Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Life And Times of Richard Baxter 1615 – 1691


Richard Baxter
In his book Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics Richard Schlatter makes the point that figures like Baxter have been significantly overlooked by historians of both left and right persuasions. Schlatter is correct when saying that the English Civil War was one of a half dozen creative periods of world history. While figures such as Baxter have faded into the background the Civil War still provokes great interest. The purpose of this short article is to go some way to redress this imbalance.

Richard Baxter was born in 1615 in the village of Rowton, Shropshire. Baxter described his father as “a mean Freeholder”. The Baxter’s early family life was hard and “entangled by debts”. Although much of this was brought on by a family trait of addiction to gambling .

Despite this wild beginning the family soon began to adopt the Puritan lifestyle and philosophical outlook. Baxter later acknowledged his fathers as the “Instrument of my first Convictions, and Approbation of a Holy Life’. Baxter was in many ways a representative of the archetypal lower middle class layer that saw Puritanism as both a moral and philosophical outlook. His father also bred into his son that hostility to Puritanism stems from “mere Malice’ and that ‘Godly People were the best’.
Baxter's own ‘vehement desires’ had been to proceed from school to university to achieve ‘Academick Glory’, and throughout his life he regretted his lack of a university education and pointed to his ‘wanting Academical Honours’ as a mark of his insufficiency as a minister.

Despite his lowly academic status how does one account for the fact that Baxter “became one of the most learned of seventeenth-century divines.” Baxter himself probably puts this down to his devotion to God. But while not downplaying the fact that Baxter was undoubtedly a gifted speaker and writer Baxter was also moved by the massive social, political and religious upheavals brought about by the English revolution.

While much of Baxter’s thought was cloaked in religious trappings his political and philosophical writings should be studied today because they play an important part in our understanding of the events of the 17th century English revolution.

Baxter even early on in his life engendered dislike and hatred from many sides of the class struggle. One example came in 1642 when a churchwarden tried to impose a parliamentary order for the demolition of any outstanding images of the persons of the Trinity or of the Virgin Mary. Baxter was held by many accountable for this order and was targeted by ‘a Crew of the drunken riotous Party of the Town’. Baxter clearly feared for his life at this time. The tensions and hostilities surrounding the outbreak of civil war further heightened feelings: ‘a violent Country Gentleman’ passing Baxter in the street ‘stopt and said, There goeth a Traitor’.

Baxter politically was on the right wing of the Presbyterians. He never gave his full backing to Cromwell and never really adhered to his ideas about the war and later the Commonwealth. One thing is also certain is that he was hostile to the left wing independents such as Hugh Peters. He reserved his anger for “sectaries” such as Thomas Rainborow. As for the Levellers and Diggers he saw them as nothing more than “tools of Anabaptists’, in fact any one who sought to enfranchise a wider selection of the population were labelled Anabaptists.

Baxter was a prodigious writer turning out more than 130 books (the exact figure depends upon how works published in a variety of forms are counted), several of them folios over 1 million words in length.

The civil war produced an outpouring of writing that had never been seen previously in England and would match any contemporary event. According to Christopher Hill “People especially Puritans began to utilise the press more often than not secretly to forward their thoughts and views on the nature of religion politics and philosophy. It has been said with his volume of work Baxter “was the first author of a string of best-sellers in British literary history”. The political theorist, Hobbes, describes how the Presbyterian merchant class of the city of London was the first centre of sedition, trying to build a state governed like the republics of Holland and Venice, by merchants for their own interests. (The comparison with the bourgeois republics is constantly recurring in Parliamentarian writings.) Mrs. Hutchinson, the wife of one of Cromwell’s colonels, said all were described as Puritans who “crossed the views of the needy courtiers, the encroaching priests, the thievish projectors, the lewd nobility and gentry . . . whoever could endure a sermon, modest habit or conversation, or anything good.”

Baxter claimed no credit for his letter writing. Again he put his thoughts down to a gift from God. He was however a compulsive letter writer. His 1200 letters which were sent to over 350 people. This amount of letter writing bears testimony to not only Baxter’s own love of life but give us a deeper insight into the culture and politics during the civil war.

According to one writer “The largest single group among Baxter's correspondents consists of some seventy men who became nonconformist ministers at the Restoration, but the interest of the letters is not confined to the history of nonconformity, ecclesiastical affairs, or theological controversy. Baxter was an acute enquirer into matters arcane and mundane, inveterately interested in both public affairs and individuals' experience, encyclopaedically industrious in establishing the grounds for the opinions which, for over half a century, he freely discussed in letters with persons of every walk of life, from peers, the gentry, and members of the professions, to merchants, apprentices, farmers, and seamen. 

The result is not merely a rich historical archive: the range of this correspondence, the vitality of its engagement with a great variety of topics, the immediacy of its expression, and the unpredictability’s of its mood and tone make this collection a record of felt experience unique among early epistolary archives”.

Would it be correct to say that Baxter’s writing represented a definite strand within Puritan philosophy?. No not really, In most doctrinal disputes he sought a middle position. Another  writer suggested “that his affinities with the Cambridge Platonists have placed Baxter as a precursor for the rationalism which was to lead to John Locke and the deists”.

