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I have been young and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken.—Ps. xxxvii. 25.
A GREAT man, Richard Baxter, who died about two hundred years ago, towards the close of his life drew up a narrative of the errors into which upon reflection he seemed to himself to have fallen in the course of it. This is not the exact anniversary of his death, which took place on Dec. 8, 1691. But I may, perhaps, without impropriety, speak to you of him on this day. The lives of great and good men are the best sermons which we ever read or hear; and the preacher may do well sometimes to shield himself behind them, and so to speak with greater authority than his own words could fairly claim. It is probable that the name of Baxter has never been celebrated before within these walls; for he was the leader of the Nonconformists of his day; and it is not to be supposed that perfect justice was done him in a later generation any more than in his own by his opponents. But now that both he and they are gone to their account, we can think of them only as the servants of God who by some strange accident were parted from one another here, but have now entered into common rest and dwell together in His presence.
I propose in this sermon to do three things—First, I shall give a brief account of the life of this remarkable man; one of the greatest of Englishmen, not only of his own, but of any time. Secondly, I shall enumerate a few particulars remarked by him about himself in that singular review of his own errors and misconceptions to which I have already referred, and which may with truth be said to be unique in English literature. Thirdly, I shall ask you to consider how you or I or any of us may, in a humble way, either towards the end of life or in the middle of it, examine our own lives in a similar spirit and see ourselves as we truly are, not gilded by self-love or self-conceit, but as we appear in the sight of other men and women of sense and in the sight of God.
The life of Richard Baxter coincides with a long period of political trouble. He was born in the year 1615, and died about three years after the Revolution of 1688. Both he and his father, who was an excellent man, seem to have passed through the awakening of Puritanism. In 1641 we find him settled at Kidderminster, in which town he continued to minister, with some interruptions, for seventeen years. Wonderful stories are told of the effects of his preaching. It might be said of him that as the people of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, so did the people of Kidderminster at the preaching of Richard Baxter. Nor was he more occupied in preaching the Gospel to his own flock than in opposing the Anabaptists and other sectaries, including the soldiers of Cromwell’s army, with in exhaustible energy and irresistible logic. He was on the side of the Parliament, but believed for a time that both he and they were loyal subjects of the king. Under the Commonwealth he was appointed chaplain to Cromwell, and seems to have spoken his mind to him with astonishing freedom about King Charles the First. Neither of them liked or trusted the other.
After the Restoration, during the short period when it was the policy of the Court to conciliate the Nonconformists, he was offered the Bishopric of Hereford. The offer was declined. Baxter continued to struggle for peace and toleration until, on Aug. 22, 1662, the Nonconformist ministers were finally expelled by the Act of Uniformity. That was the greatest misfortune that has ever befallen this country, a misfortune which has never been retrieved. For it has made two nations of us instead of one, in politics, in religion, almost in our notion of right and wrong: it has arrayed one class of society permanently against another. And many of the political difficulties of our own time have their origin in the enmities caused by the rout of Aug. 22, 1662, called Black Bartholomew’s Day, which Baxter vainly strove to avert.
When the policy of the Church and the Court could no longer be resisted, Baxter, who might have been Bishop of Hereford, thought only of retiring to his beloved Kidderminster. He was not permitted to do so. For the next twenty-six years his life was that of an exile in his own land and a prisoner for conscience sake. Often there must have come into his mind those words of St. Paul, which in a measure represented his own sufferings: ‘In labours more abundant, . . . in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. . . . In perils by mine own countrymen, . . . in perils in the city, . . . in perils among false brethren. . . . Besides that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.’ He was also afflicted during nearly the whole of his life with painful and terrible disorders of the body, which had often to be endured in prison and without the necessary means of support. Yet was this the time when the activity of his mind was greatest. He is said to have been the most voluminous of English divines. He published 168 volumes; and among them one book which, with the single exception of the Pilgrim’s Progress, has had a wider diffusion and found a nearer way to the hearts of religious men in England than any other devotional writing, and may still be read for its style as well as for its high merits with a deep interest, The Saints Everlasting Rest.
When we hear of such men and their labours, who combined the persevering industry of the great scholar with the moral force of a hero and a leader of man kind, we are apt to say, ‘There were giants on the earth in those days.’ It would be better to say, that they were the sons of God who fought not in their own strength—one man more than a thousand, for they endured as seeing Him who is invisible.
