Richard Baxter On Christian Unity: A Chapter In The Enlightening Of English Reformed Orthodoxy -- By: Carl R. Trueman

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 61:1 (Spring 1999)
Article: Richard Baxter On Christian Unity: A Chapter In The Enlightening Of English Reformed Orthodoxy
Author: Carl R. Trueman

Richard Baxter On Christian Unity: A Chapter In The Enlightening Of English Reformed Orthodoxy*

Carl R. Trueman

In 1707 a group of non-conformist ministers made a fateful decision that was to have a dramatic effect upon the way in which the great Puritan divine, Richard Baxter, would be known to posterity. Their action effectively divorced Baxter’s thought from the context of its times and more or less guaranteed that his reputation for subsequent generations would not be that which he himself would have chosen, or perhaps even recognized. This decision separated his so-called practical works from the rest and arranged that only the former should be republished. The result was four huge tomes of writings, covering everything from conversion through catechising to Christian household management.1 While the tomes were indeed huge, however, they actually represented less than half of what Baxter wrote in his lifetime and excluded precisely those doctrinal works upon which Baxter himself hoped that his reputation would come to rest.

The practical writings certainly struck a chord with the English-speaking public. Several editions were published over the subsequent centuries, most recently in the early 1990s. The particular brand of piety which they contained also proved popular in the Highlands of Scotland, where the practical writings enjoyed translation into Gaelic and came to form part of the

*An earlier version of this paper was presented tot he Kerkhistorisch Gezelshap at their summer meeting in Utrecht, June 1998.

**Carl R. Truman teaches historical theology in the Department of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen.

literary culture of the legalistic wing of Scottish Presbyterianism.2 Indeed, so closely did Baxter’s practical writings come to be identified with the legalism of Victorian non-conformity that, in The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot underlined the pharisaism of the nauseating Mrs Glegg by noting that she read Baxter’s Saints’ Everlasting Rest “on wet Sunday mornings—or when she heard of a death in the family—or when … her quarrel with Mr Glegg had been set an octave higher than usual.”3

The resulting popular picture of Baxter, to friend and foe alike, is that of a man who was fundamentally concerned with the practical life and experience of the Christian believer, a pietist avant la lettre. This image has often been combined at a popular level with the notion that Baxter was the calm man of tolerance, the one who sought a middle-way be...

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