Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by J. H. Overton
Richard Baxter (1615–1691)
 
[Richard Baxter (1615–1691), was born at Rowton, in Shropshire, in November 1615. The Baxters were a family of ancient descent, but had somewhat degenerated. He received a desultory education from various tutors, until at the age of fifteen he was sent to the Endowed School at Worcester, where he remained for three years; but he frequently complains that he never received any competent training. In 1633 he was sent to Court with an introduction to Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels, but a month at Whitehall gave him a distaste for a courtier’s life. He returned to his original desire of receiving holy orders, and devoted himself to theological studies. In 1638 he accepted the offer of the head-mastership of a school at Dudley, and in the same year was ordained at Worcester by Bishop Thornborough, from whom also he received a license to teach the school. In 1640 we find him settled at Bridgnorth as “assistant minister” to the Rev. W. Madstard. In the same year was imposed the “Et cetera” oath, to which Baxter resolved he would never subscribe. In the following March he was appointed lecturer at Kidderminster, where by his piety and zeal he wrought a moral revolution. On the breaking out of the civil war, he was in a strait; for he desired to be loyal to the king, and yet his opinions on most points agreed with those of the parliamentary party. He had to leave Kidderminster, and retired to Coventry with thirty other ministers. But he was completely out of sympathy with the sectaries with whom he was brought into contact; and, with characteristic boldness, he constantly withstood them. After the battle of Naseby he became chaplain to Colonel Whalley’s regiment, but he was never really a partisan of either side, and in 1647 he went into retirement for a short time. He then returned to Kidderminster, where he continued his ministry, and also took a leading part in politics, contending for the rights of the people, but opposing the Solemn League and Covenant, the Engagement, the Extirpation of Episcopacy, and the setting aside of Charles II., and holding in horror the execution of Charles I. On the Restoration, which he took part in effecting, he became chaplain to Charles II., and the Bishopric of Hereford was offered to him. But this he could not conscientiously accept; for he thought the Episcopate of the Church of England was not in accordance with primitive Episcopacy. He took a leading part in the Savoy Conference, being earnestly desirous to remain within the Church, but equally anxious to procure many alterations in its constitution and its liturgy. He could not carry his points, and reluctantly submitted to be evicted by the Act of Uniformity in 1662. He suffered persecution and imprisonment in the reign of Charles II., and still more severely in that of James II., when he was grossly insulted by the notorious Judge Jeffreys. He lost his wife in 1681, and was deeply affected by the bereavement. But he survived her for ten years, exercising his ministry when he had the opportunity, joining with the clergy in resisting the encroachments of James II. in 1688, and joyfully welcoming the Toleration Act of William and Mary. He died on 8th December 1691, and was buried beside his wife in Christ’s Church, London, William Bates, who held in the main the same views, as a “moderate Nonconformist” and “unwilling separatist,” preaching his funeral sermon.]  1
 
RICHARD BAXTER was one of the most voluminous and popular writers of English prose in the 17th century. His Practical Works alone fill no less than twenty-two 8vo. volumes; and besides these he wrote a vast amount on a variety of other subjects. Considering the defects of his education, and the incessant whirl in which his life was passed, his literary fecundity is perfectly marvellous. He is said to have taken no pains with his style, and to have written straight from the heart; “he never recast a sentence or bestowed a thought on its rhythm, and the balance of its several parts”; but in spite—or shall we say, in consequence?—of this, his style is in its way remarkably good; there is a freedom and naturalness about it which perhaps would have been lost if he had elaborated his compositions more carefully. Earnestness and robust eloquence breathe through every page. He is seen at his best in his purely practical works; notably in the Saints’ Everlasting Rest, and A Call to the Unconverted. Speaking of the former work, Archbishop Trench has called attention to a remarkable but undoubted fact: “In regard of the choice of words, the book might have been written yesterday. There is hardly one which has become obsolete, hardly one which has drifted away from the meaning which it has in his writings” (Companions for the Devout Life, p. 89). In this respect Baxter differs widely from the great writers of his time, such as Jeremy Taylor and Isaac Barrow, who require to be translated, more or less, into popular language. Baxter is essentially a popular writer; he who runs may read almost everything that he has written. A good summary of most of his controversial writings will be found in the Rev. John Hunt’s Religious Thought in England; but to his practical and devotional works no summary can do justice. Baxter’s popularity as a writer in his own day is all the more remarkable, because his views were calculated to please no party entirely. He leaned too much to the Church to please the Nonconformists, and too much to the Nonconformists to please Churchmen; he was too Calvinistic to suit the Arminians, and too moderate in his Calvinism to suit the hot Calvinists. That, in spite of his independent position, his works were admired, is partly due to the obvious earnestness and sincerity of the man, but partly to the excellence of his matter and style. He was to a great extent a self-taught man, and his writings bear traces of this; he was not a trained theologian, and can hardly be ranked with the giants of that golden age of theology; but his works are read where theirs are not.  2
 
 
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