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Podcast: What Pastors Can Learn from Richard Baxter (Tim Cooper)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Baxter and Pastoral Ministry

In this episode, Tim Cooper discusses the importance of Richard Baxter, a Puritan responsible for many key (if not misunderstood or difficult to read) treatises on church doctrine and the role of ministry. Cooper discusses Baxter's faithfulness in ministry and what modern pastors can learn from his example.

The Reformed Pastor

Richard Baxter

In his classic text The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter expounds on the apostle Paul’s encouragement to the elders of Ephesus to keep watch over themselves and their flocks. Updated and abridged edition.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

00:51 - A Providential Introduction to the Puritans

Matt Tully
Tim, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Tim Cooper
It’s a pleasure, Matt. Great to talk to you about Richard Baxter.

Matt Tully
You’re a well-known Puritan scholar—someone who has spent a lot of time getting to know a group of Christian leaders and thinkers and pastors from history who often (I would have to say) get a bad rap. They’re not necessarily, in the way that they’re described, always portrayed in a positive light. I’m curious if you could explain a little bit how you got into studying the Puritans.

Tim Cooper
To be honest, it was just providential. Richard Baxter was such a good choice for a PhD topic, but I really can’t claim any credit for it. I was here in New Zealand and I just wanted to do a PhD in history. I was interested in the Reformation, and I went to the lecture of someone who might supervise something on the Reformation, and he had Richard Baxter’s unpublished letters and papers on seven microfilm reels. He pointed at those and said, What about Richard Baxter? I did just the slightest bit of reading about Richard Baxter and I thought, Why not? And I launched in! It didn’t come out of this deep love of the Puritans or even a great awareness of the Puritans. It was the suggestion of my supervisor, but what a great suggestion because you’re right about the Puritans—who wants to be called a Puritan? Clearly, somehow it’s a bad word. But these are great men and women who have real depth and weight, who take God seriously, who take faith seriously, who take heaven and eternity seriously—they take everything seriously! In an age of comfort and entertainment and celebrities, I think we can learn something from the Puritans. Looking back, I would love to say this was my choice—and it was a great choice—but it really had little to do with me. It’s changed my life, and I’m just grateful to God that my supervisor had those reels of microfilm.

Matt Tully
I want to jump into that particular topic, but before we keep going, you’ve said a couple of times the word “microfilm.” Maybe for the younger listeners right now who are wondering what you’re talking about, explain what that was and how you use those.

Tim Cooper
Oh, of course! I’m showing my age! Microfilm—this obsolete technology—is literally a roll of film. Imagine a movie reel, but instead of individual frames of moving images, it’s individual frames and photographs of original documents. There are thousands on each reel. It should have been a clue to me as to how much I was taking on that there were even reels of unpublished material.

Matt Tully
Those seven reels were just from Baxter?

Tim Cooper
Yes, all from Baxter. He left behind his letters—over 1,200 either to or from him—but also lots of unpublished works that didn’t get into print. There were also the original manuscripts of some published ones. So it’s deep archival stuff sitting there on one reel that you put on what is called a microfilm reader, and you go back and forth across the film. I’m sorry to throw in that reference. My apologies!

Matt Tully
So you’re saying that Baxter was your first encounter with the Puritans as a whole?

Tim Cooper
That’s true.

Matt Tully
How is it that your PhD advisor—or whoever this person was who got you on to Baxter—what was the history there? How did he or she know about Baxter and the Puritans and thought that would be a good course of study for you?

Tim Cooper
Baxter is just an important figure in seventeenth-century English history. Religion is so important to the seventeenth century and historians of seventeenth-century England are well used to dealing with religious ideas and religious figures. You can’t disentangle religion from everything else. Baxter wrote a very long autobiography. A lot of his many books were very long and this was one of them. That’s an important historical document for the seventeenth century because he tries to explain how things went wrong for him and his colleagues in the seventeenth century. He’s an important historical figure for anyone, and that’s why my supervisor had those microfilm reels. The strange thing, of course, is that he never used them. He very quickly moved to the UK to take up a role there and he left me the microfilm reels, which I still have, so he never actually did the work on Baxter that he was planning. But I’ve done a whole lot.

06:11 - An Overview of Baxter’s Life

Matt Tully
Give us an overview of Baxter’s life. You’ve given us the general time frame of when he lived—the seventeenth century—but help us understand a little bit more about his historical context and the broad contours of his life and ministry.

