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RICHARD BAXTER THE DANTE OF ENGLAND
E have advisedly called this great preacher the
Dante of England, fully conscious that he was
not a maker of verses, and that his exile consisted more in persecution from State officials and his fellow-Puritans than in any expulsion from his native soil. But if he lacked rhyme he certainly did not fail in rhythm, for the exquisite poetry of his prose would rival many a master of sonnet and distich, while the light and shade of his imagery, the tender warmth of his feeling, and the depth of his discernment, place him at once side by side with the perfervid Florentine, and in possession, it may even be said, of a superior genius. What Beethoven is to musicians, and Raphael and Rembrandt are to artists, Richard Baxter is to the whole Evangelical school of Theology. He stands, the great master-mind; one whose intellectual sweetness is as rare as the nectar of choicest fruits ripened under Southern skies. We would even venture to suggest that he was infinitely more spiritual than Milton or John Wesley, for added to the richness and quality of the poet, and the soul-searching zeal of the revivalist, he was attuned to diviner strains of inspiration, and heard, even though it were yet a great way off, the harmonies of the Kingdom of Heaven, the song of angels,
, God's messages to men, wafted earthwards through the power and peace of redeeming love.
Dante describes the Empyrean, the tenth and last Heaven, in the "Paradiso" as
"Light intellectual, replete with love,
Ecstasy that transcendeth every sweetness.” Furthermore, Dante* makes the Empyrean the symbol of Theology, the Divine Science. He says:
"The Empyrean Heaven by its peace resembles the Divine Science, which is full of all peace; and which suffers no strife of opinions or sophistical arguments, because of the exceeding certitude of its subject, which is God. And of this He (Jesus) says to His disciples, 'My peace I give
I unto you; my peace I leave you;' giving and leaving them His doctrine, which is this Science of which I speak."
To Baxter as to Dante the peace of Heaven consisted in a vision of divine qualities of thought expressed in the praise and joy of the blessed company of faithful believers. Infinitely less corporeal than the dramatis personae of Milton's great epics, filled always with the spiritual and Christian aspect of moral philosophy in which individuals figured only as states of mind, Baxter was always praying as Dante prayed:
“O power divine, lends't thou thyself to me
Stamped in my brain I can make manifest." It is in this wise that Baxter beholds in thought the vision of the eternal harmony:
“Rest!” he exclaims, “how sweet a word is this to mine ears. To my wearied senses and languid spirits it seems a quieting, powerful opiate; to my dulled powers it is spirit and life; to my dark eyes it is both eye-salve and a prospective; to my taste it is sweetness; to mine ears it is melody; to my hands and feet it is strength and nimble
*Convito II. 15.
To Baxter, death was the door that ushered him into this land of immortal reality, simply because death was a mode of escape from the earthly burdens of sin and sorrow. Yet curiously enough death was not the reward of these meditations of his upon the "Saints Everlasting Rest." While serving as a Chaplain among Cromwell's Ironsides he was taken seriously ill, and far from home and friends lay solitary and alone in a room at Sir John Cook's in Derbyshire. He was desperately weakened by the queer medical remedies of that age, and had indeed been sentenced to die by the physicians, and so his thoughts turned longingly towards Heaven, and he began to write down his feelings and impressions of the Kingdom of Spirit, with the result that instead of passing out of life, as was daily expected, he lived forty-one years after this experience, writing volume after volume of great works, and preaching before Governors and Kings! The fact is, Richard Baxter's vision of the perfection of God, and the bliss of being wholly His child, was an ever-present reality. All that was necessary to make this living truth become operative was a vigorous denial of the claims of the flesh, and a wide receptivity to the power of Spirit. These conditions Baxter unconsciously, but none the less faithfully, fulfilled, and the result was a resurrection to new life, a banishing of death, and a more glorious light upon his path. Henceforward, the sin and vanity-the deceitful evil of this world, compared with the satisfying, substantial, enduring glory of the heavenly Kingdom-was the all-absorbing subject of Baxter's religious faith. To him the big, broad need of humanity was deliverance from this life in the flesh, and translation into the presence of God, and for this he was willing to suffer persecution.
"The most precious truth not apprehended,” he writes,
"doth seem to be error and fantastic novelty. ... Truth is so dear a friend itself, and He that sent it much more dear, that whatever I suffer I dare not stifle or conceal it."
This “most precious truth” which Baxter could "see more than others” was the same truth which Mrs. Eddy saw.
“God rests in action. ... The highest and sweetest rest, even from a human standpoint, is in holy work."
(Science and Health, p. 519.) In her notes on the Third day of Creation in Genesis she says:
“This period corresponds to the resurrection, when Spirit is discerned to be the Life of all, and the deathless Life, or Mind, dependent upon no material organization. The periods of spiritual ascension are the days and seasons of Mind's creation, in which beauty, sublimity, purity, and holiness-yea, the divine nature -appear in man and the universe never to disappear."
(p. 509.) As Baxter ascends in thought his concepts become more and more spiritual. He puts away a physical and sensual image of man and replaces it with a concept which in form and substance becomes more expressive of qualities of divine Mind.
“As God advanceth our sense, enlargeth our capacity, so will He advance the happiness of those senses, and fill up with Himself all that capacity. And certainly the body should not be raised up and continued if it should not share of the glory; for as it hath shared in the obedience and sufferings, so shall it also do in the blessedness; and as Christ bought the whole man, so shall the whole partake of the everlasting benefits of the purchase.”
If Baxter had lived in this age would he not have gladly accepted the teaching of Christian Science on this subject, that:
“The indestructible faculties of Spirit exist without the conditions of matter and also without the false beliefs of a so-called material existence."
(Science and Health, p. 162.) As for conditions of matter, as matter pure and simple, Baxter feels indeed in the poignant words of the Master that “the flesh profiteth nothing." "Surely our very bodies themselves, for which we make all this ado in the world, are very silly pieces. . There is nothing but heaven and the way to it that is worth thy minding?"
Mrs. Eddy speaks of the “fables of mortal mind” as "silly moths" which
"singe their own wings and fall into dust." (Science
and Health, p. 103.) That mortal life is foolish and vain, and falls eventually into utter oblivion is a conclusion reached by many prophets and philosophers before Baxter's time, but where does the Puritan teacher rise to such sublime heights, as Mrs. Eddy alone outsoars, in the purity and possibility of the achievement of the understanding of God. He is fond of referring to God as "prime Truth," and describes the constant faithful presence of God in sentences which correspond to one of Mrs. Eddy's definitions of God as:
“divine and eternal Principle; Life, Truth, and Love."
(p. 592.) "The sanctuary is inviolable," Baxter writes, "and the Rock impregnable, whither thou art fled, and thou art safe locked up to all eternity. Thou hast not now to deal