For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.
2 Corinthians 1:5
I humbly bless his gracious Providence, who gave me his Treasure in an earthen Vessel, and trained me up in the School of Affliction, and taught me the Cross of Christ so soon; that I might rather be Theologus Crucis, as Luther speaketh,than Theologus Gloriae; and Cross-bearer, than a Cross-maker or Imposer.
When the Philistine Goliath stood threatening the armies of Israel, a young shepherd named David, stepped forward to fight the giant. King Saul sought to discourage David, but the experienced herdsman replied:
Your servant was tending his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and took a lamb from the flock, I went out after him and attacked him, and rescued it from his mouth; and when he rose up against me, I seized him by his beard and struck him and killed him. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear…2
The shepherd David, who went on to rule over Israel as their king, provides us with a striking illustration of the danger and trouble involved in caring for a flock of sheep. Although modern Christian leaders may not actually encounter lions and bears in caring for God’s people, we have been warned that we will certainly face ravenous wolves from within and persecution from without. It is the common lot of shepherds to be ridiculed, misunderstood, and slandered. Pastors and their families often live a frugal, hand to mouth existence, foregoing the simplest pleasures and possessions, which many take for granted. In some countries, which are particularly hostile to the gospel, it is not uncommon for pastors to be singled out for harassment, imprisonment or even death. Perhaps you have not experienced serious hardship in your ministry and have a difficult time believing that you ever will. Baxter gives you a stern warning, in this appeal to his fellow ministers to serve Christ to the fullest:
It is indeed a troublesome and painful work, and such as calls for some self-denial, because it will bring upon us the displeasure of the wicked. But dare we prefer our carnal ease and quietness, or the love and peace of wicked men, before our service to Christ our Master?3
We have seen the physical pain which Baxter endured his entire life, but he suffered the most hurt from those calling themselves Christian; those he considered brothers. His troubles began early in his ministry, when he brought the message of the gospel to Kidderminster and flashed the light of Scripture on sin.
Baxter’s mere presence in the town, formerly known for its revelry, was enough to provoke “the Rabble of the more vicious sort” to mock and defame him. On one occasion a drunkard spread a report that he had seen Baxter “under a tree with a Woman,” a compromising position for the new curate. The town was in an uproar and Baxter confronted the man, who confessed that he had started the rumor merely “as a Jest.”4 He had seen Baxter on horseback in a rain storm, waiting it out under a large oak tree growing in a thick hedge. The woman was on the other side, out of Baxter’s sight, seeking shelter under the same tree. The most innocent situations may provide fodder for a malicious heart and God’s shepherds provide the enemy with an inviting target!
Soon, more serious problems arose, which might have cost Baxter his life. The stage was set for a civil war, with those favoring the Parliament and the Puritan cause on one side and those loyal to Charles I and ceremonialism on the other. Baxter and the town of Kidderminster were caught in the middle. He favored the monarchy. But, he saw that the court was corrupt, while the Parliament was upheld by “the more religious sort.” So, Baxter fell out with the Parliament. He was immediately caricatured a “Roundhead,” the label given to the Puritans who supported Parliament, ridiculing them for their short hair and plain dress.
In 1642, an order came down from the Parliament to destroy all of the statues and images of the persons of the Trinity, Mary, and the saints, which remained from the days of Roman Catholicism. Baxter thought the order lawful, but didn’t bother himself with the matter. However, the caretaker of the church immediately began the work of removing images. One day he set up a ladder to take down the image of Jesus from a cross in the churchyard, but couldn’t reach it. While he went looking for a longer ladder, someone “took the Allarm” and a mob with sticks and clubs assembled to defend the crucifix. When the caretaker failed to return, the rabble went “raving about the Streets,” looking for Baxter. Fortunately, he was a mile out of town on his daily walk. Two of Baxter’s friends heard of the riot and ran into town to protect him. The mob beat them both instead and went home satisfied. When Baxter returned from his walk, he heard “the People Cursing at [him] in their Doors” as he walked through town and learned how nearly he had escaped the attack. The next Lord’s Day he boldly reproved them from the pulpit and volunteered to leave town, because he feared they would beat him and so, bring on God’s condemnation! They were surprised at Baxter’s concern for them and quickly repented. Baxter’s flesh and blood illustration of the same love and patience Christ demonstrated toward his tormentors, had a more powerful effect on Kidderminster than a hundred sermons.
Open violence soon erupted in the county so that “if a Stranger past in many places that had short Hair and a Civil Habit, the Rabble presently cried, ‘Down with the Round-heads’; and some they knockt down in the open streets.”5 Tensions increased until one day, as Baxter was walking through town, “a violent Country gentleman… stopt and said, There goeth a Traitor…,”6 pointing to Baxter. He quickly found his horse and rode out of town, barely escaping with his life.