Tim Cooper
This is really interesting. The seventeenth century is fascinating, and Baxter lived through it all. He was born in 1615 and he died in 1691. Throughout the seventeenth century there was huge upheaval. There was King Charles I and archbishop William Laud—who remodeled the Church of England in a way that looked disturbingly Catholic to a Protestant nation. And the Puritans, of course, were the most Protestant of all. They created a lot of political instability that gave rise to civil war in the 1640s between the three kingdoms of Scotland, England, and Ireland. In 1649 the king was executed, and for eleven years England was a republic. The big name there, of course, is Oliver Cromwell. Then in 1660 everything was reversed: the monarchy was restored, the bishops of the Church of England were restored, the Puritans who had been in a position of influence through those years were ejected from the Church of England, and then ushered in were thirty years of persecution where Puritans—or non-conformists, as they were called—were not allowed to teach in schools and not allowed to minister in churches. Baxter lived through all of that and he also was a key player in some of those events. When there were negotiations in 1660–1661 between leading Puritan figures within the Church of England and the bishops who were newly restored, Baxter was one of those key players. He was a very effective minister in his parish at Kidderminster through those years of republic (through the 1640s and 1650s) and he was a prolific author. He wrote around 140 books in the course of his life. Some (you’re always pleased to discover) are really quite short, but most are very long. He was just prodigious. He was closely involved and important as a leading figure and important as a pastor, which, of course, makes The Reformed Pastor one of his most important books.

Matt Tully
In the era of the republic when England did not have a king, can you describe what the Church of England was like? How did the church function? You said it was sort of a golden age for the Puritans. Was there a centralized church, or was it diffused where different congregations could do their own things?

Tim Cooper
You need to distinguish between the church as it was on the ground and the church as it was in the law. The church as it was in the law was disestablished. The church as it was on the ground carried on but without a religious settlement approved by Parliament that would take it’s place. There were efforts at settlement, but they were ramshackled and incomplete. There was an attempt to bring in Presbyterianism, but that took root only in a few locations such as London and Lancashire, but otherwise, there was a great deal of freedom to experiment, and Baxter worked this out. There was no national directive; there was no national settlement to say this is how things are going to be done. So Baxter took his chance in his local parish and with the surrounding ministers to adopt his pastoral ministry to what he felt was the best and most structural way of going about it. So there was a lot of freedom because the bishops, for one thing, had been disestablished—they were in hiding or lying low—and so there was no one to tell Baxter what to do, so he did his own thing and with great success.

Matt Tully
I think you’re referring to—and I don’t know if I could even pronounce this correctly—the Worcestershire Association. It was a collection of global ministers who banded together. Is that right?

Tim Cooper
That’s a pretty good approximation. The Worcestershire Association. Baxter believed that the pastor in his congregation was the leading figure who had oversight of the souls within that congregation, not a bishop who existed in a city hundreds of miles away with oversight over thousands and thousands of souls. Baxter thought of himself as the bishop in his congregation. But that didn’t mean that he wanted to be isolated and on his own. He wanted to provide a formal way of connecting with his fellow ministers in neighboring parishes throughout the county of Worcestershire, so he basically invited them to meet once a month. They all traveled to the same place together, they would discuss difficult challenges that they were facing in their ministry—difficult cases of people who might have fallen into sin—and also discuss big ideas and talk theology. I don’t know if you have the phrase in the United States of “Ministers Fraternal,” but it’s a bit like a minister’s fraternal. This was Baxter’s idea to bring about, and he did it.

12:49 - What is The Reformed Pastor All About?

Matt Tully
I think there are similar things in the US, and I’m sure abroad, with these loose networks of churches that would sort of approximate what he was going for. Speak a little bit to The Reformed Pastor, this large work that he wrote. You’ve referenced it a couple of times. What was he getting at in this book? What was he trying to accomplish?

