‘My Souls Anatomiste’: Richard Baxter, Katherine Gell and Letters of the Heart

Alison Searle
Queen Mary, University of London

Searle, Alison. “‘My Souls Anatomiste’: Richard Baxter, Katherine Gell and Letters of the Heart". Early Modern Literary Studies 12.2 (September, 2006) 7.1-26 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/12-2/searbaxt.htm>.

  1. Richard Baxter (1615-91) was a Puritan who actively engaged with many of the complex political and religious developments that transformed British culture in the seventeenth century. He was a chaplain in the Parliamentary army, a celebrated Worcestershire pastor, one of the leading Nonconformists following the Restoration, and a prolific author. He appreciated and promoted the poetry of George Herbert in his books and letters, sharing to a large extent the poet’s conception of a model pastor. Baxter corresponded with a wide variety of individuals, including Katherine Gell – of the Derbyshire gentry – and other women. The broader context of the epistolary genre, with associated notions of accountability and narrative; anatomy, poetry and sensibility, and a biblical definition of the heart, provide an important framework within which these letters can be considered.

  2. Personal letters offered women an opportunity to combine the moral obligation to be social with the need to maintain a sense of self by assessing experience: letters ‘declare the existence of a narratable life, and they demonstrate the accountability of their maker.’[1] The letters of Baxter and his female correspondents demonstrate this desire to assess and narrate the self, through the detailing of spiritual experience and a close analysis of the heart. It has been suggested that early modern English understandings of the ‘heart’ were shaped by a combination of the traditional Galenic model, William Harvey’s scientific discoveries, and the biblical conception of the heart exemplified in the Authorised Version of 1611. This narrative of the heart draws a direct connection between the self-examination and anatomisation of the heart advocated by Puritans such as Thomas Watson and Richard Sibbes and Samuel Richardson’s fictional representation of its complexity in his epistolary novel, Clarissa (1747-8).[2] Praised for his ‘characters of nature’ which result from ‘div[ing] into the recesses of the human heart,’[3] Robert A. Erickson demonstrates that Richardson’s novel can be read as an imaginative depiction of what the Puritans described as ‘heart-workings’; an articulation of the new covenant. Just as Paul described the Corinthians as ‘our epistle written in our hearts,’ so Clarissa is a book of the heart ‘written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart’ (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).[4]

  3. Both Baxter and his correspondents shared an understanding of his pastoral role, mediated through letters, which was consciously shaped by the practice of physicians and anatomists. His letters to Gell develop a precise theology of the emotions and sensibility which can be described as a Calvinist ‘sense of the heart’; this is more consciously elaborated as an aesthetic spiritual response by Jonathan Edwards using Lockean categories.[5] The vocabulary of Christian fellowship evident in Baxter’s correspondence transcends physical absence and theological controversies. This communion, fostered through the exchange of letters, links Puritan epistolary discourse as well as sermons with the ‘language of the heart’ that Erickson traces in Richardson’s fiction. A close reading of Baxter’s pastoral correspondence – which deals with issues such as melancholy, spiritual depression, religious affections, grief over the loss of children and a variety of complex ‘cases’ – contributes to a better understanding of the relationship between natural philosophy and theology and the development of an epistolary genre intent on analysing and representing the heart in all its complexity.[6]

  4. In 1676 Baxter received a letter from Jane Jones, the wife of a conformist minister, which concluded: ‘it is you Sir that have Read mee daly Anatomie Lecturs whence Sir (Pardon the expression) I use to call you my souls Anatomiste.’[7] Baxter himself draws this analogy between physical anatomy and knowledge of divinity in Directions for Weak Distempered Christians (1669), which Jane may well have read. He observes:
    As in Anatomy, its hardest for the wisest Physician to discern the course of every branch of veins and arteries, but yet they may easily discern the place and order of the principal parts, and greater vessels: So it is in Divinity, where no man hath a perfect view of the whole, till he come to the state of perfection with God....[8]
    Baxter applies the analogy specifically to pastoral care for souls in his classic work on the role of the minister, Gildas Salvianus; The Reformed Pastor (1656). He states a ‘Minister’ is ‘to be a known Counsellor for their souls, as the lawyer is for their estates, and the Physitian for their bodies’; if anyone is in difficulty, they should bring their case ‘to him and desire Resolution.’[9] In this Baxter is following the earlier advice given by George Herbert in A Priest to the Temple (1652).[10] Thomas Watson similarly saw a parallel between the ‘idea of the male priest as anatomist’ and ‘God as a master anatomist who cuts up the heart’ in order ‘to find a core of genuine faith or grace in the evil “Fancie” or imagination of the heart.’[11]    

  5. This analogy explicates many aspects of the eleven letters extant from Baxter’s correspondence with Katherine Gell between July 1655 and December 1658. These reveal the spiritual register of Katherine’s life over several years and Baxter’s skill as a casuist or anatomist of the soul.[12] They also demonstrate Baxter’s attachment to the medical thought of his day, which is revealed in his diagnostic use of humoral theory and his depiction of women as more emotional and passionate than men. Through an analysis of the language, rational argumentation and passion of Baxter’s approach we can glimpse something of his character and style as a correspondent. Erickson describes Richardson as kardiognostes (knower of the hearts).[13] This is a term which the Scripture applies to God: ‘Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men’ (Acts 1:24; 15:8). It can aptly be used to describe the practice of both Baxter and Gell; their exchange allows us to trace the permutations of a spiritually variegated and intense epistolary discourse, designed to discern and know the thoughts of the heart. This relates intertextually to the Bible, a number of Baxter’s published works, those of other Puritan divines, the poetry of George Herbert and Katherine’s own private diary.

