Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Autobiography of Richard Baxter

I love reading about people who have changed things. I love being inspired by the stories of men and women who had the strength to stand against cultural norms and defend the truth regardless of opposition. Richard Baxter is one of those men. I don’t intend to summarise Baxter’s life in this review, others have done that more succinctly than I could hope to do. Instead I plan to simply highlight a few aspects of his story that stood out to me.

What impressed me most about this book is simply the depth of insight Baxter has into his own development. This is especially evident in the chapters on ‘Richard Baxter’s Self-Analysis and Life-Review.’ Here he reflects on his spiritual growth, focusing on the changes he perceived in himself due to aging. His words carry the tone of a father giving instruction to a son; “that I may take off young unexperienced Christians from being over-confident in their first apprehensions, or overvaluing their first degrees of grace, or too much applauding and following unfurnished, unexperienced men, but may somewhat be directed what mind and course of life to prefer, by the judgment of one that hath tried both before them.” To tell the truth, reading this mostly made me want to be old and wise. Having quickly realised I’m not old and wise, it inspired me to consider the long-term implications of the way I am living now, in order to become old and, more significantly, wise. While Baxter specifically refers to a number of ways his outlook on life has improved with age, I think the more profound impact they had on me was in a more general sense. That is, Baxter’s commentary on his own life clearly evidences a life spent in reflecting, meditating and thinking, and it is this that I would love to emulate.

Another benefit of reading this book is that it has caused me to appreciate my physical health a lot more. Baxter, on a number of occasions, refers to his health woes and ailments in such terms that I cringe when I imagine what it was like. Near the end the book he writes “what is before written hath notified that I have lain in above forty years’ constant weakness and almost constant pains.” To consider that he carried out his work under such painful conditions makes his successes all the more remarkable. It humbled me to think that in this generation, where we have access to far improved medical treatments, we still grumble and complain so much.

Richard Baxter is remembered as one who ‘throughout his life…worked for unity’ in an age when there was a lot of tension between the various denominations. As such his autobiography includes a lot of talk about church politics and the various debates he entered into. This was helpful in that I learnt a lot about the cultural climate of the mid 1600’s, however it also caused it to be a bit of a tedious read. I didn’t know much about the customs and practices of the time when I began the book, and found that a lot of it went over my head as a result. Thus I would recommend anyone considering reading this to do a wee bit of homework before doing so, to understand the political situation, the penal system and denominational structure of the mid and late 1600’s. I am sure that having even a basic knowledge of the time period will greatly improve a reader’s comprehension of this book.

Somehow I feel that not many people these days will read Richard Baxter’s autobiography, simply because its not very easy to get. Moreover, because of the frequent references to his culture, which is so foreign to our own, I wouldn’t unreservedly recommend this. I did, however, find it inspirational and uplifting to read the words of one who had such a good grasp on his own spiritual journey. Reading this has, I think, caused me to view events in my own life in light of their long-term significance, and to more critically analyse how I use my time. It has also caused me to appreciate my health and the medical advances of the last century. I trust that it will be similarly helpful to others who care to read it.

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