After passions had cooled somewhat he returned, living in a state of constant unrest. For months, royalist mobs formed, rioted and “after the Lord’s Day when they had heard the Sermon they would a while be calmed, till they came to the Alehouse again…” Baxter patiently bore with them until the Lord Himself intervened to deliver Kidderminster:
“And when the Wars began, almost all these Drunkards went into the King’s Army, and were quickly killed, so that scarce a Man of them came home again and survived the War.”7
Although Baxter had sided with Parliament, he was suspicious of Oliver Cromwell and regarded him as a usurper. Early on, Cromwell offered him a chaplaincy, which Baxter declined. His opinions, which were doubtless aired publicly, reached Cromwell’s ear and he was never regarded warmly during the Lord Protector’s lifetime. Ironically then, it was the time following the war under Cromwell’s rule, that Baxter enjoyed his greatest freedom.
He returned from the war and entered into the most successful and comfortable period of his life, gently leading, teaching, and caring for the people of Kidderminster.
When Cromwell died and his successor failed to hold England together, Baxter was of the party who sought to bring Charles II back from exile. He anticipated an increase of peace and unity within the national church and expected to enjoy some consideration for his loyalty to the king. His hopes, however, were dashed to pieces with the return of Charles and the Act of Uniformity. This Act barred from public ministry all non-Conformists; Those pastors, who would not swear to the oaths of allegiance put forth by the ruling party in the Church of England. Baxter was offered the prestigious position of Bishop of Hereford, which he declined. He felt that to accept the position would signal his approval of the church’s hierarchical power structure and empty ceremonial traditions. It was one thing to tolerate differences in others, but quite another to participate in practices which violated his conscience. Baxter was completely silenced in August of 1662 and barred from any pastoral opportunities.
Baxter could not restrain his disappointment. In a letter to friends at Kidderminster, he wrote, “For these six years time in which I thought my greater experience, had made me more capable, of serving my Master better than before, his Wisdom and Justice, have caused me to spend in grievous silence,” causing “Groans and Tears which I can never on Earth forget.”8 As the Lord taught Paul the apostle, He would show Baxter “…how much he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9: 16).
In the midst of this disaster, the Lord comforted Baxter in his marriage to Mararet Charlton. After they were married in London, they withdrew from public life for a time, but continued to attend public worship at the parish church and prayer in the homes of friends. Baxter’s enemies remained suspicious and watched his every move. Once, when he and other ministers planned to pray with a dying woman, officers were sent to arrest him for violating the Act of Uniformity. Baxter didn’t attend the meeting, but “They came upon them into the Room where the Gentlewoman lay ready to die, and drew the Curtains, and took some of their Names, but missing of their Prey, returned disappointed”9
The next blow to fall was the Conventicle Act, which limited religious meetings to four people above the immediate family in a home and the Five Mile Act, requiring “nonconformists” to live at least five miles from any incorporated town. Mr. and Mrs. Baxter moved to the country, where he entered his most productive period as a writer. Baxter would preach privately to a few friends and neighbors, but even the slightest glimmer of the gospel incited the ungodly to anger:
March 26. being the Lord’s Day 1665. as I was preaching in a Private House, where we received the Lord’s Supper, a Bullet came in at the Window among us, past by me and narrowly mist the Head of a Sister-in-law of mine that was there, and hurt none of us…10
This period at Acton was not, however, without comfort for Baxter. It was here that he met Sir Matthew Hale, who would soon become the Lord Chief Justice of England. They struck up an immediate friendship and spent hours discussing a variety of subjects. It was in Matthew Hale that Baxter discovered the value of patient listening, from “a Man of no quick utterance…” The two became the symbol of loving friendship at Acton so that the sculptured heads of Hale and Baxter adorn the doorway of the parish church to this day.11
Baxter’s relative peace came to an abrupt end on June 12, 1669, when he was jailed for violating the Five Mile Act and imprisoned at Clerkenwell. Baxter found the heat stifling, the noise of the other prisoners distracting, and the loss of sleep a hindrance to his studies. But, Margaret made his stay tolerable, as he remembers:
When I was carried thence to the common gaol [jail]… I never perceived her trouble at it: she cheerfully went with me into prison; she brought her best bed thither, and did much to remove the removable inconveniences of the prison. I think she scarce had a pleasanter time in her life than while she was with me there.
Baxter would not allow himself to become shaken or embittered by the experience; “Truth did not change, because I was in a Gaol,” he wrote.12 He was released within two weeks, due in part to the fact that Matthew Hale went before the Judges, weeping and attesting to Baxter’s good character.
