Richard Baxter, after a painting by Robert Walker in Frederick J. Powicke’s A Life of the Reverend Richard Baxter 1615–1691 Houghton Mifflin, 1924.
Many a prisoner could envy Richard Baxter. He was given far more than conjugal visits—his wife was allowed to live with him in prison.
Baxter was imprisoned for refusing to cease preaching. Living in Acton at that time, he would preach to his family at home, and if anyone cared to drop by at preaching hour, they were welcome to stay and listen. This was during the reign of Charles II in the plague year which ended with the Great Fire of London. Many state-appointed vicars abandoned their people to seek less infected regions, leaving independent and non-conformist churchmen to fill the vaccum they created by their cowardice. People were desperate for spiritual counsel and consolation. Baxter, with many other non-conformists, felt he would be remiss not to give it. The numbers meeting in his home soon rivaled those attending the parish church. Under his solid gospel teaching lives changed. The local vicar, a godless, cursing man, grew jealous.
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Laws were at hand to incarcerate Baxter. At that time Charles was trying to force all non-conformists to take an oath. Most refused. Many went to prison for their defiance.
And so did Baxter. He had already shown himself to be one of the ablest ministers of the day. When he became vicar at Kidderminster, for example, he found a people who were ignorant and profane. Almost none attended church. Baxter preached justification by faith, and insisted on the importance of godly living. He opened God’s word to his hearers and practiced what he preached. “At the beginning of my ministry, I was wont to number them [the godly] as jewels…” he wrote. Later, he could not count them. Five galleries had to be added to the church. “On the Lord’s Day there was no disorder to be seen in the streets; but you might hear a hundred families singing psalms and repeating sermons as you passed through them.”
Over the years, Baxter wrote many godly books. The most famous was his Saints’ Everlasting Rest. However, there were many others, all of them powerful appeals for true godliness. He also wrote an autobiography. Here is his account of prison, in which his chief complaints were the noise, the interruptions, and the lack of religious services.
Richard Baxter’s Account of His Imprisonment
My greatest doubt was, whether the king would not take it ill, that I rather sought to the law than unto him [i.e.: seek a pardon]; or if I sought any release rather than continue in prison. My imprisonment was at present no great suffering to me, for I had an honest jailor, who showed me all the kindness he could. I had a large room, and the liberty of walking in a fair garden. My wife was never so cheerful a companion to me as in prison, and was very much against my seeking to be released. She had brought so many necessaries, that we kept house as contentedly and comfortably as at home, though in a narrower room, and had the sight of more of my friends in a day, than I had at home in half a year. I knew also that if I got out against [my enemies’] will, my sufferings would be never the nearer to an end. But yet, on the other side, it was in the extreme heat of summer, when London was wont to have epidemical diseases. The hope of my dying in prison, I have reason to think, was one great inducement to some of the instruments to move to what they did. My chamber being over the gate, which was knocked and opened with noise of prisoners, just under me almost every night, I had little hope of sleeping but by day, which would have been likely to have quickly broken my strength, which was so little that I did but live [i.e.: was barely breathing]. The number of visitors daily put me out of hope of studying, or of doing anything but entertain them. I had neither leave at any time to go out of doors, much less to church on the Lord’s days, nor on that day to have any come to me, or to preach to any but my family.
Upon all these considerations the advice of some was, that I should petition the king. To this I was averse; and my counsellor, Serjeant Fountain, advised me not to seek to it, nor yet to refuse their favor if they offered it, but to be wholly passive as to the court, and to seek my freedom by law, because of my great weakness and the probability of future peril to my life: and this counsel I followed.
[Instead of seeking a pardon, he appealed with a writ of Habeas Corpus and was eventually released.]