The Reformed Bride: Margaret Baxter’s Unyielding Love – Sharon James

In 1655, a wealthy and godly widow, Mary Hanmer, moved to Kidderminster, a remote town in the west of England, in order to sit under the ministry of Richard Baxter. He was one of the finest preacher-pastors of the age. Under his ministry, Kidderminster had been transformed. Homes characterized by drunkenness and violence became places of joyful praise.
Mrs. Hanmer was eager to benefit from his preaching and zealous to serve in this rural community.

The situation was different for her rebellious teenage daughter, however. Margaret was initially appalled by the poverty and dreariness of life in Kidderminster, and she had no spiritual appetite for Baxter’s ministry. Yet here began a story that would turn this young woman from Margaret Hanmer to Mrs. Baxter, a wife of unyielding piety.

Living for Self

Sixteen-year-old Margaret had suffered immensely during the civil wars that tore England apart from 1642 to 1651. When she was just five, the family castle where she lived was burned to the ground, some men of the family were killed, and she was stripped and threatened.

Now that peace prevailed, Margaret wanted to enjoy herself. But she came from a higher social class than any of the inhabitants of this rural weaving community. There was no company or social life! She deliberately dressed as splendidly as possible in order to distinguish herself.

Mrs. Hanmer was distressed by her daughter’s disregard for spiritual realities. But at least Margaret now attended a church that proclaimed the gospel. After all, Baxter always preached “as a dying man to dying men.” He agonized in prayer for those who heard his preaching, and he diligently visited every home in his parish, urging individuals to turn to God.

Despite herself, Margaret began to experience profound conviction of selfishness, pride, vanity, and disregard of God. This conviction marked the beginning of her transformation from a rebellious teenager to a devout follower of Jesus.

Living for God

As Margaret’s attitude softened, she repented of looking down on the poverty of her neighbors. She began to take time to read the Bible and pray, and she recorded her new desire to live for God. Her private journal, discovered after her death, contained the “self-judging papers” written when she was twenty. She noted, for example, “ten marks of the person who has the Spirit of Christ” (In Trouble and in Joy, 54). For each of the ten marks, she also recorded her own sin and lamented that she did not yet have the Spirit of Christ.

Around this time, Margaret fell critically ill. Many in the community fasted and prayed that her life would be spared, and God remarkably answered their prayers. On her recovery, Margaret listed seven “great mercies” for which she wanted the church to give thanks. She also sent in several urgent prayer requests. She wanted greater humility, a tender conscience, power to resist temptation, and meekness to endure whatever other trials God might send her way.

In addition, Margaret made a secret “covenant with God” and a series of resolutions discovered only after her death. She wrote,

I here now renew my covenant with Almighty God, and resolve, by his grace, to endeavour to get and keep a fresh sense of his mercy on my soul, and a greater sense yet of my sin. (59)

Living to Serve Others

In 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne; thus, the Established Church of England was restored too. With the change, Baxter moved to London to try to influence the Church in a more biblical direction.

Mary Hanmer had moved to Kidderminster solely to sit under Baxter’s ministry. With no reason now to stay, she and Margaret also moved to London. But within a few months, Mary died, leaving Margaret alone.

Up to this time, Baxter had not considered marriage. He believed that if a minister served devotedly, he would not have the capacity to meet family demands. But then the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which demanded that clergy repudiate their Puritan distinctives, forced Baxter out of ministry. With his justification for celibacy removed, he married Margaret on September 10, 1662. He was 47; she was 23. He now had no means of making a living, and she had independent wealth. Gossips had a field day.

But Margaret was overwhelmingly happy. She would face persecution and uncertainty alongside her husband, but she and Richard enjoyed true partnership in the gospel. They shared a passion for offering Christ to needy sinners. She also took care of the practicalities of everyday life, freeing Richard for his writing ministry. He admired her wisdom and often consulted her judgment:

She was better at resolving a case of conscience than most divines that ever I knew in all my life. I often put cases to her, which she so suddenly resolved, as to convince me of some degree of oversight in my own resolution. (48)

Margaret was delighted to pour her financial resources into giving away good literature and helping the needy. She and Richard opened their home to neighbors in order for Richard to informally share the word (an illegal activity, but they did it anyway).

In June 1669, Richard was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison. Margaret insisted on joining him in prison, and a kind jailer allowed them a room of their own. They were released early but then had to find accommodation outside London due to the notorious Five Mile Act, which prohibited Nonconformist preachers from coming within five miles of any place where they had previously ministered.

In 1672, the King issued a Declaration of Indulgence, which eased the situation for Nonconformists. For the remaining years of Margaret’s life, she supported and encouraged Richard in his ministry. She used her wealth to hire buildings where he could preach and even paid for the construction of meeting houses.

Eternal Life

Throughout their nineteen years of married life, both Richard and Margaret suffered ill health. Both consciously lived in the light of eternity.

Back in 1647, Baxter had endured a serious illness. During that time, he wrote The Saint’s Everlasting Rest, in which he urged his readers to set aside time each day to meditate on heaven:

Go away into a private place, at a convenient time, and put aside other distractions. Look up towards heaven. Remember that your everlasting rest is there. Meditate on its wonder and reality. Rise from sense to faith, by comparing heavenly with earthly joys, until you are transformed from a forgetful sinner, and a lover of the world, to an ardent lover of God. . . . Meditate until your heart is weaned away from earth to heaven, until you are taken up with the delight of walking with God.

Margaret would be the first to enter her “everlasting rest.” After twelve days of intense illness, she died on June 14, 1681, at just 42 years of age. Richard was desolate. He immediately wrote a memoir of his wife, lovingly describing her devotion to God.

Richard honestly reflected on Margaret’s proneness to anxiety and fear and her often perfectionist, sometimes obsessive, tendencies. She drove herself to the limit. Her desire to serve overtook her strength and, in the end, both body and mind gave way under the strain. But he celebrated her compassion for the poor and needy, as well as her zeal to reach those who did not know Christ, as a shining example for others to follow. She was always popular with neighbors due to her cheerful and pleasant demeanor.

Baxter’s testimony to the devotion and godliness of his wife is so powerful that the Baxter marriage has often been lifted up as an ideal for others. Over three hundred years later, Margaret remains a woman to admire and emulate.

Read More

Desiring God

Generated by Feedzy