Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.
2 Timothy 2:15
This is the sanctification of your studies, when they are devoted to God, and when he is the end, the object, and the life of them all.
Arthur Stanley, onetime professor of Church history at Oxford and dean of Westminster, called Baxter “the chief of English Protestant Schoolmen,”2 while Hugh Martin described Baxter, the scholar, in these words:
He was a rapid and omnivorous reader, with a wide knowledge especially of the classics, Church history and theology. The range of his references in his footnotes is extraordinary, and the quantity and range of his own writing is almost past belief.3
Certainly, one would think, Baxter’s academic accomplishment must find it’s root in a quality education and the cultivation of good study habits early in life. But, such was not the case. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more dismal scholastic experience than what one writer called Baxter’s “desultory and defective education.”4
His first instructors in the local church schools included a day laborer, a tailor, a local stage actor, a law clerk who was known for his public drunkeness, and a curate who fled after it had been discovered that his ordination papers were forged! These were the men who, according to Baxter, “taught school and tipled on the week-days, and whipt the boys when they were drunk.”5
And, what kind of student was young Richard? Baxter recalls:
the case as I remember when I was a boy our School was in, when we had barred out our Master:…when we had got out our master and shut fast the doors, we grew bold, and talkt to him at our pleasure; then no one was Master, and everyone was Master; we spend our time in playing and quarreling…6
Prospects brightened when, at the age of fourteen he began attending John Owen’s free school and Baxter proved to be an outstanding student. He planned to go on to Oxford, but Owen advised him against it. Instead Owen suggested that he go to nearby Ludlow Castle, under the tutelage of a Mr. Wickstead, who promised a superior education for an ambitious young pupil. Baxter’s parents, not eager to have their only child so far from home, welcomed this advice and agreed. They felt that a young man of Baxter’s charm and intellect could rise to a position of honor and wealth, so they insisted he pursue the life of a courtier. Richard honored their wish, but it was a decision he would forever regret.
At Ludlow, Baxter found that Mr. Wickstead didn’t have the ability or desire to tutor him, but was only interested in gaining favor with the lawyers, judges, and other court officials there. Tutoring one of Owen’s top students was merely part of the charade. However, there was a fine library at the castle and Baxter spent most of his time in personal study and contemplation of spiritual matters.
It was also at Ludlow Castle, among “many idle Gentlemen,” that Baxter learned of the enticements of the aristocratic life. He found that he had a disturbing attraction to dice and card playing, as well as considerable skill at gambling. In his first match against “the best Gamester in the House,” every roll of the dice turned up in his favor and his incredible luck gained him the admiration of the rabble there. This, reasoned Baxter, was no coincidence:
I took the hint, and believed that the Devil had the ruling of the Dice, and did it to entice me on to be a Gamester. And so I gave him his ten shillings again, and resolved I would never more play at Tables whilst I lived.7
After a year and a half, Baxter returned home and began studying with a local minister. But, “a violent Cough, with the Spitting of Blood, &c. of two years continuance…” eventually made it impossible to continue. Although his quest for academic success was thwarted again, the nearness of death had a sobering effect on Baxter and brought an eternal perspective to his studies:
It caused me first to seek God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, and most to mind the One thing needful…by which I was engaged to choose out and prosecute all other Studies…Therefore Divinity was not only carried on with the rest of my Studies with an equal hand, but always had the first and chiefest place… And by that means I prosecuted all my Studies with unweariedness and delight…and also less of my time was lost by lazy intermissions…
Baxter concluded “…this method of God’s was very wise, and no other was so like to have tended to my good.”8 His new found conviction to “study and preach things necessary,” coupled with his natural love of learning, were enough to overcome any deficiencies in his education and make him one of the foremost Christian thinkers of his time.
His attitude toward worldly success underwent a transformation, as well. Initially Baxter feared his lack of formal academic honors would hinder him, but he “…resolved that if one or two souls only might be won to God, it would easily recompense all the dishonour which for want of Titles I might undergo from Men!”9 And, constant illness and the spectre of death continually at his door taught Baxter to make good use of every minute in the day, a skill which would play an important part in the pastoral care of the large flock at Kidderminster.