Yet in this life of suffering, in the prison, in the court of the oppressed, in the poor and mean abode, amid disease and all the ills which flesh is heir to, there was one star or bright spot which shed a ray upon his darkness. This was a lady of gentle birth and breeding who, when he was near fifty years of age and she little more than twenty, gave herself to God and to him. He had once thought that it was better for a minister to be unmarried; he might have added the reason given by St. Paul—because of the troubles of the times. But now he came to see that a lot might be possible for two joined in sweet society, which to a single person might have been death and despair only. We may be confident that to her no other life would have been acceptable. She lived after her marriage nineteen years. Her name was Margaret Charlton. Her husband wrote what he called the breviate of her life, from which and from other sources an eloquent writer of the present day has drawn a portrait of her. She was one of those remarkable women who have effaced themselves that they might help and save others, who have found their lives in losing them. After mentioning that ‘her strangely vivid wit’ was celebrated by John Howe, the great Nonconformist divine, the writer to whom I have referred continues as follows: ‘Timid, gentle, and reserved, and nursed amid all the luxuries of her age, her heart was the abode of affection so intense and of fortitude so enduring that her meek spirit, impatient of one selfish wish, progressively acquired all the heroism of benevolence, and seemed at length incapable of one selfish fear. In prison, in sickness, in every form of danger and fatigue, she was still with unabated cheerfulness at the side of her husband, prompting him to the discharge of every duty, calming the asperities of his temper, his associate in unnumbered acts of philanthropy, embellishing his humble home by the little arts with which a cultivated mind imparts its own gracefulness to the meanest dwelling-place; and during the nineteen years of their union joining with him in one unbroken strain of filial affiance to the divine mercy. Her tastes and habits had been moulded with a perfect conformity to his. He celebrates her catholic charity to the opponents of their religious opinions and her in flexible adherence to her own; her high esteem of the active and passive virtues of the Christian life, as contrasted with a barren orthodoxy; her noble disinterestedness, her skill in casuistry, her love of music and her medicinal arts.’
There is still one more fact in Richard Baxter’s life which, even in the shortest account of him, ought not to be passed over in silence: his refusal to join with the Roman Catholics against the Church of England, who had been his persecutors during the twenty years previous. When the crisis which pre ceded the Revolution of 1688 was approaching, the government of James the Second sought to enlist the Nonconformists in their interest by a promise of toleration in their struggle against the Church of England. Baxter, who had been recently imprisoned, refused to join this new league and covenant, and by his great influence with his brethren succeeded in detaching them from it. He had no thought of revenging himself on the clerical party for their persecution of him. And certainly no one ever conferred a greater benefit on the Church of England or on the country. For it is easy to see that, if James the Second could have carried with him the Dissenters, he could have settled things as he pleased. This was what Baxter by his statesmanlike insight foresaw, and was not disposed to gain advantages for Non conformists at the cost of the destruction of the Church of England or the establishment of Popery. He was the same man who, when he was committed twenty years before to Clerkenwell gaol for some slight infringement of ecclesiastical law, at the same time obtained from King Charles the Second, through the influence of one of his disciples, the charter of the original Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
And so this eminent servant of God passed to his rest. Considering his character and popularity, the extent of his writings, his genius and learning, he may be said to be the greatest of English theologians (or one of the greatest), as he has certainly been one of the most lasting influences on popular theology. He was not without faults, of which, we gather from his writings and also from the narrative to which I referred at first, too great pugnacity and contentiousness were the most serious. In the days of his youth he was too fervid and vehement and inconsiderate. But we are now to hear of him from his own just judgment of himself. He left no descendants. The scholar may be interested to know that William Baxter, the contemporary of Bentley and the editor of Anacreon and Horace, was the son of Richard Baxter’s brother.
Baxter wrote a voluminous autobiography, in which at the end of the first part is found the review of his own life which I am going to describe to you. Why is this passage so remarkable? Because it is one of the few theological writings in which the love of holiness and the love of truth seem altogether to take the place of ecclesiastical and party interests; because it gets rid of conventionalities into which we all of us so readily fall when writing of things which are beyond us; because it admits us behind the veil into the holy place of a good man’s soul. Many persons have written about themselves, but no one has done so with the same calm judgment or the same breadth of charity towards all other men.
