Richard Baxter and the Dictates of the Praying Classes -- By: Timothy R. Cooke

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 58:2 (Fall 1996)
Article: Richard Baxter and the Dictates of the Praying Classes
Author: Timothy R. Cooke

Richard Baxter and the Dictates of the Praying Classes

Timothy R. Cooke

The political ideology of the English divine, Richard Baxter, 1615–1691, is a fascinating example of the theocratic vision of Puritanism. Baxter’s writings on the relationship of church and state reveal a probing mind at work, intensely preoccupied with the advancement of a certain type of Christianity in England. His political thinking references several points of continuity with the Anglican establishment he sought to reform. His theocratic designs provide insight into the political and theological dynamic of late English Puritanism.

To his great chagrin, Richard Baxter’s incendiary political treatise, A Holy Commonwealth, was published, replete with a dedication to Richard Cromwell, in the final months of the Interregnum. The unfortunate timing of its appearance entailed years of apologetic qualifications on Baxter’s part, as he sought to disassociate himself from the calumny directed at the views so forcefully advocated in that treatise. Baxter regarded himself as a political moderate, defending the traditional rights and liberties of Englishmen, in conscious continuity with the intentions of those Church of England divines sympathetic to the reformed churches of the continent. Baxter was mortified at the suggestion that his political views exhibited a more decisive similarity to those of the radicals he abhorred than to the familiar contours of English political life he professed to uphold.

Baxter’s first engagement in political debate took place in the relative freedom and security of the Commonwealth. Although his political status changed with the Restoration, his political ideology did not. In political theory, as elsewhere, when Baxter formulated an opinion, it was a settled one. Writing as a beleaguered nonconformist after 1661, he professed the same opinions he had espoused so volubly before the Restoration. His enemies were convinced that Baxter, vulnerable as he then was, was one whose views were threateningly extremist, no matter how he tried to assuage their fears. Baxter’s strident propaganda in favor of a reformed political order, namely, an English theocracy, remained lucidly clear in the recollection of others. In part, this lasting impression of Baxter’s politics is ascribable to the conviction and consistency with which he propounded them.

It was axiomatic to Baxter that, “the more Theocratical, or truly Divine any Government is, the better it is.”1 By a theocracy, Baxter meant a divine commonwealth in which “God the Universal King is Soveraign; and none that Rule pretend to a Power that is not from him and subservient to h...

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