Aaron Sandvig

Marcy Rebandt

October 1, 2003

REL 319

Prof. Westblade



The Ministerial and Political Life of Richard Baxter



Although Richard Baxter is grouped with the Puritans, he is an exceptional case. Baxter was of the mind that there should be no sects within the Church. He claimed to only be “Christian and Catholike.”[1] He did not claim to agree wholly with the Calvinists, but did agree on some points like election. He disagreed with Calvin about irresistible grace and limited atonement. Later in his life he became a “Non-Conformist” and was involved in a movement that stressed the importance of unity among true believers.[2] Baxter’s main interest was to cling to what he called a “mere Christianity” and not quarrel about the things that were not necessary to believe to be a Christian.[3]

Baxter was born in 1615 in Rowton, England, and lived there during his early school years.[4] His early education was given by ignorant men, some of which were also immoral.[5] Later in his education he was taught by Mr. John Owen of the Free School of Wroxeter.[6] During this time in his life (somewhere around the age of fifteen), Baxter was converted. He recounts in his autobiography that he was brought to salvation by pangs of guilt after robbing orchards with “rude boys,” and afterward reading a book called Bunny’s Resolution. He says that it is through the reading of this book that “it pleased God to awaken [his] soul.”[7]

After this time in his life, he did not go to university as was the usual case for young men in his situation, but went to study under a clergyman at Ludlow.[8] Mr. Wickstead, the clergyman, loved Baxter and allowed him the books and the time to read. Baxter said that in this situation, he neither received guidance for nor hindrance from his studies.[9] At Ludlow, Baxter had liberty to use the library as he pleased, and there formed a great love of books and reading.[10]

In the year 1638, Baxter was ordained by the Bishop of Worcester and preached at various places until 1641 when he was called to minister at Kidderminster.[11] His call to Kidderminster was prompted by his having preached there once and the church’s bad experiences with ministers in the past.[12] During Baxter’s ministry in Kidderminster, the church was “utterly transformed.”[13] His ministry at Kidderminster was interrupted by the Civil War, and he had to leave for a short time. His ministry at Kidderminster lasted until 1660, when he went to London to preach at various places there. He was offered a bishopric in Hereford by Charles II, but Baxter refused because he was a proclaimed Non-Conformist.[14]

In 1662, Baxter left the Church of England with other ministers knows as the “non-conformists”, and decided to marry Mary Charleton.[15] At the time, Baxter was forty-seven years old and Mary was twenty-three. She was a woman of wealth, high social standing, and was a wonderful helpmeet to Baxter by going with him to prison and using her money to help fellow sufferers.[16] After 1660, the tighter uniformity laws in England were harsh against Non-Conformists like Baxter.[17] He was imprisoned for his continual preaching that did not meet the requirements of the Act of Uniformity on two separate occasions.[18]

During his lifetime, Baxter published many of his sermons, primarily because his sickly nature made the written sermons more effective than those given in the church.[19] However, the four main works for which he is primarily known are more significant in scope that his sermons: The Saints Everlasting Rest, A Call to the Unconverted, The Reformed Pastor, and A Holy Commonwealth. The Saints Everlasting Rest was written in Baxter’s early years when he believed he was on his death bed. His inspiration came from looking towards his own everlasting rest.[20] A Call to the Unconverted was Baxter’s great evangelical work which became quite popular and many copies were published.[21] The Reformed Pastor was Baxter’s work in which he urged the reformation of ministers in order to bring about the reformation of the church. He argued in this book that the church will follow the ministry where it leads.[22] The last of these was a political treatise concerning Christian government.

A Holy Commonwealth is distinct from his other noted works because it touches on an area of his life which is less frequently discussed even though it made up a large portion thereof. This book, though later renounced by him in 1670, was his justification for the English Civil War. Although he was a minister he served in arms for a number of years under the Parliamentary army. He saw that the “public good commanded” him.[23] Throughout his life as well as his works he made it clear that he did not whole-heartedly support parliament. However, he viewed their case as stronger regarding the rights of the people.[24]

For this reason he wrote A Holy Commonwealth. In it he lays out an argument for how a government is established, where it derives its power, what a ruler’s obligations are to his subjects, what the subjects’ duties to their ruler are, etc. His ideas are in almost every respect antithetical to the modern man’s. He would have heartily disagreed with Thomas Jefferson that anyone was born with such “God-given rights” enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. For he says,