In this episode we see illustrated the depth of character in those who are true disciples of Christ. Baxter, the lowly messenger, willing to faithfully bear the cross, as well as the message; Margaret, the young, aristocratic woman, making herself poor and cheerfully enduring persecution for the Gospel’s sake; and Matthew Hale, the righteous friend and judge, proclaiming God’s justice in the face of unrighteous rulers and unjust laws.
Upon release, the Baxters returned home long enough to rent out their house and gather up a few belongings before moving to Totteridge. It was there “in a troublesome, poor, smoaky, suffocating Room in the midst of daily pains of the Sciatia, and many worse” that Baxter finished a number of writing projects, without the aid of his library. Mrs. Baxter fared no better, suffering “a great straightness of the lungs” from the heavy coal smoke, which filled the room.13
The Lord again comforted the Baxters, providing a new home large enough to accommodate them, as well as Baxter’s stepmother and their friends the Corbets, an ejected minister and his wife. But, in 1672, Charles issued his Declaration of Indulgence which allowed the preaching of licensed non-Conformists. The Corbets and the Baxters parted, both returning to London to apply for licenses.
Until this time, Baxter had not sought a license because one of the requirements was adherence to a particular denomination or party within the Church of England, a profession his conscience would not allow. Christ is not divided and he would not take on the label of one party in order to preach. Now, however, it was possible to register simply as a “non – Conformist.” Baxter stated his “Case” in a simple letter:
My religion is merely Christian… The rule of my faith and doctrine is ye law of God in Nature and Scripture. The Church which I am a member of is the Universality of Christians, in conjunction with all particular Churches of Christians in England or elsewhere in the world, whose Communion according to my capacity I desire… I humbley crave his Majestie’s License to preach the Gospel…
Baxter’s case, which inspired the title for C.S. Lewis’ apologetic work Mere Christianity, won an indulgence issued to “Richard Baxter, a non-Conforming Minister to teach in any licensed or allowed place.”14
However, Baxter soon found that being licensed did not mean that he was free to preach the gospel. His enemies continued to hound him and prevented him from preaching or publishing. They levied fines on him for each “seditious” sermon and confiscated his property. Fearing that his beloved library, his “silent wise companions,” would eventually be taken and destroyed, Margaret secretly distributed the books to London ministers and sent the rest to Cambridge University in America. Margaret persisted in procuring chapels, Baxter would preach, and his foes would beat on drums outside the windows or meet him at the door with constables and carefully worded warrants.
Baxter’s sorrows increased with the death of his beloved friend, Matthew Hale. Then, his stepmother died at the age of ninety-six, followed by John Corbet. In June of 1681, Margaret finally died and Baxter began to wither. Still, he was not allowed to rest.
Within four months, all of his remaining property was seized and he was taken to jail for preaching five sermons. His sentence was commuted because of ill health, but his property, including the very bed he lay on, was taken and sold to pay his fines.15 In November of 1684 new accusations of sedition were made and officers sent to arrest Baxter. He locked himself in his room:
But they set six Officers at my Study-door, who watcht all night, and kept me from my bed and food, so that the next day I yielded to them; who carried me (scarce able to stand) to their Sessions…
He was bound over for good behavior and returned home. But, on February 28, 1685 he was brought before Judge Jeffreys on the outrageous charge of treason, for certain passages in his recently published Paraphrase on the New Testament.
Baxter was not allowed to testify in his own defense and others who spoke on his behalf were shouted down. During the course of the matter, Jeffreys and the court vilified Baxter, styling him a rogue, a rascal, and a knave who sought to “ruin the King and the Nation” through his rebellious writings. But, Archbishop John Tillotson, an eyewitness at Westminster Hall, regarded the scene as Baxter’s hour of glory, triumphing over the enticements of worldly honor and an example worthy of our imitation:
Nothing more honourable than when the Rev Baxter stood at bay, berogued, abused, despised; and never more great than then…This is the noblest part of his life, and not that he might have been bishop. The Apostle (2 Corinthians xi.), when he would glory, mentions his labours and strifes and bonds and imprisonments; his troubles, weariness, dangers, reproaches; not his riches and coaches and honours and advantages. God lead us into this spirit and free us from the worldly one which we are apt to run into.16
Baxter was found guilty and he wrote “I went quietly to a costly Prison, where I continued in pain and languor near two years.17 He was released on November 24, 1686 and allowed to live in London, renting a house in Charterhouse yard. His editor and close friend, Matthew Sylvester, paints the picture of a worn, though unbeaten Baxter in this, the twilight of his life:
He was pleasingly conversible, save in his Studying-hours, wherein he could not bear with trivial disturbances. He was sparingly facetious; but never light or frothy. His heart was warm, plain fixed; his Life was Blameless, Exemplary, Uniform… His Personal Abstinence, Severities and Labours, were exceeding great; He kept his Body at an under; and always fear’d pampering his flesh too much. He diligently, and with great pleasure minded his Master’s Work within doors and without, whilst he was able. His Charity was very great; greatly proportionable to his Abilities; his purse was ever open to the Poor…18
To look upon Baxter in his final years, “His Person was Tall and Slender, and stooped much: his Countenance Compos’d and Grave, somewhat inclining to Smile. He had a piercing Eye, a very Articulate Speech, and his Deportment rather Plain than Complemental…”19 Sylvester also noted:
though he was seldom without pain, or sickness (but mostly pain;) yet never did he murmur, but us’d to say, ‘It is but flesh.’ And when I have askt him how he did? His usual Answer was, Either ‘Almost well:’ Or, ‘Better than I deserve to be, but not so well as I hope to be.’20
His physical condition grew slowly worse. Two days before his death on December 8, 1691, he told two friends, William Bates and Increase Mather, “I have pain, there is no arguing against sense, but I have peace, I have peace.”21 After a night of excruciating pain, at four in the morning, Baxter turned his eyes to Matthew Sylvester and said, “O I thank Him, I thank Him. The Lord teach you to die.”22 Then Baxter, the weary sojourner, was ushered into the saint’s everlasting rest.
