Richard Baxter’s Political Protestantism
The devotional and pastoral works of the minister of Kidderminster, Richard Baxter (1615-1691), are beloved by many. But his voluminous writings are rarely mined for political theory, historically or normatively, beyond a compressed reprinting in the 1980s of his Holy Commonwealth (1659), and fewer still have read it. Secondary literature on Baxter’s politics is scant and disproportionate to the amount he wrote on the subject. Richard Schlatter’s superb 1957 essay—only forty-two pages long—and the work of Walter Douglas are rare (non-woke) exceptions. Much less have his political writings been leveraged for contemporary instruction in the same way that Reformed Pastor, Call to the Unconverted, or Saints Everlasting Rest. Even the relevant political portions of the still regularly referenced Christian Directory seem to be ignored.
For our purposes, we can identify three pillars of Baxterian political theory which coincide with much of the post-liberal impulse and New Right energy: anti-liberalism, anti-secularism, and pro–nationalism.
Baxter is a particularly useful guide for us on this front because he stood at the precipice of modernity’s transition from its early phase, as well as the end of the High Orthodoxy period of post-Reformation Protestantism, but he did not waiver—often he stubbornly clung to medieval forms. What interests us here is his engagement with the then-nascent politics of Enlightenment liberalism from the likes of Thomas Hobbes, James Harrington, and Baruch Spinoza, all of whom Baxter regularly castigated with evident glee and determination. Baxter offers us potent retorts to these early forms of liberalism and, for American evangelicals, expands the scope of political possibility within Protestantism. Quirky as he could be, on politics Baxter is conventional for his day and, most importantly, clear, even if methodologically scholastic.
Anti-liberal: Contra “Bruitists”
Baxter’s preferred slur for Enlightenment political liberals is “Bruitists.” This because their “principles are so pernicious, subverting humanity, morality and Government.” As Schlatter discerns, Baxter generally clumped his favorite targets—Hobbes, Harrington, and Spinoza—together such that when he was critiquing one of them, he was critiquing all of them. Each represented overlapping facets of an emerging political outlook he detested. He was capable of friendly, respectful disagreement, as exhibited by his regular parsing of Richard Hooker’s works. But to the “Bruitists” he gave no quarter. In The Second Part of the Nonconformist Plea for Peace (1680), Baxter singled Spinoza out (but saved some ire for Hobbes too). It was Spinoza’s Tractatus Theologico-Politicus (1670) that really bothered him, namely, because the premises upon which the whole work stood were so demonstrably wrong.
The central Bruitist claim that Baxter rejects is what we might justly call radical human autonomy. It is the idea that natural right extends as far as human power can exercise itself, “that every Individual hath the Highest Right, to all things that he is able to do,” without regard to others. This is a cynical subversion of classical natural law teaching by Spinoza and co. It is arguably a forerunner to the Rousseauian idea that man is born pristine, justified by pursuit of self-fulfillment, and only later clapped in societal irons.
Notably, in Baxter’s view, it cuts God and God’s law out of the equation as a higher referent. He argues that Spinoza debases human nature by casting man as a mere creature of appetite and that no law condemns his licentiousness apart from his own autonomous judgment. “[F]or in the state of nature,” Baxter wrote of Spinoza’s view, “Reason hath no more Right than appetite.” Social strictures are, therefore, purely positivist creations inaugurated by the powerful unto “civil Right,” that cannot provide coherence to socio-political organization.
Undergirding and mobilizing this Spinozan theory is a proto-deism—Baxter calls it “Epicurean”— that acknowledges only a clock-winder God. The result is, in modern parlance, statism, the positioning of temporal authorities “above God as to all civil obligations,” given that God is disinterested in human affairs and all obligation is merely a positivistic will to power. This is, in a word, liberalism, which, in the name of liberation and self-realization, chains men to the earth and dissolves all preexistent obligations—separating socio-political life from the chief end of man. (The reader need not agree with Baxter’s assessment of Spinoza to recognize the prescience for our own time of what he describes.)