  6. Katherine Gell was about 31 years of age when she opened correspondence with Baxter. She decided to write on the basis of her acquaintance with Baxter’s devotional classic The Saints Everlasting Rest (1650) which had been published five years before. However, unlike many who had found it an encouragement, it led Katherine to conclude that she was ‘not in a state of grace.’[14] Baxter brings home to his readers their responsibility to help others to the state of rest. Katherine notes that she was: ‘soe clearly convinced of my neglect & unaptnes to it & my uselessnes in my family that way…this hath cost me much sorrow for indeed sir I have indeavored it very much since.’[15] She questions whether anyone is capable of performing the duty as Baxter sets it out, yet if God has commanded it that is no excuse. Katherine sends her letter with one ‘who lives in our family’ and can tell Baxter anything further that he desires to know. She pleads with him to satisfy her concerning the particulars outlined, entreating his secrecy and that he ‘excuse both stile English & all other defects herein by considering its a womans….’[16]

  7. Baxter sent Katherine a book, probably The Right Method for a Settled Peace of Conscience (1653).[17] Her first letter indicated that she was willing to write to him because of the distance established by her ‘being altogether astranger’ and the assurance inspired by ‘the great care’ he has ‘shewed to poore soules.’[18] Baxter’s reply was based on a belief in the veracity of her epistolary self-representation and he is confident of her standing in grace. Katherine fears, however, that her heart may have been deceived; if only she could be confident of her own sincerity, she would ‘soone then consent to the rest of your letter.’[19] This letter was also sent by her ‘Co[usin] Sammen.’ She had been charged to ask Baxter personally about the fear engendered in Katherine by the death of her seventeen-week-old child, but forgot to pass on the message.[20] This was a matter close to Katherine’s heart and she pleads: ‘if you could give me any hopes by your thoughts as far as we may pry it would much rejoyce me.’[21]

  8. In a later letter Baxter congratulates Gell on the fact that she is largely resolved of her doubts and ‘sincerity in the maine.’[22] She now presents him with a new problem to resolve: namely, why she is ‘as much deserted in point of Livelynes’ as she had been previously ‘of comfort.’ Baxter replies with a two-fold response carefully itemised and argued. He firstly gives his opinion of her present case, and then advises a remedy that offers as much as she ‘may desire & hope for’ in the imperfect state of our present existence.[23] Baxter’s pastoral strategy incorporates a precise theology of the emotions, tracing the role of sensibility in the spiritual life; this emphasises its necessity and its potential to deceive.[24] It is consistent with the nuanced approach to sensibility that Baxter develops throughout his writings. For example, he notes the positive role played by sensibility in encouraging an awakened individual to ensure they are soundly converted:
    remember it is a work that Must be done, and therefore hold your Thoughts upon it, till your hearts are stirred, and warmed within you. And if after all, you cannot awake them to Seriousness and Sensibility, put two or three...wakening Questions...to your selves.[25]
    If a person is to be genuinely transformed they must think as well as feel; Baxter attempts to inculcate this sensibility to eternal realities through a series of analogies to care for one’s estate, children and health.

  9. However, sensibility can also characterise the weak Christian who places his assurance of grace in ‘passionate apprehensions’ rather than ‘complacency and fixed resolution.’ Consequently, he ‘thinketh he hath no more grace, than that he hath sensibility of expressive gifts.’[26] Baxter concludes his discussion of the weak Christian with a physiological observation that informs the pastoral counsel he gives to Katherine:
    As he buildeth his comfort upon these unconstant signs, his comforts are accordingly unconstant: sometime he thinketh he hath grace, when his body or other advantages do help the excitation of his lively affections. And when the dulness of his body or other impediments hinder this, he questioneth his grace again, because he understandeth not aright the nature and chiefest acts of grace (163).
    Nevertheless, in spite of this danger, sensibility is necessary in order to distinguish true spiritual experience from that of the hypocrite: ‘As there must be Conviction, so also Sensibility: God works on the Heart, as well as the Head.’[27] While the hypocrite may know many things, their ‘superficial apprehension’ produces ‘but small sensibility.’ For the one truly thirsting after living waters, wishing ‘to travel, to live in, to be heir of that Kingdom’ there must be at work ‘another kinde of Sensibility’ – which Baxter describes as ‘Christs own differencing Mark’ – true spiritual knowledge is denoted by a tactile sensibility deeply rooted in the soul.[28] Baxter suggests that following the resurrection even those who currently consider ‘Heaven and Hell...but trifles’ will apprehend their spiritual condition with a horrifying sensibility: ‘when these dead wretches are revived, what passionate sensibility! what working Affections! what pangs of horror! what depth of sorrow will there then be!’[29]