Just how successful was Baxter in the wise use of his time? Let the reader consider his daily schedule during his period at Kidderminster and judge for himself. Baxter’s constant pain would not allow him to rise before seven in the morning and then it would take him nearly an hour to get dressed. Headaches and fatigue brought any serious study to a halt soon after his evening meal. Baxter exercised two hours a day, usually a brisk walk or a ride through the countryside on his horse before meals. On Sundays, he would be careful to exercise in private, so as not to “tempt others to sin.” And, he spent one hour a day, without fail, meditating upon the Scriptures. Preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing consumed huge amounts of time, yet Baxter always found time to study.
Baxter’s natural thirst for knowledge and learning was probably enough to keep him from ever neglecting his studies, but he was well aware of his own tendency to read the wrong sort of books and squander his time in “superfluous recreations,” “loitering,” or “vain discourse.”
Today, it is more common for church shepherds to allow their studies to be crowded out by administrative burdens and duties which may actually be the responsibility of others in the body. But, the Scripture is emphatic in charging pastors with “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that [they] may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”10 This requires ongoing, thorough study of the Scriptures, as well as familiarity with the current “wind of doctrine” blowing through the church.
He warned lazy and careless shepherds, “It is not now and then an idle snatch or taste of studies that will serve to make an able and sound divine [man of God].” Baxter chided those pastors who believed it was the Spirit’s way to magically impart understanding and to:
cause us to thrive in a course of idleness, and to bring us to knowledge by dreams when we are asleep, or to take us up into heaven, and show us his counsels, while we think of no such matter, but are idling away our time on earth! O that men should dare, by their laziness, to ‘quench the Spirit,’ and then pretend the Spirit for the doing of it! ((Baxter Reformed Pastor 71))
“Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains shallow..,” Baxter urged his fellow pastors.11 He was preaching to himself, as well.
Books, carefully chosen, played the primary role in Baxter’s self education. His life-long appreciation for good books stemmed from his own conversion:
And the use God made of Books, above Ministers, to the benefit of my Soul, made me somewhat excessively in love with good Books; so that I thought I had never [enough], but [scraped] up as great a Treasure of them as I could.12
This reflection from his own Dying Thoughts gives us a revealing sketch of a man who loved books.
When I die I must depart not only from several delights, but from the more manly pleasures of my studies, knowledge and converse with many wise and godly men, and from all my pleasure in reading, hearing, public and private exercises of religion, etc. I must leave my library and turn over those pleasant books no more.13
Baxter’s rooms at Kidderminster were small and plain, but the walls held shelves full of books. Stacks covered the furniture and floor. On one occasion, his “treasure” almost killed him. What follows is Baxter’s humorous account of a near fatal calamity in his library:
as I sat in my study, the weight of my greatest Folio Books brake down three or four of the highest Shelves, when I sat close under them, and they fell down on every side me, and not one of them hit me, save one upon the Arm; whereas the Place, the weight, and greatness of the Books was such, and my Head just under them, that it was a Wonder they had not beaten out my Brains, one of the Shelves right over my Head having the six Volumes of Dr. Walton’s Oriental Bible, and all Austin’s Works, and the Bibliotheca Patrum, and Marlorate, & c.14
Perhaps Baxter’s fondness for books went too far. After the Great Fire of 1662, he walked among the ruins and rubble of London, surveying the devastated city. To Baxter, the loss of buildings and belongings was shocking, but not so great as the loss in books! Besides the destruction of the bookseller’s stock, Baxter lamented, “The Library, also, of Sion-College was burnt, and most of the Libraries of Ministers…I saw the half-burnt leaves of books near my dwelling in Acton, six miles from London, but others found them near Windsor, almost twenty miles distant.”15
No, in spite of his great appetite for reading and learning, only one book was indispensable to Baxter. The Bible took first place and determined the value of all others:
Let all writers have their due esteem, but compare none of them with the Word of God. We will not refuse their service, but we must abhor them as rivals or competitors. It is the sign of a distempered heart that loseth the relish of Scripture excellency.16
Paul’s instructions to Timothy, along with Baxter’s own trials and experience, gave direction to his ongoing education. The Bible alone gives “the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” The man of God who immerses himself in the Scriptures will be “adequate, equipped for every good work.”17
This illustration of a tree, expressed in Baxter’s pungent style, puts the pursuit of knowledge in proper perspective:
As the Stock of the Tree affordeth Timber to build Houses and Cities, when the small though higher multifarious Branches are to make a Crows Nest, or a Blaze: so the Knowledge of God and of Jesus Christ, of Heaven and Holyness, doth build up the Soul to endless Blessedness, and affordeth it solid Peace and Comfort; when a multitude of School Niceties serve but for vain Janglings and hurtful Diversions and Contentions: and yet I would not dissuade my Reader from the perusal of Aquinas, Scotus, Ockam, Arminiensis, Durandus, or any such writer: for much Good may be gotten from them: But I would persuade him to study and live upon the essential doctrines of Christianity and Godliness, incomparably above them all.18
At a time when the shelves of Christian bookstores are glutted with trendy self-help and how-to books, perhaps we need to ask ourselves if we are careful to read only those books which “affordeth timber” to build ourselves up, as well as the body of Christ. Or, would they be more suitable for “a crows nest, or a blaze?”
