Richard & Margaret

HE WAS 17TH-CENTURY ENGLAND’S most visible pastor, a prolific, popular, and controversial author, a powerful preacher, married to his parish, passionate for the conversion of souls and for the reformation of England’s church. He was a man in a hurry, his days crammed with writing projects, sermon preparation, systematically scheduled meetings with the 800 families from the parish, and whatever other surprises a minister’s day might hold.

She was, when she first met him, a superficial and self-centered teenager nearly half his age, from a family of means, who grudgingly accompanied her mother to hear him preach and ended up soundly converted to Christ. Not long after her conversion, she was stricken by “consumption,” most likely tuberculosis, and lay for a month close to death. He gathered his inner circle of praying friends. Their prayers for her recovery resulted in a sudden cure that was widely noted as God’s gracious intervention in her life.

But for all of his pastoral, preaching, and intellectual gifts, he was a difficult man: irritable and prone to speaking or writing his mind when prudence might respond otherwise. He also suffered constantly from a debilitating array of illnesses, made even worse when we remember that existing medical “treatments” often did more harm than good.

Under his ministry, she deepened into an articulate and sensitive soul, troubled by both the needs of others and her own frustratingly slow progress as a Christian. Childhood traumas resulted in lifelong struggles with irrational fear. She suffered from migraines and was periodically obsessed with worries over her health. Overly fragile with regards to the attitudes and responses of those closest to her, she struggled with forgiveness and “letting it go.” As he would later write, “Her understanding . . . was higher and clearer than other people’s, but, like the treble strings of a lute, strained up to the highest, sweet, but in continual danger.”

An Unexpected Match

It was a surprise to nearly everyone when, some years later on September 10, 1662, the 47-year-old Richard Baxter and the 26-year-old Margaret Charlton were wed at a special service presided over by Baxter’s friend Samuel Clarke. What is even more surprising is that their marriage of 19 years would be full of such mutual delight and love. Perhaps most surprising of all is that we should today know so much about their life together.

Within a month after Margaret’s death in 1681 at the age of 46, Richard turned to writing to work through his sorrow. “Under the power of melting grief,” he produced within a few days a character sketch of his beloved, unprecedented for its realism and honesty. It provides an extraordinary glimpse into the marriage of a man and a woman who really loved each other. Richard’s Breviate ("brief account") of the Life of Margaret (1681) is an exceptional piece of grief work that sheds unexpected light into the progress, priorities, and passions of a 17th-century Puritan marriage.

Progress

The dramatic shift in Church of England politics that accompanied Charles II’s restoration to the throne forced Richard Baxter from his parish in Kidderminster in 1660, ending one of the most remarkable pastorates in English church history. Distressed to lose their pastor, Margaret and her mother followed Richard to London. They were determined to support his preaching ministry there and, in Margaret’s case, to remain close to someone who was becoming for her more than just a spiritual director.

As her pastor, Richard was very much aware of the dynamics that can develop in counseling members of the opposite sex. Concerned to maintain propriety, he wrote several letters to deflect her growing affections towards him: “How hard it is to keep our hearts from going too far even in honest affections towards the creature, while we are so backward to love God, who should have all the heart and soul and might. Too strong love to any, though it be good in the kind, may be sinful and hurtful in the degree. It will turn too many of your thoughts from God, and they will be too often running after the beloved creature . . . . It will increase your sufferings by involving you in all the dangers and troubles of those whom you over-love.” Margaret copied this paragraph from one of Richard’s letters, and after her death, Richard found this and many others like it as he sorted through her personal papers. These excerpts give us a tantalizing glimpse of the beginnings of their relationship.

Unfortunately, a glimpse is all we have. The original draft of Richard’s Breviate was much more revealing, written “perhaps with the less prudent judgment [though] the more truth; for passionate weakness poureth out all, which greater prudence may conceal.” Richard asked several friends to comment on his manuscript. They were so concerned that such transparency could subject him to gossip and ridicule that they urged him to revise parts of it. Uncharacteristically, Richard heeded their advice. As a result, he wrote, “[t]hat which is left out of the narrative of my wife’s life is the occasions and inducements of our marriage.”

Priorities

The 17th-century conception of marriage was very different from the soft—focused and self-centered models that fire contemporary imaginations. The Westminster Confession states concisely that “marriage was ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with legitimate issue, and of the church with a holy seed, and for preventing uncleanness.”

Feelings and love and passion were not banished from Puritan marriage; rather, within the safe confines of God’s intentions for husband and wife, they were encouraged and free to grow.

