Archive for May, 2008

Richard Baxter

Portrait of Richard Baxter.  King’s College London,

Foyle Special Collections Library

J. William Black, “From Martin Bucer to Richard Baxter: ‘Discipline’ and Reformation in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth Century England”


            Anyone with a basic familiarity of the history of Protestantism will no doubt be acquainted with its leading personalities.  Each of them had particular gifts, standing head and shoulders as Saul of Kish above their peers.   And each contributed uniquely to the Church of their own as well as of the present day.  Richard Baxter was certainly one of those figures, in whose shadow pastors of the present day still stand. 

            In this essay, Black renders a helpful service to us in the Reformation stream of pastoral theology.  He traces the historical background for, the development, and the impact of Richard Baxter’s parish-based discipline, calculated to achieve the two-fold goal of the reformation of discipline in the Church of England and, simultaneously, the propagation of the gospel in the land.  The program of Baxter’s involved, to put it concisely, “pastor-led and parish based … system of church discipline that would preserve the integrity of the sacraments and thus rob separatists of one of their primary excuses for abandoning the parochial system” (644). 

According to Black, this was not a new paradigm, but one inherited from Martin Bucer, who in the 16th century sought to help the young Church of England establish a program that would reform the Church and Christianize the land.  By refining discipline on the local level, the Church would be purified of its parish dross; by maintaining the parochial system of territorially defined ‘evangelistic’ (to use an anachronism) responsibility, the unconverted lump of the nation could effectively be leavened with the gospel.  In this model, there are two concentric circles – the smaller, the Church, within the larger, the nation.  By keeping these quite distinct and unblurred, the Church retains her spiritual integrity.  By keeping the smaller self-consciously within and in reference to the larger, she retains her missiological purpose and vision.  She must push the circumference of her circle increasingly towards the limits of the other in faithful obedience to the mandate of Christ. 

Baxter simply borrowed this program and diligently implemented it.  On the one hand, he set right to work removing the blur between congregation and parish by a faithful imposition of pastoral discipline.  On the other hand, he did not cherry-pick ‘the best sort’ out of parish churches to form ‘gathered churches’ as the separatists did, leaving the parish spiritually to fend for itself.  This would be to feed the sheep in the fold, yet leave Christ’s sheep as yet outside the fold without regular pastoral (evangelistic) concern.  The Baxterian – or the Bucerian paradigm – retained both emphases without sacrificing one for the sake of the other.  So Baxter was a nonconformist, one might say, in terms of church discipline and an establishment churchman in terms of national evangelistic responsibility and zeal. 

The course by which Baxter achieved these ideals simultaneously was one that in the first place simply fell back to defining publicly the proper procedure for full adult communicant membership and publicly enforcing it.  Black summarizes this policy, by which


the rights of adult church membership were made contingent upon a credible profession of faith and of consent to submit to pastoral oversight and discipline.  Those who found themselves unfit for such a step could undergo a period of preparation to acquaint themselves with the fundamentals of Christian faith without calling their baptismal rights into question.  The pastor could apply himself directly to helping them come to Christian faith and profession.  Discipline would be exercised only on those who had willingly consented to place themselves under it.  Thus the Lord’s Supper would be reserved for those in the parish who understood and professed the faith and who had willingly agreed to place themselves under the pastor’s oversight.  The ignorant or otherwise ungodly members of the parish were excluded from the Lord’s Supper, but given a clear procedure by which they might become full adult members (664-65).


In the second place, for those not members yet in the parish the minister was obliged to solicit their spiritual change by an aggressive parochial visitation ministry.

Key also to Baxter’s program was cooperation or associationalism.  This, we might say, would be a precondition for the twin ideals of local church discipline and parish evangelistic initiative.  The existence of spheres of responsibility presumes a self-conscious understanding of distinct boundaries separating the them and us in the broader ChurchWhat ethnically defined spheres of service were to Paul and Peter (Gal. 2:7-9), geographically defined ones were to English clergymen.  And yet fences were not so much to divide as to unite.  For by the division of labor geographically, the Church of England ministers would combine the aggregate of their mutual efforts to bear on the unsaved population.  Let each have a portion dedicated to himself (Neh. 3), and the wall will be raised; let each build on his own foundation (Rom. 15:20-21), and the City of God shall stand.   It was this conviction that led Baxter to found the Worcestershire Association and write extensively on church unity.