It is doubtful if you, the reader, will be considered the “chief Protestant Schoolman” of this century. Few of us will ever approach the academic reputation or obtain the wealth of knowledge which Baxter possessed. But, is that our goal? No. If we will make God “the end, the object, and the life” of our studies, as Baxter did, He will determine the success of our labor and those given to our care will enjoy the fruits of our work.
How desperately the Body of Christ today needs those pastors who will draw fresh water from the inexhaustible well of the Word of God, to refresh and wash His lambs; Men who esteem a minute as gold, making the most of their time, for their own sake, as well as those in His body. Baxter is direct on this point: “…life is short, and we are dull, and eternal things are necessary, and the souls that depend on our teaching are precious.”19
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction. Proverbs 1:7
O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day. Psalm 119:97
When you come bring the cloak which I left at Troas with Carpus, and the books, especially the parchments. 2 Timothy 4:13
You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them; and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 2 Timothy 3:14 & 15
But beyond this , my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. Ecclesiastes 12:12
Nothing can be rightly known, if God be not known; nor is any study well managed, nor to any great purpose, if God is not studied. We know little of the creature, till we know it as it stands related to the Creator… Richard Baxter20
In my library I have profitably dwelt among the shining lights, with which the learned, wise, and holy men of all ages have illuminated the world. Richard Baxter21
The devil is a greater scholar than you, and a nimbler disputant… Richard Baxter22
I confess, necessity hath been the conductor of my studies and life. It chooseth what book I shall read, and tells me when, and how long. It chooseth my text, and makes my sermon, both for matter and manner, so far as I can keep out my own corruption. Richard Baxter23
To live among such excellent helps as our libraries afford, to have so many silent wise companions whenever we please – all these, and many other similar privileges of the ministry, bespeak our unwearied diligence in the work. Richard Baxter24
A Life still near to Death, did me possess,
With a deep sense of Time’s great preciousness. Richard Baxter25
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
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 58 [↩]
- “Baxter, Richard” Encyclopedia Britannica (New York, NY: 1910) 551 [↩]
- Martin Puritanism 122 [↩]
- Cited in Encyclopedia Americana (New york, NY: 1959), “Baxter, Richard,” Volume 3, 358 [↩]
- Geoffrey F. Nuttall Richard Baxter (Stanford University Press: Stanford, 1965) 2 & 3 [↩]
- Ibid. 1 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 12 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 5 & 6 [↩]
- Ibid., Part 1, 12 [↩]
- Titus 1:9 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 112 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Pt. 1, 5 [↩]
- Baxter cited in Martin Puritanism 189 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Pt. 1, 82 [↩]
- Powicke Richard Baxter 28 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 120 [↩]
- 2 Timothy 3:15b & 17b [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 127 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 113 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 56 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Dying Thoughts: The Christian’s Hope for the Life Hereafter (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1976) 112 [↩]
- Ibid., 74 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 113 [↩]
- Baxter Reformed Pastor 128 [↩]
- Richard Baxter’s Dying Thoughts (1683) 226, cited in N.H. Keeble, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters, Oxford, 1982, 12. [↩]