Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always even to the end of the age.
Matthew 28:19 & 20
A schoolmaster must take a personal account of his scholars, or else he is like to do little good. If physicians should read a public lecture on physic, their patients would not be much the better of them; nor would a lawyer secure your estate by reading a lecture on law. Now, the charge of a pastor requireth personal dealing, as well as any of these.
Baxter enjoyed immense popularity during his own lifetime for his preaching and writing. But, he is remembered best for his work of discipling at Kidderminster and the phenomenal transformation which took place there.
He came to Kidderminster, a parish of about 4000 people, as the assistant to an incompetent vicar, among “an ignorant, rude and revelling People,” with only a handful of believers.2
In his first year, he was ridiculed as a Puritan and mocked in effigy at the annual town fair. Twenty years later, he left a vibrant, lively body of Christians. These are his own words:
My publick Preaching met with an attentive diligent auditory!.. The Congregation was usually full, so that we were fain to build five Galleries after my coming thither…Our private Meetings also were full. On the Lord’s Days there was no disorder to be seen in the Streets, but you might hear an hundred Families singing Psalms and repeating Sermons, as you passed through the Streets.3
The believers there continued to bear fruit after Baxter moved away to London:
And the Zeal and Knowledge of this poor People provoked many in other parts of the Land. And though I have been now absent from them about six Years and they have been assaulted with Pulpit-Calumnies, and Slanders, with Threatenings and Imprisonments, enticing Words, and seducing Reasonings and they yet stand fast and keep their Integrity…4
Baxter recognized that the revival at Kidderminster was all God’s doing, but he also observed that God uses human means to achieve His ends. Baxter’s means of making disciples was one on one, teaching and applying the basic truths of Christianity. “Make disciples of all nations…” That is the goal of all Christian teaching. Baxter said it well:
The ministerial work must be carried on purely for God and the salvation of souls, not for any private ends of our own…Hard studies, much knowledge, and excellent preaching, if the ends be not right is but more glorious hypocritical sinning.5
What was the content and the aim of Baxter’s teaching and preaching? He preached once each Sunday (twice before the War) and once on Thursday, focusing on:
the great Fundamental Principles of Christianity contained in their Baptismal Covenant, even a right knowledge of, and subjection and love to, God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; and Love to all Men, and Concord with the Church and one another…6
He would occasionally introduce a subject “above their own discovery,” in order to keep them humble and teachable, staying clear of controversy and “Novelties of Doctrine.” Always, Baxter’s goal was to “increase their Knowledge; and also to make Religion pleasant to them, by a daily addition to their former Light, and to draw them on with desire and Delight.”7
As far as intellect and godliness, Baxter stood head and shoulders above the poor people of Kidderminster. Also, in seventeenth-century England, the contrast between clergy and laity was sharp, with ministers being regarded as a privileged class. Baxter’s distinguished life and the class distinctions of the times might cause us to conclude that he stayed aloof from the more common sort. But, Baxter was a servant leader, possessing those qualities required of an overseer outlined in 1 Timothy 3. Hospitality and intimacy were essential elements in Baxter’s style of teaching; a style which was developed early in life and bore abundant fruit at Kidderminster.
On Thursday evenings, his home was open to neighbors. This was an informal meeting where they would sing a psalm and someone would repeat the sermon from the previous Sunday. Baxter answered doctrinal questions, gently responded to any objections, and applied Biblical principles to real-life situations. Then he would ask one or two to pray, helping those who were timid or afraid. It was in these home meetings, face to face, discussing daily trials and situations, that Baxter was able to demonstrate to God’s people that His Word really is “living and active.”8 It was there that prayers were offered and answered, and lives were changed eternally.
The foregoing sounds somewhat like our modern Bible study group. We take such meetings for granted, but in Baxter’s day this was quite an innovation. The Reformation had only recently taken hold in England. The average person rarely prayed, except from the prayer book, and a good sermon was the best instruction anyone could hope to have. But, Baxter learned from Jesus, that disciples are made through close and personal instruction, dialogue, and example.
What proved to be the most effective and fruitful method of instruction was Baxter’s system of privately catechizing, or systematically teaching every member of the flock. Monday and Tuesday afternoons were set aside by Baxter and his assistant to spend an hour with each family. Baxter would meet with the people in town and his good friend, Mr. Richard Sergeant, would visit those in the surrounding countryside. By following this schedule, they were certain to meet with every member of the large congregation at least once a year and sometimes more often.