  10. This concept of sensibility is developed throughout Baxter’s correspondence with Gell. She fears that the absence of a consistently heightened spiritual sensibility indicates that she lacks life and is failing to mature as she ought to in the Christian faith. Baxter reminds her that what she calls life is ‘but the motion of the Affections or passions about holy thinges.’ To be stirred by such passions it is necessary that ‘holy thinges’ be weighty and apprehended as such; near to her personally; or rare and unusual. While we are on earth, grace works according to nature: those that have quick and active dispositions about worldly things before conversion usually have such apprehensions of spiritual things after. It is not because she takes celestial things for trifles, he argues, which hinders her ‘sensibility & Life,’ but rather that as mortals we are ‘clogd with so many difficultyes, that its [i.e. faith’s] app[re]hensions do seldome affect the soule as the app[re]hensions of sense would do.’ For example, even ‘the best’ – a standard of experience that Baxter invokes several times throughout this letter – are unable to sensibly appreciate the nearness of death until they themselves are sick or near death, despite the fact that all people know they will die.[30]

  11. Katherine is disturbed because when she doubted her salvation she was far more sensible. She sees the dullness in her spiritual life now that her doubts are settled as an ‘extraordinary desertion.’ Baxter suggests that she is failing to rightly discern her case. The ‘extraordinary sensibility’ she experienced when doubting her salvation was induced by fear, which stirs up all the other passions so that the ‘soule is in a more sensible frame.’ He notes this is often so with ‘doubtinge christians (as I know by many a yeares exp[er]ience).’ When the tempests settle it is no surprise that her ‘sensible workinge app[re]hensions’ also subside. Baxter has dealt with the ‘Causes & Diagnosticks’ of her ‘disease’; he extends the medical metaphor in an attempt to persuade Katherine of the rationality and truth of his argument by proceeding to the ‘Prognosticks & then to the Cure.’ This involves redefining her sense of ‘desertion’ as ‘the ordinary frame of most of the calmed [Chris]tians in the world.’ The life and sensibility that she ordinarily enjoys is unusual; a claim that Baxter substantiates by reference to his extensive pastoral experience: ‘I speake as I find it by converse with very many.’ The fact that her dullness troubles her is an evidence of grace, not hypocrisy. Baxter directs her to his book, The Right Method For a Settled Peace of Conscience (1653); while ‘lively affections & sensibility be very desirable, yet are they not the evidences by which the truth of Grace may so well be tryed.’[31] He repeatedly emphasises the priority of will and reason over emotions in his pastoral counsel, yet as his exploration of sensibility makes evident, he does not disparage or undervalue the emotions.

  12. In outlining her ‘Cure’ Baxter encourages Katherine to spend time with lively Christians. To ‘Sit not at home as if you had no body to looke after but yo[ur]selfe; but step out now & then to yo[ur] poore tenants, or send for them to you, & deale with them about the matters of their Salvation.’ She must rightly value earthly creatures, subdue corruptions, and have reasonable (rather than over-inflated) ‘expectations of lively affectionatenes in Dutyes.’[32] Baxter is aware of the ways in which a certain strain of preaching and spiritual discipline can encourage people of a particular temperament (he often describes them as passionate, melancholic women) to become entangled in self-perpetuating despair, and his pastoral counsel in both books and letters repeatedly attempts to counter this tendency. In his instructions to the melancholy in A Christian Directory (1673), he specifically observes that meditation is not a duty for the melancholy as it is for other Christians.[33] Baxter’s lengthiest treatment of this issue, focusing sensitively on the complex inter-relationship between the physical and spiritual aspects of melancholy, is found in his sermon: ‘The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, by Faith and Physic.’ He apparently preached this in October 1682 as part of a series in the Morning Exercises at Cripplegate, set up by the minister, Samuel Annesley, to deal specifically with ‘Cases of Conscience, Practically Resolved by Sundry Ministers.’[34] Baxter’s appreciation of the physical and mental inability of certain individuals to endure the Puritan regime of secret duties is unique; he acknowledges that it can literally drive them ‘distracted or very neere it.’[35] 

  13. In explaining to Katherine the role of affections and life in private devotions Baxter offers a powerful analysis of sensibility and its potential to develop into melancholy if unchecked or abused. Sensibility is not of the essence of grace and he urges her not to be ‘more p[er]emptory’ in her expectations than God ‘hath beene in his Promises.’ God may limit the gift of sensibility out of a gracious concern to ensure that the subject maintains a right balance between their emotions and judgment.
    Sometimes he sees that the very heads of some weake p[er]sons, especially women & melancholy people cannot beare such deepe app[re]hensions & sensibility as they desire. While the soule is with the body, it must move in such a pase as the body can beare. Or else it may be as a keene knife too big for the sheath that will cutt that which should keepe it. The braine of weake p[er]sons is like a Lutestringe which will cracke if it be raised too high, & stretcht a whit beyonde its strength. It would make yo[ur] heart ake to thinke of the Instances that I have not far from me in my eye, while I am wrightinge this. How many godly women have I knowne distracted or very neere it (to the great hardeninge of their carnall freinds & neighbo[ur]s & the greife of those ministers whose Preachinge did occasion it)? & all by entertaininge deeper thoughts & more workinge affectinge app[re]hensions of heavenly thinges then their very braine was able to endure.[36]
    This passage includes two images that later recur in Baxter’s biography of his wife: ‘a keene knife too big for the sheath that will cutt that which should keepe it’ and ‘a Lutestringe which will cracke if it be raised too high, & stretcht a whit beyonde its strength.’[37] Baxter says of his wife, ‘her knife was too keen, and cut the sheath,’ in order to convey the way her desire to be truly sincere, and earnest longing to do good were ‘more than her tender mind and head could well bear.’[38]  Similarly, he testifies to her extraordinary intelligence, which was ‘higher and clearer than other peoples; but like the treble strings of a Lute, strained up to the highest, sweet, but in continual danger.’[39] These bear a remarkable affinity to the way in which Lovelace describes Clarissa in Richardson’s epistolary novel: ‘Oh Belford! she is a lion-hearted lady….Yet her charming body is not equally organized. The unequal partners pull two ways; and the divinity within her tears her silken frame. But had the same soul informed a masculine body, never would there have been a truer hero’.[40] The ‘divinity within her tears her silken frame’ – here is the notion of a tremulous female body, quivering with sensibility; the soul torn by passions that require a ‘masculine body’ to be transmuted to true heroism. The Puritan emphasis on self-discipline ensured that sensibility and religious feelings were kept under the control of the will, which sharply distinguishes them from the deliberate surrender to emotion characteristic of the eighteenth-century cult of sensibility. However, Jonathan Edwards’ development of the Puritan ‘sense of the heart’ as an aesthetic response, analogous to the work of the Spirit upon the elect, that could be stirred by nature, the imagination and works of art (possibly including ‘romances’ such as Pamela and Clarissa) suggests the potential for a different and more positive relationship.[41]

