Richard Baxter: As Dying Man to Dying Men

Richard Baxter: He Preached as Never Sure to Preach Again
and as a Dying Man to Dying Men.
by Austin B. Tucker

All his life Richard Baxter thought he was dying, and often he came close. In a time when leeches and blood letting were standard medical practice, a man with internal bleeding might do better without the aid of a physician. Several times in his more than two hundred books and booklets he wrote that he ‘preached as never sure to preach again and as a dying man to dying men.’

His most enduring book, The Saints Everlasting Rest, began as his own funeral sermon. He sought to turn his thoughts toward heaven for his own consolation. As he lingered on earth, the sermon grew into a full book. It was first published in 1649 when he was only thirty-four.

In spite of frail health, this minister who anticipated his early demise survived seventy-six years, from 1615 to 1691. He lived through the seventeenth century turmoil of England’s transition from absolute monarchy to parliamentary government. His life spanned the reigns of King James I, King Charles I, through England’s civil wars and Cromwell’s rule. He saw the monarchy restored under King Charles II and King James II, and lived to see the coming of William of Orange.

Baxter should be on everyone’s short list of great pastors and great preachers. Of course, there are some ways in which he would not be a model for today’s pastoral preacher. He preached remarkable long sermons. Sermons in his day were traditionally measured by the hourglass, and it was common for Baxter to turn the hourglass once or twice. One sermon checked at random contains more than nineteen thousand words! That is about ten times the length of this article and would take the typical preacher about two and a half hours to read aloud. But those were days when people didn’t have to get in and out of church in an hour. A public prayer might last half an hour. Though Baxter regularly preached from a full manuscript, it might include frequent byways from the main trail. In many other ways, however, Baxter merits our emulation.

1. Baxter was a man of serious study. He considered his sense of impending death invaluable mercy because it made him ‘study and preach things necessary’ and it stirred his heart ‘to speak with compassion.’ Circumstance prevented gaining the university training he desired. He made up for it with devotion to study of serious books. Over the years, he accumulated a large library. When he wrote The Saints Everlasting Rest, he was in a time of convalescence away from his library with no books but his Bible and a concordance. In a later addition, however, he made copious notes and quotations in the margins from some 150 different authors. Such was his wide reading. These notes show great acquaintance with the Church Fathers and a preference for Augustine and Clement of Alexandria. He also read Greek and Latin and sometimes quoted the Latin in his sermons. Scarcity of time for study he considered ‘the greatest external personal affliction of all my life.’

2. Baxter was committed to preaching, but he insisted that pulpit work be wedded to a personal pastoral ministry. It was partly his sense of impending death that moved him to enter the ministry. Here he felt he could make the best use of his limited time on this earth. He urged his fellow pastors to give priority to evangelistic preaching and personal soul winning. ‘The first and greatest work of ministers of Christ’ wrote Baxter, ‘is acquainting men with the God who made them. . . . Focus on the great work of evangelism whatever else you do or leave undone.’ Then the minister should teach them as much as he can of the word and works of God.

Young people especially flocked to hear Baxter, though he ministered to the whole family. In addition to his pulpit ministry, he considered the family as the appropriate unit for teaching. At Kidderminster he spent two days each week, seven hours each day, one hour per family, instruct ing his flock. He dealt with the family on the basis of their spiritual needs and level of doctrinal understanding. He gave part of the hour to one-on-one interviews with each member of the family. In spite of his advise to other ministers about the priority of preaching, Baxter considered the personal conference with the family and pastoral calls in the homes the most important work he did. No doubt his personal attention to families in a large and growing flock made him a better minister in the pulpit.

The Kidderminster church was a large edifice but nearly empty when he arrived. He saw them build five balcony additions so that it became the largest church he had ever seen. Still when he preached, he focused on individual souls and their holy lives rather than on numbers.

3. Baxter’s pulpit power, no doubt, flowed much from his personal prayer and meditation. He was serious about spending time with the Master. He recommended that a minister devote one hour a day to personal prayer in addition to preparation time for preaching and teaching and other pastoral duties.

4. His sermon style was marked by clarity, interest, and force. One of his great strengths was the use of clearly stated outlines. In all his preaching, he labored to speak ‘the plainest words.’ Simplicity, he believed, was a great virtue in preaching. He did recommend, however, that a pastor preach over the heads of his congregation from time to time. This would keep them humble and show them the pastor did know more than the congregation. Baxter planned to preach such a sermon once a year.

Baxter did not pad his sermons with stories or anecdotes. The interest value of his discourse owed much to his skill with simile and metaphor. Here is a sample of his way with words from his autobiography.

“He that will blow coals must not wonder if some sparks do fly in his face; and that to persecute men and then call them to charity is like whipping children to make them give over crying. . . .I saw that he that will be loved, must love; and he that rather chooseth to be more feared than loved, must expect to be hated, or loved diminutively. And that he that will have children must be a father; and he that will be a tyrant must be contented with slaves.”

