Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Conversion, Autobiography and Richard Baxter's Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696)

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Conversion, Autobiography and Richard Baxter's Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696)

Article excerpt

In Bruce Hindmarsh's book on the Evangelical conversion narrative, most of its subjects "found their deepest identities in their religious experience. And they typically answered the question 'Who am I?' by telling the stories of their conversions."1 More recently, Kathleen Lynch has led us in a more outwardly direction, attempting to "discern a religious interiority that was fully engaged with the social and political forces of its world." She begins, for example, with the "Confessions" of Richard Norwood, one of the earliest English settlers in Bermuda. He was subject to "shifting and experimental" forces in far-off Bermuda, yet was "deeply embedded in the social and religious commu- nities that circumscribed the Anglophonic world." Thus, he was "shaped by and in turn helped shape new religious forms of worship and association."2 Lynch's introduction is appropriately entitled, "No Self is an Island." So it is hardly surprising she includes a chapter on the autobiography of Richard Baxter, the Reliquiae Baxterianae. As I will soon argue, that autobiography is nothing if not intimately tied to external events and the outside world. Baxter decisively did not answer the question, "Who am I?" with recourse to the story of his own conversion. As Lynch so rightly observes, "Baxter's writings are Baxter in proxy, always in development, always in draft, and always... in addition." There is no conversion "moment" in Baxter; he "was, simply, always writing, and in that writing, continually rewriting the godly self."3

Lynch is almost entirely correct. In this article, I would like to challenge one aspect of her conclusion in a way that will also throw light on the nature of autobiographical writing, particularly in the seventeenth century. For there was a moment, in April 1659 to be precise, when Baxter wrote of himself with a unique measure of finality. In the closing chapter of A Holy Commonwealth, Baxter explained why he had sided with Parliament in the civil wars. The nature of his account is fascinating and utterly at odds with the way in which he constructed the Reliquiae Baxterianae, which he began to write just 5 years later. It intimates an autobiography Baxter never wrote; and if we keep that one in mind, however notional it might be, we gain a fuller appreciation of the autobiography he did write. The former would have been laid along largely triumphal and optimistic lines. The latter is, instead, mournful and pessimistic with pronounced undertones of anger and bitterness. The juxtaposition of 1659 and 1664 also reveals something about the funda- mental nature of autobiography: before the writers of autobiography tell their story to the world, they must first tell that story to themselves. And if that story is rendered untenable, as Baxter's experience will demonstrate, it never gets told. The series of reversals in national affairs that began even in April 1659 made the autobiography Baxter might have written at that point completely impossible. In its place, we have the autobiography he did write.

It appeared in 1696, entitled Reliquiae Baxterianae: Or, Mr Richard Baxter's Narrative of the Most Memorable Passages of his Life and Times. Baxter himself had died 5 years earlier, leaving the manuscript in the hands of his younger friend and fellow minister, Matthew Sylvester. It would seem that Sylvester wrote out a clean copy of the work to give to the printer.4 At around 650,000 words long that task alone helps to account for the delay in its publication, even if the original documents (which comprise nearly half the work) did not need a clean hand. While we should be grateful it appeared at all, this 1696 edition was not well edited. It differs from the original manuscript, and the formatting on the page makes it difficult to distinguish Baxter 's own words from the original documents. Over 300 years later, a new edition is on its way. I am one of a small team of editors led by Neil Keeble that is producing a critical edition to be published by Oxford University Press. …

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