Both Richard and Margaret experienced their marriage as God’s goodness to each of them. Says Richard about Margaret: “When we were married, her sadness and melancholy vanished: counsel did something to it, and contentment something; and being taken up with our household affairs did somewhat. And we lived in inviolated love and mutual complacency sensible of the benefit of mutual help.” And for Richard, Margaret was “a woman of extraordinary acuteness of wit, solidity, and judgment, incredible prudence and sagacity and sincere devotedness to God, and unusual strict obedience to him . . . who . . . heaped on me . . . many and great obligations to love and tenderness.”

Though they remained without children, both Richard and Margaret took their childlessness as an opportunity from God to invest themselves further in ministries of mercy and giving (Margaret), and writing and preaching (Richard).

Passion

Even so, Richard and Margaret’s marriage, like most, was neither perfect nor easy. Marriage brings out both the best and the worst in a person, a reality with which Richard struggled: “My dear wife did look for more good in me than she found, especially lately in my weakness and decay. We are all like pictures that must not be looked on too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know.” Even their different upbringings could cause friction: “Her household affairs she ordered with so great skill and decency as that others much praised that which I was not fit judge of. I had been bred among , and I thought that so much washing of stairs and rooms, to keep them as clean as their trenchers and dishes, and so much ado about cleanliness and trifles, was a sinful eccentricity and expense of servants’ time, who might that while have been reading some good book. But she that was otherwise bred had somewhat other thoughts.”

Ever the pastoral realist, Richard understood that “the pleasing of a wife is no easy task. There is an unsuitableness in the best and wisest and most alike . . . . They that agree in religion, in love and interest, yet may have different apprehensions about occasional occurrences, persons, things, words, etc. That will seem the best way to one that seems the worst to the other.”

With raw honesty, Richard acknowledges that Margaret was God’s loving means of pointing out and challenging his weaknesses: “Indeed, she was so much for calmness, deliberation, and doing nothing rashly and in haste, and my condition and business as well as temper made me do and speak much so suddenly, that she principally differed from me and blamed me in this.”

Richard and Margaret also suffered with each other. Their poor health was vexing enough. But his leadership role among Puritan (and later nonconforming) Christians made him the object of harassment and persecution. With Richard repeatedly fined and even imprisoned, and with the authorities forcing them to move many times, they saw their circumstances as God—given opportunities to care for each other and for those around them in even worse straits.

Though Richard was plainspoken about their struggles and frailties, he felt profoundly that Margaret was God’s very good gift to him and “the meetest helper I could have had in the world.” This Puritan’s marriage, at least, reveals that behind the contemporary stereotype of rigid and overscrupulous killjoys stood real people who really cared for each other and who gave and experienced a love that overcame every obstacle until only death could pry them apart.

As Richard wrote elsewhere, “It is a mercy to have a faithful friend, that loveth you entirely, and is as true to you as yourself, to whom you may open your mind and communicate your affairs, and who would be ready to strengthen you, and divide the cares of your affairs and family with you, and help you to bear your burdens, and comfort you in your sorrows, and be the daily companion of your lives, and partaker of your joys and sorrows . . . and . . . so near a friend to be a helper to your soul; to join with you in prayer and other holy exercises; to watch over you and tell you of your sins and dangers, and to stir up in you the grace of God, and remember you of the life to come, and cheerfully accompany you in the ways of holiness.” CH

Called to be a Family

Raising a family was therefore not merely a private matter; it was a vocation to which one was called by God. The father was charged with the responsibility of overseeing the spiritual life of the family, leading daily devotions, catechizing the children and servants, and being a godly role model. His wife was his assistant in these tasks. Together, they were to spur on their children to holiness. Parenting was an act of stewardship, as Puritan pastor Thomas Watson wrote: Christian parents “will endeavor that their children may be more God’s children than theirs.” Baxter gave this advice: “Let your own example teach your children that holiness and heavenliness and blamelessness of tongue and life, which you desire them to learn and practise. The example of parents is most powerful with children, both for good and evil . . . they will sooner believe your bad lives than your good words.” The Puritans found in the Bible a treasure trove of principles for ordering family life, and they tried to model their families after those of Israel’s patriarchs.

Of course, this was the ideal. The reality was much more complicated. Family life in 17th-century England was extremely difficult. Without running water, electricity, or basic medical care, with frequent illness and death (more than half of all children died in infancy), life was hard and short and full of pain for most people. Seen in these stark terms, the Puritans’ efforts to apply Scripture (as they read it) to the circumstances facing their families were close to heroic. Baxter credits women with bearing a heavy burden: “Women especially must expect so much suffering in a married life, that if God had not put into them a natural inclination to it, and so strong a love to their children, as maketh them patient under the most annoying troubles, the world would ere this been at an end, through their refusal of so calamitous a life.”

By J. William Black

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #89 in 2006]

J. William Black is a pastor and a lecturer at Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
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