Richard Baxter was born 400 years ago, on 12 November 1615, at Rowton in Shropshire. He was educated at a number of places — Ludlow Castle, Eton Constantine, Donnington and Great Wroxeter.
His father was a member of the Shropshire gentry who in early life gambled away his inheritance, but just before Richard’s birth was wonderfully converted.
Richard in early life was ‘a pious child’, though one author adds: ‘During his boyhood he became addicted to the sins of disobedience to parents, lying, stealing fruit, etc., sins which afterwards greatly troubled his conscience and which he found great difficulty in mastering’.
While at school at Ludlow, he was tempted to follow his father’s gambling habits, but a remarkable thing happened during his first ever game of dice. He was playing the best gambler in the castle and it had become apparent that he would lose the game unless he obtained one particular cast of the dice several times in succession. The dice did give that particular cast each time and he won.
This astonishing success caused Richard to believe that the devil had managed the dice in order to make a gambler of him, so he renounced gambling for the rest of his life.
In Shropshire the Anglican clergy were very negligent of their duties. It was a place where James I’s famous Book of Sports (1618) was well regarded. This book taught that, as long as a man went to church once on the Sabbath, it was in order for him to play sports or pastimes for the rest of the day, since it kept him out of trouble and fit for military service.
In spite of this ethos, at the age of 15 Richard came under deep conviction of sin and became a true believer. Two books were instrumental in his conversion. One (never heard of these days) was Bunny’s resolution (by Edmund Bunny, 1540—1619);the other was Richard Sibbes’ Bruised reed. His father had bought the latter book 25 years earlier, before it was used by God in Richard’s conversion. Such is the power of Christian literature, even if a book has been left ‘lying around’!
In his teenage years Richard began to see himself as a dying man. Later he was to be known for saying that he ‘preached as a dying man to dying men’. When Richard was only 18 years old, one of his colleagues died. Shortly after that, he himself showed the symptoms of consumption. In fact, he didn’t have it, but was extremely ill for about two years.
During this time, Richard was given to great seriousness of mind and reflection upon the after-life. He read a book by Ezekiel Culverwell called Treatise of faith,which was about heaven, and in the twilight of each day, when it was impossible for him to read, he reflected on the glories of heaven.
During this period of illness God was preparing him for his future work. He recovered and began to study theology, believing the Lord was calling him into the ministry. He plunged into studying mediaeval scholasticslike Anselm and Duns Scotus. On one occasion some great tomes of their writings were balanced on a shelf that collapsed and fell on him. He was later to remark, ‘It was a wonder they didn’t beat my brains out!’
Later, he set out on a brief but ill rewarded venture to try his fortunes at the court of King Charles I. He was sickened by the atmosphere of the court and returned to Shropshire on hearing of the illness of his mother, glad to return home. His mother died some months afterwards, in 1634.
About this time too, Richard began to meet with and be influenced by zealous, godly nonconformists from the Shrewsbury area. These Puritans included Richard Simmonds and Walter Cradock. Baxter was favourably impressed and found that the popular feeling against these men and his own prejudice as a churchman were unfounded.
Also at this time, he was pressed by others to submit himself for ordination in the established church, though, he says, ‘with considerable ignorance and some suppressed scruples about certain beliefs and practices to which he was now being called to declare unfeigned assent’.
He nevertheless presented himself to the Bishop of Worcester as a candidate for deacon’s orders in the Church of England and was ordained on 23 December 1638, receiving the bishop’s licence to teach and preach.
He was appointed headmaster of the newly opened Richard Foley School, better known locally as Dudley Grammar School. Soon after he left Dudley and moved to St Leonards, Bridgnorth.
He later said of the people of Dudley that they were ‘a poor tractable people lately famous for drunkenness but commonly more ready to hear the Word of God with submission and reformation than most places’. Of the people of Bridgnorth he said they were ‘avery ignorant, dead-hearted people; the town consisting too much of inns and alehouses and having no general trade to employ the inhabitants, in which is the undoing of our great towns’!
By now Baxter had become Puritan in his convictions. He felt that he could not agree to making the sign of the cross in baptism, that he could not wear the surplice, and that he could not agree to everything in the Book of Common Prayer.
But in 1640 he began his ministry at Kidderminster under its vicar, Rev. George Dance. These were the days of Oliver Cromwell and the Long Parliament. This Parliament set out to remove the many disorders from parish churches and wrote to parishes inviting parishioners to put forward their grievances and complaints. Among the many replies received were complaints about the Vicar of Kidderminster!
This is not surprising, since Baxter, who was generous in his descriptions of others, described Mr Dance like this: ‘He is utterly insufficient for the ministry, he was presented by a papist, is unlearned, preached but once a quarter which was so weakly that it exposed him to laughter’.
After 15 months in Kidderminster, Baxter’s ministry was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. He was advised to leave Kidderminster when the mob beset him and accused him of being a traitor. He was far from being a traitor, but for his own safety left the town.
He joined Cromwell’s Model Army as a chaplain and was in Coventry when Cromwell fought the Battle of Naseby, not far away. Two days after the battle he visited the scene and spent his first night in the Parliamentary camp amongst the soldiers.
He remained with the army in Bristol, Worcester, Leicestershire, Staffordshire, Derbyshire and Cheshire. Then, during his time in Ashby-de-la-Zouch in the cold and snow of the winter of 1650, he fell seriously ill once more. It was then that he wrote his great work The saint’s everlasting rest, using only his Bible and a concordance.