Baxter’s pastoral work ethic is undeniable. His energy is passionate and unrelenting. His enthusiasm is in evidence on every page. Both his rhetoric and his practical counsel are charged with passion for Christ, the doctrines of grace, the purity of the church, the necessity for clerical holiness, the discipling purposes of education, and the high calling of the pastoral office.
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 commented that Baxter was “the model for the care of parish life and the nurture of covenant community.” Even Spurgeon acclaimed him as “the wisest guide to the high call of the pastoral office.”
By all accounts, Baxter (1615-1691) was indeed one of the most influential Puritans in the generation following the Westminster Assembly. His 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 new England settlement, the Great Fire, the restoration of the monarchy, and the bloody uniformity repressions. He was a contemporary of John Owen, Jeremiah Burroughes, John Bunyan, Samuel Rutherford, John Milton, George Gillespie, and John Cotton. Those were heady and tumultuous days—days that left an indelible mark of change upon the souls of both men and nations.
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. However, it was as the pastor of Kidderminster that he made his mark. Indeed, during the height of his prominence, he was offered the Bishopric of Hereford, the post of canon at St. Paul’s in London, and dean of St. Mary’s in Westminster, but he determinedly declined each preferring the quiet life of a parish pastor—or failing that, the retirement of writing and publishing.
Though he was almost entirely self-taught, having been denied the opportunity of reading at the university by the impoverished circumstances of his family and life-long ill health, he was renowned for his prodigiously rigorous 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.” And again, “As to myself, my faults are no disgrace to any university; for I was of none. I have little but what I had out of books, and inconsiderable helps of country tutors.” Richard Sibbes’ Bruised Reed, a little book bought by his father from a poor peddler selling sundry wares door to door in his Shropshire neighborhood, particularly influenced him. The seeds planted in Baxter’s heart by that remarkable Puritan presentation of the doctrines of grace would bear evident fruit throughout the rest of his career.