“It is a sign he is a branch cut off and withered who careth little for any but himself” (292).
Richard Baxter, How to Do Good to Many
“And let all men take their common and special opportunities to do good: time will not stay; yourselves, your wives, your children, your servants, your neighbours, are posting to another world; speak now what you would have them hear; do them now all the good you can. It must be now or never; there is no returning from the dead to warn them” (323-34).
Given the extraordinary literary output by Richard Baxter, it is hard not to agree with Richard Schlatter that figures like Baxter have been largely overlooked by historians both left and right. Baxter was a prodigious writer turning out more than 130 books. So many books that it is difficult to count. Many of the books are folios with over 1 million words in length.
While prominent figures like Baxter have largely been forgotten, the same cannot be said about the English revolution. The last two decades have seen a never-ending stream of literature. The revolution still provokes significant interest and controversy. The purpose of this little review is to try and place Baxter within the context of the English revolution and to a certain extent, rescue him from the condescension of history.
While many significant figures of the revolution have sketchy biographies, this cannot be said of Baxter, who was born in 1615. From an early age, Baxter began to see things in class terms describing his father as “a mean Freeholder”. Like many families at the beginning of the revolution, Baxter’s family life was tough, and the family was “entangled by debts”. However, his poverty did not stop Baxter from thinking that ‘Godly People were the best’.
Baxter was heavily influenced by his family’s acceptance of Puritanism. Baxter was later to recognise his father as the “Instrument of my first Convictions, and Approbation of a Holy Life’. In class terms, Baxter was part of a growing and influential lower middle class who would clash so spectacularly with the King and Aristocracy in the English revolution.
Like other middle-class people around him, Baxter had the drive to try and achieve ‘Academick Glory’, and ‘wanting Academical Honours’. This he did not achieve through university but by becoming self-taught. Baxter “became one of the most learned of seventeenth-century divines.” Baxter puts this down to God. His praise of God is a running theme throughout his writings and is central to the book How to Do Good to Many: The Public Good Is the Christian’s Life. The book is a guide for the middle class on how to do good. There is nothing controversial in the book; much of Baxter’s political and social outlook is missing. This is a little strange given that Baxter was profoundly moved by the massive social, political and religious upheavals brought about by the English revolution.
While Baxter’s work is cloaked in religious trappings, once you break open the shell of religiosity, it is clear to anyone that a study of his political and philosophical writings play an essential part in our understanding of the events of the 17th-century English revolution.
From a political standpoint, Baxter was on the right-wing of the Presbyterians. He kept his distance from Oliver Cromwell and other leaders of the revolution. To use a modern term, Baxter took a typical centrist position also attacking anyone associated with the left-wing of the revolution, including Independents such as Hugh Peters. The “sectaries” like Thomas Rainborow and any Leveller, in general, were “tools of Anabaptists’,. Anyone who sought to widen the franchise was seen as Anabaptists by Baxter.
Early on in his life, Baxter took up an extreme and class position on the poor. He did not believe that men “from the Dung-cart (could) to make our 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 on the poor as an exception, but in reality, they partly expressed a real fear amongst the ruling class that the revolution would lead to a wider franchise and more importantly a revolution against the property. which to a certain extent happened.
If you strip away all the religious superstructure at the base of Baxter’s writings are hatred of the masses. His Holy Commonwealth, which is probably his most famous book is a manifesto against a more comprehensive democracy except for the chosen few namely people like him. Baxter‘s hostility to the poor was expressed most vehemently in his opposition to the Leveller’s.
When Baxter was in the New Model Army as an army Chaplin, he opposed the Levellers in debate accusing them of publishing “wild pamphlets” as “changeable as the moon “and advocating “a heretical democracy”. The irony of this being that Baxter’s books themselves were burnt and he was labelled as a subversive like the Levellers he criticised.
You could say that this book by Baxter is the product of two print revolutions. One took place in the seventeenth Century the other in the twenty-first century. Baxter’s original book was part of an influential print culture that exploded during the English revolution. As Joad Raymond writes ” The publication of one of the first popular printed works, Mercurius Gallobeligicus, in 1594 ushered in a new era of the printed word to England in the form of pamphlets and newsbooks. These works quickly gained popularity by the middle of the seventeenth century, amplifying communication among all levels of society”. Given Baxter’s prodigious output it has been said that he “was the first author of a string of best-sellers in British literary history”.
This book is also part of another print revolution no less important. The print revolution in the twenty-first century has seen the rise of books printed by their author or publisher. This particular edition was initially printed in the United States, but my copy says it was printed in the United Kingdom by Amazon. In some cases, it is difficult to tell the origin of the country a book is printed in since ships outfitted with printing presses now print vasts quantities and deliver them to any country in the world.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is Baxters appeal to merchants to behave themselves as good Christians. As Christopher hill recounts in his book The English Revolution 1640 “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 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.”
As was said at the beginning of this review, Baxter is an overlooked writer but along with Thoms Hobbes and James Harrington is a crucial figure if one wants to understand the nature of the English revolution. Baxter’s writings give us a more in-depth insight into culture and politics during the civil war.
According to one writer “The largest single group among Baxter's correspondence 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, encyclopedically 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”.
To a certain extent, Baxter was sensitive enough to recognise the social currents that brought people of diverse social backgrounds into struggle against the king. Baxter used the only tool available to him. He “ransacked the Bible and half-understood historical precedent for some theory to explain what they were doing”.
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”.
While it is correct to place Baxter’s writings alongside that of Hobbes and Harrington Schlatter believes that Baxter’s opposition to Hobbes and Harrington were that they believed in a secular state, but Baxter did not.
Having said that Baxter closely followed the writings of Hobbes and Harrington declaring "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."
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 the 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 being critical his writings bore similarities to both Hobbes and Harrington.According to Geoffrey Nuttall "in politics as well as an ecclesiastical position as continually taking a 'moderate' position which from both sides would bring him charges of betrayal or insincerity."
To the consternation of many revisionist historians, a case can be made that the English revolution was 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”.
To conclude Schlatter offers some advice on how we should understand Richard Baxter's place in the English revolution “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”.
Comment by C Thompson
I read your most recent post on the works of Richard Baxter and their significance with interest. I am afraid I do not think your interpretation is correct. Because Baxter like many of his contemporaries recognised that there were economic and social distinctions in English society does not mean that they were class-based or that they supported an interpretation of the events of the 1640s as an example of class conflict in the Marxist sense.
The use of terms like "lower middle class" is anachronistic and the view of the capacity of those at the lower end of the social scale to take political decisions was not just a reflection of upper class prejudices. I am hard-pressed to think of any early modern historians nowadays who would use such terms. There was, moreover, no real prospect at any stage of small groups like the Diggers, still less the Levellers, overthrowing the economic and social order. In any case, the complex mechanisms for conciliation and negotiation between different individuals, social groups and localities have yet to be fully explored. Baxter cannot be re-moulded in this procrustean sense.
With good wishes,
 Joad Raymond, The Invention of the English Newspaper: English Newsbooks, 1641-1649 (Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1996), 6
 See J ames Harrington: An Intellectual Biography – 10 Oct 2019-by Rachel Hammersley