A Persecuting Magistrate Outwitted
The following circumstances, handed down by tradition, characteristic of the times, are related as having taken place when Mr Baxter was residing, for a time in the city of Coventry. Several of the ministers ejected by the Act of Uniformity, who resided in this city, united with Mr Baxter in establishing a lecture in a private house, on a neighbouring common, near the village of Berkswell. The time of worship was, generally, a very early hour. Mr Baxter left Coventry in the evening, intending to preach the lecture in the morning. The night being dark, he lost his way, and after wandering about a considerable time, he came to a gentleman's house, where he asked for direction. The servant who came to the door informed his master that a person of very respectable appearance had lost his way. The gentleman told the servant to invite him in. Mr Baxter readily complied, and met with a very hospitable reception. His conversation was such as to give his host an exalted idea of his good sense and extensive information.
The gentleman wishing to know the quality of his guest, said, after supper, "As most persons have some employment or profession in life, I have no doubt, sir, that you have yours." Mr Baxter replied with a smile, "Yes, sir, I am a man-catcher." "A man-catcher," said the gentleman, "are you? I am very glad to hear you say so, for you are the very person I want. I am a justice of the peace in this district, and am commissioned to secure the person of Dick Baxter, who is expected to preach at a conventicle in this neighbourhood, early to-morrow morning; you shall go with me, and, I doubt not, we shall easily apprehend the rogue."
Mr Baxter very prudently consented to accompany him. Accordingly the gentleman, on the following morning, took Mr Baxter in his carriage to the place where the meeting was to be held. When they arrived at the spot, they saw a considerable number of people hovering about, for, seeing the carriage of the justice, and, suspecting his intentions, they were afraid to enter the house. The justice, observing this, said to Mr Baxter, "I am afraid they have obtained some information of my design. Baxter has probably been apprised of it, and, therefore, will not fulfil his engagement, for you see the people will not go into the house. I think, if we extend our ride a little further, our departure may encourage them to assemble, and on our return we may fulfil our commission." "When they returned they found their efforts useless, for the people still appeared unwilling to assemble. The magistrate, thinking he should be disappointed of the object he had in view, observed to his companion, "that as the people were very much disaffected to the Government, he would be much obliged to him to address them on the subject of loyalty and good behaviour." Mr Baxter replied "that perhaps this would not be deemed sufficient, for as a religious service was the object for which they were met together, they would not be satisfied with advice of that nature; but if the magistrate would begin with prayer, he would then endeavour to say something to them." The gentleman replied, putting his hand to his pocket, "Indeed, sir, I have not got my Prayer-book with me, or I would readily comply with your proposal. However, I am persuaded that a person of your appearance and respectability would be able to pray with them as well as talk to them. I beg, therefore, that you will be so good as to begin with prayer."
This being agreed to, they alighted from the carriage, and entered the house, and the people, hesitating no longer, immediately followed them.
Mr Baxter then commenced the service by prayer, and prayed with that seriousness and fervour for which he was so eminent. The magistrate standing by was soon melted into tears. The good divine then preached in his accustomed lively and zealous manner. When he had concluded, he turned to the justice and said, "I am the very Dick Baxter of whom you are in pursuit. I am entirely at your disposal." The magistrate, however, had felt so much during the service, and saw things in so different a light, that he entirely laid aside all his enmity to the Nonconformists, and ever afterwards became their sincere friend and advocate, and it is believed also a decided Christian.