  14. Baxter’s discussion of affections and sensibility did not entirely satisfy Katherine’s scrupulous conscience. In a subsequent letter he carefully reiterates the same points. However, his last argument concerns the measure of grace and demonstrates the influence of gender upon the pastoral response embodied in his letters. His premise is that if all believers received the grace they desired, we would be living in heaven, not on earth. He demonstrates this through the use of analogy: ‘You may as well marvaile that God will not heare you, if you pray that you may not be a woman but a man, or not a man but an Angell; as that he should not heare you’ when specifying the degree of ‘grace or glory you shall have.’ Extending this, if she were a minister or magistrate, both public male roles, God would require more of her. How can she expect God to give her more than her work requires? He concludes by expressing a fear that she is growing melancholy. In order to avoid ‘that unhappy distemp[er]’ she must engage in necessary worldly employments; avoid solitude; and focus on speaking to others.[42]

  15. Katherine is now ‘very fully satisfied…as to affections &…convinced that the body is a great helpe or hinderance.’ She responds seriously to Baxter’s warning regarding melancholy, observing: ‘I thinke its not my naturall temper which was from a child serious & akind of even quiet contented frame.’ However, her melancholy is now ‘a great burthen’ and ‘noe helpe in religion or any holy duty’; it is ‘a great cause of my want of sensibillity,’ rendering her unfit for both worldly calling and spiritual duties. She has not found Baxter’s advice to busy herself with her ‘great family’ and ‘many children’ an effective counter for this disease and prefers to be in a ‘roome alone amongst my bookes.’ She continues:
    I find that busines & company take up my thoughts to much from better matters that I cannot suddainly compose them & bring \them/ into order agayne else I find that imployment doth much prevent melan[choly] but then it keepes out other good thoughts too & puts my [heart] much out of frame for secret duties.
    Baxter’s counsel is not completely effective and his advice on meditation in The Saints Everlasting Rest rather hard to follow, she ‘would as willingly be excused from this duty as any’ as she finds ‘noe great benefit by it.’[43]

  16. Katherine is acutely conscious of the advantages posed by the distance and absence that communication by letter offers. While she confesses her shame for so frequently troubling Baxter, her primary reason is that ‘you are astranger to me & I thinke you will deale more faithfully with \me/.’ She is afraid her neighbours are too biased by affection to deal honestly with her concerns. This distance enables her to reveal to Baxter her passionate love for her husband and children and her inability to eat or sleep when ‘any dangerous desease comes into the towne as the small pox.’ Katherine believes this brings dishonour upon God and religion, but despite this ‘I am cleare carried away with passion…I utter noe words but only cry & feare & greeve.’[44] She is attempting to deal with the typical Puritan quandary of rightly prioritising love for the creature in subordination to love for the Creator.

  17. Baxter treats this fear with a realistic appreciation of the power of human affection and its hold over the will: it is not only lawful but imperative that she love her husband and children. The degree of fear and grief comes ‘mainly from yo[ur] bodily temp[er]ature….the most gracious soule can hardly expect to p[re]vaile ag[ains]t such a temp[er]ature of body.’ He illustrates his point through three examples: all the reason in the world cannot persuade a child that is crying to change its disposition; when he himself was younger, even till twenty years of age, he feared the dark and trembled at the prospect of entering a room alone. Finally, his ‘deare freind the Lady Rous, was as far from overmuch passionate sensibility as most woemen that ever I knew.’ However, the fear invoked when her husband fell ill put her into a fever and rendered her totally immune to all reason, with the result that she ‘dyed when he recovered.’ He concludes by urging her to look to the day when the flesh will be disburdened of its troubles in perfection.[45]