Tim Cooper
He wrote the book for one of these meetings. They planned to be together for a day and Baxter—it seems, because it’s a very long book—was going to speak to them about these aspects of pastoral ministry that they were agreeing to. As Baxter met with these ministers, it wasn’t just a month by month meeting and nothing much changed. They also agreed on a common way of working so that any pastor in that association would go about their ministry in the same way. One of the important early convictions was that every pastor should know every person individually in his care. As the years went on through the 1650s, Baxter himself latched onto a method of making that happen. He devised a process whereby all of the families in his parish who wanted to do this would come to him once a year and he would examine them on the faith. He would ask them questions, he would see where they were at, he would test their understanding, he would ask how they were doing, and he would respond to the issues and concerns that they had. Baxter found that to be very effective and wanted to share that with his fellow ministers. He encouraged them towards the same practice. This big day—this gathering in December of 1655—was designed to really move them along towards embracing that. As it happens, he was sick on the day, but he still got their agreement and in 1656 they published their agreement to go about their work in this way. In the same year Baxter published The Reformed Pastor, which really lays out his prescription for how pastoral ministry should be done in the context of England in the 1650s.

Matt Tully
Was that idea of personally visiting with congregants on at least an annual basis and having that one-on-one time with them a new or revolutionary idea for his time? If so, what was behind that conviction that that was a key part of pastoral ministry?

Tim Cooper
It’s both new and old. It’s old in the sense that Baxter, like all the Puritans, knew his Bible back to front. He was very familiar with Acts 20:28 where Paul is talking to the elders at Ephesus and he reminds them about his ministry among them and he talks of going house to house. He leaves the elders at Ephesus with the command, “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock” (Acts 20:28). So Baxter was animated by that verse: take care unto yourselves and unto all the flock. He understood “all the flock” to mean all the flock. Not just some, but all individually—and going house to house. Not just a church meeting on a Sunday; that was great, but not sufficient in itself. He took it from Paul that pastors should also go from house to house and visit individually with families and have those kinds of intimate, deep, personal conversations and really know their people and know who’s in their church. That was certainly revolutionary in seventeenth-century England, partly because the existing model had been that you had a bishop of a diocese, and a diocese could have had hundreds of thousands of people in it. Many, many find it inconceivable that any bishop in that framework could know individually everyone under their care. So Baxter felt that was hopelessly inadequate and that pastoral care needed to be done and overseen at the level of the local congregation. But meeting individually, that was new. No one did that. That was Baxter’s determination, and it came at a cost. He devoted two days a week—he and his assistant. From morning until evening, families would come hour by hour. Don’t think that the seventeenth century was any less busy than our age. The Puritans were nothing if not active and busy. But Baxter devoted two days out of every week so that he could get through every family in his parish in a year. So, it was an old idea that was drawn from Acts 20; and it was a new idea—no one had applied it like that.

Matt Tully
You said earlier that families would volunteer and agree to do this and they would come to him. I imagine some people listening right now might think, That sounds intense. To volunteer to go talk to your pastor, not just to share your struggles but actually, you seem to suggest there was a level of testing and poking and prodding and ascertaining how they are doing in the faith. What were those meetings like? What would compel a normal congregant at that time to go and do that?

Tim Cooper
Perhaps I’ll start with a general context for you because you need to imagine an English parish. An English parish like Kidderminster might have around 2,000 people in it, and it’s a mixed bag. Everyone who is born in England is baptized and is considered a Christian and a member of the church and, therefore, a member of the parish. But as you’ll appreciate, not everyone lives up to that. So what do you do with that? Baxter was so against the Separatists who said, This is such a mixed bag that is not pleasing to God. We need to separate and form our own pure congregations. Baxter really, really, really disliked that instinct. He wanted to reform the parish that he was in, and he did that. In a mixed bag parish we would have to say that certainly not everyone is a Christian. It was important to Baxter that only those who consented to this were the ones that he worked with. Basically, around a third of the parish consented to this, and that was as a result of nearly a decade of his pastoral ministry and his preaching. He basically turned the town around. This was not promising Puritan territory. Kidderminster was, when he came, utterly uninspiring in terms of any sort of solid Christianity. He said there might have been one godly family in every street. Before long, people were converting in droves. He used to keep count, he said, of his early converts, but he lost count. The church filled up and they had to put more seating in it. Out of that whole package, I think people were drawn to take part in this. Baxter must have been a compelling figure for them to do this. He knew that he had to do it very carefully, so near the end of the book he gives very clear practical guidance on how you conduct these sessions so as to make sure that people feel comfortable, that you’re not out to get them or trip them up or trap them in what they don’t know. He’s an exemplary pastor. He’s trying to find a mechanism to be pastoral, and the fact that he pulled it off really is remarkable. It’s a testament to his effectiveness. He must have handled those sessions very well. If he didn’t, word would get out and no one would come. He did a fine job.

