An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife…
1 Timothy 3:2
…I am not ashamed to have been much ruled by her prudent love in many things. And you will the less wonder when I have told you what she and I were.
It may be natural to suppose that a man so serious, so scholarly, and so immersed in the shepherding of others would be poorly suited for married life. Yet, Richard Baxter, “the husband of one wife,” is a fine example of the one-woman man, described by Paul in 1 Timothy 3. Frederick J. Powicke pinpoints in Baxter the kind of single-hearted devotion to a wife which Paul considers essential in a married pastor:
Baxter’s love for his wife was a worshipful love. He thought of her as being superior to himself, whom it was as much his privelege to follow in many things as his business to lead; and his one regret was that he proved less worthy of her love than he ought to have been.2
In many ways Margaret Baxter really was superior to Richard. His marriage reveals still another facet in Baxter’s exceptional abilities as a shepherd and one which modern pastors may want to pay particular attention to; his spirit of humility and submission to others. With men, the relationship with their wives will often reveal the depth or shallowness of their humility and so, their suitability to the task of humble, servant leadership within the Body of Christ.
Baxter, the confirmed bachelor, was well known among his contemporaries for his strong views discouraging the marriage of ministers. While he never crossed the Scriptures by declaring the marriage of pastors unlawful, he did caution those with a desire to oversee a flock:
The work of the sacred ministry is enough to take up the whole man, if he had the strength and parts of many men…In the primitive Church every congregation had many ministers; but covetousness of clergy and people will now allow scarce two to very great parishes… Believe it, he that will have a wife must spend much of his time in her conference, prayer, and other family duties… And if he have children, O how much care, time and labour they will require.3
So, it came as no surprise that his relationship and marriage in September of 1662 to Margaret Charlton, who was but half his age, caused a stir among his powerful enemies in the church and the court. They were quick to point to Baxter’s apparent hypocrisy and even intimated that he had married for her considerable wealth. But Baxter maintained and the facts reveal that he never profited from the union, nor did he marry until he “was silent and ejected, and had no flock or pastoral cure.”4 This also gives us insight into the remarkable character of Margaret Charlton. She joined herself to Baxter in his darkest hour, when he had fallen into disfavor with the ruling parties, barred from ministry in the state church and facing certain persecution.
Initially, there was no mutual attraction between the two. Baxter, the Puritan, was too busy and the aristocratic Margaret too worldly. When she first came to Kidderminster she was put off by the piety and poverty of the believers there. But, soon the Spirit began stirring within her and “these convictions did neither die, nor yet pass to despair, but to serious conversion…”5 Her spiritual transformation was swift, so that eavesdropping servants commented later upon the length and seriousness of her secret prayers soon after she came to Christ.
Baxter would discover later that Margaret’s love for him was awakening at Kidderminster, shortly after her conversion. But, any hopes she may have had of him returning her affections were certainly deemed futile in light of his views on marriage and his preoccupation with the work at Kidderminster. But, all that changed with his move to London in 1660 and ejection in 1662.
Margaret and her mother followed Baxter to London and it appears that, in the midst of his setbacks, he was pleased to have friends from Kidderminster so close at hand. The three attended worship together at the parish church each week and Baxter was always a welcome guest in the Charlton home. In January of 1661, Mrs. Charlton died leaving Margaret alone. This event coupled with Baxter’s banishment from Kidderminster opened the way for their marriage and marked the beginning of “a Puritan love-story”:
When we were married, her sadness and melancholy vanished…And we lived in inviolated love and mutual complacency sensible of the benefit of mutual help. These near nineteen years I know not that we ever had any breach in the point of love, or point of interest…6
Powicke illustrates the quality of their marriage with this sketch:
They were fond of singing Psalms to sacred music. And (says Baxter) ‘it was not the least comfort that I had in the converse of my late dear wife that our first in the morning and last in bed at night was a Psalm of Praise till the hearing of others interrupted it.’
A husband and wife who began and ended each day with a ‘Psalm of Praise’ sung so heartily as to evoke a protest from the neighbours need no further testimony to their mutual content!7
Years alone had made Baxter oblivious to the affairs of running a household, so he was happy to have one so efficient manage his affairs. Margaret’s ability to keep house became a source of wonder to him:
Her household affairs she ordered with so great skill and decency, as that others much praised that which I was no fit judge of. I had been bred among plain, mean [humble] people, and I thought that so much washing of stairs and rooms, to keep them as clean as their trenchers [bowls] and dishes and so much ado about cleanliness and trifles, was a sinful curiosity, and expense of servants’ time, who might have been reading some good book. But she that was otherwise bred had somewhat other thoughts.8
The Baxter household, like all but the poorest of the period, had servants. Margaret was a kind and caring mistress to them, overlooking their faults and mistakes. She insisted that Baxter catechize them once a week and teach them from the Bible at their morning and evening prayers. Sometimes Baxter would be caught up in his studies and so forget his duties. Margaret gently reminded him with an “expression” of “trouble” on her face,9 a habit Baxter came to appreciate. He was aware of his faults and appreciated her loving correction.
