Matthew Hill received Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Psychology from Columbia International University. Hill also received an M.A. and Ph.D. in History from Georgia State University. He has over 10 years of teaching experience as a professor and online instructor for courses like American History, Western Civilization, Religious History of the United States, and more.
Roots of a Puritan
It is ironic that someone who had little formal schooling was dubbed the 'Chief of the English Protestant Schoolmen.' Born in November 1615 in Rowton, England, Richard Baxter would grow up to become a prolific poet and theologian. Baxter was an only child who was primarily raised by his maternal grandparents until he was ten--his parents struggled with gambling, debt, and health issues, and they were and generally neglectful toward him. Baxter was an avid reader, but his formal education was haphazard at best, as he went through several tutors. His fortune took a turn for the best when he was provided tuition money to study at the distinguished Wroxeter, where Puritan John Owen was a master. It was at Wroxeter that Baxter confidence grew under caring teachers and mentors.
Baxter came of age during a turbulent time in English history. The country was split along both religious and political lines. The Anglican Church was the official church, but it was embattled by non-conformist groups such as the Puritans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. From 1641 to 1660, Baxter served as a curate or pastor in Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England. He was known for his passionate preaching style and uncompromising orthodoxy. In 1642, the English Civil War broke out, and Baxter served as an army chaplain, once even preaching in front of military and political leader Oliver Cromwell. Although Baxter sympathized with Parliamentary forces, he did not approve of Cromwell's overbearing behavior and, so he supported the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 under Charles II.
Despite his opposition to Cromwell, Baxter had a theological temperament, often serving as a peacemaker between Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists. This is mirrored in a saying Baxter is known to have used often: In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty, in all things, charity.
Illness and Heavenly Reflections
In 1647, Baxter fell seriously ill and even thought he might die. Despite the fact that the only book he had access to during this time was his Bible, he penned one of his most memorable works on heaven, Saint's Everlasting Rest. This work, as will be discussed below, demonstrates his devotional side.
Baxter in Prison
For what may seem a minor offense today, Baxter was imprisoned for preaching without a license. The new King Charles II wanted to squash non-conformists and return England to the Anglican fold under the Act of Uniformity in 1662. In some communities, such as Baxter's Kidderminster, many left the Anglican churches for private Bible studies like those that Baxter offered in his home. For this simple offense, Baxter and his wife were imprisoned together for 18 months. He remained in good cheer and was in good company, as the famous Puritan John Bunyan was imprisoned for the same offense.
In addition to his pastoral duties, Baxter was a prolific writer. His works are not considered profound or original theologically, per se, but they were designed to be more practical and devotional. His success in this endeavor is without question, given his most popular works remains in print and are still of interest to scholars.
The Reformed Pastor
One of his most-read books is The Reformed Pastor, which was designed as a manual for pastors. Baxter lays out the expectations of pastors, urging them to take their calling seriously and to govern their church with integrity and seriousness.
A Christian Directory
Another notable work is his massive A Christian Directory. This classic presents Baxter's theological views, and it's a pragmatic commentary on the Christian life written for the common reader. It is often pointed out that this work contains more than 1 million words.
Saint's Everlasting Rest
Baster's more devotional work is Saint's Everlasting Rest. This particular work was written while he was seriously ill in 1647, which caused him to leave the army. Seriously weak and even expecting to die, Baxter penned his thoughts on heaven. It was designed not only as a work of self-reflection, but also as encouragement to others.
Baxter's memoir, Reliquiae Baxterianae, covers his life from the 1620s to the 1680s and is considered an invaluable primary source for English studies in the 17th century. Given that Baxter found himself in the midst of so many key events, this work has enduring value for historians and theologians alike.
The fact that these particular works are still printed and read today speaks to their durability and longevity. Baxter, then, is not simply a key figure in Puritan history, but also a window into the politics and spiritual controversies of 17th-century England. In some respects, Baxter was not outstanding. He lived in an age of literary giants such as John Bunyan and John Milton. Yet what stood out, much like his contemporary Bunyan, was his common touch. In an age of religious and political turmoil, Baxter emphasized understanding and charity to those on the other side of the debate. His writings, while not philosophically profound, were practical, personal, devotional, and applicable to future generations of pastors. At his heart, he first and foremost remained a pastor. Baxter died in 1691 and was widely mourned by the Puritan community.
Richard Baxter is best remembered as a peacemaker and uncompromising voice of reason in the politically and theologically turbulent 17-century England. In his nearly 20 years of service as pastor in Kidderminster in Worcestershire, England, he shepherded his church and community with wisdom. He served as a chaplain during the English Civil War, but also supported the restoration of the monarchy. Despite this support, he was imprisoned for preaching without a license, which made him powerful enemies.
Perhaps the most important and enduring part of his legacy was his voluminous writings. Some of his classics include, The Reformed Pastor, Saint's Everlasting Rest, A Christian Directory, and his memoir and historical reflection Reliquiae Baxterianae. In an age of pastoral and literary giants, Baxter carved out a distinguished place for himself. This is best reflected in the fact that his life and works are still studied today.
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