Taken and adapted from, “The Christian Pioneer” Vol. 20.
Published in 1866
Flitting across the scenes of the English Rebellion, Restoration, and Revolution, three hundred and fifty years ago, we see the shadows of some of the greatest men that England ever produced.
Among these, as a preacher and writer, Richard Baxter was conspicuous. As a preacher his energy was most forcible and powerful—few being able to resist his appeals. As a writer no man, perhaps, ever wrote and printed so many good books. He was, however, like all other men, not without his failings; but these consisted chiefly in errors of judgment arising often from the spirit and manners of the age in which he lived, and never from evil intention. In our days his life and labors would have won for him universal admiration. To think of such a man being treated in the brutal manner he was at what was called his trial cannot but excite our wonder and indignation. But there never was an English Judge who disgraced the bench like Jeffreys. But verily the wretch, as Lord Macaulay has described, met with his reward.
“It had been determined before the death of Charles II, that Baxter should be imprisoned and tried, and he was actually on bail when that wretched king died. He was, by a warrant of Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys, committed to the King’s Bench for writing ‘ that scandalous, seditious book,’—so was it styled— ‘A Paraphrase on the New Testament.’ He was committed in February, and in May he was brought to his trial. In fact, nothing could be more innocent than the words for which he was indicted. He was indicted as ‘ Richard Baxter, a seditious and factious person, of a depraved mind, impious, iniquitous, of turbulent disposition and conversation, determined to break in the peace of the community and the tranquility of our Lord the King,’ etc. He was brought to trial before Jeffreys. His counsel had moved for more time. ‘I will not give him,’ said that drunken and blood-stained judge ‘ a minute’s time to save his life. We have had to do with other sorts of persons, but now we have a saint to deal with, and I know how to deal with saints as well as sinners. Yonder stands Oates in the pillory, and he says he suffers for the truth, and so says Baxter; but if Baxter did but stand on the other side of the pillory with him, I would say two of the greatest rogues and rascals in the kingdom stood there.’
On the 30th of May, Baxter was brought for trial. Sir Henry Ashurst had the courage to stand by him all the while. ‘When I saw,’ says another eye-witness, ‘the meek man stand before the flaming eyes and fierce looks of this judge, I thought of Paul before Nero. The barbarous usage which he received drew plenty of tears from my eyes, as well as from others of the auditors and spectators. He drove on furiously, pouring out contempt and scorn upon Baxter, as if he had been a link-boy or knave, which made the people who could not get near enough to hear the indictment or Mr. Baxter’s plea, exclaim, “Surely, this Baxter had burned the city.” But others said, it was not the custom now-a-days to receive ill, except for well-doing; and, therefore, this must needs be some good man that my lord rails so at.’
The obscenity, the vulgarity, and unrighteousness of the judge on the occasion of that trial, are well known. Before the trial of Baxter, a short cause was heard; and then the clerk called another cause. ‘You blockhead you,’ said the judge, ‘the next cause is between Baxter and the King.’ Some part of the ‘Paraphrase’ objected to was Mark 12: 38-40—’ And for a pretense make long prayers.’ Baxter made some remarks on liturgies. ‘Is he not now an old knave,’ said Jeffreys, ‘ to interpret this of liturgies. No, no,’ continued he, ‘it is their own long-winded extempore prayers, such as they used to say when they appropriated God to themselves. Lord, we are Thy people, Thy peculiar people, Thy dear people.’ And then he snorted, and squeaked through the nose, lifting up his eyes and mimicking their manner, as he said they used to pray. Baxter’s counsel interposed. ‘Polfexen,’ says Jeffreys, ‘ I know you well. I will set a mark upon you; you are the patron of the faction. This is an old rogue who has poisoned the world with his Kidder minster doctrine. Don’t we know how he preached formerly? “Curse ye Meroz; curse them bitterly that come not to the help of the Lord against the mighty.” He encouraged all the women and maids to bring their bodkins and thimbles to carry on their war against the king of ever blessed memory. An old schismatical knave, a hypocritical villain.’ ‘I beseech your lordship,’ said Polfexen, ‘suffer me a word for my client. It is well known to all intelligent men of this age and nation that those things do not apply to the character of Mr. Baxter. My lord, Mr. Baxter’s loyal and peaceable spirit, King Charles would have rewarded with a bishopric when he came in if he would have conformed.’
‘Aye, aye,’ said the judge, ‘we know that; but what ailed the old blockhead, the unthankful old villain, that he would not conform? Was he wiser and better than other men? He hath been ever since the spring of the faction. I am sure he hath poisoned the world with his linsey-woolsey doctrine; a conceited, stubborn, fanatical dog. Hang him! This old fellow hath cast more reproach upon the constitution and discipline of our Church than will be wiped off for a hundred years; but I’ll handle him for it, by God! He deserves to be whipped through the city.’
Let us blush for the days when that trial took place; blush that the bench of English justice was filled by so drunken and disgraceful a buffoon—blush that the throne of England was filled by a man of a more depraved character than the judge.