Unlike others, servants in the Baxter home were treated as family:
She had an earnest desire of the conversion and salvation of her servants, and was greatly troubled that so many of them (although tolerable in their work) went away ignorant, or strange to true godliness, as they came; and such as were truly converted with us she loved as children.10
Baxter, the scholar and recluse, was unpolished in the social graces. That fact, coupled with his constant pain, sometimes caused him to become testy or rude while at home. So, Margaret gently scolded him when he was careless or rash in his speech. Writes Baxter,” if my very looks seemed not pleasant, she would have me amend them (which my weak and pained state of body undisposed me to do)…”11 Rather than consider her a nuisance, he welcomed her “greater exactness” and the peaceful atmosphere which it produced in their home.
Margaret was even a help to him in his writing, being somewhat of an intellectual herself. Letters to William Baxter, Richard’s nephew and a recognized classical scholar, reveal that she was conversant in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew grammar.12 But, her real strength was in her wisdom and her practical application of Scripture to life’s problems. Baxter was not ashamed to declare her superiority:
…her apprehension of such things was so much quicker, and more discerning than mine… She would at the first hearing understand the matter better than I could do by many and long thoughts… Yes, I will say that… except in cases that required learning and skill in theological difficulties, she was better at resolving a case of conscience than most divines that ever I knew in all my life… Insomuch that of late years, I confess, that I was used to put all, save secret cases, to her and hear what she could say… and she would lay all the circumstances together, compare them, and give me a more exact resolution than I could do.13
Baxter’s praise carries much weight in light of the fact that he produced A Christian Directory, the 948 page volume which Dr. Timothy Keller deemed “…the greatest manual on Biblical counseling ever produced…” This directory contains question after question concerning the Christian’s duty in literally hundreds of specific situations. Written over a period of two years in their home at Acton, one wonders how many of these cases and topics were put to Margaret for consideration before being put to ink by Baxter.14
Margaret was a clever and resourceful ,”Proverbs 31 woman.” After being cast aside for a decade, Baxter had resigned himself to the fact that he would never again preach to gatherings larger than their small home could contain. Although Richard had been banished from public ministry, Mr. and Mrs. Baxter were permitted to worship at the local parish church every Sunday. Afterwards, Mrs. Baxter would invite some of their poor neighbors in to be taught by Baxter, attracting small crowds who otherwise would never set foot in the parish chapel. This was dangerous business and exposed the Baxters to considerable trouble, but how else would these people hear the good news, she reasoned?
The Baxters continued to touch many lives one by one, but Margaret was not content to see her husband shut away in the country while thousands in the slums of London were deprived of any gospel preaching. In 1673 she contrived a scheme which Baxter remembers:
At London, when she saw me too dull and backward to seek any employment till I was called…she first fisht out of me in what place I most desired more preaching. I told her in St. Martin’s Parish, where are said to be forty thousand more than can come into the Church…where neighbors many live like Americans, and have heard no Sermon of many years.15
Immediately she rented a large upstairs room where Baxter could preach Sunday mornings and another minister was hired to preach in the evening. During the first meeting the crowd was so great that the floor beam gave out a loud crack which “set them all on running, and crying out the windows for ladders.” Mrs. Baxter pushed her way downstairs through the crowd and immediately found a carpenter, who went under the floor and propped up the beam. The next day they pulled up the flooring and found the beam held by a sliver and “took it for a wonder that the house fell not suddenly.”16 The building could not contain the crowds attracted by Baxter’s preaching.
Not to be defeated, she settled her accounts and set out to have a new chapel built from the ground up on a vacant lot. Baxter preached the first Sunday after its completion, but had to travel to the country on business the following week. Mrs. Baxter hired Mr. Seddon to preach the next Lord’s Day. Baxter’s enemies, thinking he would be there on Sunday, got a warrant for his arrest and sent three justices. They arrested Mr. Seddon in his place “and all the burden lay on her to maintain him, to visit and comfort him, to pay the lawyer and discharge all fees…”17 He spent nearly three months in jail and Mrs. Baxter supported his family from her own funds.
Baxter could not safely preach there again, so Margaret hired a good, licensed pastor to preach in the new chapel and then set out to find another where Baxter might minister unmolested. Over and over, Margaret contracted a chapel, Baxter was prevented from preaching, and she would raise support for a licensed pastor to come shepherd the poor who flooded in. She also set up a school in St. Jame’s parish, to teach poor children to read and receive Christian instruction. Ironically, the efforts of Baxter’s enemies who proclaimed Christ “out of selfish ambition”18 and Mrs. Baxter’s zeal, worked together to spread the gospel throughout the slums of London.
