]

 

The Christians’ Motive for Witnessing

Alexander H. Drysdale describes that “Baxter’s great desire was to vitalize the popular religion and bring the quickening power of the Gospel into direct contact with the masses” (1889:366).

Rooy summarizes Baxter’s view on Christian’s basic motive for witnessing:

The Christian basic motive for witnessing is the love of God.  His glory is the ultimate end of all redemptive action.  The happiness of man may be called a proximate end, since our happiness results from God; love to us and ours to him.  God’s glory is most clearly revealed to us in the incarnate Christ.  In response to Christ’s love and mercy, and not from fear of wrath and judgment, the Christian loves God.  The love of God constrains man to love by Christ’s blessed example of mercy.  Our highest motive should be as living images to show God to the world.[5]


Rooy argues that the motive of pity increasingly awakened Baxter to a sense of the need for foreign missions.  The ignorance and tyranny in so-called Christian lands, the miserable state of the heathen, and the plague of the division of languages move him to confess: “…there is nothing in the world that lyeth so heavy upon my heart, as the thought of the miserable nations of the earth” ( 1965:154).
 

Receptor-oriented Communication

Expounding the instruction of new Christians, Baxter accentuates essential doctrine.  He proposes to begin with the greater common truths in communicating the gospel (1888:I. 592).  Put the essential, necessary truths first (40).  Teach all that is of “felt necessity to salvation” (II. 387).  Keep the smaller controversial truths in the background; put the essential necessary truths first (I. 40).[6]

Baxter indicates that the public preaching of the word requires greater skill and greater life and zeal because it is the proclamation of the profound gospel message in simple language.  It is no small matter to stand up in the face of a congregation, and deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the living God, in the name of our Redeemer.  It is no easy matter to speak so plain, that the ignorant may understand us; and so seriously, that the deadest hearts may feel us; and so convincingly, that the contradicting cavilers may be silenced (1888: IV. 383).  

Baxter was one of the first preachers to emphasize an oral style in preaching—a talking style—though he usually read his sermons.  Many of the passages in his published works, such as The Call to the Unconverted, are transcripts of those sermons that preserve his characteristic style—that give evidence of a natural, conversational manner of delivery (Fant and Pinson 1971:237).

 

 


  © This article is an excerpt from Dae Ryeong Kim's paper, "The Missionary Proclamation of the English Puritanism,"