If Charles Haddon Spurgeon is justly known as the “Prince of Preachers,” then with equal justice Richard Baxter ought to be considered the “Prince of Pastors.” According to J.I. Packer, Baxter was “incomparable” in his zeal and effectiveness as a shepherd of souls, as well as “the most outstanding pastor, evangelist, and writer on practical and devotional themes that Puritanism ever produced.” Thomas Chalmers said Baxter was “the model for the care of parish life and the nurture of covenant community.”
Baxter’s life spanned the years from the ascension of James Stuart to the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary. He was a witness to some of the momentous events in English history: the civil war, the regicide of King Charles, the Cromwell protectorate, the Great Fire, the restoration of the monarchy, and the bloody uniformity repressions.
The author of some 168 books, including Aphorisms of Justification (1649), The Saint’s Everlasting Rest (1650), and A Call to the Unconverted (1656), Baxter served variously as a clerk in the court of Charles I, the headmaster of a parish school, a chaplain to officers in Cromwell’s army, an assistant curate in a country parish, a chantry preacher to the court of Charles II, and the chief spokesman for the Puritan party at the Savoy Conference.
Though he was almost entirely self-taught, he was renowned for his intellect. As a youngster, he made good use of the library of Ludlow Castle. As he later testified, “Without any means but books was God pleased to resolve me to Himself.”
When he first arrived in Kidderminster, a thriving Worcestershire township of some three thousand souls near the Welsh borderlands, the vicar of the parish church preached only infrequently—usually only four times a year. Baxter began a very fruitful ministry of lecturing and teaching, having an immediate impact, as he later testified, “simply by the diligent attendance upon the duties of the pastoral office.” He quickly grew to love the place and the people despite the “meanness of their condition” and the “sore disrepair” of the ministry. However, after just one year, he was forced out of the parish by the circumstances of the looming civil war. He was away for five years ministering to the Parliamentary forces, during which time the state of the local church languished even more pitifully than before.
In 1647, he finally returned and devoted the better part of the next decade and a half to the work of the ministry: discipling the families of his congregation and encouraging the other ministers throughout the surrounding county. According to contemporary missiologist Ron Davies, “His ministry there was the most fruitful Puritan pastorate anywhere recorded, resulting in the conversion of nearly the whole town.”
It was during this time that Baxter developed a vision and a plan for catechizing as the heart and soul of pastoral work. He later described this work in his classic Gildas Salvianus, or The Reformed Pastor. Throughout the book, Baxter applies his energy to the real circumstances that pastors and their congregations are likely to encounter. His sense of reality is clear-eyed and forthright. He comprehends the obstacles to caring for and discipling all the families of a parish. And he is cognizant of the effects of sin and the tug of the tyranny of the urgent.
The combination of such energy, reality, and rationality has made Baxter’s example a great encouragement and enticement to ministerial effectiveness. But it also has afforded us a vision of fruitfulness over the long term, for the story of Baxter and his Kidderminster flock does not have a fairy-tale ending. His work, like ours, was carried out amidst thorns and thistles.
After the demise of the protectorate and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy in 1660, persecutions were launched against all but established state churches. It was widely understood that religion was the primary influence on the nature and structure of culture. Preaching was considered to be a powerful force that had both eternal and temporal dimensions. Thus, the ecclesiastical and secular authorities rightly predicted that a faithful exposition of the Bible would have immediate political as well as spiritual ramifications. They through that allowing unauthorized or unlearned men to preach would undermine the whole social fabric. As a result, Puritans, Covenanters, Nonconformists, and Independents of all stripes came under fierce persecution. Eventually, Baxter was stripped of his pastoral work, driven into private life, and ultimately imprisoned. But despite the absence of its pastor, the Kidderminster parish continued to thrive.
Baxter unstintingly applied the Biblical work ethic to the pastoral task. The result was that he recovered a Biblical vision for what pastors are actually to do, day in and day out. He was indeed, the “Prince of Pastors.”