Margaret and Richard Baxter were an unlikely couple, yet their story is one of the most romantic Puritan love stories ever told.
Margaret Charlton was born into a wealthy English family in 1639. Her family had lived in Apley Castle, near Shrewsbury for three centuries. In 1644, when Margaret was just five years old, the Parliamentarians sacked the castle, burning part of it to the ground and seizing much of the personal property. (The Parliamentarians and the Royalists were the two sides of the English Civil War. The Royalists supported King Charles I; the Parliamentarians were trying to get the king to obey his own laws and rule fairly.) The memory of this traumatic time would stay with Margaret for the rest of her life.
Margaret was a precocious child. She grew up very self-centered and rebellious. She did not profess faith in Christ until she was twenty years old. She realized her sinfulness and was convicted due to the preaching of her future husband, Richard Baxter. Baxter was already a famous preacher by this time and twenty-four years older than Margaret.
Margaret had struggled with the emptiness and pain in her life and had much turmoil inside. She wrote to Richard Baxter often and received counseling from him. It did not come as a surprise to many when she realized that she was in love with him. Since Richard had been a confirmed bachelor this made it difficult for her. Ladies did not communicate their feelings openly in those days. She carried her secret for a number of years.
Once when she was ill, her mother asked friends, including Richard to pray for Margaret. She was wonderfully healed and Margaret’s mother had a day of thanksgiving to celebrate God’s blessings. Margaret’s feelings for Richard only deepened.
Richard Baxter’s care and concern for his whole congregation was superlative. He wrote a book on the subject, The Reformed Pastor. based mostly on his own exemplary example. This book is still widely read in seminaries today. Richard cared for all of his parishioners, but there seemed to have been a special affection growing between him and Margaret by this time.
He went to London for a couple of years. During that time, Margaret’s mother died (1661). She had been really close to her mother and now she was devastated. Richard preached the sermon at her funeral. It was at this time, many believe, that Margaret decided to get brave and propose marriage to him. They began a secret engagement that lasted until September 10, 1662, when they were married.
Their marriage was shocking to many, not only because of the age gap, but also because of the difference in their financial circumstances. Tongues wagged when the former confirmed bachelor suddenly married this young, vivacious, and wealthy woman. In order to try to stop the gossip, Richard asked Margaret to agree that he would have no legal claims on her money or property. Margaret was willing to do this. She was married to the man she loved and had dreamed about for years. She agreed to comfort and care for him for the rest of her life. Her only sorrow about giving up claims to much of her money came later in life when she wished to work among the poor. She could have done so much more if she could have used the income from her estates.
Richard worked very hard at his writing, producing 128 books in addition to all of his letters and other correspondence. This was in large part due to Margaret’s oversight of all of the everyday concerns in life. Richard found out, as many other ministers did, that he could do a lot more with a good wife to help him.
Things would not prove to be a bed of roses for the Baxter’s. Richard would not conform to the state church. The Anglican Church at that time insisted that all preachers be licensed through them. It is hard for us to imagine how the state could have control of the church like that, but that is how it was in 17th century England. No one was allowed to preach without the permission of King Charles II. Richard and many other non-conformist preachers would not go against their consciences. (Recall that John Bunyan lived during this time period. You can read about his godly wife, Elizabeth in another posting on this blog (July, 2010). While Elizabeth ministered to John in prison, he was able to write Pilgrim’s Progress.)
Margaret would get her chance to show her entire devotion to Richard when he was arrested in 1669, while they were serving in their house church in Acton. Richard had refused to use the state sponsored prayer book and would not take an oath of non-resistance to the state church. He was sentenced for six months, but was able to get out on a technicality after a few weeks. So completely loyal was Margaret that she insisted on joining him in prison! A friendly jailor allowed her to make the prison room comfortable for Richard and herself. Richard was grateful for her care and later wrote, “I think she had scarce ever a pleasanter time in her life than while she was with me there.” This may sound rather chauvinistic to us, but Margaret was not only a woman very much in love, she was also a strong, determined woman who did not do things by halves. Today’s liberal woman would probably criticize Margaret’s actions, but Margaret only saw an opportunity to minister.
After Richard’s release, they had to move away from Acton or risk re-arrest. He was not able to preach openly again until 1672, when the Act of Uniformity was passed, allowing ministers of other churches besides the State Anglican Church the freedom to preach. They were able to move to London and spent happy years together. During her later years Margaret raised money to build several chapels for preachers who worked in poor areas. She began a school for poor children. She wanted them to attend free of charge and so she solicited money from her friends. She was very generous and not very patient with people who would not donate money for the poor.
With all of the trauma in her life – her childhood home destroyed in the Civil War, the serious illness suffered in her teens, a near collapse of a church they attended, the “Great Plague of 1665”, the “Great Fire of London – 1666”, many other fires including one right next door to their house, and the constant vilification of her husband, it was no wonder that at times Margaret thought that she might lose her mind. There was a history of mental illness in her family. Margaret sometimes lost sleep due to her fearfulness. Richard knew that her illness was physical and due to stress. Margaret was a strong Christian.
It was sad then that her early death was due to ignorance of medicine in their day. About three years before she died, Margaret did suffer from anxiety. She had pain in one of her breasts and believed that she might be dying of cancer. She prepared herself to die. Later the pain moved to her right kidney. She tried several remedies but only got worse. Finally, the doctors followed the common practice of bleeding her and she lost the last of her strength. After severe illness for twelve days, she died on June 14, 1681, aged only forty-two. She was buried in the grave she had built for her mother. Richard continued to live on lonely and sad for ten more years, dying in 1691 at the age of seventy-five.
The picture of Puritan women is usually a dour one. Historians often portray the women as completely silent and in the background. How different than that Margaret was!! She was very much a partner in the Gospel with her husband. She believed, as other Puritan women, that her personal salvation required her to read her Bible, pray, sing, and journalize her experiences.
Richard and Margaret did not have children. Margaret knew this was from the hand of God and saw it as an opportunity to spend her time serving alongside her husband. She demonstrated true courage by opening her home to the other non-conformist preachers, because arrest was as much a reality for her as for them.
Margaret actively shared in Richard’s pastoral matters. She was openly evangelistic. She had compassion for the poor. Though she suffered from occasional anxiety, her neighbors constantly remarked about her cheerfulness. She was unassuming and unselfish and loved wherever she went.
What can we learn from her example? It would be easy to say that her devotion to her husband was just due to the times in which she lived. But that would be over-simplistic. Yes, she knew her place as a godly wife, but she in no way believed that women were lesser beings than men, created only to serve them. She was able to see her calling in the greater context of the kingdom of God. Margaret loved Richard deeply, but she loved God more and by helping her husband with the domestic affairs, he was free to serve God better and the Gospel advanced further than it would have. She is an example to us of what it means to put Christ first.