Richard Baxter, Student

From Good Mr. Baxter, Vance Salisbury’s biography of Richard Baxter:

Good Mr. Baxter Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.2 Timothy 2:15

This is the sanctification of your studies, when they are devoted to God, and when he is the end, the object, and the life of them all. –Richard Baxter

“Arthur Stanley, onetime professor of Church history at Oxford and dean of Westminster, called Baxter “the chief of English Protestant Schoolmen.” Certainly, one would think, Baxter’s academic accomplishment must find it’s root in a quality education and the cultivation of good study habits early in life. But, such was not the case. In fact, it would be hard to imagine a more dismal scholastic experience than what one writer called Baxter’s “desultory and defective education.”

His first instructors in the local church schools included a day laborer, a tailor, a local stage actor, a law clerk who was known for his public drunkeness, and a curate who fled after it had been discovered that his ordination papers were forged! These were the men who, according to Baxter, “taught school and tipled on the week-days, and whipt the boys when they were drunk.”

Prospects brightened when, at the age of fourteen he began attending John Owen’s free school and Baxter proved to be an outstanding student. He planned to go on to Oxford, but Owen advised him against it. Instead Owen suggested that he go to nearby Ludlow Castle, under the tutelage of a Mr. Wickstead, who promised a superior education for an ambitious young pupil. Baxter’s parents, not eager to have their only child so far from home, welcomed this advice and agreed.

At Ludlow, Baxter found that Mr. Wickstead didn’t have the ability or desire to tutor him, but was only interested in gaining favor with the lawyers, judges, and other court officials there. Tutoring one of Owen’s top students was merely part of the charade. However, there was a fine library at the castle and Baxter spent most of his time in personal study and contemplation of spiritual matters.

After a year and a half, Baxter returned home and began studying with a local minister. But, “a violent Cough, with the Spitting of Blood, &c. of two years continuance…” eventually made it impossible to continue. Although his quest for academic success was thwarted again, the nearness of death had a sobering effect on Baxter and brought an eternal perspective to his studies:

It caused me first to seek God’s Kingdom and his righteousness, and most to mind the One thing needful…by which I was engaged to choose out and prosecute all other Studies…Therefore Divinity was not only carried on with the rest of my Studies with an equal hand, but always had the first and chiefest place!…And by that means I prosecuted all my Studies with unweariedness and delight…and also less of my time was lost by lazy intermissions…

His attitude toward worldly success underwent a transformation, as well. Initially Baxter feared his lack of formal academic honors would hinder him, but he “…resolved that if one or two souls only might be won to God, it would easily recompense all the dishonour which for want of Titles I might undergo from Men!”

Just how successful was Baxter in the wise use of his time? Let the reader consider his daily schedule during his period at Kidderminster and judge for himself. Baxter’s constant pain would not allow him to rise before seven in the morning and then it would take him nearly an hour to get dressed. Headaches and fatigue brought any serious study to a halt soon after his evening meal. Baxter exercised two hours a day, usually a brisk walk or a ride through the countryside on his horse before meals. And, he spent one hour a day, without fail, meditating upon the Scriptures. Preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing consumed huge amounts of time, yet Baxter always found time to study.

He warned lazy and careless shepherds, “It is not now and then an idle snatch or taste of studies that will serve to make an able and sound divine [man of God].” “Study hard, for the well is deep, and our brains shallow..,” Baxter urged his fellow pastors. He was preaching to himself, as well.

Books, carefully chosen, played the primary role in Baxter’s self education. His life-long appreciation for good books stemmed from his own conversion:

And the use God made of Books, above Ministers, to the benefit of my Soul, made me somewhat excessively in love with good Books; so that I thought I had never [enough], but [scraped] up as great a Treasure of them as I could.

Baxter’s rooms at Kidderminster were small and plain, but the walls held shelves full of books. Stacks covered the furniture and floor. On one occasion, his “treasure” almost killed him. What follows is Baxter’s humorous account of a near fatal calamity in his library:

as I sat in my study, the weight of my greatest Folio Books brake down three or four of the highest Shelves, when I sat close under them, and they fell down on every side me, and not one of them hit me, save one upon the Arm; whereas the Place, the weight, and greatness of the Books was such, and my Head just under them, that it was a Wonder they had not beaten out my Brains, one of the Shelves right over my Head having the six Volumes of Dr. Walton’s Oriental Bible, and all Austin’s Works, and the Bibliotheca Patrum, and Marlorate, & c.

In spite of his great appetite for reading and learning, only one book was indispensable to Baxter. The Bible took first place and determined the value of all others:

Let all writers have their due esteem, but compare none of them with the Word of God. We will not refuse their service, but we must abhor them as rivals or competitors. It is the sign of a distempered heart that loseth the relish of Scripture excellency.

Paul’s instructions to Timothy, along with Baxter’s own trials and experience, gave direction to his ongoing education. The Bible alone gives “the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” The man of God who immerses himself in the Scriptures will be “adequate, equipped for every good work.”

It is doubtful if you, the reader, will be considered the “chief Protestant Schoolman” of this century. Few of us will ever approach the academic reputation or obtain the wealth of knowledge, which Baxter possessed. But, is that our goal? No. If we will make God “the end, the object, and the life” of our studies, as Baxter did, He will determine the success of our labor and those given to our care will enjoy the fruits of our work.”

– Vance Salisbury

You can order “Good Mr. Baxter” here.

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