Baxter thanked God for his life of brokenness, trouble, and persecution because it made him recognize the effects of sin and death upon mankind. The wretched condition of the human race was ever in his sight and senses, and was present to an unusual degree in his own physical infirmities. The life of this man, the suffering of which modern readers may find appalling, caused Baxter to see more clearly than most, the need of a Savior. Instead of bitterness and self-pity, it produced in Baxter an earnestness in reproving sin and evil, a fervor in leading others to life and peace in Jesus Christ, and a complete reliance upon the Holy Spirit.
But, did his estimation of the pastoral ministry suffer from his years of difficult service and rough treatment? Let Baxter answer as he did one of his critics:
I bless the Lord daily, that ever he called me to this blessed work! It is but my flesh that repineth at it. God hath paid me for all these sufferings a thousand fold… O how the Lord doth sweetly revive my own Faith and Love and Desire and Joy and Resolution and all Graces, whilst He sets me on those thoughts in my studies, and those Persuasions in my Preaching which tend to revive the Graces of my Hearers!… Truly God’s work is most precious wages! Yea, even my sufferings are the inlets of my Joy!23
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body (which is the church) in filling up that which is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. Colossians 1:24
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me. Psalms 23:4
Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. John 15:20
And He was saying to them all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. Luke 9:23 & 24
But I never wanted less (what Man can give) than when Men had taken all… Richard Baxter24
Ever since I was at the age of nineteen, great mercy has trained me up in the school of affliction, to keep my sluggish soul awake in the constant expectation of my change, to kill my proud and worldly thoughts, and to direct all my studies to things the most necessary. Richard Baxter25
…Sufferings must be the Churches most ordinary lot, and Christians indeed must be self-denying Cross-bearers, even where there are none but formal nominal Christians to be the Cross-makers… Richard Baxter26
Law or Physick or Souldiery would have afforded a man Honors and Riches; but what get I in the Ministry? I’ll tell you but the truth: constant study, Preaching, and all other labours, have utterly overthrown my health, and I know not one hard student and painful Preacher of many, but is languishing or sickly; yet though I am day and night full of pain, study I must, preach I must, I must visit the sick, instruct the ignorant, resolve the doubting, comfort the dejected and disquieted soul, admonish the scandalous and relapsed. Richard Baxter27
You can now purchase the updated and improved second edition right here: Good Mr. Baxter: Sketches of effective, Gospel-centered leadership from the life of Richard Baxter
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae (London: 1656), Part 1, 21 [↩]
- 1 Samuel 17:34 & 35 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 167 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 1, 24 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 1, 40 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 1, 40 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 1, 42 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1965) 93 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter 96 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 2, 441 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter 99 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter 101 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 3, 70 [↩]
- Frederick J. Powicke, The Reverend Richard Baxter Under the Cross (1662-1691), (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1927) 72 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 3, 191 [↩]
- Letter from Archbishop Tillotson to Matthew Sylvester cited in Frederick J. Powicke, The Reverend Richard Baxter Under the Cross (1662-1691), (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1927) 145 & 46 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter 100 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Appendix: Elisha’s Cry 14-15 [↩]
- Ibid., 16 [↩]
- Ibid., 15 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter 112 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Appendix: Elisha’s Cry 16 [↩]
- Baxter cited in Powicke A Life of Baxter 288 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 3, 192 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Dying Thoughts: The Christian’s Hope for the Life Hereafter (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1976) 111 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae , Part 1, 132 [↩]
- Baxter cited in Powicke A Life of Baxter 286 [↩]