Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
552
BAXTER, RICHARD

He therefore removed to Gloucester, and afterwards (1643-1645) settled in Coventry, where he preached regularly both to the garrison and the citizens. After the battle of Naseby he took the situation of chaplain to Colonel Whalley’s regiment, and continued to hold it till February 1647. During these stormy years he wrote his Aphorisms of Justification, which on its appearance in 1649 excited great controversy.

Baxter’s connexion with the Parliamentary army was a very characteristic one. He joined it that he might, if possible, counteract the growth of the sectaries in that field, and maintain the cause of constitutional government in opposition to the republican tendencies of the time. He regretted that he had not previously accepted an offer of Cromwell to become chaplain to the Ironsides, being confident in his power of persuasion under the most difficult circumstances. His success in converting the soldiery to his views does not seem to have been very great, but he preserved his own consistency and fidelity in a remarkable degree. By public disputation and private conference, as well as by preaching, he enforced his doctrines, both ecclesiastical and political, and shrank no more from urging what he conceived to be the truth upon the most powerful officers than he did from instructing the meanest followers of the camp. Cromwell disliked his loquacity and shunned his society; but Baxter having to preach before him after he had assumed the Protectorship, chose for his subject the old topic of the divisions and distractions of the church, and in subsequent interviews not only opposed him about liberty of conscience, but spoke in favour of the monarchy he had subverted. There is a striking proof of Baxter’s insight into character in his account of what happened under these circumstances. Of Cromwell he says, “I saw that what he learned must be from himself.” It is worthy of notice that this intercourse with Cromwell occurred when Baxter was summoned to London to assist in settling “the fundamentals of religion,” and made the memorable declaration, in answer to the objection that what he had proposed as fundamental “might be subscribed by a Papist or Socinian,”—“So much the better, and so much the fitter it is to be the matter of concord.” In 1647 he was staying at the home of Lady Rouse of Rouse-Lench, and there, in much physical weakness, wrote a great part of his famous work, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650). On his recovery he returned to his charge at Kidderminster, where he also became a prominent political leader, his sensitive conscience leading him into conflict with almost every one of the contending parties in state and church. His conduct now, as at all times, did “credit to his conscientiousness rather than to his wisdom.”

After the Restoration in 1660 Baxter, who had helped to bring about that event, settled in London. He preached there till the Act of Uniformity took effect in 1662, and was employed in seeking for such terms of comprehension as would have permitted the moderate dissenters with whom he acted to have remained in the Church of England. In this hope he was sadly disappointed. There was at that time on the part of the rulers of the church no wish for such comprehension, and their object in the negotiations that took place was to excuse the breach of faith which their rejection of all reasonable methods of concession involved. The chief good that resulted from the Savoy conference was the production of Baxter’s Reformed Liturgy, a work of remarkable excellence, though it was cast aside without consideration. The same kind of reputation which Baxter had obtained in the country he secured in the larger and more important circle of the metropolis. The power of his preaching was universally felt, and his capacity for business placed him at the head of his party. He had been made a king’s chaplain, and was offered the bishopric of Hereford, but he could not accept the offer without virtually assenting to things as they were. This he could not do, and after his refusal he was not allowed, even before the passing of the Act of Uniformity, to be a curate in Kidderminster, though he was willing to serve that office gratuitously. Bishop Morley even prohibited him from preaching in the diocese of Worcester. Baxter, however, found much consolation in his marriage on the 24th of September 1662 with Margaret Charlton, a woman like-minded with himself. She died in 1681.

From the ejectment of 1662 to the indulgence of 1687, Baxter’s life was constantly disturbed by persecution of one kind or another. He retired to Acton in Middlesex, for the purpose of quiet study, and was dragged thence to prison for keeping a conventicle. The mittimus was pronounced illegal and irregular, and Baxter procured a habeas corpus in the court of common pleas. He was taken up for preaching in London after the licences granted in 1672 were recalled by the king. The meetinghouse which he had built for himself in Oxendon Street was closed against him after he had preached there but once. He was, in 1680, seized in his house, and conveyed away at the risk of his life; and though he was released that he might die at home, his books and goods were distrained. He was, in 1684, carried three times to the sessions house, being scarcely able to stand, and without any apparent cause was made to enter into a bond for £400 in security for his good behaviour.

But his worst encounter was with the chief justice, Sir George Jeffreys, in May 1685. He had been committed to the king’s bench prison on the ridiculous charge of libelling the Church in his Paraphrase on the New Testament, and was tried before Jeffreys on this accusation. The trial is well known as among the most brutal perversions of justice which have occurred in England, though it must be remembered that no authoritative report of the trial exists. If the partisan account on which tradition is based is to be accepted, it would appear that Jeffreys himself acted like an infuriated madman. (See Jeffreys, Sir George.) Baxter was sentenced to pay 500 marks, to lie in prison till the money was paid, and to be bound to his good behaviour for seven years. It was even asserted at the time that Jeffreys proposed he should be whipped at the cart’s tail through London. The old man, for he was now seventy, remained in prison for eighteen months, when the government, vainly hoping to win his influence to their side, remitted the fine and released him.

During the long time of oppression and injury which followed the ejectment, Baxter was sadly afflicted in body. His whole life was indeed one continued illness, but in this part of it his pain and languor had greatly increased. Yet this was the period of his greatest activity as a writer. He was a most voluminous author, his separate works, it is said, amounting to 168. They are as learned as they are elaborate, and as varied in their subjects as they are faithfully composed. Such treatises as the Christian Directory, the Methodus Theologiae Christianae, and the Catholic Theology, might each have occupied the principal part of the life of an ordinary man. His Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter records the virtues of his wife, and reveals on the part of Baxter a tenderness of nature which might otherwise have been unknown. His editors have contented themselves with re-publishing his “Practical Works,” and his ethical, philosophical, historical and political writings still await a competent editor.

The remainder of Baxter’s life, from 1687 onwards, was passed in peace and honour. He continued to preach and to publish almost to the end. He was surrounded by attached friends, and reverenced by the religious world. His saintly behaviour, his great talents, and his wide influence, added to his extended age, raised him to a position of unequalled reputation. He helped to bring about the downfall of James II. and complied with the Toleration Act under William and Mary. He died in London on the 8th of December 1691, and his funeral was attended by churchmen as well as dissenters. A similar tribute of general esteem was paid to him nearly two centuries later, when a statue was erected to his memory at Kidderminster in July 1875.

Baxter was possessed by an unconquerable belief in the power of persuasive argument. He thought every one was amenable to reason—bishops and levellers included. And yet he was as far as possible from being a quarrelsome man. He was at once a man of fixed belief and large appreciation, so that his dogmatism and his liberality sometimes came into collision. His popularity as a preacher was deservedly pre-eminent; but no more diligent student ever shut himself up with his books. He was singularly fitted for intellectual debate, but his devotional tendency was equally strong with his logical aptitude. Some of his writings, from their metaphysical subtilty, will always puzzle the learned;