God hath appointed both in Nature and Scripture, that the world be divided into

Rulers and Ruled, Officers and mere Subjects; and that the Officers Govern under

Him, by Authority derived from him, and the people obey them as his Officers. And he hath not left it to the choice of the Nations whether they will have Government or not.[25]


However, many would make claims that a ruler by being harsh or cruel would disengage himself from his office and thereby allow dissension from his subjects. Baxter flatly denies this sort of logic: “Subjects are not allowed to resist; when ever they are confident that Rulers would destroy the Commonwealth: much less when they would but cross them in their opinions, or hurt them in their personal Interests. And least of all may they depose their rulers.”[26] All of these principles flow from the Law of Nature. However, when men enter into a government by a willing contract, that contract may justly be enforced by whichever powers have been agreed upon. In the case of England, their Common Law tradition allowed certain rights to its citizens. These rights were represented and upheld by Parliament which constituted as justly as the king did a portion of the government’s sovereign power. Although the King was higher in station and overall power he had to recognize the legitimate power that Parliament had which was intended to support the cause of the people. Therefore when the King went against this sovereign power he was challenging the overall sovereign power of England, of which he was only a part. Baxter says “so have they [Parliament] part in the Soveraignty also, in their higher capacity, by the Constitution.”[27] This is where Baxter saw justification for opposing a ruler.

            In particular there was one point where he saw the King transgressing the sovereignty of Parliament. Although he later believed he had been mistaken,[28] at the time of the Civil War he and many others were convinced that then King, Charles I, had incited a rebellious force of Irish Catholics to rise up, with the result that “Two hundred thousand persons they murdered. Men, women and children were most cruelly used, the women ripped up and filthily used when they killed them, and the infants used like toads and vermin.”[29] With a picture like this it is easy to see why despite many conflicting ides he would have supported Parliament. He says that this was the cause for which most people joined him in supporting the Parliamentary army.[30]

            Despite his public activity with the army of Parliament Baxter was a staunch supporter of Monarchy. He did not believe that because Charles I had been a poor monarch that the institution itself was bankrupt. On the contrary, he felt that monarchies were established by God just as much as democratic or aristocratic institutions were. In fact, while there was merit in each Monarchy and Aristocracy, democracy was corrupt for it gave rule over to a mass of people with corrupt wills. While all men are corrupt, there are Biblical principles which say that a group of fewer men is more likely given over to reverence for and obedience to God’s Will. Therefore, Monarchy, so much more open to the persuasion of good men, as well as bad, has the most potential.[31] This is why he supported Cromwell’s “Protectorate.” He held some hope in Cromwell establishing a new theocracy where a “new Constantine” would rule under the guidance of the clergy. This would bring Godliness to the throne and theological consensus to the church.[32]

            In all of Baxter’s life, political, ministerial and authorial he sought holiness. His life was riddled with confusion and strife. He was often unhealthy and suffered at the hands of others who claimed to be Christians. He never allowed himself to be defeated though and pushed throughout his entire life to encourage and institute as much as possible a righteousness in the people directly around him and his country at large.

Selected Bibliography


Baxter, Richard. The Autobiography of Richard Baxter. Ed. N. H. Keeble. Dent,

London. 1931.


This is Richard Baxter’s autobiography. It follows a roughly chronological order and detail many events of his life better than later authors’ attempts to relate the same events.


________. A Holy Commonwealth. Ed. William Lamont. Cambridge UP.1994


            This is Baxter’s own work in which he sets out precepts by which men are to be governed in general. To this general treatise he adds a significant amount of comments concerning the contemporary Civil Wars as well as a personal justification for his involvement.


________. “Farewell Sermon given by Richard Baxter, August 17, 1662.” Farewell Sermons. London, 1662.


This is a collection of sermons preached by non-conformist preachers throughout England at their expulsion in August of 1662.


Black, J. William. “From Martin Bucer to Richard Baxter: ‘Discipline’ and Reformation in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England.” Church History 70.4 (2001): 644-673.


This article compares Baxter to Martin Bucer positions on church disclipine and reforming behavior in parish members.


Cooke, Timothy R. “Uncommon Earnestness and Earthly Toils: Moderate Puritan Richard Baxter’s Devotional Writings.” Anglican and Episcopal History 63.1 (1994): 51-72.


