Richard & Margaret Baxter: the fire of love in difficult times
by Rev. Dr. Ed & Janice Hird
In 1665, Richard and Margaret Baxter survived the Black Plague in London while 15 percent of Londoners perished that summer.
King Charles II and most wealthy people fled London. The poor people were not allowed to leave. Only a small number of London pastors and doctors remained to cope with the overwhelming onslaught. Plague houses, quarantined by guards for 40 days, were marked with a red cross on the door with the words, ‘Lord Have Mercy Upon Us”. Richard commented: “The sense of approaching death so awakened both preachers and hearers, that multitudes of young men and others were converted to true repentance.”
Richard and Margaret, who had only been married three years earlier, were a powerful team caring for the sick and leading many to Christ. As a confirmed bachelor, 47-year-old Richard had surprised many by marrying Margaret who was twenty years younger than him.
Because of his dedication to renewing the Anglican Church, he, along with 2,000 other Anglican clergy, were ejected from their churches and forbidden to preach within ten miles of a local town. As the 17th Century’s most visible pastor, Richard had been leading a spiritual revival in Kidderminster with his 800-strong congregation of weavers. Margaret, as an upper-class dilettante, was an unlikely convert. Richard observed that she had, in her youth, been tempted to doubt the life to come and the truth of the Scripture. Margaret didn’t think much of Baxter or the people of Kidderminster, merely attending church to humour her godly mother. But God reached her and changed her life. As a new Christian, she almost died from tuberculosis, but the humble weavers prayed and fasted for her. God heard their prayers, giving her a miraculous recovery.
As a wealthy heiress, Margaret loved to serve the poor and invest in her husband’s ministry to the lost. In a neglected part of London, she founded a free school where poor children were taught and learned about Jesus.
In one rented facility, over 800 gathered to hear Richard preach. Suddenly, the building began to collapse. Margaret ran outside, immediately hiring a carpenter to put an extra support in the building so that the congregants would not die. It worked. The memory of this near disaster left Margaret with nightmares. She was both very fearful and very courageous simultaneously. Her father, Francis Charlton, Esquire, was a wealthy leading justice of the peace. One of the traumas of her early childhood was the demolition of her home, Apley Castle, by Royalist troops in 1644, during the Civil War. Men were killed right in front of five year old Margaret. Three times more, Margaret faced death, leaving her with PTSD symptoms for the rest of her life.
Her husband, Richard, was often fined and then sent to jail for preaching the gospel. When Richard was thrown in prison, she cheerfully joined him there, bringing her own bedding.
After building a church building for her husband, jealous neighbours had the visiting minister arrested, thinking that they had captured her husband.
After being forced ten miles out of town in 1669 for preaching the gospel, the Baxters had to live in a dilapidated farm where “the coal smoke so filled the room that we were even suffocated with the stink. And she had ever a great constriction of the lungs that could not bear smoke or closeness.”
The Baxters entered marriage with their eyes open. J.I. Packer commented: “Vividly aware of each other’s faults, they loved each other just the same, ever thankful for having each other and ever eager to give to each other.” Marriage for them was more about spiritually maturing than getting their own way. Richard commented “If God calls you to a married life, expect…trouble…and make particular preparation for each temptation, cross, and duty which you must expect. Think not that you are entering into a state of mere [pure and unmixed] delight, lest it prove but a fool’s paradise to them.”
Richard wrote 168 books, many after his ejection from the Kidderminster pulpit. Even though Baxter’s books were largely forgotten after the Great Eviction of 1662, they were later rediscovered by John Wesley, William Wilberforce, and most recently by Dr. J.I. Packer. Margaret, who spoke her mind, informed her husband that he should have written less books, spending more time writing each book. She also told him that because of his prolific writing and extensive ministry, he was not spending enough time in secret prayer with her. Margaret was a passionate prayer warrior who often out-prayed her academic husband.
Richard, who suffered from chronic pain in his later years, regretted how it sometimes affected his temper and communicativeness around Margaret. He was convinced from age 20 that he would not be long for this life. So, he preached “as a dying man to dying men.” Baxter’s physical ailments included a tubercular cough; frequent nosebleeds and bleeding from his finger-ends; migraine headaches; inflamed eyes; all kinds of digestive disorders; kidney stones and gallstones. Because Margaret was very sensitive to loud noise, Richard worked hard to modify his sometimes, hasty way of speaking. He greatly loved and admired Margaret, saying that she was “a woman of extraordinary acuteness of wit, solidity, and judgment, incredible prudence and sagacity and sincere devotedness to God, and unusual strict obedience to Him.”
In their 19th year of marriage, Margaret took a turn for the worse and died. The bloodletting by doctors had only hastened her demise. Richard was heartbroken. As part of his grieving process, he wrote a book, Breviate, about his dear wife.
J.I. Packer believes that Baxter’s book (renamed Grief Sanctified) can transform marriages in the 21st century. The Baxters’ marriage represented a commitment to covenant relationship that brings a course-correction to our self-indulgent culture. Richard, in grieving the loss of Margaret, focused on the goodness of God in time of tragedy. Rather than being resentful and bitter, he was grateful for the time that God graciously gave him with his wife. They show us how to make it till death do us part.
God used the fire of the Baxters’ love to transform many lives for eternity. May we too, in this difficult time of COVID-19, trust that the fire of God’s love will strengthen and revive our families and our marriages.
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