Richard Baxter (1615-1691) was among the most prominent English nonconformist divines. An independent thinker, he had opinions – and usually expressed them – about every major controversy in England during his lifetime. He wrote over 140 published works but also several volumes of his unpublished ‘Treatises’, a voluminous output which Dr Alan Argent, Research Fellow at Dr Williams’s Library, has carefully catalogued.
The Baxter Treatises, held for the most part in Dr Williams’s Library, London, together form an outstanding primary source for 17th century English history, especially touching on events from the 1650s onwards and mostly but not exclusively dealing with church history. Although most of the treatises relate directly to the nonconformist clergyman, Richard Baxter (1615-91), a significant minority have little if any link to him, though all were found in his possession at his death. Nevertheless, here are treatises, tracts, sermons, disputations, exercises, drafts, letters and miscellaneous papers, comprising a total of approximately 369 separate items.
Baxter had been a chaplain in the Parliamentary forces during the Civil Wars and served as vicar of Kidderminster in Worcestershire until 1660. For many years historians have regarded him as the most eminent figure among the ejected ministers after 1662. He wrote some 140 published works, among them bestsellers like The Saints Everlasting Rest (1650) and The Reformed Pastor (1656) and he continued writing until a few weeks before his death. The Baxter treatises make evident the vast scale of his interests, throwing up his acquaintance with the writings of Augustine, Origen, Lactantius, Calvin, Bucer, Beza, Hobbes, Spinoza, Grotius, Scaliger, David Blondel, Raymond Gaches, Daniel Chamier, Girolami Zanchius, and Jan Jesensky of Prague. In so doing they demonstrate that he was very well-read and concerned not only with classical and reformed theology, with philosophy, medicine and politics, but also with the down to earth pastoral problems of ordinary folk in those turbulent times.
The treatises cover his dealings with the highly placed and the lowly; he was a chaplain to the king in 1660 and the leading Presbyterian negotiator throughout discussions at the Restoration on the future of the Church of England. As such he was consulted by Charles II, the Lord Chancellor Sir Edward Hyde who became the Earl of Clarendon, and Gilbert Sheldon, the Archbishop of Canterbury but he also knew Archbishop Ussher of Armagh, John Tillotson, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Orrery, and Lord Conway. Furthermore, the treatises reveal the wide range of his pastoral concerns for London apprentices, troubled wives and mothers, Baptists, Quakers and converts to Roman Catholicism. They touch on the bizarre, the eccentric and the mundane as much as on matters of state and government policy. Baxter was concerned both with saving souls and saving bodies!
The treatises also make evident his own troubles with Bishop George Morley of Worcester, his brushes with the law and with his imprisonment but they also include items dealing with witchcraft, the magistrates of Ghent’s speech to the French monarch in 1678, Joseph Alleine’s arrest, strange fires at Brightling in Sussex in 1659 (explained as evidences of Providence) and the diary of a puritan minister at Cambridge in Elizabethan times.
At present academics are engaged in editing his autobiographical Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696) and an edition of his correspondence (also largely held at Dr Williams’s Library) is under way. Baxter studies are therefore still attracting attention from social and feminist historians, from literary scholars, from book historians, as well as from theologians and ecclesiastical historians.
I hope that with my book it is now possible to navigate one’s way safely through the many treatises and to know for certain what they contain.
This guest post is written by Alan Argent, a Research Fellow at Dr Williams’s Library, London and minister of Trinity Congregational Church, Brixton. He has written a biography of Elsie Chamberlain, a history of Congregationalism in the twentieth century and has edited The Angels’ Voice for the London Record Society. His 2016 Friends of Dr Williams’s Library lecture Dr Williams’s Library 1729-1793 – ‘a good library, under the direction of the dissenters’ was published in 2017. He is preparing a history of Dr Williams’s Library and Trust 1716-2016.