This article posits that Baxter’s concern with personal morality was not political in nature. Rather he viewed personal morality as necessary and from that sprang societal reform.


Cooper, Tim. Fear and Polemic in Seventeenth-Century England: Richard Baxter and

Antinomianism. Ashgate, Aldershot. 2001.


This is an account of one of the largest efforts of Richard Baxter’s life. He dreaded the evils of Antinomian thought and fought it vigorously only to realize in the end that it had not been as great a threat as he thought.




Gilbert, C. D. “When Richard Baxter Came to Kidderminster.” Journal of the United Reformed Church History Society 5.1 (1992): 3-14.


This article talks about Baxter’s appointment at Kidderminster.


Goodall, N. “Some Congregational Pathfinders in the Ecumenical Movement.” Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society 20.6 (1967): 184-199.


This article talks about the contributions of Richard Baxter as well as other figures in the ecumenical movement.


Keeble, N. H. “The Autobiographer as Apologist: Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696).” Prose Studies 9.2 (1986): 105-119.


This article states that Baxter did not favor extremism although many of his works tended to incite this type of response.          


__________. “Richard Baxter’s Preaching Ministry: It’s History and Texts.” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 35.4 (1984): 539-559.


This biographical article details the history of Richard Baxter’s career as a preacher.


__________. Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1982


            This book lays out an argument for Baxter to be seriously considered not only in Theological, Political and Historical contexts, but also in the realm of literature.


Lamont, William. “Richard Baxter, ‘Property’ and the Origins of the English Civil War.” History 87.287 (2002): 336-352.


            This article talks about Baxter’s position on the English Civil War. It discusses

the distinction he makes between fundamentum (the causes of the Civil War) and finis

the reasons for the Civil War).


___________. Richard Baxter and the Millenium. Croom Helm, London. 1979.


            This book shows how Baxter’s predisposition to eschatological studies informed much of how he thought about the English Civil War, Cromwell’s protectorate and those given to “Popery.”


Nuttall, Geoffrey F. Richard Baxter. Camden, New Jersey: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965.


            A biography of Richard Baxter’s life with commentary on his political involvment, ministry, theology and written works.


Parnham, D. “Politics Spun Out of Theology and Prophecy: Sir Henry Vane on the

Spiritual Environment of Public Power.” History of Political Thought 22.1

(2001): 53-83


This article about Henry Vane discusses Richard Baxter because he and Vane disagreed about the nature of rule. Vane said that rule should largely be left to men’s consciences while Baxter thought that there needed to be a stronger authority to govern men.


Watts, Michael R. The Dissenters. Clarendon Press, Oxford. 1978


            This book is a discussion of the history of dissenters within the English church. It is largely about other people, but there are a few notable discussions of Baxter.


“Antinomianism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2003. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 30

            Sept, 2003 <http://search.eb.com/eb/article?eu=7951>.


            General article talking about the history of Antinomianism which Baxter fought against.





[1] Baxter. The Autobiography of Richard Baxter, p. xx.

[2] Ibid., p. xiii – xxix.

[3] Ibid., p. xx.

[4] Hastings. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, p. 438.

[5] Baxter. The Autobiography, p. 3-4

[6] Hastings. Encyclopedia, p. 438.

[7] Baxter. Autobiography, p. 7.

[8] Hastings. Encyclopedia, p. 438.

[9] Baxter. Autobiography, p. 7.

[10] Hastings. Encyclopedia, p. 438.

[11] Jackson. The New Schaff Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, p. 15.

[12] Baxter. Autobiography, p. 25.

[13] Jackson. Encyclopedia, p. 15

[14] Ibid., p. 15.

[15] Hastings. Encyclopedia, p. 438.

[16] Jackson. Encyclopedia, p. 15.

[17] Hastings. Encyclopedia, p. 438.

[18] Jackson. Encyclopedia, p. 15.

[19] Baxter. Autobiography, p. xiii – xxix.

[20] Ibid., p. 94-95.

[21] Ibid., p. 96.

[22] Ibid., p. 97.

[23] Ibid., p.50

[24] Ibid., p.37

[25] Baxter. Commonwealth, p. 63

[26] Ibid., p.7

[27] Ibid., 212-4

[28] Lamont. Millenium, p. 106

[29] Baxter. Autobiography, 32

[30] Ibid., p. 32

[31] Baxter. Commonwealth, p. 85

[32] Parnham. Politics out of Theology, p. 60