Jeffreys was fond of whipping, and he was desirous that Baxter should be flogged through the city; but the sentence was ultimately fixed at a fine of £500—a tolerable sum to pay for telling a mild piece of truth. This was one of the first acts of the gentle reign of James II; and it was early in the administration of his Lord Chief Justice, but it was a type of both; —mercifully both were short. Jeffreys danced a sort of bloody hornpipe through England when he went on circuit; while his white lipped master taught for a brief year or two that love and forgiveness had no place in his Christian code; then the magnanimity of England sent both master and man packing.
“For two years Baxter continued in prison. We were walking once with Elihu Burritt over York Castle, where George Fox was confined, and when he saw the comfort of all the prisoners, their clean cells and raiment and food, he said, ‘Ah, poor dear George Fox; dear Bunyan and Baxter; how very thankful they would have been to have had such a comfortable place as this!’ In truth, perhaps, prison would not be very irksome to a man like Baxter.”
In those days the saints expected it—they took pen, ink, and paper, and a book or two, and went into jail as if they were going home.
The accounts given to us of Baxter, in prison, are interesting. The old man wrought away with his pen still. His Puritan friends came to see him. ‘We interrupt you,’ said they once; ‘Of course you do,’ said he; ‘but never mind, go on.’ A man like that would not feel the shackles so much as many men.
We confess we like best to look at Baxter in prison. The dear old man; and how beautiful his words are in those closing hours. ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘all over-sharp passages were expunged from my writings, and I ask forgiveness of God and man.’
Blessings on thee, thou dear old teacher, thou shalt have for that word, not our forgiveness only, but our undying respect. He says that all mankind appear more equal to him; the good not to appear so good as he once thought, nor the bad so evil, and that in all there is more room for grace, to make advantage of, and more to testify for God and holiness, than he once believed. ‘I less admire,’ he continues, ‘ gifts of utterance, and the bare profession of religion than I once did, and have now much more charity for those who, by want of gifts, do make an obscure profession.’ Again, ‘When God forgiveth me, I cannot forgive myself, especially for my rash words and deeds, by which I have seemed less tender and kind than I should have been to my near and dear relations, whose love abundantly obliged me. When such are dead, though we never differed in point of interest, or any other matter, every sour, or cross, or provoking word, which I gave them, maketh me almost irreconcilable 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 hurry of their passion.’ Grieve not—weep not thou brave and tender spirit!
Cheer up, Richard!—time is short—the cross is heavy, but you have not far to carry it! Dear old father, it is but a step or two more, and even now beautiful eyes are ‘waiting on the opposite banks of the river, in the house of youth and life, to smile forgiveness on thee for every word, forgotten indeed by them, though so keenly remembered by thee!
At length he was restored to freedom. He could not pay the fine, and so he was liberated; but when he was urged to sign a declaration of thanks to James II., the sternness of his ancient knighthood returned. His heart was softened, but his soul was perhaps, therefore, even stronger; he would not commend that infamous act of intolerant toleration, by which he and many others were only made the cat’s paw for the destruction of all English liberty and freedom. We respect and love the brave old heart of oak in that act as much as in any heroism of his noble life. Seventy years of age. Sick, infirm, bankrupt and beggared by the act of a succession of governments and of kings, he was firm and unshaken. He lived to see the Stuarts fly, and fly, thank God, forever!
He died in 1694. ‘I have,’ said he, ‘great pain; there is no use arguing against that. I care not; I have peace— peace— I have peace.’ A little while after they asked him how he was, and he replied, ‘Almost well.’ To the last he continued singing, when his sleep was broken in the night, ‘then,’ says his friend Silvester, ‘he sung much, nay, he believingly expected that his angelical convoy would conduct him through all the intermediate regions to his heavenly Father’s house, with those melodious hallelujahs or with something equally delightful.’
Then, too, he chanted these last verses. They ring like a glorious farewell to earth, and all hail to Everlasting Rest.”
BAXTER’S LAST SONG.
My soul, go boldly forth,
Forsake this sinful earth;
What hath it been to thee
But pain and sorrow?
And thinkest thou it will be
Look up towards heaven and see,
How vast those regions be,
Where blessed spirits dwell—
How pure and lightful I
But earth is near to hell,—
How dark and frightful!
Here life is but a spark,
Scarce shining in the dark;
Life is the element there
Which souls reside in;
Much like as air is here,
Which we abide in.
Glorious in light and love,
Is mother of us all;
Who shall enjoy them?
The wicked hellward fall,—
Sin will destroy them.
God is Essential love,
And all the saints above
Are like unto him made—
Each in his measure;
Love is their life and trade,
And their constant pleasure.
Love flames in every breast,
The greatest and the least;
Strangers to this sweet rest
There are not any;
Love leaves no place for strife—
Makes one of many.
Lord Jesus, take my spirit!
I have thy love and merit
Take home thy wandering sheep—
For thou hast sought it;
This soul in safety keep,
For thou hast bought it.