            But cooperation was not only a precondition, but also a result of the church discipline/parish reclamation plan.  By working in a non-competitive and cooperative way with other churchmen for the purging and the furtherance of the Church through the parish system, the case of Kidderminster was viewed as a replicable model for further similar ventures across the land.  Kidderminster was a successful experiment of sorts, and Baxter was all too happy to see it inspiring others to work cooperatively for the greater good.  He rejoiced to see that the Congregationalists and Baptists who


… had before conceited that Parish Churches were the great Obstruction of all true Church Order and Discipline … did quite change their Minds when they saw what was done at Kidderminster, and begin to think now, that it was much through the faultiness of the Parish Ministers, that Parishes are not in a better Case; and hat it is a better Work thus to reform the Parishes, than gather Churches out of them (670; quoted from Reliquiae Baxterianae 1:§136, 85-86).


            Having recently studied Thomas Chalmers’ theory and practice of church extension, I can’t help but observe many lines of connection between these two great promoters of the parish ideal.  Both were ardently concerned for ecclesiastical unity and cooperation, extensively collaborating with others beyond the bounds of their own denominational context.  Both were staunch establishmentarians, eager to retain the preexisting parish system and to Christianize not only their parishes, but, by furnishing encouraging models for others to replicate, the entire nation and beyond (Black does not mention Baxter’s keen interest in overseas missions, such as that of John Eliot to the American Indians; but it is another striking parallel).  Both were theorists as well as practitioners, arguing with the pen as much as with the hands and feet – Baxter gave us Kidderminster and Chalmers’ St. John’s and West Port.  And both have left a lasting impact on modern day pastors and churches keen to see the reign of Christ manifested in individual souls, families, and their aggregates – societies, economies, and nations. 

            The paper does stimulate many further questions in my mind, but I will confine myself only to one, the problem of separation.  This was a significant problem for Baxter (as well as Chalmers in the 19th century).  Baxter sympathized with separatists because he saw first hand how corrupt many parish churches in the Church of England had become.  The attraction of gathered churches was certainly strong among the truly godly.  And yet Baxter excoriated them on the other hand for their detrimental policies.  Black quotes Baxter:


Do not do as the lazy separatists, that gather a few of the best together, and take then [sic] only for their charge, leaving the rest to sink or swim. . . If any walk scandalously, and disorderly, deal with them for their recovery. . . . If they prove obstinate after all, then avoid them and cast them off; But do not so cruelly as to unchurch them by hundreds & by thousands, and separate from them as so many Pagans, and that before any such means hath been used for their recovery (The Saints Everlasting Rest, 509, emphasis mine).


So obviously Baxter was interested in a pure church: but not so pure that it cut off the world and buried its head ostrich-like in the sand before evangelistic duty.

But when does separation become necessary for Baxter?  I have not studied him in great depth as of yet.  But if I am correct, though a nonconformist liturgically, he was spared many of the hardships that others experienced who had sought first to reform the Church of England from within.  And if the spirits of the godly in the Church of England were grieved at the profanation of the Lord’s Supper by the ungodly, did they have no other option than to move to Kidderminster or a similar parish?  Is there not a point when, to use my earlier illustration, the integrity of the smaller circle is sacrificed for the well being of the larger?  Black in this connection observes that, “While concerned to cope with the notoriously ungodly in their parishes, the more accommodating puritans were still hopeful that the existing parish system itself could be reformed.  But even amongst these more patient puritans, there grew an increasing frustration with a structure and a hierarchy that seemed to fear more the implications of nonconformity and separatism than blatant hypocrisy and scandal at Communion” (652). 

I speculate that perhaps Baxter was grieved more at the rush to separation without having first attempted the measures he successfully employed in his own context.  Perhaps Baxter sniffed retreatism beneath surface claims of purism.  And I also wonder whether the separatists would have satisfied him more (like Chalmers later) if they had after their break retained an ecclesiastically cooperative and territorially evangelistic approach.  Whether they did or did not retain these ideals, or to what degree they did or did not, I cannot determine with my present knowledge.  I would welcome any light on the matter. 


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David Nasmith, founder of the Glasgow City Mission 


Iain J. Shaw, “Thomas Chalmers, David Nasmith, and the Origins of the City Mission Movement”

Shaw, author of the recent work entitled High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City in Manchester and London c. 1810-60 (Oxford University Press, 2003), in this essay turns to a related subject in the field of 19th century British Calvinism. He focuses here upon two other figures to portray Calvinist action, evangelistic and philanthropic, in the cities of the Industrial Age: one more widely known figure, Thomas Chalmers of the Church (and later Free Church) of Scotland, and one that has apparently fallen into greater obscurity, David Nasmith, founder of the British city mission movement.

