IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 27, July 3 to July 9, 2000

The Work and Thought of Richard Baxter

by Lynell Friesen

To understand the impact that Richard Baxter had both in his time and in ours, one needs to understand the man. Baxter was a many-faceted man. "He was both an evangelist and a scholar; a speaker and an author; a poet and the possessor of a keen analytical mind."1 Baxter's intent was never to be an author but a pastor, yet his literary output was so massive that his works, though never published in one edition, would be at least twice the size of the twenty-four volumes of John Owen. "Baxter is usually credited with 168 books. The Rev. A.G. Matthew's Bibliography says he published 141 volumes and contributed to forty others, while there is still much in unpublished MSS. in Dr. William's Library."2 In Orme's classic work The Life and Writings of Richard Baxter, he outlines Baxter's works in these categories: Works on the Evidences of Religion; Doctrinal Works; Works on Conversion; Works on Christian Experience; Works on Catholic Communion; Works on Nonconformity; Works on Popery; Works on Antinomianism; Works on Baptism, Quakerism, and Millenarianism; Political and Historical Works; and Devotional Works. In this brief treatment of his work and thought it is possible only to address his positions on Puritanism, Presbyterianism, doctrinal divergences, and practical theology.


Baxter was impacted hearing the term "Puritan" applied to his father during the earlier years of his life. Hearing it from his peers, he was affronted with the lack of piety on their part in contrast with his father's reading of the Scriptures. This had a profound impact on him. History enshrines Baxter with notable other great Puritans such as "The Judicious Owen" and "the seraphic How."3 The term "Puritan" first came into being "as the designation of an English Church party in 1564 but after a few years it got to be used also as inclusive of many who separated from the church of England."4 Previously, in 1562, the concerns of this party had been addressed in a meeting of convocation and included these six alterations from the liturgy of the Church:

1. Abrogation of all holidays except Sabbath and those relating to Christ.
2. In prayer, the minister should face the people.
3. The sign of the cross should be omitted in Baptism.
4. The sick and aged should not be compelled to kneel during communion.
5. Partial use of the surplice.
6. Lay aside the use of the Organ.5
By a majority that carried the vote by one, and that by proxy, these proposed alterations were rejected. This was eighty years prior to Baxter's call to Kidderminster, but the controversy over the Regulative Principal still had not been quelled. According to Ian Murray, Baxter was not a Puritan as the term was initially utilized.6 He bases this on Baxter's understanding of a term we have yet to grasp adequately. For Baxter "piety was Puritanism... A Puritan with them was of the same significance as a serious Christian is with me."7 When his opponents accused him of being a dyed-in-the-wool Puritan, he replied, "Alas I am not so good and happy."8 "Nothing was more fundamental in his thinking than the fact that holiness and godliness are the essential parts of Christian experience, they are the sure evidence that Christ is ‘the real Saviour that saveth his people from their sins.'"9

To determine whether Baxter was a Puritan or not requires that we carefully define the term. Baxter states that "Nothing more cheats the ignorant than ambiguous words."10 Those who coined the word "Puritan" never intended it to be representative of a true Christian, but intended it to be a term of derision. It was a term assigned to opponents within the Church of England who sought the reformation of the church in England. "So it is true to say that the Puritans were a party within the Church of England, a party that was ultimately ejected from the national church in 1662."11 In this sense of the word, Baxter was a Puritan, but in at least two other aspects of the term he can not be so identified. These aspects are his view of church government and his doctrinal allegiance to the historic doctrines of Puritanism: The Westminster Confession of Faith; The 1689 London Confession of Faith; and the Canons of Dort.