Margaret’s zeal for good works was not without consequence. She was naturally timorous, “like the treble strings of a lute, strained up to the highest, sweet, but in continual danger.”19 Like her husband, she was frail and often sickly. Sometime in 1678 she began experiencing pain in one of her breasts. She feared cancer, so began restricting her diet and employed other folk remedies to fight it off. She became gravely ill for twelve days and died on June 14, 1681. Her selfless life “cost her not only her labour and estate, but somewhat of her trouble of body and mind; for her knife was too keen and cut the sheath.”20 Margaret had found true Life by losing her own life for the sake of her Master. Baxter was not bitter with the loss of Margaret, but instead acknowledged the Lord’s goodness to him:
The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away: and He hath taken away but that upon my desert, which He had given me undeservedly near nineteen years. Blessed be the name of the Lord. I am waiting to be next. The door is open. Death will quickly draw the veil, and make us see how near we were to God and one another, and did not sufficiently know it. Farewel(l) vain world, and welcom(e) true everlasting Life.21
His heart broken, the man so acquainted with grief and suffering, who lived everyday in expectation of his own death, saw to it that even in hers, Margaret’s example would continue to influence others for the kingdom of God. Within the year he had penned a short account of her life to show us that “…God’s service lieth more in deeds than in words.”22
Baxter married but once. He was truly a “one-woman man,” regarding his wife as his companion, his equal in the Lord. Rather than resent her for her charm and abilities, he humbly, almost eagerly, welcomed her instruction and positive influence in their home. When his faith and evangelistic fire diminished, she fanned the flame; When he had no wisdom to impart, he sought hers; And, when his disposition was sometimes sour, he was tempered by her gentle reminders.
It is no secret that the Bride of Christ is troubled by far too many ambitious, controlling, headstrong men. While they carefully preach about each member’s indispensability to Christ’s body, they practically deny the Biblical doctrine with their independent, autocratic leadership style. How the church today needs men like Baxter; humble, teachable men who understand that Christian ministry is the vocation of every believer, not just leaders. And, what better example of Christian humility than pastors who will patiently and thankfully bear the loving rebukes of their wives, as well as their local fellowship of believers. Let us learn Biblical submission, as Baxter did, by being “much ruled” by the love of brothers and sisters.
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
An excellent wife, who can find? For her worth is far above jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, And he will have no lack of gain. She does him good and not evil All the days of her life. Proverbs 31:10-12
Charm is deceitful and beauty in vain, But a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. Give her the product of her hands, And let her works praise her in the gates. Proverbs 31:30 & 31
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her Ephesians 5:25
My dear wife did look for more good in me than she found, especially lately in my weakness and decay. We are all like pictures that must not be looked at too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know. Richard Baxter23
To chuse a participation of such life that had no encouragement from any worldly wealth or honour, yea that was exposed to certain suffering which had no end in prospect on this side death, did show that she was far from covetousness. Richard Baxter24
Why should my heart be fixed where my home is not? Heaven is my home; God in Christ is all my happiness: and where my treasure is, there my heart should be. Margaret Charlton Baxter25
For she oft said, that before she married me she expected more sourness and unsuitableness than she found; yet I am sure that she found less zeal and holiness and strictness in all words, and looks and duties, and less help for her soul than she expected. Richard Baxter26
O what is He providing for me? What entertainment with Him shall I shortly find? Not such as He found with man, when He came to seek us. It is not a manger, a crown of thorns, a cross, that He is preparing for me: when I have had my part of these in following Him. I shall have my place in the glorious Jerusalem. Margaret Charlton Baxter27
Did not Christ say of Mary’s box of ointment, that it should be remembered wherever that gospel was preached?…It was not mine that she gave, but her own, that I am now mentioning, and what she procured. Richard Baxter28
And her carriage won more love than her liberality; she could not endure to hear one give another any sowr, rough or hasty word. Her speech and countenance was always kind and civil, whether she had anything to give or not. Richard Baxter29
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- Richard Baxter, Richard Baxter and Margaret Charlton: A Puritan Love-Story, Being the Breviate of the Life of Margaret Baxter, 1681 (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1928) 126 [↩]
- Frederick J. Powicke, The Reverend Richard Baxter Under the Cross (1662-1691), (London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1927) 108 [↩]
- Ibid., 155-6 [↩]
- Ibid., 156 [↩]
- Ibid., 73 [↩]
- Ibid., 110 [↩]
- Frederick J. Powicke, A Puritan Idyll or The Reverend Richard Baxter’s Love Story, (Manchester: Longman’s Green and Co., 1918) 18 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Breviate, 137 [↩]
- Frederick J. Powicke A Puritan Idyll 17 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Breviate, 136 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Breviate, 129 [↩]
- Frederick J. Powicke A Puritan Idyll 29 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Breviate, 127 [↩]
- Richard Baxter A Christian Directory (Ligonier, PA. Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1990 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Breviate, 115-16 [↩]
- Ibid., 116-17 [↩]
- Ibid., 119 [↩]
- Philippians 1:17 [↩]
- Richard Baxter, Breviate, 146 [↩]
- Ibid. , 113 [↩]
- Ibid., 160 [↩]
- Ibid., 154 [↩]
- Ibid., 152 [↩]
- Ibid., 152 [↩]
- Ibid., 80 [↩]
- Ibid., 142 [↩]
- Ibid., 100 [↩]
- Ibid., 126 [↩]
- Ibid., 112 [↩]
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