He looks back into the vista of the past and judges his own motives and actions with the impartiality of history. He sees more clearly his own errors and prejudices when he is at a distance from them, as we sometimes have a wider and truer view of the landscape when the sun is going down and the heat of the day is past. He tells us that in his youth he was very apt to start upon controversies in ignorance of the antipathies and enmities which were engendered by them; now he is disposed to ignore differences, and to think with Lord Bacon that ‘it is a great benefit of Church peace and concord, when writing controversies is turned into books of practical devotion’. He has learned to doubt whether men can be reasoned into their opinions. He does not venture to say anything of his opponents, because his testimony respecting them is hardly to be believed. His observation of the world has led him to doubt the value of professions of religion; he had once thought that all who could pray movingly were saints, but now he has more charity for many who are wanting in such gifts. He is not for narrowing the Church more than Christ himself alloweth; nor for robbing Him of any of His flock. He is not so much inclined to pass a peremptory sentence of damnation upon all who never heard of Christ, having much more reason, he says, than I knew of before to think that God’s dealings with such are much unknown to us. His censures of Papists too differ much from what they were at first. For he is now assured that their misexpressions and misunderstandings of us, and our mistakings of them and inconvenient expression of our own opinions, has made the differences between Protestant and Catholic on many points, such as Justification, to seem much greater than they are, and that in some points there is no difference at all. The great and irreconcileable differences lie in their church tyranny and usurpations, in their corruptions and abasement of God’s worship, and their befriending of ignorance and vice. Yet he doubts not that God hath many sanctified ones among them; and he cannot believe that God will ever cast a soul into hell that truly loveth Him. He is farther than ever from expecting unity and prosperity to the Church on earth; or that saints should dream of a kingdom of this world, or flatter themselves with hopes of a Golden Age, or reigning over the ungodly. The observation of God’s dealing with the Church in every age, and His befooling of them who have dreamed of glorious times, as the Anabaptists, the Fifth Monarchy Men, and others, confirms him in this. If he were among the Greeks, the Lutherans, the Independents, yea, even the Anabaptists, he would sometimes hold communion with them. ‘I cannot be of their mind that think God will not accept him that prayeth by the Common Prayer, nor yet can I be of their mind that say the like of extempore prayers.’
One more example of his toleration shall be added which, considering the country and age in which he lived, is really wonderful: it goes back far into the history of the past. After speaking of the prodigious lies which had been told in his own age in the interests of religion, and the tendency to believe everything on the one side and nothing on the other, he continues: ‘Therefore I confess that I give but halting credit to most histories that are written, not only against the Albigenses and Waldenses, but against most of the ancient heretics who have left us none of their own writings in which they speak for themselves; and I heartily lament that the historical writings of the ancient schismatics and heretics (as they were called) perished, and that partiality suffered them not to survive, that we might have had more light on the Church affairs of those times and been better able to judge between the Fathers and them. And as I am prone to think that few of them were so bad as their adversaries made them, so I am apt to think that such as the Novatians, whom their adversaries commend, were very good men and more godly than most Catholics, however mistaken in some one point.’
Two characteristics he notes of advancing years. First, he feels a decline of the zeal of his youth, for which he is half inclined to blame himself; he thinks that he is like a person travelling a way which he hath often gone, or casting up an account which he hath often cast up, or playing upon an instrument which he hath often played upon. And no doubt there have been many whose religions, like their other affections, have in a manner withered when life was beginning to decay, and who by frequent repetitions have grown tired of religious exercises. But he also finds better reasons for this decline of devotional fervour. For he has learned to value things more truly as he grows older and to see them in a juster proportion. In his youth he was quickly past fundamentals, and was running up into a multitude of controversies, and greatly delighted with metaphysical and scholastic writings, but in later life he laid less stress upon those controversies and curiosities, and found less and less certainty in them. The subjective certainty of an opinion cannot go beyond the objective evidence for it; and he will not pretend to be more certain than he is. He strongly urges that religion should rest on the broadest foundations; on the Being of God rather than on a future state of rewards and punishments, on that state itself rather than on the endless duration of it; on the essentials of the Christian faith rather than on the meaning of particular texts or the canonicalness of some certain books. They must allow him to use to Christians the arguments by which alone a heathen can be touched, such as the being of a God and the necessity of holiness.