Against the Bruitist stance, Baxter reasserts classical political wisdom by beginning with true human anthropology:
Man having Vitality, Intellection and Free-will, and being a Sociable creature, each one having need of others and disposed to converse, and placed among others, is a Creature made to be Governed according to his Reason, by Verities, and according to his Free-will by proposed Good; and not meerly moved as a Stone, or Engine, nor meerly moved as Bruits by sense: that is, he is to be ruled by Laws. If the Nature of man were not to be morally governed by proposed Truth and Good, his Reason and Will were vain; he should not be ruled as a man but as a stone or beast.
This is clever. Baxter identifies the chief object of Bruitist worship, namely human faculties, and positions it against them. If man, indeed, has intellectual faculties (i.e., reason and will), then he cannot be governed by pure, positivist force. Rather he is made for a life higher than beasts. He requires a social life governed by law, which is an ordinance of reason for the common good, not pure fiat. Man’s natural habitat is not alone in the woods but in society, in political life. This is man’s proper temporal fulfillment: the polis. From birth to death, he is enveloped in social and legal obligation. Man is not a law unto himself.
Today we might insist in a Baxterian vein contra contemporary Bruits that men are not mere slabs of meat to be manipulated (metaphorically and literally) any which way on a whim. They must be governed according to their reasonable, sociable nature. Nor is it good that man should be alone; he needs community. Even in the face of certain death, this is his vitality.
But what irked Baxter most was the “Bruitist” belief in a secular state.
Anti-secular: Body and Soul
Richard Schlatter rightly discerns that “Baxter stood in the main tradition of medieval political thinking which saw Church and State as two facets of the same community: A community which had a State but no Church would be as senseless as a community with a Church but no State; either would be anarchy.” A secular state, an unbounded commonwealth, was an inanimate corpse, mere dust. It was an oxymoron. Baxter writes: “It is a dead Commonwealth… that is without the Magistrate: and a mad Commonwealth… that is without a Church.” An equivalent metaphysical scenario was the separation of the intellect and the will or the body and the soul.
In other words, Baxter was an adherent of the corpus Christianum view wherein society was “a single Christian body” and wherein, as Robert Walton aptly describes it in his study of Zwingli, “government and purpose had been established by God… [and] policies of both [church and state] were oriented towards the realization of God’s plan for the world.” Per Baxter’s Holy Commonwealth, “God hath in wonderful Holy Wisdom so nearly joined the Church and Commonwealth [i.e., civil government], and the Magistracy and Ministry, that both are of necessity to the welfare of each Nation.”
In Schlatter’s words, “Justice is the mark of a true political order, and there is no justice where men do not worship God.” Justice to man was dependent first on justice to God. The image of God will never be treated well where God is ill thought of. And in Baxter’s world, all states championed a central religious cultus, whether England or Turkey.
Embedded in this model were a couple of important assumptions. First, that both the temporal and spiritual power received their authority directly from God. Second, that both were finally oriented to that source of power, viz., the glory of God. And man, having both a body and soul, a temporal and spiritual good, was a microcosm of society. In turn, political life must be geared toward serving the immediate and eternal end of man. If temporal rulers govern men qua men unto the common good, then they have an interest in body and soul.
Though Baxter often respectfully critiqued the “judicious” Richard Hooker on his belief in popular sovereignty, on this front they were in lockstep. Baxter declared for the Puritans:
We detest their doctrine who debase Kings and magistrates, by saying that they are Governors only of the body, and not of the soul (when it is only souls that are commanded by Laws, and immediately obey), or that it is only the civil peace and bodily prosperity which is the end of the Government of Kings, and not men’s spiritual good and salvation: And so that the King and Magistrates are to be valued as much less than the Clergy, as the concerns of the body are less valuable than the concerns of the soul.
Compare Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:
A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul; for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety: as if God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs, and to see that they have their mast.
Baxter anticipates common objections asserted both in his day and ours over and against the religious interest of the temporal power. He takes aim at those who “hold that Ministers only [i.e., ministers alone, to the exclusion of others] hold their power from Christ as Redeemer, and Magistrates not so, but only from God the Creator as ruling by common providence, and not by Christ.” He “greatly” dissented from this “conceit”:
[A]ll persons and things are delivered to Christ, and put into his hands and power, and he is made head over all things to the Church, even the Lord of dead and living, and the general administrator, even among them that hear not of his name: All judgment is committed to him (John 5.22. Eph. 1.22, 23. Rom. 14.9, 19, &c.). He is the Alpha and Omega; the Giver and the end of Power. And they that say that the world hath so good a thing as Magistracy without Christ’s procurement, may next feign many more mercies to be given to the miserable without Christ.
