RICHARD BAXTER: A PURITAN PREACHER
Never in the history of England were times more chaotic than
during the lifetime of Richard Baxter. Yet in spite of war,
division, persecution, and ill health, Baxter became one of
history’s most memorable preachers (Currier 1912:125). As
Kenneth Latourette depicts, the Puritan Richard Baxter
(1615-1691) had a noted record as a pastor during the
Commonwealth in reforming morals and religion within his
parish. He refused a bishopric under the Restoration of the
Stuart monarchy, was forbidden to preach, and was fined and
imprisoned. He was a voluminous author, but it is significant
that with him his best remembered work was on Christian life and
prayer, Saint’s Everlasting Rest (1975:824). Above all
things, he was a preacher who saw virtually the whole people in
his parish converted.
His Formative Years
During Baxter’s lifetime (1615-1691), the religious and
political life of England fragmented into scores of warring
camps. In 1603 James Stewart ascended the English throne.
James, a devout believer in the divine right of kings, committed
himself to the establishment of an absolute government. One of
the king's first acts was to announce a policy of opposition to
Puritanism. The Church of England then was composed of two
highly different groups: high church Anglicans, who leaned
toward formality and ritual; and the Puritans, who craved a
simpler service (Fant 1971:231-32).
Richard Baxter lived during the turmoil in the reign of
James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Charles II, James II, and
the coming of William of Orange. He was born on November 12,
1615 at Rowtown, Shropshire in England (Fant 1971:235).
Shropshire, where he spent his youth, was a part of England then
comparatively little influenced by the Puritan movement. His
parents were pious, middle-class people who gave him careful
religious training. In childhood, however, he heard the word
‘Puritan’ usually as a term of scorn in his neighborhood (Murray
Books, however, did penetrate where there was no worthy
preacher. About the age of fifteen Baxter was awakened and went
‘many a-day with a throbbing conscience’ through a reading of
Edmund Bunny’s Resolution. It was Richard Sibbes’
Bruised Reed which resolved this state of sorrow. The
book, he says, opened the love of God to him and gave him a
livelier apprehension of the Mystery of Redemption (Murray
Currier explains that Baxter’s decision to enter the ministry in
his nineteenth year was due to the serious impressions made by
his mother’s death and his narrow escape from death occurred
about the same time (1912:113).
In Baxter we find a case of rather unusual leadership
formation. He received no university training. He was
self-educated. Yet he was better educated than many who went
through the formal disciplines of academic life because he read
widely in all fields. When he was twenty-three year, he was
ordained in Worcester Cathedral. After two years of preaching
in various places without holding a settled pastorate, he went
to Kidderminster in 1640 as pastor (Fant 1971:235).
There were many dark shadows in Baxter’s life. He suffered from
a life-long health problem. Yet the aggravating weakness, the
excruciating pain, the coughing and spitting of blood, and the
constant ill irritations of a large kidney stone in later life,
contributed to the urgency of his preaching as “a dying man to
dying man” (Rooy 1965:67-68).
His Pastoral Theology of Mission
Baxter indicates his strong emphasis on mission in his pastoral
theology. In his farsightedness, he advocates what we can call
‘a mission/evangelism structure within the church.’
The Foundation for the Minister’s Duty
Baxter uses the commission of Christ as the foundation for the
minister’s duty to spread the gospel to unbelievers at home and
abroad. He holds the position that the authority conveyed by
the commission did not end with the apostles but carries
validity to the end of the world and necessitates preaching to
the whole world (Rooy 1965:154). This requires our attention
that this position was contrary to what many were teaching then.
Baxter acted on what he believed. As his philosophy of ministry
was evangelism, so was his direction of ministry. In addition
to his preaching, visiting and conferences, Baxter developed
other approaches to ministry and evangelism. He utilized laymen
intensively in his ministry. He believed that laymen should
visit those around them and share the Christian faith with
them. In short, he was mobilizing the evangelistic force of
laymen. Furthermore, He began prayer meeting throughout the
area and these prayer meetings for evangelism (Fant 1971:236).