While people took sides in the war for different reasons Baxter would have preferred to remain neutral and it was touch and go which side he would support as he felt comfortable with both.

Baxter chose the parliamentary side because he felt that “for the debauched rabble through the land emboldened by his (the kings) gentry, and seconded by the common soldiers of his army, took all that were called Puritans for their enemies”. Baxter blamed the King for the war and was disturbed by the fact that it could in his words disturb the rabble into riot.

Some of his writings as regards the poor have the whiff of fascism about it. He did not believe that men “from the Dung-cart to make us laws, and from the Ale-house and the May-pole to dispose of our religion, lives, and estates. When a pack of the rabble are got together, the multitude of the needy and the dissolute prodigals if they were ungoverned, would tear out the throats of the more wealthy and industrious…. And turn all into a constant war”. It would be easy to dismiss Baxter’s writing as an exception but in reality they expressed a real fear amongst the propertied elite that the revolution would lead to a wider enfranchisement and a rebellion against property.

If you strip away all the religious trappings Baxter’s writings are imbued with this hatred of the masses. His Holy Commonwealth which is probably his most famous book is a manifesto against wider democracy except for the chosen few namely people like him. Baxter‘s hostility to the working masses was expressed most vehemently in his opposition to the Leveller’s. In fact a study of people like Baxter shows eloquently the social and political forces that were reigned against the Levellers.

During his time in the New Model army as an army Chaplin he took on the Levellers in debate. He accused the Levellers of publishing large numbers of wild pamphlets as “changeable as the moon “and advocating “a heretical democracy”.Despite Baxter’s hostility to the Levellers Baxter’s books themselves were burnt and he was labelled a subversive.

While some writers have compared Baxter’s writings to that of Hobbes and Harrington according to Schlatter Baxter’s opposition to Hobbes and Harrington were that they believed in a secular state but Baxter did not. Baxter followed the writings of Hobbes and Harrington very closely ,Baxter declares: "I must begin at the bottom and touch these Praecognita which the politicians doth presuppose because I have to do with some that will deny as much, as shame will suffer them to deny." Harrington, Hobbes and to a lesser extent Baxter writings expressed the sentiment that at the heart of the civil war was the unresolved nature of democracy. Like Baxter perhaps the majority of puritans including the leadership of the revolution were extremely hostile to a wider enfranchisement of the population.

Baxter was heavily critical of Hobbes whose “mistake” according to one writer “was that in his doctrine of "absolute impious Monarchy' he gives priority to man by making sovereign the will of man rather than the will of God. Baxter deplored any attempt to draw criteria for right and wrong from man's As for Harrington; his great fallacy consisted in denying God's sovereignty by making "God the Proposer, and the people the Resolvers or Confirmers of all their laws." If his [Harrington's] doctrine be true, the Law of nature is no Law, till men consent to it. At least where the Major Vote can carry it, Atheism, Idolatry, Murder, Theft, Whoredome, etc., are no sins against God. Yea no man sinneth against God but he that consenteth to his Laws.

The people have greater authority or Government than Gods in Baxter's view, such conceptions of politics and its practice as those of Hobbes and Harrington is suited to atheists and heathen”.
While Baxter was critical of both Hobbes and Harrington much of his philosophical writings bore similarities to them both. Politically speaking he took a moderate position constantly seeking not to alienate the political establishment of his day of which he did not succeed. 

According to Geoffrey Nuttall who summarized Baxter's political position by pointing to the fact that "in politics as well as ecclesiastical position as continually taking a 'moderate' position which from both sides would bring him charges of betrayal or insincerity."

In many ways Baxter work was physical proof that despite recent revisionist historian’s denial that the Civil war was very much fought along class lines. As Baxter himself put it at the time: “A very great part of the knights and gentlemen of England . . . adhered to the King . . . And most of the tenants of these gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the rabble, did follow the gentry and were for the King. On the Parliament’s side were (besides themselves) the smaller part (as some thought) of the gentry in most of the counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on clothing and such manufactures…Freeholders and tradesmen are the strength of religion and civility in the land; and gentlemen and beggars and servile tenants are the strength of iniquity”.

How to understand Baxter, Schlatter offers some advice “students of Baxter must look backwards, for he stands near the end of a tradition which, although someone is always trying to revive it as a weapon in the never ending war on liberty and democracy has been long been dead. To understand Baxter’s politics we must reflect on that long political tradition which achieved its first and most magnificent expression in the City of God, which flourished in the Middle Ages and reformation, and died in the Age of Reason”.

Sources


 1. Richard Baxter and Puritan Politics Richard Schlatter Rutgers University.2. N. H. Keeble Oxford National Biography 3. Politics and Theology in the Thought of Richard Baxter- Walter B Douglas.Andrews University 4. IIIM Magazine, Volume 2, Number 27, July 3 to July 9, 2000 5 The Work and Thought of Richard Baxter by Lynell Friesen 6. The English Revolution 1640 Christopher Hill  
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