08 December 2012

With the Saints through Advent (9): 8 December, Richard Baxter, pastor and writer

Richard Baxter (1615-1691), after Robert White (Wikipedia)

Patrick Comerford

The Calendar of the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary on 8 December. But this is a contentious dogma, not accepted universally or ecumenically, and often misunderstood and misinterpreted, even in the Roman Catholic Church.

The dogma proclaimed by Pope Pius IX in 1854 is about the conception of the Virgin Mary, and has nothing to do with the conception of the Christ Child. Perhaps those common misunderstandings and misinterpretations arose because 8 December falls just over two weeks before Christmas. Indeed, until recently 8 December was a popular day for provincial shoppers to do their Christmas shopping in Dublin.

Richard Baxter (1615-1691), who is commemorated with a feast day on 8 December in the Calendar of Saints of the Episcopal Church in the US, was perhaps one of the most eirenic of the Puritans in the decades immediately after the Caroline Restoration.

Baxter was born in his grandmother’s house in Rowton, Shropshire, on 12 November 1615 and went to school in Wroxeter.

Although he had no university education, he became a schoolteacher in Dudley, where he was ordained by Bishop John Thornborough of Worcester in 1638.

He spent the early years of his ministry as a schoolmaster and curate, becoming a chaplain to the parliamentary army at the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642.

Although Baxter was aligned with the Puritan cause, he was a moderate and stood against the excessive destructiveness of Cromwell’s troops.

In 1647, Baxter became the Vicar of Kidderminster. There his pastoral ministry thrived. He set up new patterns for parish catechesis, increased the size of parish buildings to welcome the larger numbers coming to hear him preach, and pioneered a style of pastoral ministry that has enriched the Anglican tradition to this day.

Baxter provides his own narrative of his pastoral work in his book, The Reformed Pastor (1656).

With the end of the English Civil War, Baxter left Kidderminster in the spring of 1660 and went to London. He preached before the House of Commons in Saint Margaret’s, Westminster Abbey on 30 April 1660, and before the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London in Saint Paul’s on 10 May, and he was among those to welcome back King Charles II.

When the episcopacy was restored to the Church of England, Charles II offered to appoint Baxter as Bishop of Hereford. Although more moderate than many, Baxter’s Puritan convictions kept him from accepting the position, a decision that made it impossible for him to continue as a priest in the Church of England.

Baxter is remembered for his role at the Savoy Conference in 1661. There he argued for the changes in the Book of Common Prayer that would have favoured Puritan theology. However, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer reflects few of the marks of Baxter’s agenda.

The Great Ejection followed the Act of Uniformity 1662, when 2,000 to 2,500 Puritan ministers were forced to leave their positions. The Act of Uniformity prescribed that any minister who refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer by Saint Bartholomew’s Day 1662 should be ejected from the Church of England. This date became known among dissenters as Black Bartholomew’s Day because it fell on the anniversary of the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre of 1572.

Baxter was refused permission to return to Kidderminster as curate, and from 1662 he lived in Action near London. He continued to advocate for a comprehensive national church, off and on, until his death in 1691. Baxter is attributed with the saying: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”

Earlier this year, on 7 February 2012, a Service of Reconciliation was held in Westminster Abbey to mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, preached at the service which was attended by clergy and laity of the Church of England and the United Reformed Church.

A profound example of Baxter’s deep joy and piety can be found in the words of his hymn Ye holy angels bright (Irish Church Hymnal, 5th ed, 376).


We give you thanks, most gracious God, for the devoted witness of Richard Baxter, who out of love for you followed his conscience at cost to himself, and at all times rejoiced to sing your praises in word and deed; and we pray that our lives, like his, may be well-tuned to sing the songs of love, and all our days be filled with praise of Jesus Christ our Lord; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Exodus 20: 1–17;
Psalm 102: 11–13, 19–22;
I Corinthians 9: 24–27;
Matthew 6: 6–15.

Tomorrow (9 December): The Old Testament Prophets.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.

No comments: