A Puritan Wife
If I were asked to recommend one book on marriage, I would turn to the Puritans and recommend the sections dealing with the married estate in The Christian Directory by Richard Baxter (1615–91) of Kidderminster. Baxter, along with other Puritan authors, gave marriage “such strength, substance, and solidity as to warrant the verdict that … under God … they were creators of the English Christian marriage” (J.I. Packer). In Baxter’s case, his understanding of marriage was indebted both to his knowledge of God’s Word and his marriage to Margaret Charlton.
Margaret had been converted under Baxter’s preaching at Kidderminster. Like Baxter, she came from Shropshire — in fact, she grew up only a few miles away from Baxter’s home, though in considerably wealthier circumstances. When Margaret initially heard Baxter’s preaching, she had little liking for him. Likewise, Baxter tells us in his life of Margaret, she had a “great aversion to the poverty and strictness of the people” of Kidderminster. Frivolous and held by the gaieties of this world, she was far more interested in “glittering herself in costly apparel.”
The Holy Spirit, though, was at work in her life. A series of sermons Baxter preached on the doctrine of conversion was, Baxter wrote, “received on her heart as the seal on the wax.” Her spiritual transformation was swift and genuine. One of the first signs of the radical change in her life was “her fervent, secret prayers” (see Gal. 4:4).
Richard and Margaret were married in 1662, two weeks after Baxter and two thousand other Puritan ministers were excluded from their pulpits by the state for refusing to agree to worship according to the letter of The Book of Common Prayer. Known as a key leader among the Puritans, Richard was dogged by spies until the Toleration Act of 1688. He was the frequent object of slander and, on one occasion, was arrested and imprisoned. He and Margaret went to live in London, where they were forced to move frequently and often lived in what could only be called wretched circumstances. One gets a good idea of the nature of Margaret’s mettle when Baxter tells us that at the time of his imprisonment in 1669, Margaret “cheerfully went with me into prison.”
Though it was illegal for Baxter to preach, Margaret more than once used her wealth to build chapels for her husband’s ministry. On one occasion in 1673, she asked him where in London he most desired to preach. He told her, “St. Martin’s Parish, where are said to be forty thousand more than can come into the Church … where … many live like Americans [native Indians], and have heard no sermon of many years.” So Margaret had a chapel built on a vacant lot in the parish.
Baxter preached on the first Sunday after its completion, but he was absent the following week, since he had to preach at another locale outside of London. A Mr. Seddon agreed to take Baxter’s place. State officials, though, had learned about the venture and were determined to arrest Baxter for illegal preaching. After getting an arrest warrant, they descended on the chapel. Not finding Baxter, they arrested Seddon in his stead and put him in prison for many months. Margaret felt Seddon’s imprisonment keenly and blamed herself. She used her own funds to visit and comfort him in the prison, pay all of his lawyer’s fees, and support his family.
Like every married couple, Richard and Margaret were imperfect. As Richard said: “My dear wife did look for more good in me than she found
… We are all like pictures that must not be looked at too near. They that come near us find more faults and badness in us than others at a distance know.” Yet, they managed to have a wonderful marriage. What was their secret?
First, they followed the advice Richard gave in his Christian Directory, where he urged married couples to delight in one another:
When husband and wife take pleasure in each other, it uniteth them in duty, it helpeth them with ease to do their work, and bear their burdens… . “Rejoice with the wife of thy youth, as the loving hind and pleasant roe, let her breast satisfy thee at all times, and be thou ravished always with her love” (Prov. 5:18–19).
Then, they had a tremendous agreement about what ultimately mattered in life: “Nothing causeth so near and fast and comfortable an union as to be united in one God, one Christ, one Spirit, one Church, one hope of heavenly glory.”