Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
Richard Baxter, one of the most famous of the English Puritan preachers, was born at Rowton, in Shropshire, in 1615. His early education was received from four different curates, all of whom were unworthy men, and two of whom were drunkards. From such men he learned but little. He attended a school in Wroxeter, but left it at the age of 18 with but a meagre knowledge of ancient and modern languages, mathematics and physical science. Then he was placed in the hands of a tutor who made little attempt to teach him. His poor record in school is not due to sloth, but to slothful teachers. In 1633 he was sent to Whitehall in order to become a courtier, but he tired quickly of this life, and began to study theology instead. He studied privately with a clergyman named Garbet. Baxter was a diligent reader, and the writings of the schoolmen, as well as Hooker and others, were his delight.
About the year 1635 he became acquainted with two Nonconformist clergymen at Shrewsbury, and was impressed by the fervor of their preaching and the sincerity of their lives. He was ordained in 1638, and became headmaster of a new school in Dudley, where he became acquainted with Nonconformist clergymen of the evangelical school. He did some preaching in and around Dudley, and about 1640 he became assistant at Bridgnorth, Shropshire. His reading led him to question some of the practices of the Church of England.
In 1641 he was called to Kidderminster, not far from Birmingham. There he found a deplorable state of affairs. The former vicar had preached but four times a year, had neglected his parish duties and had spent much of his time in the ale-shops. Many of the parish were weavers, who not only cared nothing for their church, but who treated the young pastor with open contempt. Baxter declares that not more than one man on any given street made any profession of religion. Baxter's work in Kidderminster is too well known to call for extended notice. Although a sickly man himself, yet he was tireless in the performance of his duties, preaching, catechizing, indoctrinating, seeking the families in their homes, and even going into the numerous ale-shops to admonish the groups of rough men who frequented these places. After a time the town was so thoroughly transformed that Baxter declares in humble gratitude that there were some streets in Kidderminster where every family was noted for its religious ardor, so much so that "very few ministers did match them in ardor and fullness and apt expressions and holy oratory with fervency. The blameless lives of goodly people did shame opposers and put to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and many were won by their good conversation."
Baxter did not look upon the rough men who crowded the beer-shops, and who lay drunk in every doorway, as drunken outcasts, to be shunned in righteous horror. He saw possibilities in the most abandoned of the village's notorious characters, and pictured the day when, transformed by the grace of the Lord, such men would walk as blameless Christians, and learn to bear testimony to others. In this he was not disappointed, and many of the town's roughest characters became miracles of grace, and were set to work by Baxter in reaching others. . . .
In 1642 the Civil War interrupted his work, and he was obliged to leave Kidderminster for a time. He went to Gloucester and then to Coventry, where he preached to the garrison and to the townspeople. He served twice as chaplain to the Parliamentarian army. In 1646 he returned to Kidderminster and resumed his work of preaching, catechizing and visiting. In 1650 he wrote his famous Saint's Everlasting Rest.
In 1660 he paid a visit to London, and preached before the House of Commons, and before the Lord Mayor and the aldermen. He was among those who welcomed the return of Charles II, and for a time he served as the King's chaplain. He was offered the bishopric of Hereford, but this he refused. For some reason the government would not permit him to return to his congregation in Kidderminster, and he was without a congregation for the remaining 31 years of his life, but he preached frequently, and produced numerous writings.
In 1662 Baxter left the Church of England. He went to Acton, near London. He was imprisoned for six months because of his religious views, but then released. He built a church at his own expense, but preached in it only once, and then was prohibited from preaching again. In 1685, at the age of 70, he was imprisoned again by the notorious Judge Jeffreys because of a statement in his Paraphrase of the New Testament. He spent a year and a half in the Tower. After his release he preached to great gatherings of people. During the last four years of his life he won the respect of many people, and the closing years of his life were peaceful.
During his lifetime Richard Baxter produced some 168 works, among them his Saint's Everlasting Rest, his Reformed Pastor and his Call to the Unconverted. After leaving the Church of England he became a Nonconformist, but he did not agree fully with either the Presbyterians or the Independents of his day. His preaching was remarkable to a degree. Like Chalmers, his most noteworthy quality was his vehement earnestness. Few men have ever equalled him in persuasiveness and in urgency of appeal. In his sermon "Making Light of Christ and Salvation," the closing applications alone fill 13 quarto pages. He cared little for style, wrote his sermons but did not revise them, yet preached simply and clearly. He made it a rule to preach one scholarly sermon each year, merely to prove to his hearers that he could do it. Vigorous of intellect, deeply pious, vehement, fluent of speech and possessed of a sturdy eloquence, Richard Baxter, in spite of his frail health, was one of the most eminent preachers of the seventeenth century.
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