Richard Baxter was born on November 12, 1615, in Rowton, in Shropshire, England. Although his early education was very rustic, being taught by local clergy that could barely read and write themselves, in about 1629 he moved to the free school at Wroxeter, which was run by John Owen and where he studied until about 1632. Soon after Baxter proceeded to Ludlow Castle in order to read with Richard Wickstead, foregoing Oxford on the advice of Owen, although he later regretted this move. He then went reluctantly to London to go to court under the guidance of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, but he balked and returned home with the intention of studying divinity. Baxter spent three months teaching for his former schoolmaster Owen, and he then read theology with local clergyman, Francis Garbet.
After the Bishop of Worcester ordained and licensed him, and he took the post of master of the free grammar school at Dudley in 1638, Baxter moved to Bridgnorth in Shropshire, became the assistant of Mr. Madstard, and established for himself a reputation of attentiveness. After maintaining this position for nearly two years, time in which he spent learning about the debates surronding Nonconformity and the Church of England, he was excluded from the Church. He refused to accept English episcopacy, on reasons that included his belief that church government should take a backseat to true religion. He adopted instead a belief system that mixed elements of Nonconformity, Presbyterianism, and a form of modified Episcopalianism.
In April, 1641, when Baxter was twenty-six, he was elected minister of the church of Kidderminster after complaints were filed against the clergy there. He continued at Kidderminster for about nineteen years, uniting the the pastors in the country surrounding him despite their doctrinal differences. Baxter published The Reformed Pastor to truly emphasize the duties of the clergy. Because the English Civil War's strong party loyalties threatened Baxter's post and position, he moved to Gloucester, and then to Coventry from 1643 to 1645, preaching to both the garrison and the locals there. He then became the chaplain for Colonel Edward Whalley's troops, a post which he held until February of 1647, and during which time he penned his controversial Aphorisms of Justification, published in 1649. After joining the Parliamentary army in order to assist in the keeping of constitutional government, Baxter had the oppurtunity to preach for Oliver Cromwell, who had just taken the role of Protector; he chose for the topic of his speech that of division in the church. This later led to heated discussions between Baxter and Cromwell about liberty and government.
Baxter had been resting at the home of Lady Rouse of Rouse-Lench in 1647, because of much physical weakness, and during this time he wrote a large portion of The Saints' Everlasting Rest, which appeared in 1650. After his recovery, he went again to Kidderminster and took the role of political authority, which led him into conflict with nearly every party in the state and the church. Baxter was also one of the leaders of the Restoration in 1660, and afterwards he moved to London, preaching there until the Act of Uniformity in 1662, which required the use of a prayer book in all church services. He, and others like him, searched faithfully for ways to remain part of the Church of England despite this new Act, but they were not successful, and the Church was unwilling to change its mind. Because of his refusal to accept this new creed, Baxter declined the bishopric of Hereford and was banned from preaching in both Kidderminster and Worcester. However, on September 24, 1662, he married Margaret Charlton, a woman who held views concurrent with his own.
Baxter's life was constantly interuppted by legal disputes. After he retired to Acton in Middlesex, in order to study privately, he was imprisoned for maintaining a conventicle. He was again arrested in 1672 for preaching in London, and he was banned from his own meeting house on Oxendon Street, although he had only spoken there once. He was removed from his home in 1680; he was returned soon after so that he might die in his own house, but not without the confiscation of his books and possessions. His wife died the following year in 1681. In May of 1685, a year after he had been seized and dragged to the sessions house three times, in order to pay £400 into a bond to guarantee his good behavior, he was taken before Sir George Jeffreys, the chief justice. Although he could barely stand, he was made to answer for a preposterous accusation of his having written falsely against the Church in his Paraphrase on the New Testament. This trial has gone down in history as one of the most perverse examples of English justice, although in reality no reliable account of the trial was recorded. Traditionally, Baxter was sentenced by Jeffreys to be incarcerated until he could pay 500 marks, to be obliged to act lawfully for seven years, and possibly to have been whipped. The seventy year-old minister stayed imprisoned for eighteen months. The government, who had been hoping to convert him to their thinking, finally let him go and retracted the fine. He spent his life from 1687 on in peaceful and quiet living. He died in London on December 8, 1691, his funeral attended by many on all sides of the Church debate. In July of 1875, a statue that still stands today was set up at Kidderminster to honor his memory.
His works include:
- The Reformed Pastor
- Aphorisms of Justification
- The Saints' Everlating Rest
- Paraphrase on the New Testament
- The Christian Directory
- The Methodus Theologiae Christianae
- The Catholic Theology
- Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter
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