The Presbyterian Historic Network hosted this lecture by Tim Cooper.  I was surprised.  It was better than I expected.  I didn’t expect that a lecture about an English Puritan in that turbulent period would be interesting or relevant to our Presbyterian audience.  I was proved wrong.  It was one of the most engaging lectures we hosted this year.  The quality has been excellent this year too.

For a start we found that the Hewitson Library’s Rare Books Collection held two titles by Richard Baxter that were editions dating to the seventeenth century, his age.  One was the Reliquiae Baxteriana, Baxter’s autobiography which includes the introduction A Judgement on Baxter.  This was compiled to help sell the end run of the edition.  It’s the seventeenth century equivalent of “Comparable to Tolkien”.  It turns out that this introduction is extremely rare!  Think forty copies worldwide.  The University of Otago has a copy.  Dr Cooper was surprised to find a second copy in Dunedin of which no one was aware, including himself, and us.  I just opened the book and displayed on that page because it had a good title page.

Baxter was one of those people to voted for the wrong team.  Oliver Cromwell wanted him as his chaplain.  Baxter turned him down because he didn’t like the man.  He regretted it as he watched Cromwell become the tyrant of Britain.  He declared his support for Cromwell’s son and successor Richard Cromwell just at the same time as the regime collapsed and Richard Cromwell fled the country.  He opposed Charles I because he considered his supporters represented the ungodly and Parliament represented the godly forces.

Baxter saw most of the major fighting during the English Civil War.  It left him with what looks like a case Post Traumatic Stress.  Despite this the decade of chaos led to the godly commonwealth which he saw as a Good Thing.  The Restoration of the Crown and the Bishops made him more ambivalent.  He wrote Reliquiae Baxteriana with an eye on Protestant readers on the European continent and future generations.  He positioned himself to write as the neutral scribe of history.  He distanced himself from both the Parliamentarians and the Royalists.  While the Parliamentarians opposed the Royal Church they offered no agreed vision among themselves between those who wanted a Church which called people out of society and those who wanted a church that included everyone in the parish.  Does the spirit of these people live on in the Tea Party of America, and the clash of civilisations that exists in the War on Terror and its opponents?

In his parish in Kidderminster, Baxter sided with the second model, a broad evangelicalism (Presbyterian, of course) creating a community which was encouraged to live godly lives.  With the restoration of an episcopal church he was ejected from his position, on St Bartholemew’s Day.  He saw the commonwealth as being destroyed by his rival and critic, John Owen of the Congregational faction among the Puritans.  It was their leadership he saw as bringing down the commonwealth.

It turned out that Baxter’s declaration of a godly society was premature and he distanced himself from this position.  The godly, including Richard Baxter himself, are caught between sectarian extremists and episcopal authorities.  Ultimately Baxter was wounded and crushed by the national affairs of his age.

After this lecture there may be a run on the BBC Drama A Family Divided about the English Civil War.  In hindsight I’m sorry that the attendance at this lecture was so small.  It was an enjoyable and stimilating lecture.  The group was small enough that we sat in the Knox Centre of Leadership and Ministry’s Common Room instead of moving into the Seminar Room.  It was comfortable.

As I walked home afterwards I wondered about the politics behind the publication of Baxter’s Autobiography after his death.  It had to have been approved by a bishop who censored publications after the Restoration.  I wonder what was behind that decision to release it.

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