  18. On 25 August 1658 Katherine again wrote to Baxter, her melancholy temperament has returned, despite some previous relief. This has resulted from an uncongenial visit to her family in Berkshire and the sense that her prayers are not being heard. Possibly the most interesting aspect of this letter is the insight it gives into the spiritual lives of the gentry during the religious and civil unrest around the death of Oliver Cromwell (3 September 1658). Katherine bemoans the fact that she was reproached by her family and friends for ‘desiring to live more stricktly’ and was told that it was a sin to do more than was required, for that was to be righteous overmuch: ‘recreat[ion] liberty fine apparell & such th[ings] were much pleaded for & visiting vaine gallants & such company we oft had & some papists alsoe.’ There was debate over the use of set forms of prayer; a practice that Katherine found sapped her of spiritual life.[46]

  19. However, it was her decision to speak privately with the local minister Mr Woodbridge that caused the most amazement:
    its a very rediculous th[ing] in those p[ar]ts to speake with a min[iste]r some told me I need never aske a min[iste]r ab[ou]t any th[ing] for the scripture was full to satisfy every one that searched into it, & that privat conferrence with a min[iste]r was much worse t[ha]n gaming or mixed dauncing or bare breasts or spo[t]ting painting & c: & more p[ro]bability of ill to come there by than by any of the other thi[ngs] above mentioned.
    She notes that these people saw no problems with consulting a physician, lawyer or great person alone and adds dryly ‘were it a Bishop I suppose such might be confer’d with & no question made of it.’ But she reflects that ‘most of the gentry of England are now come to be of this straine…& stand up for that which they fought ag[ain]st.’[47] And later adds, ‘I was taught in B[erk]shire to beleeve no body for they say what neede we read any other booke but script[ure] thats full & no bookes that they regard if the margent be not full of script[ure] coatations.’ These remarks suggest a tendency amongst certain members of Katherine’s Puritan family towards the adoption of Cavalier attitudes, a yearning for the Book of Common Prayer, the desire for an easier lifestyle, and a tolerance of Roman Catholicism. Alongside this is juxtaposed an increasing radicalism that denies the need for ministerial authority and direction, in person or through books.[48] This may reflect the frustrations of the Puritan gentry with the instability of the Interregnum, explicating to some extent the ease with which Charles II assumed power in 1660. Or it could simply be an expression of Katherine’s dissatisfaction with her family’s failure to commit themselves as whole-heartedly to the practice of self-examination and devotion which she considered essential to a life of godliness.[49]

  20. They are, however, brief comments in a letter pre-eminently concerned with the distress of Katherine’s soul, questioning God’s goodness, the power of prayer and her own assurance of faith. She begs Baxter not to think that her letter proceeds from melancholy, rather ‘its reall the th[ings] in it are too true & doe much p[er]plex my sp[iri]t & discourage me.’ It is for this reason that she has troubled him, for she speaks to no-one of such matters but her husband and a Derbyshire minister, Robert Porter.[50] She again emphasises that it is Baxter’s distance from her and his experience in difficult cases of spiritual distress that prompt her to seek his counsel through letters: ‘you see n[ot] so much of my o[u]t side & I would feigne helpe you to see the worst of my h[eart] that you might judge impartially & besides I know you are more used to such cases & doubtles must therf[ore] be more expert so that I can rely more upon your word.’ Katherine is deliberately positioning herself against the advice she has received from her noble friends in desiring Baxter’s pastoral counsel.[51]

  21. In the course of this lengthy epistle, she observes with disarming naïveté: ‘I wish your letter might be as long as mine…I could tell you large stories how god has blessed your letters to me every one of them which would n[ot] discourage you from writing to me.’ However, it is not only Baxter’s epistolary advice, but also his gift of George Herbert’s poems that Katherine has found edifying. She thanks him for this, noting that she was ‘much affected in the reading & especially at that place let me not love the[e] if I love thee n[ot].’ This poem put her ‘into a very good praying frame which I seld[o]m am \in/.’ She is quoting the concluding line from ‘Affliction I’ in Herbert’s collection, The Temple, which explores the misunderstanding of the speaker as to the nature of Christian life and experience. Following a series of afflictions, which wean him from all flattering self-constructions, he concludes: ‘Ah, my dear God! though I am clean forgot,/ Let me not love Thee, if I love Thee not.’[52] This complex negative formulation, expressing a desire for nothing less than a sincere and true apprehension and love of the character of God, resonates sympathetically with Gell’s own desires for ‘life & Sensibility’ in her spiritual walk.

  22. In sending Katherine poetry as part of his pastoral strategy to encourage his correspondent, Baxter was demonstrating a valorisation of this genre that he maintained throughout his life. It appealed to ‘useful Passions’ which can awaken ‘sleepy Reason’ and lead to a truer apprehension of God and heaven. Baxter was particularly appreciative of the poetry of George Herbert whom he quotes throughout his letters and published works. Following the death of his wife, Margaret, when he published some of his own poetry in ‘Passion’ and ‘grief for her Removal,’ Baxter notes in his epistle to the reader: ‘I must confess, after all that next to the Scripture Poems, there are none so savoury to me, as Mr George Herbert’s….[He] speaks to God like one that really believeth a God, and whose business in the world is most with God. Heart-work and Heaven-work make up his Books.[53] He was less impressed with the work of the poet’s brother Lord Edward Herbert.[54]

  23. After acknowledging her own appreciation, Katherine enters directly into dialogue with Baxter concerning his public writing, shifting from the role of spiritual inquirer almost to that of religious patron. She pleads with him to avoid controversial writings and to focus on the practical works that have been of such use. She is convinced that the Devil sets pens against him in order to keep him from better work and notes quite sharply: ‘could you but come to so much selfe-deniall as to let them say you ans[wer] n[ot] because you were n[ot] able to do it you might spare your selfe.’ This is possibly a more astute reading of his character than Baxter allows in his reply; for though he consistently advocated unity and charity, he was almost incapable of refusing to engage in a controversy. She continues: ‘I shall thinke it long till your family directory is in hand for I much desire to see that peece.’ In the end it was not actually published until 1673, but it is possible that the section on religious melancholy owes more to Katherine’s demands upon Baxter than she may have realised. She concludes by requesting a complete list of ‘all the bookes & sheetes that you h[ave] printed for I intend to read them all.’[55] The final letter is dated 27 December 1658. Katherine confesses that she is ‘much after the old sort,’ however, she is now ‘willing to beleeve that much’ of her dullness and deadness is caused by ‘a bodily indisposition that cannot yet be removed.’ To this extent she has managed to internalise Baxter’s pastoral counsel concerning the physical basis of melancholy and to gain comfort from it.[56]

  24. Baxter saw himself as ‘a pastor not an artist. As such he was interested not in aesthetics but in the means which would best discharge his commission to communicate the Gospel savingly to men.’[57] Letters provided the opportunity to minister to a broader audience than his Kidderminster parish. Many of Baxter’s correspondents were unknown to him and like Gell were prompted to write by reading his published texts. Baxter’s ‘readiness to take his readers into his confidence and address them in disarmingly direct and frank ways,’ so characteristic of his ‘printed works,’ with their ‘second person pronouns…interjections, exclamations, interrogatives…autobiographical asides, [and] recollection of friends,’ created a printed discourse that cannot be distinguished from the style of the letters. It is this stylistic informality and openness which encouraged many to write to him.[58] I would also argue that it is Baxter’s sensitivity to the subtle nuances that distinguish each individual human situation, which caused him to adopt and utilise the epistolary genre with such alacrity. In his printed works, he is always striving to be comprehensive, to allow for the full complexity of a particular situation;[59] in his letters to individual correspondents, this pastoral impulse is given free expression; he explored the potentialities of the genre with dexterity.[60]

  25. The epistolary genre implicitly involves the ‘challenge of dialogue.’[61] The manner in which Katherine freely advised Baxter about his public roles as a writer and theologian indicates the genuinely reciprocal nature of their exchange. This resulted partly from the way Baxter viewed epistolary communication as an extension of Christian fellowship: ‘the sight’ of ‘faces makes so small an addition’ to this, he wrote, that ‘no Apologie’ was necessary ‘for writing to a stranger.’[62] The Baptist, Barbara Lamb, wrote to Baxter that while she did not know him ‘by face’ that was no impediment to those who belong ‘to the Communion of the Saints’; it was this sense of religious kinship that encouraged her to open a correspondence.[63] Her allusion evoked a remarkable response from Baxter – who describes her as an ‘extraordinary, intelligent Woman'.[64] He extends her reference to the way in which letter-writing furthers ‘the Communion of the Saints’ with an emotive ‘Connaturality of Spirit.’ This reflects a spiritual understanding of communion and sympathy unconstrained by gender. Such epistolary fellowship transcends different denominational allegiances as well as the divide imposed by physical distance or absence.
    So much of Christ and his Spirit appeared to me in both your Writings, that my Soul in the reading of them was drawn out into as strong a Stream of Love, and closing unity of Spirit, as almost ever I felt in my Life. There is a Connaturality of Spirit in the Saints that will work by Sympathy, and by closing uniting Inclinations, through greater Differences and Impediments than the external Act of Baptism: As a Load-stone will exercise its attractive Force through a Stone Wall. I have an inward Sense in my Soul, that told me so feelingly in the reading of your Lines, that your Husband and you, and I are one in our dear Lord, that if all the self-conceited Dividers in the World should contradict it on the account of Baptism, I could not believe them.[65]
    I have quoted this section at length because it reveals Baxter in one of his more mystical moments, reflecting on how the communion of the saints is constituted by a ‘Stream of Love, and closing unity of Spirit’ forged through the writing and reading of letters that enables a ‘Sympathy’ to develop which transcends the boundaries imposed by any external rites, such as the practice of baptism. The ‘inward Sense in my Soul’ that he received ‘so feelingly in the reading of your lines’ enabled a conviction of union that contradicted the many schisms and separations that ‘self-conceited Dividers’ in the chaotic religious climate of the late 1650s could seek to erect between them. It is an emotive and powerful expression: on Baxter’s own testimony as strong a love as ‘almost ever I felt it in my Life.’[66]

  26. Baxter and Gell’s conception of his pastoral role as a physician, anatomist and kardiognostes positions his letters to her within the narrative of the ‘language of the heart’ that Erickson traces from Thomas Watson and Richard Sibbes to Samuel Richardson.[67] Similarly the concepts of sympathy and fellowship embodied in his correspondence with Barbara Lamb presage in a distinctly Puritan form the networks of sociability fostered through epistolary exchange in the eighteenth-century. The genre of the letter granted a measure of authority to women: Katherine Gell felt free to advise Baxter concerning his public writing ministry; Barbara Lamb was able to establish and influence the networks of communication between her husband, his fellow pastor William Allen and Baxter.[68] The physical distance between Baxter and his female correspondents created an epistolary space of intimacy, reciprocity and accountability. Kevin Pask has argued that the 1650s represent a key moment in the transformation of understandings of the ‘public sphere’ and the notion of ‘literature.’ The private letters of Dorothy Osbourne mark a new ‘mode of intimacy’ that are crucial to the emergence of Jürgen Harbermas’ public sphere and the novel.[69] The letters examined here are an insufficient sample to substantiate such large claims. But they do demonstrate the ways in which private correspondence could open a kind of public sphere for women. The opportunity to seek advice from a nationally recognised casuist and pastor; to shape ecclesiastical developments and ministerial networks; to discuss works of theology; and to direct pastors like Baxter as to the nature of their future publications and to whom they should write.



The research for this paper was funded by a Leverhulme Visiting Fellowship 2005-6. This paper has benefited from discussion with participants in the Dr Williams’s Seminar for Dissenting Studies, supported by the Dr Williams’s Library and Queen Mary, University of London. I am grateful to the Trustees of the Dr Williams’s Library for permission to quote from the manuscripts in their possession.

[1] Patricia Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 109.

[2] Robert A. Erickson, The Language of the Heart 1600-1750 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). The connection Erickson draws is between Sibbes, Watson and Richardson as readers of Scripture and the ‘heart’ in all the richness of its denotations as a biblical term. It is this that I suggest forms a useful point of comparison for the approach of Baxter and his correspondents. I am not arguing that Richardson read, or writes in the same ecclesiological tradition as these Puritan authors. James How has examined the ways in which the imagination of epistolary space dependent upon the opportunities opened by the newly established Post Office was fundamental to the envisioning of this epistolary experience and its imaginative representation in Clarissa. James How, Epistolary Spaces: English Letter Writing from the Foundation of the Post Office to Richardson’s Clarissa (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). Susan Whyman has analysed the shifting role of letters in Verney family over this same period, illustrating the way in which they helped to develop the attributes of civility. Susan Whyman, “Paper visits’: the post-Restoration letter as seen through the Verney family archive,’ ed., R. Earle, Epistolary Selves: Letters and Letter-Writers, 1600-1945 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1996), 15-36.

[3] Samuel Johnson’s response cited here was symptomatic of the wider reception of Clarissa. T. C. Duncan Eaves and Ben D. Kimpel, Samuel Richardson: A Biography (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 251-321, 339. Brian R. Downs quotes ‘the “suprizing Intimacy with the human Heart” lauded by Smollett,’ referring to Richardson’s work in Richardson (London: Frank Cass & Co., 1969), 126. See also Erickson, Language of the Heart, 246, n. 3 who suggests that Richardson’s understanding of ‘presence’ and ‘absence’ in the exchange of letters may be indebted to Paul’s representation of epistolary exchange (1 Corinthians 5:3; 2 Corinthians 10:10).

[4] Erickson, Language of the Heart, 191. A similar ‘feminisation’, focusing on women, spirituality and the religion of the heart can be seen in the reception of the letters of the Scottish divine, Samuel Rutherford. John Coffey, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 8.

[5] Terrence Erdt, Jonathan Edwards: Art and the Sense of the Heart (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), especially 1-42; Erdt quotes Baxter as a representative example of the Puritan tradition of the ‘sense of the heart,’ 18-19, 65-7. For a contextualisation of the philosophy of Edwards and its indebtedness to British thought see Norman Fiering, Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and its British Context (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1981).

[6] It is important to recognise that these narratives are not ‘a teleological, linear history’ but rather a set of ‘historically specific cultural connections and disconnections.’ The ‘materiality of the letter...its potentially nomadic trajectory, makes it a form resistant to the construction of grand narratives.’ Amanda Gilroy and W. M. Verhoeven, ‘Introduction,’ Epistolary Histories: Letters, Fiction, Culture (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000), 20. Richard Baxter was aware of developments in the field of natural philosophy, particularly when it touched upon the relationship between the soul and the body; as, for example, in his argument with Henry More. John Henry, ‘Medicine and Pneumatology: Henry More, Richard Baxter, and Francis Glisson’s Treatise on the Energetic Nature of Substance,Medical History 31 (1987), 15-40.

[7] Dr Williams’s Library (DWL), MS 59.III.205. In transcribing the letters I have reproduced the capitalisation and spelling in the original; i and u have been replaced by j and v to conform to modern usage; common abbreviations have been silently expanded; interlinings have been indicated \thus/; all other expansions, or uncertain readings have been enclosed in square brackets.

[8] Richard Baxter, Directions for Weak Distempered Christians (1669), 97.

[9] Richard Baxter, Gildas Salvianus; The Reformed Pastor (1656), 82.

[10] George Herbert, A Priest to the Temple (1652), 94, 96. Baxter’s similarity to George Herbert here is noted by John Brouwer, Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory: Context and Content (Cambridge University PhD thesis, 2005), 45.

[11] Cited by Erickson, Language of the Heart, 41-3. Erickson also suggests that Satan in Paradise Lost can be viewed ‘as a perverse, demonic seventeenth-century anatomist’ who ‘invades [Eve’s] body and manipulates her mind and fancy in hopes of making her do what he wishes her to do,’ 90.