Matt Tully
Our listeners will know that you have recently edited and abridged a version of The Reformed Pastor with Crossway, and at one point early on in the book you talk about the book’s real title. I found that fascinating and I didn’t know about this beforehand. Can you explain what you mean by that and what the significance of that real title was?

Tim Cooper
It’s formal title is Gildas Salvianus. You would think that those two words were a translation of “the Reformed pastor,” but they’re not. They refer to two famous priests in church history—Gildas and Salvianus—who were known for speaking hard truths to their fellow priests. They had a reputation for saying what needed to be said, to confront their fellow priests to improve their game. Baxter put those two names together. It’s like he’s saying, I am Gildas and Salvianus. I am picking up that tradition. I am speaking hard truths. It is a very challenging book for ministers and pastors and church leaders to read. He lifts the bar. He does not accept indifference. He does not accept poor excuses. He presents a very high vision of what pastors should be doing for the salvation of souls, and he writes with a real urgency because, as I’ve said earlier, for the Puritans souls matter. Souls are eternal. Eternity is just seconds away. He has this enormous urgency and even goes so far as—in a long piece of writing that I’ve condensed, obviously, and put into two chapters—he makes a confession of the sin of England’s pastors. He confesses their sin. Quite a way into the book, having laid out the ideal of what a pastor should be doing, he then confesses that they have not been doing it. And then he goes on to call on their resolve to change their ways. So it’s a very confronting book for pastors, and that’s why it has the title that it does. He’s co-opting that tradition.

24:26 - A Recipe for Burnout

Matt Tully
Given the intense and exhorting nature of the book, at one point you comment that it’s almost literally a recipe for burnout. We are in an age when I think many pastors feel a level of burnout. They may feel discouraged, like there are a lot of pressures on them and their lives. And yet, there is probably less esteem for pastors today than at many other times in church history. Why is this message of calling to do perhaps more, or to work harder or to have higher standards, why is that still relevant? Is that really what pastors need today?

Tim Cooper
That is a fantastic question. I just want to acknowledge what you’ve just said. Being a church pastor is hard work. I’ve been a church pastor. I know how hard it is. I think no one can really know how hard it is until they’ve done it. It’s hard in unexpected and surprising ways. It’s a very, very demanding vocation. The last thing I would want is to impose Baxter on poor, hard-working pastors who already feel overwhelmed! We have to confront that about the book. It is extremely demanding in its expectations. At one point Baxter literally says, “What is a candle made for but to be burned?”

Matt Tully
That’s intense.

Tim Cooper
He’s calling us to be burned out for God, for ministry, for the care of souls. We do have to be careful with that. I love Baxter, but I can critique him. What do we do with this? I don’t think it’s a call to do more. It’s a call to revisit how we do what we do and to ask ourselves whether we are providing the individual soul care that our people need. It’s challenging, but I think it’s a challenge we need to hear. It’s not a challenge that we need to hear and beat ourselves up about. That’s not helpful. We live in a different age—quite a different age. People are much, much more mobile. There are any number of churches that people can go to. It’s not like we can just pick up what Baxter did and do it for ourselves, but what you get running through the book more than his methodology is his heart. I think that’s inspiring because then you can read Baxter and you can find an ally. You can find someone who says, What you’re doing is hard and demanding and I’m expecting a lot, but it’s important. It matters. Here’s why it matters. Here’s why it has this value. I think the Puritans, in general, are helpful in that way in that they speak with a different voice. Baxter’s voice is different. I’ve modernized his English so that we can understand it much more easily, but he’s still got a different voice. And that’s helpful. I think that voice is one that we need to hear to reinforce and help us to galvanize our courage and strength and resilience to carry on. But no one should feel, I hope, overwhelmed by this book or overwhelmed by Baxter or feeling a failure to measure up. That is a real challenge of the book. It hasn’t stopped me from putting it out there. I think we need to read this book again. I think a new generation of pastors needs to have a way of reading this classic text on what it is to be a pastor, but with some care.

28:25 - A Bitter Disappointment in Baxter’s Life

Matt Tully
You’ve alluded to this already, that soon after this short-lived era of the republic, the monarchy was reestablished and the Church of England as a national entity was reformulated and things changed very quickly for the Puritans and for Baxter in particular. What impact did that ultimately have on his life and ministry?

