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The convictions of his childhood were powerfully revived when about fifteen years of age, by reading an old torn book, lent by a poor man to his father. This little work was called 'Bunny's Resolution,' being written by a Jesuit of the name of Parsons, but corrected by Edmund Bunny/ Previously to this he had never experienced any real change of heart, though he had a sort of general love for religion. But it pleased God to awaken his soul, to show him the follyof sinning, the misery of the wicked, and the inexpressible importance of eternal things. His convictions were now attended with illumination of mind, and deep seriousness of heart. His conscience distressed him, led him to much prayer, and to form many resolutions; but whether the good work was then begun, or only revived, he never could satisfactorily ascertain. This is a circumstance of little importance. Regeneration can take place but once, but more conversions than one are required in many an individual's life.' If we are assured that the great change has really been effected, the time and circumstances in which it occurs are of small moment.
Another work which was very useful to him at this time, is better known; 'The Bruised Reed,' by Dr. Richard Sibbs; a book which has passed through many editions, and has been honoured to do good to many. Here he discovered more clearly the nature of the love of God, and of the redemption of Christ; and was led to perceive how much he was indebted to the Redeemer. Till these things are understood, and their influence felt, no man can be considered as converted. The works of Perkins 'On Repentance,' on * Living and Dying well,' and 'On the Government of the Tongue,' also contributed to instruct and improve him. Thus, by means of books rather than of living instruments, God was pleased to lead him to himself. His connexions with men tended to injure and to stumble him rather than to do him good. Among the things he mentions which had no tendency to promote his spiritual profit, was his confirmation by Bishop Morton, to whom he went when about fourteen, with the rest of the boys. He asked no questions, required no certificate, and hastily said, as he passed on, three or four words of a prayer, which Baxter did not understand.11 . The careless observance of the forms of religion, whether these forms be of human or divine ordination, is never defensible: and must always have a hardening effect on the mind.
'This work was originally written on the principles of Popery; but Bunny expunged and altered whatever was unsuitable to the Protestant belief, and published it in an improved form. The Jesuit was naturally enough displeased at the freedom used with his work, which led Mr. Bunny to write a pamphlet in defence of his conduct. Bunny was a Puritan of the oldest class. He was rector of Bolton Percy, and enjoyed some other preferments in the church; but he was a man of apostolic zeal, and travelled much through the country for the purpose of preaching the gospel. He died in 1617. (' Athen. Oxon.' vol. 1. p.364.) The work edited by Bunny was useful toothers as well as to Baxter. Two other Nonconformist ministers, Mr. Fowler and Mr. Michael Old, were first seriously impressed by it; and Baxter tells us that he had heard of its success with others also. (Baxter against Revolt to a Foreign Jurisdiction, p. 540.)
< Luke xxii. 32.
While residing at Ludlow Castle with Mr. Wickstead, he was exposed to great temptation. When there, he formed an acquaintance with a young man, who afterwards unhappily apostatised, though he then appeared to be decidedly religious. They walked together, read together, prayed together, and were little separate by night or by day. He was the first person Baxter ever heard pray extempore, out of the pulpit; and who taught him to do the same. He appeared full of zeal and diligence, of liberality and love; so that, from his example and conversation he derived great benefit. This young man was first drawn from his attachment to the Puritans by a superior, then led to revile them, and finally to dishonour his profession by shameful debauchery. Such frequently is the progress of religious declension.
During his short residence at Ludlow Castle, Baxter made a narrow escape from acquiring a taste for gaming, of which he gives a curious account. The best gamester in the house undertook to teach him to play. The first or second game was so nearly lost by Baxter, that his opponent betted a hundred to one against him, laying down ten shillings to his sixpence. He told him there was no possibility of his winning, but by getting one cast of the dice very often. No sooner was the money down, than Baxter had every cast that he wished; so that before a person could go three or four times round the room the game was won. This so astonished him that he believed the devil had the command of the dice, and did it to entice him to play; in consequence of which he returned the ten shillings, and resolved never to play more. Whatever may be thought of the fact or of Baxter's reasoning on it, the result was to him important and beneficial.
k Third Defence of Noncou. p. 40.
On returning from Ludlow Castle to his father's, he found his old schoolmaster, Owen, dying of a consumption. At the request of Lord Newport, he took charge of the school till it should appear whether the master would die or recover. In about a quarter of a year his death relieved Baxter from this office, and as he had determined to enter the ministry, he placed himself under Mr. Francis Garbet, then minister of Wroxeter, for further instruction in theology. With him he read logic about a month, but was seriously and long interrupted, by symptoms of that complaint which attended him to his grave. He was attacked by a violent cough, with spitting of blood, and other indications of consumption. These symptoms continued to distress him for two years, and powerfully tended to deepen his religious feelings. A common attendant on such a state of body, depression of spirits, Baxter also experienced. He became more anxious about his eternal welfare, entertained doubts of his own sincerity, and questioned whether he had any spiritual life whatever. He complained grievously of his insensibility: "I was not then," he says, "sensible of the incomparable excellence of holy love, and delight in God; nor much employed in thanksgiving and praise; but all my groans were for more contrition, and a broken heart; I prayed most for tears and tenderness."