According to Shaw, the parochial home and foreign mission philosophy that Chalmers advocated and applied in his St. John’s parish, Glasgow, was highly influential on Nasmith. Home visitation had long enjoyed popularity in evangelical Churches, and Chalmers was a firm proponent of the old policy Christianization by visitation. “Nature does not go forth in search of Christianity; but Christianity goes forth to knock at the door of nature and, if possible, awaken her out of her sluggishness. . . . It is the way of it in every missionary enterprise.” Consequently, every minister is duty-bound to keep up “an incessant locomotion among the families” (Chalmers, Christian Economy, I: 108-9, 117, quoted by Shaw, 33). Chalmers modified this old model into a territorial visitation scheme adapted to large, industrialized urban cities. And not content to remain an academic theorizer, Chalmers implemented this program in St. John’s (and later in the West Port, Edinburgh) with profound efficiency, mobilizing, regularly supervising and encouraging great numbers of energetic volunteers. Chalmers’ revised model then involved four indispensable components: (1) defined, localized responsibility, (2) habitual visitation of that locality, (3) lay mobilization, and (4) oversight and encouragement of that mobilized force. While Shaw questions the ultimate effectiveness of Chalmers’ charitable policies – paternalistic and anti-public assistance – in the urban slums of Scotland, yet he concedes that he enjoyed great success in popularizing regular territorial visitation in British evangelical home missions.

It was this modified urban parish outreach model that Nasmith basically took over in the Glasgow City Mission. Nasmith, his heart large for the spiritually and socio-economically degraded city of Glasgow, formed an interdenominational organization that sent agents out into the impoverished areas of the city on regular visitations for the spiritual and practical aid of the people. According to Shaw, “Nasmith set domestic visitation at the heart of the work of the agent. As Chalmers had urged, an acquaintance with every family in the district was to be made” (38). And just as Chalmers personally supervised his lay workers, Nasmith ensured that his agents were accountable in their territorial efforts. One is struck with the thoroughness of the program:

Although in Glasgow the post was formally part time, missionaries were to serve the society for up to five hours a day, with hours selected sometime between 11 am and 9 pm. Saturday was reserved for study. . . [The visiting agents] were required to produce a monthly journal of their visitation work which was inspected by the directors, and a report duly delivered to the committee. Directors of the mission accompanied the agents annually to assess their visitation work. Agents were often reprimanded for inefficient or inadequate performance of their duties: in such cases verdicts such as ‘very lifeless’, or ‘neglectful conduct’ were issued (38).

Now, it should be kept in mind that (many of?) these individuals were according to Shaw ‘on the payroll;’ but the accountability of spiritual workers, nonetheless, is here quite striking.

Further, just as with Chalmers’ program in St. John’s, so it was with the Glasgow City Mission – the lay workers visiting were personally able and obliged to deal with instances of poverty and to arrange assistance accordingly. Their duty was first spiritual, but physical concerns were not far behind.

Chalmers very naturally endorsed the Glasgow City Mission. He himself very well could have said what Nasmith himself urged, “Nothing can be of more importance than to Christianise the inhabitants of our large cities” (Letter of David Nasmith to Thomas Chalmers, 16 September 1827, Chalmers MSS, New College Library, Edinburgh, CHA 4. 82.5, quoted by Shaw, 37).

This essay introduces some questions for me in terms of the theory and practice of domestic mission. Chalmers and Nasmith seem to have made a great push towards the democratization of the Christian ministry. The professional ‘ministers’ were not to do it all; they should be leaders and equippers. The end of the ministry was, after all, “not to perform good works, but to multiply the workers” (T. Chalmers, Works, Vol. 18, 380; quoted by Shaw, 39). Chalmers, though an establishment churchman, clearly had a strong appreciation for voluntary ‘lay’ activity. If he was anything, he was an administrator, a delegator, a mobilizer, and a motivator. He both endorsed and formed many ‘societies’ aimed at spiritual and philanthropic improvement of his fellow man, and Nasmith was in some respects a carbon copy. The following extract well illustrates this paradigm: if laymen could exercise “all that competency which belongs to them of superintending and carrying through the whole work of our religious and other charities . . . how mighty an enlargement the field of Christian beneficence would instantly spread itself” (Hanna, Memoirs, Vol II: 505, quoted by Shaw, 40).