There are some things for which he believes that God may have forgiven him, but he cannot forgive himself, especially for very rash words or deeds by which he may have seemed injurious or less tender and kind than he should have been to near and dear relations, ‘whose love,’ he says, ‘abundantly obliged me. When such are dead, though we never differed in point of interest or any grave matter, every provoking word which I gave them maketh me almost irreconcileable to myself, and tells me how repentance brought some of old to pray to the dead whom they had wronged to forgive them in the passion of their soul. 1
There is another confession which he makes true to the experience, not only of himself, but probably of most religious men. He says that as he grew old he is troubled not so much by the consciousness (of past sins, but by the sensible want of the love of God shed abroad in the heart. This he conceives to be the top of all religion which gives value to all the rest because it alters and elevates the mind. He used to think such meditations tiresome, and that everybody knew God to be good and great, and heaven to be a blessed place, but now he would sooner read, hear, or meditate on such truths than on anything else.
One more extract which speaks to our own and to every other age of the Christian Church: ‘I apprehend it,’ he says, ‘to be a matter of great necessity to imprint true Catholicism in the minds of Christians, it being a most lamentable thing to observe how few Christians in the world there be that fall not into one sect or the other, and wrong not the common interest of Christianity for the promotion of the interest of their sect. And how lamentably love is thereby destroyed, so that most men think they are not bound to love men as the members of Christ which are against their party. And if they can but get to be of a sect which they think to be the holiest or which is the largest, they think that they are sufficiently warranted to deny others to be God’s Church, or at least to deny them Christian love and communion.’
So I have endeavoured to place before you, very imperfectly, a fragment or two of a great mind. He was one who lived as well as preached, and whose life was his most powerful sermon to posterity, as well as to his own age. Some of his words speak to us heart to heart, and have a far-reaching meaning to the wants of our days; there are others which are not equally appropriate because the relations of the Church and of the world have become different, and the thoughts of men ‘have widened with the process of the suns’. There have been controversies in our own day, not so virulent, but as widely diffused as in the days of the Commonwealth and of the Restoration; and must we not all of us admit that we have changed many of our religious opinions during the last fifty years? There are a few here present who can remember how forty years ago, or again rather more than sixty years, the panic about Popery spread through the country. There may have been some indirect benefit which arose from such a movement, but it can hardly be said to have conduced to Christian charity. Reflecting on the past, and remembering all the evils which for a century and more have been the result of this anti-Catholic bigotry, must we not apply to ourselves the censure which Christ passed on His disciples, ‘Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of,’ or perhaps on this as on some other great historical occasion ask the question ‘Whether nations like individuals, may not go mad’? Or, once more, we may note a remarkable change of opinion in which many of us no longer agree with our former selves, when the results of historical criticism in their bearing on the Old and New Testament began to be made known in this country; and now that we are becoming familiar with them, will any one say that we ought not in some degree to alter our attitude towards such inquiries as light and knowledge increase, and not embark the religion of Christ in such a hopeless and unmeaning controversy? ‘While we wrangle here in the dark,’ I am once more quoting Baxter—‘while we wrangle here in the dark, we are dying and passing to the world which will decide all our controversies, and the safest passage is by peaceable holiness. It is a great source of calm and repose in our religious life always to turn from small things to great, from things far away to things near at hand, from the foolishness of controversy to the truths which are simple and eternal, from man to God.’
And now, leaving history and controversy and subjects which most of us only hear about at a distance, I will suppose a similar vein of reflection to be entertained by an elder person living not two hundred years ago, but a contemporary of our own, present in this Abbey here to-night. He too has something to say to us which is of interest to himself and to others. Now on the threshold of old age, he may be supposed to take a look backward over the sixty or seventy years which have passed, not in the great world, but within the limits of his own home. His religion is not derived from books, but comes to him from his experience of life.
First he has a deep sense of thankfulness to God for all His mercies. He may have had troubles and disappointments in life, but he acknowledges that all things have been ordered for the best. The days pass more quickly with him now than formerly and make less impression on him. He will soon be crossing the bar and going forth upon the ocean. He is not afraid of death, it seems natural to him; he is soon about to pass into the hands of God. He has many thoughts about the past which he does not communicate to others—about some persons in whom he has had a peculiar interest, about places in which he has lived, about words spoken to him in his youth which have strangely imprinted themselves on his mind, about many things which no one living but himself can remember. He wonders how he ever escaped from the temptations of youth, and is some times inclined to think that the Providence which watches over children and drunken people must have had a special care of him. He may have been guilty too of some meannesses or sins which are concealed from his fellow-men; he is thankful that they are known to God only. He is not greatly troubled at the remembrance of them, if he have been delivered from them, but much more at the unprofitableness of his whole life.