Latourette, in his two volume work, calls Richard Baxter "a Presbyterian."12 This is certainly not the case, for it is on his view of Church government that we must distinguish him from both Presbyterianism and Puritanism. It is certainly a true statement that Baxter desired unity within the Church. Puritan churchmen argued against the divine right of kings in respect to the church: "A Puritan was a man ready to suffer not only for the gospel but for Christ's right to rule the church by his own authority."13 "Baxter held that the episcopacy as it had been practiced in the Church of England, with autocratic prelates lording it over unduly large dioceses badly needed reform... Nor could he accept the position that ‘apostolic succession' was essential for valid or regular ministry and sacraments."14

Baxter refused to identify himself with any separatist party. For when the issue of licensure came up under James, he wanted to be named as a mere nonconformist and not to be identified with any label. "Baxter held the view that all New Testament elders were called both to preach and to rule but that it was natural that the most eminently gifted" perform the "public preaching."15 This contrasted with both the Episcopal party and the Presbyterians and Independents. The Episcopals held that the New Testament called for both bishops and elders, while the Presbyterians stated that it mandated ruling elders as distinct from teaching elders. Baxter claimed that he was "for a mixture of Episcopal, Presbyterian and Independent government... And what harm is that? I am for that which is good in all and for the faults of none."16

Doctrinal Divergences

Baxter much to his credit commends the great statements of faith of his age. His agreements with these statements are quoted by his biographer W. Orme. Baxter is quoted stating, "I subscribe to the Synod; yea, in the article of the extent of redemption, wherein I am most suspected and accused, I do subscribe to the Synod of Dort, without any exception, limitation, or exposition, of any word, as doubtful and obscure."17 And also, "I do heartily approve of the shorter catechism of the assembly, and of all therein contained; and I take it for the best catechism I ever yet saw."18 He was against all those who would force their creed upon others. Orme's own love for Baxter appears to affect his credibility here. Orme states that "every man ought to be allowed to be the expositor of his own sentiments, let no man, after this question or deny the Calvinism of Richard Baxter. He was as much a Calvinist as thousands who then, or who now bear the name without suspicion."19 But these words pale with Baxter's own.

Baxter wanted more than anything to see souls saved. His work A Call to the Unconverted along with The Saints' Everlasting Rest will live as the great works of the seventeenth century. But in his resolve to moderate the position in the church and his great love of unity in the body of Christ, his theology suffered. "Baxter seems to have arrived at Amyraldus's (1596-1664) doctrine of the universal application of the redeeming work of Christ."20 Amyraldus, himself a professor at Saumur, came to the conclusion that the normal interpretation of Calvinism was incorrect. This is also Baxter's position on justification. He states that "to affirm therefore that our Evangelical or new Covenant righteousness is in Christ and not in ourselves, or performed by Christ and not by ourselves, is such a piece of Antinominan doctrine that no man who knows the nature and difference of the Covenant can possibly entertain and which every Christian should abhor as insufferable."21 And even though this statement comes from his earliest written work, Aphorisms of Justification, Baxter's position never changed throughout his lifetime. "Where Baxter really differed from Calvinists of his day was in the fact that he did not believe that God willed that anyone should be damned, but he thought that God did will that the elect should be saved."22 He held that God loved men sufficiently to give them his Son to die for them but did not love them enough to give them faith and repentance. J. I. Packer, speaking of Baxter's theology says that "as a devotional writer, no praise of him can be too high; but as a theologian he was, though brilliant, something of a disaster."23

Practical Theology

The area in which Baxter must be overwhelmingly appreciated is his practical theology. We must never lose sight of the example he sets for the minister of God. He was a exegete of his culture as well as of his church. It was for the people of Kidderminster that he longed to serve, and within this bond of love that his works were written. For if he could not preach, he could write, and so he labored more than any man of his time with his pen. We have discussed the practical implications that he had while at Kidderminster. He recounts in his Autobiography, "When I came thither first, there was about one family in a street that worshipped God and called on his name; and when I came away there was not past one family in the side of a street that did not so; and that did not, by professing serious godliness, give us hope of there sincerity."24 His thoughts and admonitions for the work of a pastor are wonderfully laid out in Gildas Silvanus, or, as we have come to know the work, The Reformed Pastor. By "reformed" we must not understand Baxter to mean Calvinistic, but rather "renewed in practice."25 It is what the Puritans understood in the term "quickened."