[12] The background and nature of the kind of Puritan piety, self-examination and casuistry depicted in Gell’s exchange with Baxter is explored by Theodore Dwight Bozeman, The Precisionist Strain: Disciplinary Religion and Antinomian Backlash in Puritanism to 1638 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[13] Erickson, Language of the Heart, 187.

[14] DWL, MS 59.V.216.

[15] DWL, MS 59.V.216.

[16] DWL, MS 59.V.216.

[17] Neil Keeble and Geoffrey Nuttall, Calendar of the Correspondence of Richard Baxter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), Vol. 1, 190.

[18] DWL, MS 59.V.216.

[19] DWL, MS 59.V.215.

[20] Keeble and Nuttall, Calendar, Vol. 1, 191.

[21] DWL, MS 59.V.215.

[22] DWL, MS 59.V.217.

[23] DWL, MS 59.V.217.

[24] DWL, MS 59.V.217.

[25] Richard Baxter, Directions and Perswasions to a Sound Conversion (1658), 82.

[26] Richard Baxter, Directions for Weak Distempered Christians (1669), 163.

[27] Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest (1651), 146.

[28] Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest, 147.

[29] Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest, 282.

[30] DWL, MS 59.V.217.

[31] DWL, MS 59.V.217.

[32] DWL, MS 59.V.217.

[33] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory (1673), 315.

[34] Richard Baxter, ‘The Cure of Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow, By Faith and Physic,’ Samuel Annesley, ed., A Continuation of Morning Exercise Questions and Cases of Conscience Practically Resolved by Sundry Ministers in October 1682 (1683), 263-303. N. H. Keeble provides the context of the sermon in ‘Richard Baxter’s Preaching Ministry: its History and Texts,’ Journal of Ecclesiastical History (35.4), 559. For some unexplained reason, William Orme, the nineteenth-century editor of Baxter’s writings argues that it was ‘a sermon intended for the morning exercises, but which was never delivered’ and as such ‘is a curious specimen of Baxter’s preaching; abounding in medical recipes as well as in grace religious advice.’ William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter (London: James Duncan, 1830),Vol. 17, 535.

[35] DWL, MS 59.V.217. Baxter received a letter from Edmund Ely strongly critiquing him for taking this view of the relationship between zeal and madness, which Baxter also expressed in A Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter (1681). Baxter’s Letters, I.119.

[36] DWL, MS 59.V.217.

[37] Keeble and Nuttall, Calender, Vol. 1, p. 215.

[38] Richard Baxter, Breviate of the Life of Mrs Margaret Baxter (1681), 73.

[39] Baxter, Breviate, 90.

[40] Samuel Richardson, Clarissa, or The History of a Young Lady (Penguin, 1985), p. 647. I am indebted to Professor Isabel Rivers for pointing out this reference.

[41] Erdt, Jonathan Edwards, 18-19, 65-7, 78-82.

[42] DWL, MS 59.IV.142.

[43] DWL, MS 59.V.3.

[44] DWL, MS 59.V.3.

[45] DWL, MS 59.V.11.

[46] DWL, MS 59.V.5.

[47] DWL, MS 59.V.5.

[48] DWL, MS 59.V.7.

[49] This is suggested by Baxter’s reply, where he encourages her to pray for members of her family and to develop an active interest in matters beyond the narrow sphere circumscribed by her personal concerns. DWL, MS 59.V.9.

[50] Keeble and Nuttall, Calendar, Vol. 1, 273.

[51] DWL, MS 59.V.7.

[52] George Herbert, The Works of George Herbert in Prose and Verse (New York: John Wurtele Lovell, 1881), 130.

[53] Richard Baxter, Poetical Fragments: Heart-Imployment with God and Itself (London, 1681), ‘The Epistle to the Reader.’

[54] Keeble and Nuttall, Calendar, Vol. 2, p. 127. See also Richard Baxter, ‘To the Right Worshipfull Sir Henry Herbert, Kt. &c.’ More Reasons for the Christian Religion (London, 1672).

[55] DWL, MS 59.V.7.

[56] DWL, MS 59.IV.208.

[57] N. H. Keeble, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1982), 48.

[58] N. H. Keeble, ‘Loving & Free Converse’: Richard Baxter in His Letters (London: Dr Williams’s Trust, 1991), 9-10.

[59] Keeble, Richard Baxter, 77-8.

[60] While the epistolary genre often allowed Baxter to respond in a sensitive and appropriate manner to the individual needs of a particular correspondent, he occasionally evidenced significant failures in tact and imagination when seeking to address their spiritual concerns. Perhaps the most telling example of such a failure is his correspondence with Ann Lindsay, the seventeen-year-old daughter of his friend, the Countess of Balcarres, who converted from the Church of Scotland to Catholicism and fled her home to join a convent in Paris. Richard Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae (1696), Part II, 219-229.

[61] Keeble, ‘Loving & Free Converse, 21.

[62] DWL, MS 59.IV.51.

[63] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, Appendix 3, 51.

[64] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II, 180.

[65] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, Appendix 3, 54.

[66] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, Appendix 3, 54.

[67] Erickson, The Language of the Heart 1600-1750.

[68] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, 180.

[69] Kevin Pask, ‘The Bourgeois Public Sphere and the Concept of Literature,’ Criticism 46.2 (2004), 245, 252-3.


Works Cited


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© 2006-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).