How much of this was (and is) good, and how much not so good? Was this a positive move away from that unhealthy, spiritually aristocratic view of the ministry that assigns all spiritual gifts to the ordained ministry and downplays the role of the gifts of the non-ordained? Or was this the opening of the floodgates of the modern day every-believer-has-a-ministry kind of mentality that denigrates the Ephesians 4 offices, gracious endowment of the ascended Christ? Does the centrality of preaching lose its proper place with the added emphasis on private, interpersonal visitation? Is the minister to be less preacher and more administrator and manager? I think the ideal lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes; and whether Chalmers hit the golden mean is open to debate, I suppose.

I did find the discussion of the workforce of the Glasgow City Mission particularly interesting. Nasmith in the work of the Mission took over Chalmers’ strong emphasis on “lay agency in domestic visitation” (41). Those who were recruited for the work had to be men of blameless Christian character and capable to meet the spiritual and physical needs of those in the field of labor. What is of special note is that this role of the lay agent in the Glasgow City Mission frequently became a stepping stone for the Christian ministry. “Thomas Chalmers,” writes Shaw, “had enlisted ranks of elders, deacons, Sunday School and day school teachers as non-commissioned officers spearheading his assault on the urban parish. The Glasgow City Mission recruited a similar workforce, but they were NCO’s working towards a commission” (42). Whichever approach one takes, whether employing for the effort elders and deacons or lay persons training for the Christian ministry, it is clear both men viewed the parish as the field of labor for more than just the minister. For Chalmers, it was for the lay-officers; for Nasmith, the officers-in-preparation.

I am quite sympathetic with both variants of the model. In terms of Nasmith’s variant, an ecclesiastical office that is both congregational and parochial requires first a testing and an approving of men who are fit for this two-fold ministry. “And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being found blameless” (1 Tim. 3:10). One who aspires to the office should demonstrate his capabilities, including his aptitude for teaching (1 Tim. 3:2) those within and those without. To that end, it is the Church’s responsibility to train thoroughly her future leaders. And so Nasmith pleads, “The Church must think of, nurse, and TRAIN her young men before she can answer the ends for which she exists” (quoted by Shaw, 42). Let the ‘probationers’ be busy not only in preaching, but also visiting the Lord’s people and those in the district that the church has adopted for its territorial, evangelistic expansion.

In terms of Chalmers’ variant, those who hold the office of elder and deacon should not be excluded from parochial ministry any more than from congregational ministry. So let them be deployed throughout ‘elder districts’ (which is historical point of interest for another time).

But I’m not sure I agree with the notion that the use of elders, as with Chalmers, is the utilization of the ‘laity.’ Doesn’t this suppose a view of the ministry that presumes teaching elders represent presbytery and ruling elders the congregation? That ‘elders’ are members not of presbytery, but of the congregation. If so, I am not in agreement. That the ‘laity’ should be used in evangelistic efforts I don’t deny. But the notion that mobilizing elders is mobilizing the laity strikes me as a manifestation of functional episcopacy. Since the age of the apostles has passed, I am leery of the deputation of elders from a presumed superior command.

And I wonder at the same time whether I can be perfectly at ease with Nasmith’s variant. The workforce of the Glasgow City Mission was strictly confined to the laity (43). It is as though the laity was viewed as consummate tool for territorial witness and not the ordained ministry. The ecclesiastical ministry never intersected with this model except, as Shaw notes, inasmuch as probationers and divinity students used it as a stepping-stone to clerical careers. What of the Church, though? What of the ordained gifts of the ascended Lord? Are not preachers ordained and sent especially for the work of conversion (Rom. 10:14, 15; Acts 13:1-5)? Are not “pastors and teachers” given “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12)? So why not graduate the efficient lay workers, who have first been trained, tested, and approved, to the ordained office? Why hold them in the sphere of followers if they have competently demonstrated themselves to be leaders? Or, why bid them adieu to the Church from the ‘society’ when they have shown themselves so faithful? Perhaps the fault lies in the ‘societal’ or para-ecclesiastical paradigm of Nasmith. The Mission worked in tandem with the Church, but was not itself a church. As sympathetic as I am with Nasmith’s large-hearted ecumenicity and evangelistic priority (again, following Chalmers), I think there was a better way, one that appreciates and involves the laity and yet does not at the same time seem to depreciate the Church and her ordained ministry.

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