During these meetings, Baxter would have family members recite a simple catechism and then explain the sense of the doctrines. If some members of the family were shy, he would talk to them privately. He took great pains to gently draw them out. Baxter was careful not to embarrass those who were simple-minded, but still help them to grow in their faith as much as possible. Finally, he would address their individual strengths and weaknesses, urging them to “holy and blameless conduct.”
So many good things happened during these hours of private instruction! Many were reminded of their profession of faith and renewed in their desire to worship and serve God. The young people learned how to pray as they watched Baxter tenderly teaching their own parents to pray without form prayers — some for the first time! It gave them opportunity to question Baxter about the Bible and he was able to adapt his public teaching to the actual needs of individuals, as well as the whole congregation.
The positive effects of this work were enormous. First, Baxter found that this arduous and time consuming program was, in reality, a much more efficient and fruitful manner of teaching than any other. His experience showed that:
our private Meetings were a marvellous help to the propagating of Godliness… for thereby Truths that slipt away were recalled, and the seriousness of the Peoples minds renewed; and good desires cherished; and hereby their knowledge was much increased…9 some ignorant persons, who have been so long unprofitable hearers, have got more knowledge and remorse of conscience in half an hour’s close discourse, than they did from ten years’ public preaching.10
By meeting privately with Baxter, they came to see that he loved and cared for them. The same was true of Baxter. The narrow “Puritan ” slowly transformed into the devoted shepherd, as Baxter’s concern for the flock and their affection for him both increased.
Time passed and the majority of the church at Kidderminster followed Baxter’s example of making disciples. He practiced the ideals expressed in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, “equipping the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” and the gospel spread through the homes and shops of Kidderminster. Baxter blessed God for:
the Zeal and the diligence of the Godly People of the Place; who thirsted after the Salvation of their Neighbours, and were in private my Assistants, and being dispersed through the Town, were ready in almost all Companies to repress seducing Words, and to justify godliness, and convince, reprove, exhort Men according to their needs; as also to teach them how to pray; and to help them sanctifie the Lord’s Day…11
Yes, the revival at Kidderminster was all God’s doing, through the gifts and service of His entire body there. This was no one man show and it is commendable that Baxter not only believed this, but taught it, lived it, and praised God for it.
The crowning success of Baxter’s personal instruction in the basics of the Christian faith was unity.
In the seventeenth chapter of John, Jesus prayed for those who would believe on Him through the word of the apostles. He asked , “that they may all be as one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me.”12
Jesus’ prayer was answered at Kidderminster:
And our Unity and Concord was a great Advantage to us, and our freedom from those Sects and Heresies which many other Places were infected with. We had no private Church, though we had private Meetings; we had not Pastor against Pastor, nor Church against Church, nor Sect against Sect, nor Christian against Christian…But we were all of one Mind, and Mouth, and Way…When People saw diversity of Sects and Churches in any Place, it greatly hindred [sic] their conversion; and they were at a loss, and knew not what Party to be of, or what Way to go…But they had no such offence or Objection there; they could not ask, which church or Party shall I be of; for we were all but as one…13
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser, Teach a righteous man, and he will increase his learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Proverbs 9: 9 & 10
Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and so teaches others, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:19
And these things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, these entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also. 2 Timothy 2:2
And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
…we shall have the best opportunity to impress the truth upon their hearts, when we can speak to each individual’s particular necessity, and say to the sinner, “thou art the man;” and plainly mention his particular case; and set home the truth with familiar importunity. Richard Baxter14
For my part, I study to speak as plainly and movingly as I can…and yet I frequently meet with those that have been my hearers eight or ten years, who know not whether Christ be God or man, and wonder when I tell them the history of his birth and life and death, as if they had never heard it before. Richard Baxter15
Give them Scripture proof of all you say, that they may see that it is not you only, but God by you that speaketh to them. Richard Baxter16
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 179 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 20 [↩]
- Ibid., 84 [↩]
- Ibid., 86 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 111 [↩]
- Ibid., 93 [↩]
- Ibid., 93 [↩]
- Hebrews 4:12 [↩]
- Richard Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae Part 1, 88 [↩]
- Baxter The Reformed Pastor 196 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 87 [↩]
- John 17:21 [↩]
- Baxter Reliquiae Baxterianae 87 [↩]
- Ibid., 175 [↩]
- Ibid., 196 [↩]
- Ibid., 254 [↩]