In other words, not only has the essence, role, and function of magistracy not changed—there was no abrogation here as to the nature of the thing itself—it has been compounded under Christ vis-à-vis its religious interest. To this Baxter also adds a realist, so to speak, anthropological and epistemological argument:
[The] Power of Magistrates is both Internal and External, that is, They may command inward fidelitie, honour, &c. to God to Parents and to themselves (though they cannot see when it is performed alone;) And they may command outward actions; But the later is their most common work. And Pastors have both Internal and External power; And may in Gods name as his Ministers, command inward Love and Repentance, and outward worshipping of God, Prayers, Sacraments, Assemblies, Confessions, learning Catechisms, obeying the King and Parents, &c.
If rulers did not have an internal, spiritual interest, no law at all would be possible. Again, men are more than just matter. They cannot be coerced to action mechanically.
Further, the role of the magistrate mirrors and overlaps that of the ministers according to differing, but complimentary, legislative competency. From one point of view, both spiritual and temporal powers are merely external and only “God hath the Internal Power, because he only can by Internal spiritual agency rule the mind: And Kings and Pastors have the external Power, that is, do Govern by Voice and Writings, which are external signs and means.” From another point of view, both powers command both externally and internally:
[T]he Power of Magistrates is both Internal and external; for they Govern both mind and body: For there is no Ruling of men’s Bodies by Laws, unless they first rule the mind: for Laws force not the Locomotive power immediately. And so Pastors have both External and Internal Power, because by Gods word they Rule first the mind, and by that the Body; as to forbear sin, to worship God, &c.
Pro-national: Papal Councils vs. Protestant Nations
The geographic scope of temporal governance is the last pillar of Baxterian political Protestantism. Baxter insisted that a church should comprise the whole community. And the “community,” for Baxter, was the nation. (He was quite insistent that all men should “love their country and the common good better than their lives.”)
A recurrent theme in the Baxterian political corpus is an aversion to supranational bodies and an enthusiasm for national ones. The former is decidedly Papist in his mind and the latter distinctly Protestant. He sets up a Papal councils v. Protestant nations dichotomy. Not that Baxter is hostile to transnational cooperation as a matter of political necessity—his eschatological utopian vision in A Moral Prognostication (1680) is a sort of pan-Protestant league of nations. But he thinks the nation is the ceiling on coherent political organization and power, spiritual and temporal. His conviction “against all Humane Universal Soveraignty” is simultaneously pragmatic and theoretical.
On the first count, Baxter observes in the Prognostication that “[A] universal human monarchy is impossible, it being beyond the capacity of anyone to so govern; the more to blame the Pope for pretending to it; God only can govern all the world.” As he further argues in Against the Revolt to A Foreign Jurisdiction (1691), international councils can be an effective means of communion, but they cannot effectively govern at scale, in part, because oligarchies (or “Universal Aristocracy”) tend toward power imbalances and also because such councils cannot represent well the interests of all peoples under their purview. Historically speaking, “it never came into the mind of the [Roman or Byzantine] Emperors or the Councils, to set up a Government over all the World, but only in the Empire.” For, no particular form of church or civil government being divinely mandated, an insistence on universal rule would be “to profess to set a Humane Law against a Divine.”
The same year, Baxter published a treatise, Of National Churches (1691), which defined a national church as “a Christian Kingdom constituted of a Christian Soveraign Magistrate, and of Christian Subjects worshiping God (ordinarily in true Particular Pastoral Churches).” Moderate in his monarchism and Episcopalianism, Baxter envisioned a national church comprised of a “Confederacy of all particular Churches,” that is, congregations with the king as head of the whole “Christian Kingdom” and, therefore, “the one National Church” as well, even though the same king had no power or right to subvert any ecclesiastical office.
