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Richard Baxter - Small-Town Preacher

As a small-town pastor and writer, Richard Baxter (1615 - 1691) is remembered as one of the leading Puritan preachers of the seventeenth century. Born in a village in the English countryside, his early education was primarily under the direction of poorly educated clerics. His break came when he was sent to a school directed by John Owen, whose teaching transformed his theological outlook. At age twenty-three he was ordained, and soon after he was called to serve as an Anglican minister in the village of Kiddermister. Here he crafted sermons that resonated with his congregation of poor loom workers. In fact, church attendance boomed, and additional galleries were added as the numbers grow. Preaching "as a dying man to dying men," he had no patience for lackluster sermons. "How few ministers preach with all their might!" he grumbled. "There is nothing more unsuitable to such a business than to be slight and dull. What! Speak coldly for God and for men's salvation! Let the people see that you are in earnest. Men will not cast away their dearest pleasures upon a drowsy request." Nor did he neglect home visitation: "We should know every person that belongs to our charge, for how can we 'take heed to the flock of God,' if we do not know them?"

Believing that such visitation was too time-consuming and intrusive, he was initially reluctant to call on families. But after initiating the program he wrote, "I find the difficulties to be nothing to what I imagined, and I experience the benefits and comforts of the work to be such that I would not wish to have neglected it for all the riches in the world. I cannot say that one family hath refused." In the following years he scheduled yearly visits to each of the some eight hundred homes in the parish. With his assistant, he offered catechism to dozens each week, using a standard question-answer format for continued use within the family. Approaching fifty, the bachelor preacher married a woman in her early twenties who heartily joined in the work. When she died nineteen years later, he wrote: "I never knew her equal." She was "better at resolving a case of conscience than most Divines that ever I knew."

Baxter was twice incarcerated for his Nonconformist beliefs, but he refused to be intimidated and remained active in political affairs. Also high on his agenda was ecumenical unity, a stand that placed him virtually alone among Puritans in his desire to join with all those who subscribed to the Apostles' Creed. A prolific writer, he produced massive volumes, including his Christian Directory (1673) on Christian conduct, which ran some one million words. Most often quoted is his classic volume, The Reformed Pastor, but he was first and foremost an evangelist, as expressed in The Saint's Everlasting Rest, A Call to the Unconverted. Two years before his death at seventy-six, William and Mary introduced the Toleration Act of 1689, protecting him and his fellow Nonconformists from persecution.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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