The English theologian, pastor, and Nonconformist Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was an advocate of ecumenism and the author of more than 160 books.
The only son of a gentleman of "competent estate, " Richard Baxter was born in Rowton, Shropshire, on Nov. 12, 1615, and was largely self-educated "out of books" with the "inconsiderable help of country tutors." After "it pleased God to awaken" his soul at age 15, he studied theology. Ordained in the Anglican ministry in 1638, 2 years later he began assisting the vicar in Kidderminster, Worcestershire. During the Puritan Revolution he served as a regimental chaplain, but 2 years of campaigning broke his ever-precarious health. Convalescing in 1647 he wrote The Saints' Everlasting Rest (1650), a huge tome which comforts the afflicted and reflects on life here and hereafter.
Although ordained in the Church of England, Baxter objected to its "diocesan episcopacy, " whereby a bishop's authority extended over a diocese containing many parish churches. This, he believed, was contrary to what was practiced in the early ages of Christianity. In his view the rector of every parish ought to be a bishop, and no bishop could validly exercise authority over more than one established congregation.
Baxter resumed his pastoral work at Kidderminster. His "awakening ministry, " "moving voice, " handsome features, and sincerity built up a tremendous congregation. He continued to write prolifically; his writings, while often diffuse and digressive, are forceful, rational, and well informed. He began a series of ecumenical works in which he advocated the "True Catholicism" of a broad, universal Christian church. The Reformed Pastor (1656) and A Call for the Unconverted (1657) were popular and influential.
In A Holy Commonwealth (1659) Baxter defended monarchy as the best form of government—but only if the king subordinated himself to the law of "God, the Universal Monarch." In 1660 Baxter was summoned to London to cooperate in plans to restore the monarchy. He worked for a Restoration Church of England which would be moderately episcopalian, including Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and moderate Baptists not as sects but as members of one mutually acceptable catholic body. But the Anglican hierarchy vehemently opposed this plan, and Baxter and others of like mind were forced into Nonconformity. Stringent laws ousted more than 2000 ministers, denying them the right to preach. Baxter, like John Bunyan, was ruthlessly persecuted. Under James II he was imprisoned for more than a year because he had allegedly attacked church and state covertly in his Paraphrase of the New Testament (1684).
Baxter's sufferings had been mitigated by marriage in 1662 to a woman 20 years his junior. Despite their differences of age and temperament, they found ideal companionship. She died in 1681, and he lovingly memorialized her "cheerful, wise, and very useful life."
Among Baxter's major works were Methodus theologiae (1665), Reason for the Christian Religion (1667), The Christian Directory (1673), Catholick Theology (1675), A Treatise of Episcopacy (1681), and his autobiography, Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696).
Baxter died on Dec. 8, 1691. He was too outspoken and intense to succeed in his own time as a "reconciler." But if he had been heeded, the split between Anglicanism and Dissent, which has sullied British Christianity and is being healed only today, would have been avoided.
A study of Baxter should begin with The Autobiography of Richard Baxter, edited by J.M. Lloyd Thomas (1925; new ed. 1931), followed by F.J. Powicke, A Life of the Reverend Richard Baxter (1924). Hugh Martin, Puritanism and Richard Baxter (1954), untangles 17th-century politics and theology and provides basic bibliographical guidance. Richard Schlatter, ed., Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics (1957), admirably treats A Holy Commonwealth and related works. For the religious context see Irvonwy Morgan, The Nonconformity of Richard Baxter (1946).
Baxter, Richard, The autobiography of Richard Baxter, London, Dent; Totowa, N.J., Rowman & Littlefield 1974. □