Before he departs he has some things to say to his children or to his friends. He will tell them that he now sees this world in different proportions, and that what was once greatly valued by him now seems no longer of importance. The dreams of love and of ambition have fled away; he is no longer under the dominion of the hour. The disappointments which he has undergone no more affect him; he is inclined to think that they may have been for his good. He sees many things in his life which might have been better; opportunities lost which could never afterwards be by him recovered. He might have been wiser about health, or the education of his children, or his choice of friends, or the management of his business. He would like to warn younger persons against some of the mistakes which he had himself made. He would tell them that no man in later life rejoiced in the remembrance of a quarrel; and that the trifles of life, good temper, a gracious manner, trifles as they are thought, are among the most important elements of success. Above all he would exhort them to get rid of selfishness and self-conceit, which are the two greatest sources of human evil.
There are some reflections which would often occur to his own mind though he might not speak of them to others. A sharp thrill of pain might sometimes pierce his heart when he remembered any irremediable wrong of which he had been the author, or when he recalled any unkind word to a parent which he had hastily uttered, or any dishonourable conduct of which he had been guilty. He need not disclose his fault to men, but neither will he disguise it from himself; least of all, if he have repented of the sin and is no longer the servant of it, should his conscience be overpowered by the remembrance of it. For sin too, like sorrow, is healed by time; and he who is really delivered from its bondage need not fear lest God should create it anew in him that He may inflict punishment upon him. For in the sight of God we are what we are, not what we have been at some particular moment; nor yet what we are in some detail or in reference to some particular act, but what we are on the whole.
Once more, when a man is drawing towards the end, he will be apt to think of the blessings of friendship and of family life. He has done so little for others and received so much from them. The old days of his childhood come back to him: the memory of his father and mother and brothers and sisters, all in the house together, and the lessons and the games and the birthday feasts and rejoicings as in a picture crowd upon his thoughts. When we have grown old they are most of them taken before us; no one else can ever fill their place in our lives. Also there have been friends who have been like brothers and sisters to us; many of these too are gone and cannot be replaced. They have sympathized with our trials; they have inspired us with higher thoughts; they have spoken words which have been for ever imprinted on our mind. They have taken trouble to do us good—sometimes a remark of one of them thrown out as if by accident, or a letter written at a critical time, may have saved us from a fatal mistake. They have cared for our interests more than for their own, they would have died for us. Such experiences of disinterested friendship many men have had; and we reflect upon them more as we are left more alone, and the world is withdrawing from us. Living or dead the true friend can never be forgotten by faithful and loyal hearts. And as the days become fewer, we think more of them as they once were in life—as they are now with God where we too soon shall be.
Yet once more, we may suppose the statesman, who is within a measurable distance of the end,
‘When the hurlyburly’s done,
When the battle’s lost and won,’
to make similar reflections on his own political life. Perhaps he will say in the words of one who ten years ago was so familiar a figure among us: ‘In the past there are many things I condemn, many things that I deplore, but a man’s life must be taken as a whole.’ He will not look back to party triumphs or great displays of oratory with the satisfaction which he once felt in them. He will acknowledge that he has made endless mistakes, and will sometimes wish that he had been more independent of popular opinion. He has done little compared with what he once hoped to do. He will value most that part of his work which tended to promote justice, or to save life or to increase health, or to diffuse education, or to establish the foundation of peace between nations and classes. And in the words of one of the greatest of English statesmen, he will be glad to be remembered with expressions of goodwill in the abode of those whose lot it is to labour and to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow.
Lastly, we may extend the spirit of the reflections of Richard Baxter to the religious difficulties of our own day. We may imagine an aged man who has lived through the last fifty or sixty years, and has been watching the movements which have agitated the Church from extreme to extreme and back again, each tendency seeming to have as great or even a greater reaction. He would see, as Baxter saw in his old age, that all other things come to an end, but that of the love of God and man there is no end. He would not raise questions about the rites of the Church, or the canonicity of the books of Scripture: these belong to criticism and ecclesiastical history, not to the spiritual life. He would seek for the permanent and essential only in the books of Scripture, in the lives of good men, in the religion of the world. To follow Christ, to speak the truth in love, to do to others as you would they should do to you, these are the eternal elements of religion which can never pass away, and he who lives in these lives in God.
Oxford: HORACE HART, Printer to the University
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