A few years ago I reviewed In Trouble and In Joy by Sharon James, which features four different women of God: Margaret Baxter, Sarah Edwards, Anne Steele, and Frances Ridley Havergal. Of Margaret Baxter I wrote:
Margaret Baxter was a rebellious, glamorous, well-to-do teen-ager who became a Christian under the preaching of her Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter. Though he was twice her age, Margaret fell in love with him, and in time her feelings were reciprocated, and they married. The union was a step down for Margaret socially and financially (Richard took care to arrange their finances in such a way that he did not have access to her money so it would not be thought he married her for her money), but she had found her purpose in life and blossomed. This was a time when “Non-conformists” were persecuted, and when Richard was imprisoned for a while, Margaret voluntarily joined him. Both were, like all the rest of us, very human. Margaret was known for being generous, cheerful (Mrs. James notes, “It is simply not true that the Puritans went around looking miserable. Indeed, Richard Baxter wrote, “Keep company with the more cheerful sort of the godly; there is no mirth like the mirth of believers” [p. 49]), industrious, competent, capable, patient, supportive — and anxious, fearful, perfectionist, and over-zealous. Yet she was aware of and grieved by her faults, and it was her desire to live a holy life for God.
In the July/August 2002 issue of Frontline Magazine is an article by my former pastor, Dr. Mark Minnick, titled “’Dear Companion’ — A Husband’s Loving Tribute” about Richard Baxter’s now out-of-print book about his wife, A Breviate of the Life of Margaret, which appears to be online here. Richard Baxter was perhaps one of the better known Puritan preachers and writers. The Baxters lived in the 1600s. He was 47 and she was 26 when they married. One of their earliest marital adjustments was that he thought “so much ado about cleanliness and trifles” and keeping “stairs and rooms…as clean as dishes” was a “sinful eccentricity.” He did change his mind, however, and “left [such things] to her discretion.”
He writes of her “utter selflessness,” her charitable acts, her cheerfulness in hard times, her desire for the conversion of others, and many other aspects of her life. But the one thing I want to focus on in this short space is her fears. She was naturally “of too timorous and tender a nature,” and Baxter writes that her “diseased fearfulness” was “the great infirmity which tyrannized over her…against which she had little…free will or power.” “’Anything that had suddenness, noise, or fierceness in it’ upset her.” Dr. Minnick remarks that there may have been very good reason Margaret was this way: “Nearly her entire life was shot through with calamity. Her home had been stormed by soldiers when she was just a girl…plundered…and set on fire, [they] killed some of the household, and then stripped the very clothing from those they spared.“ She had nearly died from one illness; “there had been fires near her lodgings, the near collapse of the floor of an upper gallery…while Baxter was preaching” once; her mother’s death, her husband’s illnesses, dreams of “fires and murders.”
“For our encouragement and learning, this natural timidity displays that Margaret’s fearlessness before persecution was not simply the courage of a bold spirit. It was, Baxter wrote, ‘an evidence of the power of grace that so timorous a person…was more fearless of persecution, imprisonment, or losses and poverty thereby, than I or any that I remember to have known’” (emphases mine). She was a woman “of like passions” as we are, yet God’s grace strengthened her and caused her to triumph.
“Her husband’s troubles, care of the poor, and conscientious life all cost [her] dearly… Baxter reflected that perhaps her conscientious intensity contributed to her untimely death [after just nineteen years of marriage]. ‘She set her head and heart so intensely upon doing good that her head and heart would hardly bear it. Her knife was too keen,’ he observed, ‘and cut the sheath.’”