Baxter preferred the textual sermon. A sermon entitled ‘Making Light of Christ and Salvation’ takes a single sentence in Matthew 22:5 as text: ‘But they made light of it.’ He sometimes assumed the congregation was familiar with the setting, but he was always faithful to the context. His sermons began with the careful explanation of the text. Then as was customary in the homiletics of his day, he dealt with possible objections or difficulties in accepting it. Then came application (called ‘uses’ of the text) and a climax of urgent exhortation to obey the Word.

5. His sermon delivery was passionate in keeping with his twin focus on his own mortality and that of all his hearers, ‘as dying man to dying men.‘ He lamented, ‘How few ministers preach with all their might.’ One of his biographers speaks of ‘his eyes, roving, ranging eyes. . .(that) kindled his audience like a fire, (and) his voice (that) swept it as the wind in a cornfield.’

His voice was ‘soft, flexible and melodious’ according to another who heard him preach. He advocated an informal delivery. ‘Speak familiarly to them as you would if you were talking to any one of them personally.’ His hearers indeed felt that he was talking to each of them personally. Broadus considered the strength of Baxter’s delivery his ‘tremendous earthshaking earnestness.’ Another called it ‘vehement intensity.’ Another referred to it as ‘the eloquence of a soul burning with ardent devotion to God, and inspired with the deepest compassion for men.’

6. Baxter’s writing ministry must be considered an extension of his pulpit. He turned to writing, he said, not from any literary ambition, but simply because it ‘hath a louder voice than mine’ with which to preach the gospel. In another place he cited the same motivation that seemed to drive so much of his ministry his dance with the death angel.

“While I was in health I had not the least thought of writing books or of serving God in any public way than preaching, but when I was weakened with great bleeding, and was sentenced to death by the physicians, I began to contemplate more seriously on the Everlasting Rest which I apprehended myself to be just on the borders of.”

Soon, writing became the major focus of his ministry. Of the relative importance of this work, he spoke in his Autobiography:

“But all these my labours (except my private conferences with the families), even preaching and preparing for it, were but my recreations and, as it were, the work of my spare hours. For my writings were my chiefest daily labour, which yet went the more slowly on that I never one hour had an amanuensis to dictate to, and specially because my weakness took up so much of my time.”

Why did Baxter enjoy such success in nearly two decades in the Kidderminster pulpit? One reflective piece is included in the collection of his writings called Autobiography. In it he listed a dozen reasons for his success in preaching. First, he came to a community ripe for the Word. The old curate he replaced preached only once a month and was notorious for cold and formal sermons. A second was his enthusiastic delivery and ‘a familiar moving voice (which is a great matter with the common hearers).’ The enthusiasm he attributed to his bodily weakness. ‘As a dying man, my soul was the more brought to seriousness, and to preach as a dying man to dying men.’

Third, he considered his greatest advantage ‘the change that was made in public affairs by the success of the wars.’ Nonconformists regained more liberty and popular acceptance. Fourth, Baxter’s ecumenical attitude was a great advantage in a community blessed with unity and concord. There was ‘not a Separatist, Anabaptist, Antimomian . . .in the town!’ Fifth, the people of his community were carpet weavers by trade allowing time to ‘read and talk of holy things.’ As they stood at their looms in their own homes, they could set a book before them, perhaps one of their pastor’s writings. Or they could carry on edifying conversations even as they worked. Sixth, the fact that Baxter was unmarried for most of his life, he considered an advantage. He could take his people as his children. Seventh, he considered the ‘quality of sinners of the place’ an advantage. For example, drunkards were so notoriously loud and obnoxious they made that sin ridiculous.

Eighth, Baxter took church discipline seriously, a thing almost as rare then as now. Ninth, he shaped his sermons to fit the needs of the congregation. Tenth, the Kidderminster people were not rich. ‘The poor receive the glad tidings gladly. They are rich in faith.’ Eleventh, he stayed long enough to see fruit. And finally, he believed God blessed the labors of ‘his unanimous faithful ministers’ by which he meant the unity of fellowship in an ecumenical association of pastors that he organized. He had a passion for Christian unity without doctrinal compromise and without denominational or sectarian exclusivism. Horton Davies called Baxter ‘the first exponent of Ecumenism in England.’

Richard Baxter was an extremely successful pastor and preacher. Looking back over his Kidderminster days he could say with reference to family devotions:

“When I first came there, there was about one family in a street that worshiped God; when I came away there were some streets where there was not one family that did not so, and that did not by professing serious godliness give any hopes of their sincerity.”

And when he did go away, forbidden to come within five miles of Kidderminster by England’s new laws against nonconforming pastors, no doubt the community grieved the loss of the minister who preached to them as dying man to dying men.


First published in Preaching Magazine

About The Author

Most of my life has been as a pastor of Southern Baptist churches. Preaching, teaching and writing have been the major emphases of my ministry. It has long been my prayer that my mature years might be given more to teaching and writing. Especially do I want to help young pastors in sharpening their preaching and other ministry skills.