Baxter believes that the primary message of the gospel is one of
good news and hope. We proclaim life and not death, salvation
and not damnation, pardon and not judgment, is the first, great,
and primary doctrine that is to be proclaimed. There is indeed
a message of wrath and death. But this is not the principle
message. As Baxter puts it, “There is mercy in God, there is
sufficiency in the satisfaction of Christ, the promise is free,
full, and universal: You may have life if you will but turn”
(1888: II. 516).
Baxter seems to imply that there is often a ‘sodality structure’
within a ‘modality structure’ of the Church. He classifies two
sorts of ministers: the unified ministers “who employ themselves
in converting infidels and in an itinerant service of the
churches, “and the stated, fixed ministers “having a special
charge of each particular church” (1888: I. 556). The former is
in the general ministry and, as such, is “a pastor in the
universal church,” (641) preaching to the unbelieving world as
the one who is dedicated, separated, and set apart to that
ministry (IV. 383).
The latter preaches to the congregation as their ordinary
teacher. However, a man may be made at once “a minister in
general, and the pastor of this or that church in particular:
and in kingdoms wholly unchurched and Christian, it is usually
fittest so to do…” (I. 641).
For Baxter, the first duty of the sacred ministry is to make the
world Christian and gather men into the church by teaching and
baptizing them (1888: IV. 151). He says, “Alas! The misery of
the unconverted is so great, that it calleth loudest to us for
our compassion” (: IV. 381).
The Christians’ Motive for Witnessing
Alexander H. Drysdale describes that “Baxter’s great desire was
to vitalize the popular religion and bring the quickening power
of the Gospel into direct contact with the masses” (1889:366).
Rooy summarizes Baxter’s view on Christian’s basic motive for
The Christian basic motive for witnessing is the love of
God. His glory is the ultimate end of all redemptive
action. The happiness of man may be called a proximate end,
since our happiness results from God; love to us and ours to
him. God’s glory is most clearly revealed to us in the
incarnate Christ. In response to Christ’s love and mercy,
and not from fear of wrath and judgment, the Christian loves
God. The love of God constrains man to love by Christ’s
blessed example of mercy. Our highest motive should be as
living images to show God to the world.
Rooy argues that the motive of pity increasingly awakened Baxter to
a sense of the need for foreign missions. The ignorance and tyranny
in so-called Christian lands, the miserable state of the heathen,
and the plague of the division of languages move him to confess:
“…there is nothing in the world that liyeth so heavy upon my heart,
as the thought of the miserable nations of the earth” ( 1965:154).
Expounding the instruction of new Christians, Baxter accentuates
essential doctrine. He proposes to begin with the greater
common truths in communicating the gospel (1888:I. 592). Put
the essential, necessary truths first (40). Teach all that is
of “felt necessity to salvation” (II. 387). Keep the smaller
controversial truths in the background; put the essential
necessary truths first (I. 40).
Baxter indicates that the public preaching of the word requires
greater skill and greater life and zeal because it is the
proclamation of the profound gospel message in simple language.
It is no small matter to stand up in the face of a congregation,
and deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the
living God, in the name of our Redeemer. It is no easy matter
to speak so plain, that the ignorant may understand us; and so
seriously, that the deadest hearts may feel us; and so
convincingly, that the contradicting cavilers may be silenced
(1888: IV. 383).
Baxter was one of the first preachers to emphasize an oral style
in preaching—a talking style—though he usually read his
sermons. Many of the passages in his published works, such as
The Call to the Unconverted, are transcripts of those
sermons that preserve his characteristic style—that give
evidence of a natural, conversational manner of delivery (Fant
and Pinson 1971:237).
This article is originally an excerpt from Dae Ryeong Kim's paper, "The Missionary Proclamation of the English Puritanism."