Tim Cooper
Huge. The 1650s were so encouraging for Baxter. He saw his parish transformed. He saw other parishes transformed. He worked with his fellow ministers. In other counties, other associations like his Worcestershire Association sprang up. He had published his book and lots of other books. He was a bestselling author—a remarkably successful author. By the end of the 1650s, he had visions of a Reformed nation. He thinks the Reformation can be completed if it can only carry on, but it all comes undone. It comes undone, in large part, because of disunity among the Puritans themselves, and that’s something he had been trying to mend throughout the 1650s. Part of the Worcestershire Association is about unity and working together despite any differences in theology. When it all comes apart—and it comes apart politically as much as anything and it just falls into chaos—people want stability. The Puritans were important in bringing the king back, let’s understand that, but they brought the king back without placing any constraints on his power. The bishops were restored and they wanted things the way that they had been and they had no great interest in the Puritan vision of the Church of England. The terms were very, very harsh. You had to agree to everything that the church did, basically, and say, Yes, I agree with this. Puritans couldn’t do that, and because they couldn’t do that, they couldn’t be ministers in the Church of England. Baxter left Kidderminster for London to be involved in these negotiations, and he never went back. He was not allowed to preach again in that church. He was not allowed to go back and say goodbye. In fact, a law came in the mid 1660s that prevented non-conformist ministers from going within five miles of where they had ministered in the past. People were fined, people were imprisoned. Baxter was imprisoned during this next period. There were very limited opportunities to preach. It changes Baxter’s life, but he carries on. He carries on his ministry, largely, by writing books. It’s difficult to get a book licensed to be published in this period, but he manages it and he continues to publish a lot of books. But boy, it is a hard life and a bitter, bitter disappointment. That reversal in 1660—Baxter never quite recovered.

31:54 - Why You Should Read The Reformed Pastor

Matt Tully
Maybe as a last question, could you speak to the person listening right now—maybe it’s a pastor, maybe it’s just a lay person who appreciates history and theology and who is interested in Baxter—they’ve heard you share a little bit about him, but still would have to say they feel a little bit intimidated by the thought of digging into the works of the Puritans. They’ve heard the scary stories of the Puritan writings and they just wonder, Could I get through that? Why would you say it’s worth persevering and taking a stab at reading The Reformed Pastor?

Tim Cooper
If there is one book in English that every pastor should read, it’s The Reformed Pastor. The trouble is that the original is basically unreadable. This edition—it will never get any easier than this. It’s in modern English, it all flows, it’s very, very tidy and understandable, and—for Baxter—it’s short. It’s 30,000 words.

Matt Tully
The original was how long?

Tim Cooper
The original was 160,000 words. I have removed most of it. But what I’ve left behind, and I hope readers will agree with me on this, is the genius of the book—the core. I’ve taken out the repetition, I’ve taken out the stuff that doesn’t matter, I’ve taken out the tangents, I’ve taken out long quotes. What’s left is what I think Baxter wanted to say. Baxter, as you can tell from the microfilm reels and from the 140 books, he never shut up! Well, I’ve kind of sat him down and told him to shut up and said, What’s the essence of what you want to say to us? If I were to get him back today and ask, What’s your message for us that you were trying to get across in The Reformed Pastor? Please, Richard, say it in far fewer words, this is what I think it is. Here’s your chance to read The Reformed Pastor. You will get the book. You will get what Baxter had in that whole, large book, but you won’t have to work nearly so hard for it. I was presenting on Baxter at a pastor’s conference a couple of years ago and one of the pastor’s told me, I would love to read The Reformed Pastor. I’ve tried three times and each time I have not made it! Well, anyone can make it through this book. You will get the message that Baxter was trying to get across. Of course, then you’ve got to live with that message and make it your own, and that’s challenging, but at least you know what it is. It’s a message still worth hearing, in part because it comes out of Acts 20. Acts 20 is still in our Bibles. What are we going to do with it? How are we going to take that call to ministry seriously? I hope pastors who read this book will be challenged, yes, but fortified and encouraged about the value of what they do. And I hope anyone reading this book who is not a pastor will also get an insight into what it is to be a pastor and how to live under and encourage your pastor.


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