The Work of the Pastor

baxter church reformation Jun 10, 2019

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.

When he first arrived in Kidderminster, a thriving Worcestershire township of some 3,000 souls near the Welsh borderlands, the vicar of the parish church preached only infrequently—usually only four times a year.  Baxter began a very fruitful ministry of lecturing and teaching, having an immediate impact, as he later testified, “simply by the diligent attendance upon the duties of the pastoral office.”  He quickly grew to love the place and the people despite the “meanness of their condition” and the “sore disrepair” of the ministry.  Events were soon to interrupt this happy estate however.  After just one year, he was forced out of the parish by the circumstances of the looming Civil War.  He was away for five years ministering to the Parliamentary forces, during which time the state of the local church languished even more pitifully than before.

In 1647, he finally returned and devoted the better part of the next decade and a half to the work of the ministry: discipling the families of his congregation and encouraging the other ministers throughout the surrounding county.  It was during that time that Baxter developed the vision and the plan for catechizing as the heart and soul of pastoral work.  It was this work that he later described in his classic, Gildas Salvianus or the Reformed Pastor.  According to contemporary missiologist Ron Davies, “His ministry there was the most fruitful Puritan pastorate anywhere recorded, resulting in the conversion of nearly the whole town.”  So powerful was the impact of his work that nearly a century later George Whitefield could report that, “the good effects of Mr. Baxter’s ministry are still in evidence in the region from Shrewsbury to Kidderminster and beyond.”

Gildas Salvianus displays, as J.I Packer asserts, Baxter’s greatest virtues and gifts—qualities that enabled his vision and plan for Kidderminster and Worcestershire to not only provoke such an extraordinary revival there and then but to have an enduring ministry to ministers, churches, and congregations all across the world up to the present day.  Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of the work of the pastor without taking Baxter into account.  His consuming “energy,” his plainspoken “reality,” and his unstinting “rationality” continue to impact readers far afield of Baxter’s original intended audience.  

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.

But Baxter’s vision is not merely idealized inspiration or emblazoned ardor.  Throughout Gildas Salvianus he applies his energy to the real world circumstances that pastors and their congregations were likely to encounter.  His sense of reality is clear-eyed and forthright.  He admits that his plan is fraught with difficulties.  He comprehends the obstacles to caring for and discipling all the families of a parish.  He is all too cognizant of the effects of sin and the tug of the tyranny of the urgent.  The work of the pastor is to proceed in practical ways.

Along with that clear-headed vision, Baxter hammers out a clear a plan for the work of pastors.  He thinks strategically about the pastoral task and outlines a thorough tactical agenda for its implementation.  Thus, as he approaches the great army of Christ’s church in Worcestershire, he is able to marshal them as a general rouses his forces to battle.  He addresses their fears, their objections, their concerns, their doubts, and their anxieties.  In the process, he develops a very practical approach to pastoral ministry to every family on a very regular basis.  His rationality is systematic, purposeful, and perhaps most importantly, replicatable.

The combination of such energy, reality, and rationality has made Baxter’s example a great encouragement and enticement to ministerial effectiveness.  But it has also afforded us a vision of fruitfulness over the long term; the story of Baxter and his Kidderminster flock does not have a fairy tale ending.  His work, like ours was amidst of thorns and thistles.

After the demise of the protectorate and the subsequent restoration of the monarchy in 1660, persecutions were launched against all but established state churches.  It was widely understood that religion was the primary influence on the nature and structure of culture.  Preaching was considered to be a powerful force that had both eternal and temporal dimensions.  Thus, they rightly predicted that a faithful exposition of the Bible would have immediate political as well as spiritual ramifications.  They thought that allowing unauthorized or unlearned men to preach would undermine the whole social fabric.  They comprehended only too well the dynamic significance of worldviews—and as a result, Puritans, Covenanters, Nonconformists, and Independents of all stripes came under fierce persecution.  Eventually, Baxter was stripped of his pastoral work, driven into private life, and ultimately imprisoned.

Despite the absence of their pastor and his careful ministrations, the Kidderminster parish continued to thrive.  The spiritual vitality of the people did not decline as it had during his previous absence during the Civil War.  Rather, the season of refreshment and revival continued over the course of the next several generations.

Richard Baxter unstintingly applied the Biblical work ethic to the pastoral task.  The result was that he recovered a Biblical vision for what it is pastors are actually to do day in and day out.  He was indeed, the “Prince of Pastors.”

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