It is the 8th of December, 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Stay with me here: there is no perfect platonic ideal of a Puritan. But Richard Baxter is close.
By “no perfect platonic ideal,” I mean that while we use “-isms” and “-ists,” these are shorthand ways of connoting general theologies and practices. You’ll find even the “isms” that are named after people don’t even sufficiently explain the people they are named after (that is, Luther and Lutheranism are not synonymous, nor is a Franciscan with St. Francis).
And “Puritan” is a decidedly difficult category, sometimes besmirched and other times lionized. “What is a Puritan?” Is a question fraught with difficulty. But there is perhaps no better picture of what a Puritan is than looking at the life and work of Richard Baxter- a 17th-century English pastor and author who best embodies the goals and conflicts of the Puritan movement.
He was born in 1615 in Shropshire (that’s south of Liverpool near the Welsh border). He lived with his grandparents as his father had substantial gambling debts. His father would get on the straight and narrow, allegedly converting to Christianity through reading the scriptures alone. Richard came back home and became something of an autodidact. He had little formal education but was privately tutored by a collection of men- their varied views perhaps are a reason Baxter was eclectic in his own beliefs. He made his way to London under the patronage of a man in the court of King Charles I. But Court life disillusioned young Richard, who, in 1634, moved back home to care for his ailing mother. Upon her death in 1635, he began studying theology by reading the classics. At 23, he was ordained in the Church of England- not a thoroughly convinced Anglican, but convinced he could minister in the established church.
He would serve as a teacher and assistant minister, and his reputation for preaching led to his call to Kidderminster in 1641. His fruitful ministry there would be put on hold by the outbreak of the English Civil War. Baxter was moderately pro-Parliament, and the pro-Monarchy Kidderminster ousted him.
He would spend some time as a chaplain to the Parliamentary forces before illness caused him to retire to Worcestershire. There, thinking he was dying, he began to write “The Soul’s Everlasting Rest”- a treatise on the comforts of heaven. He believed- as he would for the rest of his life- that this preparation for dying allowed him to preach to people as if they, too, were actually dying.
After the Civil War, he returned to Kidderminster, where his writing and pastoral skills became legendary. He spent more time in the homes of his parishioners than in the pulpit. He was an effective preacher but believed that it was through individual conversation that he could best tailor the gospel to the needs of his people. He also spent time writing about the practical education and life required of a pastor. His work “The Reformed Pastor” is a reflection of his own convictions and a classic in the Puritan devotional library.
He was offered a bishopric in 1660 but was not convinced that the episcopacy, as it existed, was ideal. He was neither separatist nor fully confirming. When asked about his particular theology, he claimed that his goal was a broad Christianity- what he called “Mere Christianity”- C.S. Lewis gives Baxter credit for his book of the same name.
With the ascension of James II and the persecution of those considered Puritans, Baxter was barred from preaching. He would move to London, where his work attracted the law, and he was imprisoned.
The Lord Chief Justice said of him- “[Baxter is] an old rogue who poisoned the world with his Kidderminster doctrine…This conceited, stubborn, fanatical dog—that did not conform when he might have been preferred; hang him!”
He did not hang and was exonerated with the Glorious Revolution of 1689. He lived his final years writing and died on this the 8th of December in 1691.
Richard Baxter is an ideal Puritan. He fits fully in the 17th-century English church and emphasized purity of worship and life, and not any particular school of theology beyond a broad Protestantism that could nestle itself amidst Calvinists, Non-Conformists, and those working for reform within the Church of England. His works, which can number over 150 depending on how you classify them, have remained staples in the Puritan genre. Born in 1615, Richard Baxter was 76 years old.
The last word for today comes from the daily lectionary- a word on an early church from the book of Acts.
19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. 20 But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists[a] also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. 21 The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. 22 News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. 25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 8th of December 2023 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who knows that Worcester is a Cathedral town in Worcestershire, that “shire” which was the inspiration for the home to Tolkien’s hobbits- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who loves the Worcester sauce and knows that the secret is in the vinegar, anchovy, and molasses- ooh la la- I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.