Richard Baxter was born at Rowton in Shropshire in 1615. In 1633 he was at the court of King James I but was so disgusted with the low moral standards there that he returned home in order to study divinity. He was ordained but after the promulgation of an infamous Oath in 1640, which required obedience to a string of persons ending in the trite phrase ‘et cetera’, he rejected belief in episcopacy and went as a curate to a poor area of the west Midlands. He opposed the Civil War and played a prominent part in the recall of Charles II, but his continuing dissatisfaction with the way episcopacy was practised led him to decline the See of Hereford. This refusal led him to be debarred from further office in the Church of England, though he continued to contribute to its life as a prolific hymn writer. He died in the year 1691.
1 Corinthians 2. 1–10
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God. Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish. But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.
Richard Baxter is perhaps best known to the average Christian today as a hymn writer. He was Puritan minister in the town of Kidderminster for seventeen years in the 1640s and 1650s. During that long ministry many people were converted, and our church in Kidderminster is still proudly named in his memory today. He wrote the book The Reformed Pastor in 1656, which sets out his model of ministry, which was a highly successful model in his lifetime. Although deeply unfashionable today, no better book has yet been written.
One reason that Baxter’s ministry has much from which we can learn today is that he described his work as “a dying man to dying men”, which is where today’s reading comes in. Paul writes of knowing nothing apart from Jesus Christ and Christ crucified, which is surely what Baxter was meaning. Paul writes of the importance of God’s wisdom, rather than the wisdom of the world, which is surely what Baxter was putting into practice. Paul’s concentration upon all being focussed upon Christ is surely reflected in Baxter’ striving for unity among different traditions at a tumultuous time in English religious life.
Paul was a tireless teacher of the faith, and Baxter was a tireless pastor, who cared deeply for the lost and for his sheep. Reflecting upon the themes that Paul offers us in today’s reading, let the last word be from Baxter: “In necessary things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity.”
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. Amen.
The Rev’d Michael Hopkins, Minister of Farnham and Elstead URCs, and Clerk of the General Assembly