Thursday, April 15, 2010

A Pen In God's Hand

An evil report was circulated, as has happened to other great saints, that Richard Baxter on his deathbed suffered great pains of conscience. In fact, the author of The Saints' Everlasting Rest, one of the greatest works ever written on the subject of heavenly meditation and preparations for death, along with his Dying Thoughts Upon Philippians 1.23, written shortly before his passing, gave a godly testimony on his deathbed.

William Orme, The Life and Times of the Rev. Richard Baxter, Vol. 1, pp. 355-356:

"As to himself, even to the last, I never could perceive his peace and heavenly hopes assaulted or disturbed. I have often heard him greatly lament, that he felt no greater liveliness in what appeared so great and clear to him, and so very much desired by him. As to the influence thereof upon his spirit, in order to the sensible refreshments of it, he clearly saw what ground he had to rejoice in God; he doubted not of his right to heaven. He told me, he knew it should be well with him when he was gone. He wondered to hear others speak of their sensible, and passionately strong desires to die, and of their transports of spirit, when sensible of their approaching death; when, though he thought he knew as much as they, and had as rational satisfaction as they could have that his soul was safe, he could never feel their sensible consolations. I asked him, whether much of this was not to be resolved into bodily constitution, he told me that he thought it might be so.
A wicked and groundless report appears to have been circulated shortly after his death, that his mind had been greatly troubled with skeptical doubts before he died. It was brought to [Matthew] Sylvester on such authority that he found it necessary to give it a formal refutation. After quoting a letter from Worcestershire, referring to it, he thus replies to it:

"Audax facinus!" says Sylvester; "What will degenerate man stick at! We know nothing there that could, in the least, minister to such a report as this. I that was with him all along, have ever heard him triumphing in his heavenly expectation, and ever speaking like one that could never have thought it worth a man's while to be, were it not for the great interest and ends of godliness. He told me that he doubted not, but that it would be best for him when he had left this life and was translated to the heavenly regions.

"He owned what he had written, with reference to the things of God, to the very last. He advised those that came near him carefully to mind their souls' concerns. The shortness of time, the instancy of eternity, the worth of souls, the greatness of God, the riches of the grace of Christ, the excellency and import of an heavenly mind and life, and the great usefulness of the word and means of grace pursuant to eternal purposes, ever lay pressingly upon his heart, and extorted from him very useful directions and encouragements to all that came near him, even to the last; insomuch that if a polemical or casuistical point, or any speculation in philosophy or divinity, had been but offered to him for his resolution, after the clearest and briefest representation of his mind, which the proposer's satisfaction called for, he presently and most delightfully fell into conversation about what related to our Christian hope and work."

Those present at Baxter's side while he laying dying included William Bates, who preached his funeral sermon, and Increase Mather, Baxter's New England friend, who both visited him the day before he died.

Baxter, author of around 170 publications including an estimated 60 million published words (I.D.E. Thomas; other estimates range from 10 million to 24 million; his Christian Directory alone comprises around 1.25 million words), among which is included a regrettable work titled Aphorisms on Justification, told Increase Mather before his death, "Sir, if you know of any errors in any of my writings, I pray you to confute them after I am dead." Bates reports that Mather spoke words of comfort to him, to which Baxter replied, "I have pain, there is no arguing against sense, but I have peace, I have peace....I believe, I believe...[to Mather...] I bless God that you accomplished your business, the Lord prolong your life."

More extracts from William Bates, "Mr. Baxter's Funeral Sermon," in Works, Vol. 4, pp. 337-338:

Not long after his last sermon, he felt the approaches of death, and was confined to his sick bed. Death reveals the secrets of the heart, then words are spoken with most feeling and least affectation. This excellent saint was the same in his life and death: his last hours were spent in preparing others and himself to appear before God. He said to his friends that visited him, 'You come hither to learn to die, I am not the only person that must go this way, I can assure you, that your whole life be it never so long it little enough to prepare for death. Have a care of this vain deceitful world, and the lusts of the flesh: be sure you choose God for your portion, heaven for your home, God's glory for your end, his word for your rule, and then you need never fear but we shall meet with comfort.'

Never was penitent sinner more humble and debasing himself, never was a sincere believer more calm and comfortable. He acknowledged himself to be the vilest dunghilworm (it was his usual expression) that ever went to heaven. He admired the divine condescension to us, often saying, 'Lord what is man, what am I vile worm to the great God?' Many times he prayed, "God be merciful to me a sinner," and blessed God, that that was left upon record in the gospel as an effectual prayer. He said, 'God may justly condemn me for the best duty I ever did, and all my hopes are from the free mercy of God in Christ,' which he often prayed for.

After a slumber he waked and said, 'I shall rest from my labour:' a minister then present said, 'And your works follow you:' to whom he replied, 'No works, I will leave out works, if God will grant me the other.' When a friend was comforting him with the remembrance of the good many had received by his preaching and writings, he said, 'I was but a pen in God's hand, and what praise is due to a pen.'

His resigned submission to the will of God in his sharp sickness, was eminent. When extremity of pain constrained him earnestly to pray to God for his release by death, he would check himself: 'It is not fit for me to prescribe, and said, when thou wilt, what thou wilt, how thou wilt.'

Being in great anguish, he said, 'O how unsearchable are his ways and his paths past finding out! the reaches of his providence we cannot fathom:' and to his friends, 'Do not think the worse of religion for what you see me suffer.'

Being often asked by friends, how it was with his inward man, he replied, 'I bless God I have a well-grounded assurance of my eternal happiness, and great peace and comfort within; but it was his trouble that he could not triumphantly express it, by reason of his extreme pains.' He said, 'Flesh must perish, and we must feel the perishing of it: and that though his judgment submitted, yet sense would still make him groan.'

Near the end, he was asked again how he did. Baxter replied: "Almost well." His final words to his friend Matthew Sylvester were: "The Lord teach you how to die."

John Hamilton Davies, The Life of Richard Baxter, of Kidderminster: Preacher and Prisoner, p. 445:

So they who were permitted to visit his chamber have recorded his last words, which the Church cannot willingly let die.

To add smiles to tears, Joseph Addison, some years later, wrote in The Spectator, No. 445, July 31, 1712:

I remember, upon Mr. Baxter's death, there was published a sheet of very good sayings, inscribed 'The Last Words of Mr. Baxter.' The title sold so great a number of these papers, that about a week after there came out a second [spurious] sheet, inscribed 'More Last Words of Mr. Baxter.'

This proverbial story, the veracity of which I am unable to confirm, was morphed over the years to refer to his wife rather than himself and appears in the 1879 edition of E. Cobham Brewer, Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, p. 593:

When Richard Baxter lost his wife, he published a broadsheet, headed Last Words of Mrs. Baxter, which had an immense sale. The printer, for his own profit, brought out a spurious broadsheet, headed More Last Words; but Baxter issued a small handbill with this concise sentence: “Mrs. Baxter did not say anything else.”

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