(2020) The Correspondence of Richard Baxter. Early Modern Letters Online [Catalogue of Letters] 2020. http://emlo-portal.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/collections/?catalogue=richard-baxter
Richard Baxter was a crucial figure in the religious, political, literary, and cultural life of seventeenth-century Britain, Europe, and North America. Following his father’s conversion through the ‘bare reading of the Scriptures in private’ he was brought up in a context of prayer, bible-reading, and godly living that separated him from others in his village of Eaton Constantine, Shropshire, and shaped his later religious convictions. Baxter’s formal education was relatively brief: he spent a period at the local school, before moving to Wroxeter Grammar School under John Owen. On Owen’s advice he decided against going to university, and instead continued his tuition at Ludlow under Richard Wickstead, chaplain to the Council of Wales and the Marches. In 1633, at the age of eighteen, he was sent to London to be introduced at court by Sir Henry Herbert, Master of the Revels; however, due to his mother’s ill health, he returned home after a month. Baxter regretted his lack of a university education for the rest of his life, though no one could describe him as uneducated; an indefatigable autodidact, through wide reading he became one of the best-informed and most-prolific writers amongst seventeenth-century divines, publishing more than one-hundred-and-thirty books. Whilst his profuseness in print is widely known, the copiousness of his letter writing is under-recognised. Letter-writing, for Baxter, was an integral medium through which he engaged in intellectual and doctrinal debate; the corpus of correspondence he left constitutes one of the largest collections of letters of any seventeenth-century figure, and is a crucial resource for understanding more fully Baxter, his life, and his thought.
On 23 December 1638, Baxter was ordained as a deacon at Worcester by the bishop, John Thornborough. For nine months he acted as a schoolmaster in Dudley; then, in 1639, he became assistant to the vicar, William Madstard, at Bridgnorth. In March 1641, Baxter was invited to become a lecturer by the people of Kidderminster, who were most unhappy with the preaching and behaviour of the incumbent vicar, George Dance. However, the timing was unpropitious; due to the outbreak of Civil War Baxter did not return to Kidderminster until 1647. His experience of the war was formative and shaped his politics and theology for the rest of his life. He lodged with the governor of Coventry and preached each week to the soldiers there. In 1645, following the battle of Naseby, Baxter was confronted by the New Model Army and discovered that radical antinomian ideas were rampant among the soldiers and actively promoted by Oliver Cromwell. This led him to accept a position as army chaplain in the regiment of Edmund Whalley and he moved with them as they saw active service in Bridgwater, Sherbourne, Bristol, Exeter, Banbury, and Worcester. In 1647, his health broken, he retired to Rous Lench Court. Here he wrote one of his most enduring works, The Saints’ Everlasting Rest.
While he was recovering, his parishioners at Kidderminster requested that he return as vicar. This he refused to do, but he was willing to take up his old lectureship again. During the Interregnum, Baxter’s effective local ministry, through preaching and catechising, transformed the town and made him a figure of national renown. His experience was the catalyst for one of his best-known publications, Gildas Salvianus: The Reformed Pastor (1656), and established his pastoral ministry as a model that many others aspired to follow. He also helped to set up an ecumenical Worcestershire Voluntary Association of Ministers, which was replicated across many other counties. Baxter’s reputation for casuistry and ecumenical accord, boosted through his substantive publications, resulted in an extensive correspondence network that incorporated apprentices, gentlewomen, theologians, missionaries, aristocrats, parliamentarians, and many other ministers.
Following the Restoration, despite being appointed chaplain to Charles II, Baxter refused to conform to the Act of Uniformity. On 10 September 1662, he married Margaret Charlton, and devoted himself to doing what public good he could through writing. Baxter continued to preach when he had opportunity and he was arrested on 12 June 1669 under the Five Mile Act. Following the Declaration of Indulgence in March 1672, Baxter applied for a licence to preach as ‘a mere Nonconformist’ and, despite the withdrawal of the indulgence on 7 March 1673, he continued to preach publicly as he had opportunity until his death on 8 December 1691. Baxter was again persecuted for his nonconformity in the 1680s. Most famously, he was brought before Judge Jeffreys on the grounds that sections of his Paraphrase on the New Testament (1685) were seditious. He was found guilty, fined, and imprisoned until he could pay. It was only through the offices of his patron, William Herbert, Marquess of Powis, that Baxter’s fine was remitted in November 1686. After that he assisted Matthew Sylvester in his ministry at Rutland House in Charterhouse Yard until his own death in 1691.
Through over twelve-hundred-and-sixty extant letters, ranging between 1638 and 1696, we can trace Baxter’s remarkable life and career. We also have a rare documentary insight into nearly six decades of seventeenth-century English life. Baxter’s correspondence traverses some of the most crucial decades of British cultural and constitutional history, recording the reigns of Charles I, the years of the civil wars, the Interregnum and Cromwellian Protectorate, as well as the reigns of Charles II and James II. These were also years in which, as the letters bear witness, trade, global commerce, and travel flourished, alongside key advancements in science and the chartered success of the Royal Society. In addition to his central role in his nation’s struggles over its religio-political identity, Baxter’s letters also show him to be connected to key players in all these other intellectual spheres. Although he is chiefly known, now, for his pastoral ministry and nonconformity, Baxter’s letters offer authentic and often startling insights into a complex and richly diverse life that deserves to be better known.
Book is in preparation.
The editorial team of the Richard Baxter Correspondence Project is led by General Editors Dr Johanna Harris (University of Exeter) and Dr Alison Searle (University of Leeds), with Professor Emeritus N. H. Keeble (University of Stirling) acting as Consulting Editor. Contributing editors include Dr Sylvia Brown (University of Alberta), Dr Keith Condie (Moore Theological College), Dr Carrie Hintz (Queens College/CUNY and The Graduate Center/CUNY), Dr Jason McElligott (Trinity College, Dublin and Marsh’s Library, Dublin), and Professor Nigel Smith (Princeton University).
The project benefits also from the advice and expertise of its editorial board: Professor John Coffey (University of Leicester), Professor James Daybell (University of Plymouth), Professor Anne Dunan-Page (Université de Provence, Aix-Marseille I, Institut Universitaire de France), Professor Emeritus Neil Keeble (University of Stirling), Professor Isabel Rivers (Queen Mary, University of London), Professor Helen Wilcox (University of Bangor), and Dr David Wykes (Dr Williams’s Library).