In this work, Baxter shows his enthusiasm and devotion which were so contagious in his life and ministry. He divides the work into three sections. In the first he views the minister's oversight of himself and the oversight of his calling. In the final section he writes of the common ministerial sins: of pride; of negligence; and of the sin of "a worldly temporizing policy" that makes a minister afraid to speak his mind.

The Puritans are known for their piety and their high view of the calling of preaching. Of this Baxter has much in common with the Dissenters of his time. He, too, held to the high calling of preaching, chastising many ministers and churches for its neglect. Admonishing those who preach, he declared, "A practical doctrine must be practically preached. We must study as hard how to live well, as how to preach well."26 In his sermons we see that his "appeal was not only to the conscience, but to man's God-given reason."27 Baxter's preaching appealed to the great need of the people for a well-reasoned faith and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

It is this impetus that gives Baxter his power, not only in his writings but in his example. More than anything else, this quote by Baxter should etch the call to ministry into our heart and set the example for our entire ministry. It summarizes Baxter's ministry. He states:

"We must labour to be acquainted, not only with the persons, but with the state of all our people, with their inclinations and conversations; what are the sins of which they are most in danger, and what duties they are most apt to neglect, and what temptations they are most liable to; for if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians... Doth not a careful shepherd look after every sheep? and a good schoolmaster after every individual scholar? and a good physician after every particular patient? and a good commander after every individual soldier? Why then should not the shepherds, the teachers, the physicians, the guides of the churches of Christ, take heed to every individual member of their charge?"28
Baxter was his people's teacher, their counselor, their physician. His call for us is to follow his footsteps, and so he pleads, "Brethren, I earnestly beseech you, in the name of God, and for the sake of your people's souls, that you will not slightly slubber over this work, but do it vigorously, and with all your might; and make it your great and serious business."29


  1. Ian Murray, "Richard Baxter - ‘The Reluctant Puritan'?" Advancing in Adversity, The Westminster Conference, Christian Design & Print: Essex, 1991, p. 1.
  2. Op. Cit., Martin, p. 125.
  3. "A Essay on the Genius, Works and Times of Richard Baxter," Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory, Soli Deo Gloria Publications: Ligonier, PA, 1990, p. xxi.
  4. John M'Clintock and James Strong, "Puritan," Cyclopaedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature, Harper and Brothers Publishers: New York, 1984, p. 805.
  5. Ibid., p. 805.
  6. Op. Cit., Murray, p. 3.
  7. Ibid., p. 3-4.
  8. Ibid., p. 4.
  9. Ibid, p. 4.
  10. Ibid, p. 5.
  11. Ibid., p. 5.
  12. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity: Reformation to the Present, Volume II, Prince Press: Peabody, MA, 1999. p.893.
  13. Op. Cit., Murray, p. 5.
  14. Op. Cit., Hughes, p. 161.
  15. Op. Cit., Murray, p. 6.
  16. Ibid., p. 6.
  17. W. Orme, The Life and Writings of Richard Baxter, Volume II, Dr. Nichols' Library, Reformed Theological Seminary. (Bibliographical material missing from volume.), p. 46.
  18. Ibid., p. 46.
  19. Ibid., p. 46.
  20. Op. Cit., Morgan, p. 77.
  21. Op. Cit., Murray, p. 8.
  22. Op. Cit., Morgan, p. 79.
  23. J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 1990, p. 159.
  24. Op. Cit., Baxter, Autobiography, p. 59.
  25. Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, The Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, PA, 1983, p. 14.
  26. Ibid., p. 64.
  27. Op. Cit., Martin, p. 139.
  28. Op. Cit., Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, p. 91.
  29. Ibid., p. 46.