Born in 1615 at Rowton, Shropshire, Richard Baxter was largely self-educated. He studied first at the free school of Wroxeter, next under the nominal tutelage of Richard Wickstead, Chaplain at Ludlow Castle, and finally in 1633 under the patronage of Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels. In disgust at the frivolity of the Court of King Charles the First he returned home to study divinity, particularly the medieval Scholastic theologians. In 1634 he came into intimate contact with two devout nonconformist divines, who awakened his sympathies for the positive elements in dissent.
In 1638 he was ordained by John Thornborough, Bishop of Worcester, and in 1639 nominated assistant minister at Bridgnorth, where he remained for two years, increasing his knowledge of the issues between nonconformity and the Church of England. After the promulgation of the Et Cetera Oath (an oath of conformity henceforth to the polity of the Church of England, “by archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons, et cetera, as it stands now established”) in 1640, he rejected belief in episcopacy (the ministry of bishops) in the form extant in England at the time.
In 1641 he became curate of the incumbent of Kidderminster (meaning that he became assistant priest to the rector or pastor there), where among a population of hand-loom workers he continued to minister with remarkable success until 1660. So far as possible he ignored the differences between presbyterians, episcopalians, and congregationalists, and secured cooperation among the local ministers in common pastoral work. In the early part of the Civil War he temporarily joined the Parliamentary Army as a chaplain. A champion of moderation, he was opposed to the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643 (the agreement which bound together the Churches of England and Scotland and eliminated episcopacy) and also disliked Oliver Cromwell’s religious views. After the Battle of Naseby (June 14, 1645) he became chaplain to Colonel Edward Whalley’s regiment, seeking to counteract the sectaries and to curb republican tendencies. On leaving the army in 1647 he retired for a time to Rous Lench, where he wrote his devotional classic, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest (1650).
In 1660 he played a prominent part in the recall of King Charles the Second to England and was appointed a chaplain to the King, but his dissatisfaction with episcopacy led him to decline Charles’ offer of the bishopric of Hereford. He took a prominent part at the Savoy Conference (1661), at which English bishops and Presbyterian divines gathered for review and revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Baxter prepared his “Reformed Liturgy” for the conference, and he presented there his “Exceptions” to the Book of Common Prayer. Because he would not take an oath to conform to the new Act of Uniformity in religion, Baxter, along with several hundred other nonconforming ministers, was removed from his living (pastorate) in 1662. Between 1662 and 1687 the nonconforming ministers endured legal persecution and were not permitted to hold any ecclesiastical office or living. Baxter died on December 8, 1691.
Baxter left nearly 200 writings, which breathe a spirit of deep unaffected piety and reflect his love of moderation. The Reformed Pastor (1656) illustrates the great care he took in his pastoral administration. He also wrote several hymns, among them “Ye holy angels bright” and “He wants not friends that hath Thy love”.
adapted from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church and other sources
Heavenly Father, Shepherd of your people, we thank you for your servant Richard Baxter, who was faithful in the care and nurture of your flock; and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life, we may by your grace enter that everlasting rest which you have prepared for all those who set their hope on Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The image of Baxter is after a painting by Robert White (1670).