As to the second count, in The Second Part of the Non-conformist Plea for Peace (1680), Baxter again rejected a universal church, inter alia, because it represented a “Papal Usurpation” of national government (church and state). “We reject their doctrine who subject Christian Princes and States to the Power of foreigners under the name of General Councils,” he declared on behalf of all “Puritans” or nonconformists. We could say that Baxter desired a League of Nations but not a European Union, if you like. Baxter is both humorous and passionate on this point:
The first controversie between us and the Papists is not, Who it is that is the Universal Governour of the Christian world (or Church) under Christ, whether Pope or Council: But whether there be any such Universal Governour at all? which we utterly deny; were there any at all, we would sooner yield that it is the Pope (who is in being) than that it is a true General Council which never was in being: And if any called Protestants would betray King and Kingdom into Subjection to a foreign Power under the false name of a General Council, we wash our hands from such disloyalty; as knowing well by the Map of the Roman Empire, and the Notitiae Episcopatuum, and by the names of the subscribing Bishops, and by the power of the Emperours that called them, and other notices of history, that even the four first great approved Councils were but some part of the Bishops of the Empire, (unless some borderer accidentally stept [sic] in) and not at all of the rest of the Christian world: And if England were sometime [in the past] subject to that Empire, yet is it not so now. The Clergy of one Prince have no power of Government over all other Princes and their Clergy.
Another way to put this is that Baxter is an exponent of the Reformation enthusiasm for rehabilitating the magistrate to his proper status vis-à-vis religion. It was a recovery of the Gelasian (Duo Sunt) formula, a “parallelism of clergy and ruler,” to quote Walton again. It was a papal profanation to reduce kings and magistrates “to be sort of secular Animals,” a claim he asserted in his explication of the Difference between the power of magistrates and church-pastors (1671), and many other works. If civil rulers care only for the external, material, or secular—a position rejected above—then they could easily be debased.
The idea that popes could dispose kings was ludicrous to Baxter in part because it was completely destabilizing. “Publick dishonour” of rulers would inevitably lead to disorder and a levelling effect contrary to the “publick good.” “The Honour of the King is necessary to his successful Government, and so the publick good and safety.” This point is constant for Baxter. “Popery” was “founded on… overthrowing true National Church-bounds.” Indeed, national churches were “the principal way to keep out Popery,” the antithesis between the two being so stark to Baxter. The national limitation on government in church and state was inherent in the things themselves, for even the “Jew’s Church was National.”
At the same time, rulers could be privately admonished and disciplined by the Church by way of withholding of the sacrament and absolution, “yet is he not to be dishonoured by an open excommunication,” because excommunication is a mechanism of shame and dishonor unto coercive return to the faithful community. For a theorist who still thinks in terms of what Ernst Kantorowicz describes in The King’s Two Bodies, excommunication of the ruler would effectively yield the same for the body politic generally. The imbalance of papal doctrine, in Baxter’s view, was that whilst the Church claimed global jurisdiction, kings were relegated to their own fiefdoms. But if both powers received their authority from God and paralleled one another then what was good for the goose was good for the gander, and yet no sane person at the time suggested an office of world king. It was facially impractical. So too with the Church.
And so, such supranational supervision was impracticable and dangerous at a Realpolitik level. But something else animated Baxter’s nationalism as well. The religious interest of the temporal power could not be exercised in the abstract, detached from a particular time and place, from real contingencies, especially in the Church.
Since the temporal power had discretion even over the Church as to adiaphora and things related to the sacred, as Baxter discusses at length in the Christian Directory, a ceiling on the geographic and cultural range of rule was necessary unto the exercise of prudence and realization of the common good of the community. A community obviously implies limits, a ceiling on inclusion. If everyone is included, then no one meaningfully belongs. For Baxter too, only a secular state is capable of extending itself internationally because it has no particular soul which, classically, supplies individuation. The compound moral person needn’t be considered because the indispensable national glue (i.e., true religion) is absent.
Protestants must begin mining their own tradition and sources for a coherent Protestant political theory. Richard Baxter provides such a starting point that demonstrates the continuation of much medieval thought into post-Reformation Christendom and jives with the new right impulse against certain liberal political ideas, anti-secularism, and nationalism. Baxter wrote more than most, but he is not the last or only word on these things. Further mining is urgently required.
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