Ezekiel Culverwell's 'Treatise on Faith,' and some other good books, together with the assistance of Mr. Garbet, and other excellent men, were the means of comforting and still further instructing him. The apparent approaches of death on the one hand, however, and the smitings of conscience on the other, were the discipline which, under gracious influence, produced the most valuable results. They made him appear vile and loathsome to himself, and destroyed the root of pride in his soul. They restrained that levity and folly to which he was, by age and constitution, inciined. They made this world appear to him as a carcass without' life or loveliness, and undermined the love of literary fame, of which he had before been ambitious. They produced a higher value for the redemption of Christ, and greater ardour of devotedness to the Redeemer himself. They led him to seek first the kingdom of heaven, and to regard all other things as of subordinate and trifling importance. The man who experienced such benefits from the divine treatment, had reason to rejoice, rather than to complain of it; and so did Baxter.
In consequence of these things, divinity was not merely carried on with the rest of his studies,—it had always the first and chief p.ace. He was led' to study practical theology in the first place, in the most practical books, and in a practical order. He did this for the purpose of instructing and reforming his own soul. He read a multitude of the best English theological works, before he read any foreign systems of divinity. Thus his affections were excited, while his judgment was informed: and having his own benefit chiefly in view, he pursued all his studies with the greater ardour and profit. It is matter of regret that theology is often studied more with a view to the benefit of others than of the student himself. It is pursued as a profession, rather than as belonging to personal character and enjoyment. Hence it frequently produces a pernicious instead of a salutary effect on the mind, and debases rather than elevates the character. Familiarity with divine things, which does not arise from personal interest in them,' is to be dreaded more than most evils to which man is liable.
The broken state of his health, the irregularity of his teachers, and his never being at any university, materially injured his learning and occasioned lasting regrets. He never acquired any great knowledge of the learned languages. Of Hebrew he scarcely knew any thing; his acquaintance with Greek was not profound; and even in Latin, as his works show, he must be regarded by a scholar as little better than a barbarian. Of mathematics he knew nothing, and never had a taste for them. Of logic and metaphysics he was a devoted admirer, and to them he dedicated his labour and his delight. Definitions and distinctions were in a manner his occupation; the quodsit, the quid sit, and quotuplex—modes, consequences, and adjuncts, were his vocabulary. He never thought he understood any thing till he could anatomize it, and see the parts distinctly; and, certainly, very few have handled the knife more dexterously, or to so great an extent. His love of the niceties of metaphysical disquisition plunged him very early into the study of controversial divinity. The schoolmen were the objects of his admiration; Aquinas, Scotus, Durandus, Ockham,and their disciples, were the teachers from whom he acquired no small portion of that acuteness for which he became so distinguished as a disputer, and of that logomachy by which most of his writings are more or less deformed.
Early education exerts a prodigious power over the future pursuits and habits of the individual. Its imperfections or peculiarities will generally appear, if he attempt to make any figure in the scientific or literary world. The advantages of a university or academical education will never be despised except by him who never enjoyed them, or who affects to be superior to their necessity. It cannot be denied, however, that some of our most eminent men in the walks of theology, as well as in other departments, never enjoyed these early advantages. The celebrated Erasmus,—"that great honoured name," and Julius Cesar Scaliger, had neither of them the benefit of a regular early education. As theological writers, few men, among our own countrymen, have been more useful or respected than Andrew Fuller, Abraham Booth, and Archibald Maclean, yet none of them received much education in his youth. Dr. Carey is a prodigy, as an oriental scholar, and yet never was twelvemonths at school in his life. Among these, and many other men of eminence, who never walked an academic porch, Richard Baxter holds a prominent place. In answer to a letter of Anthony Wood, inquiring whether he was an Oxonian, he replied, with beautiful and dignified simplicity—" As to myself, my faults are no disgrace to any university, for I was of none; I have little but what I had out of books, and inconsiderable helps of country tutors. Weakness and pain helped me to study how to die; that set me on studying how to live; and that on studying the doctrine from which I must fetch my motives and comforts: beginning with necessities, I proceeded by degrees, and now am going to see that for which I have lived and studied."i
Academical education is valuable, when it excites a taste for learning, sharpens the natural powers, and smoothes the path of knowledge; but when it is substituted in after life for diligent application, and is supposed to supply the lack of genius or industry, it renders comparatively little service to its possessor. ITiose who have not enjoyed it, frequently make up the deficiency by the greater ardour of their application, and the powerful energy of natural talent. This was eminently the case with Baxter. Conscious of the imperfections of his early education, he applied himself with indefatigable diligence; and though he never attained to the elegant refinements of classical literature, in all the substantial attainments of sound learning he excelled most of his contemporaries. The regrets which he felt at an early period, that his scholarship was not more eminent, he has expressed with a great degree of feeling, if not with the highest poetical elegance.
i Athen. O*. vol. ii. 1125.