If the very greatest of all Christian books, after the Word of God, were to be placed side by side, the Letters of Samuel Rutherford would stand with Augustine’s Confessions, Calvin’s Institutes, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim. A Scottish Presbyterian divine, saint, and pastor, he was born in 1600 and died in 1661. He was contemporary with the English puritans, Bunyan, Owen, Goodwin, Sibbes, Charnock, and others whose theology he shared and whose gospel he preached. There were spiritual giants in both England and Scotland in those days, the period of that extended aftermath of the Scottish Reformation of 1560. Unlike the tardy English Reformation, so muddled with the marital affairs of Henry VIII, the Scottish Reformation, though later, was radical, at least in its outward form.
There were reactions and repercussions in after years, and when the crowns of the two Kingdoms were united under James VI of Scotland, thenceforward James I of England, in 1603, the king threatened to “harry the puritans out of the land” in the interests of his high church episcopacy. For “puritans” read “convenanters” and you have the Scottish counterpart for the first three or four decades of the seventeenth century. Covenanting, or the formal banding together of ministers and people in solemn commitment to a cause was a feature of Scottish religion from 1556 to 1683, and the cause in view was usually the purity of religion according to the Word of God and its covenants. With an insistence on Christ’s sole headship over His church, the slogan ‘For Christ’s Crown and Covenant’ was borne aloft on many a covenanting banner in those days.
James VI (and I) was followed by Charles I, and the ‘bishop’s wars’ in Scotland. When Charles I was executed in 1649, the Scots, royalist to a man, were horrified and took no pleasure in Cromwell and the Commonwealth, though they benefitted from its tolerance in matters of religion, and suffered as much, if not more than their English counterparts whether Presbyterians or Independents, when Charles II came home from Holland in 1660. Rutherford’s times were turbulent. But then Rutherford himself was the blending of an accomplished controversialist, with a tender-hearted pastor and a winsome preacher. The author of at least two dozen books, he is best known and discerned in his Letters, the best edition of which is that edited by Dr Andrew A. Bonar.
It was some time in the year 1600 that Rutherford was born in the parish of Nisbet, near Jedburgh in Roxburghshire. His father, a farmer, gave his son what schooling was then available in Jedburgh, and then, at the age of seventeen, sent him to Edinburgh University. In those days, while England had but two universities, Scotland boasted five, of which Edinburgh was the youngest and the poorest, though not the least in status and attainment. On graduation Rutherford was appointed regent, or lecturer in the Latin tongue and its literature, at his alma mater. This post he held for two years; for him, troubled years in matters personal and spiritual.
No record of his call by grace, or conversion, has been preserved, but the fact is well evidenced in all he afterwards wrote or spoke. From Latin he turned to theology, with a call to the ministry burning in his heart, and the diligent and exacting study of the Word of God occupying his mind. In 1627, aged twenty-seven, Rutherford became parish minister in the sparsely populated parish of Anwoth in Kirkcudbrightshire, in Galloway. The pre-reformation parochial system had survived, and reformed religion was wholly
presbyterian, though there were still pockets of Roman Catholic recusancy in the North and in some of the Western Isles. There were no Independents or Baptists at this period, but forms of anglican episcopacy were being forced upon the church by means of royalist agents in the General Assembly.
The parish of Anwoth is today very much what it was in Rutherford’s day – hills and glens, sheep and shepherds, and little else. Rutherford’s old kirk, or at least its ruins, is still to be seen, along with many a covenanter’s tombstone with their characteristic inscriptions. Remoteness is the impression the area makes on one’s spirit. Yet for nine whole years Rutherford, as parish minister, worked a sixteen-hour day in the interests of God’s glory and his people’s souls and bodies. They said of him that he was always praying, always studying, always preaching, and always visiting. Bush o’ Bield, the house he occupied, has long since gone, but it must have been witness to many strong cryings and prayers. Galloway as a whole had been a stonghold of the reformed faith from the Reformation onward. Rutherford had the companionship of like-minded brethren in neighbouring parishes. Nobility and shepherds alike worshipped God in public and in private, and all gave Rutherford welcome, and were in due course catechized by him. He was remembered as “a little, fair man”; his elocution was said to lack perfection, and his voice tended at times to an unnatural shrillness. Yet Robert Wodrow, who collected his information with the utmost care, speaks of the minister of Anwoth as “one of the most loving and affectionate preachers of his time, or perhaps in any age of the church.” His sermons were radiant with Christ: Christ incarnate, suffering, dying, risen, glorified, and reigning, and in all His saving relations with His people. The unsearchable love of Christ was his favourite theme, although he could, and did also handle practical subjects and sins, with an unsparing faithfulness.
A man of prayer, Rutherford was accustomed to rise at three O’clock in the morning. He kept up a constant intercourse with God. The first half of his weekday was spent in prayer and study; the second half in visiting, catechizing families, and in personal intercourse with his people, Christians or otherwise. His travelling within his scattered parish had to be on foot, wending his way among the fern and heather-clad hills from one shepherd’s cot to another. He speaks in his letters of how these walks instructed him in God’s handiwork in nature, and how he communed with God by the way. God was pleased to bless his ministry, although in the midst of much personal affliction. After five years at Anwoth, he buried his wife and first child. When other parishes were without a minister, people trudged for miles to worship at Anwoth, and Anwoth’s communion seasons were spoken of for many a day
thereafter. There was an awakening of God’s people in the area;
and, hard on its heels, as so often the case, came the conviction and conversion of sinners. There was resistance to truth from some, and there were all the sadnesses and problems that a true pastor, then and now, has to face. Yet nothing turned Rutherford aside from his God-appointed task, and his fame went abroad as a man of rare power in prayer. It was to this period that the incident concerning the godly and learned archbishop James Ussher, to be found elsewhere in this issue, belonged.
What led to the termination of this powerful and fruitful ministry was, remarkably enough, Rutherford’s love for, and adherence to the doctrines of grace, or the Reformed Faith. He was a Calvinist unashamed. Somehow, in the midst of all his absorbing duties, he had found time to write a learned and controversial work against arminianism. It was written in Latin and published in Amsterdam. In due course it came into the hands of the English bishops and their Scottish admirers who had embraced arminianism; and great was the episcopal hostility towards its author. The bishop of Galloway summoned this holy man before the High Commission court, charging him with nonconformity and with having penned the offending treatise. Deposed from pastoral office and forbidden to preach, Rutherford was banished to Aberdeen to be detained during the king’s pleasure. His first reaction, on hearing the sentence was one of joy that he was “counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s name.” “There is no quarrel”, he said, “more honest or honourable than to suffer for truth. That honour my kind Lord hath now bestowed upon me, even to suffer for my royal and princely king, Jesus. I go to my king’s palace at Aberdeen; tongue, pen, and wit, cannot express my joy.” Effectively, the Anwoth ministry, begun in 1627, closed after nine years in 1636.
For two years – 1636-38 – Rutherford was in Aberdeen, bereft of flock, and often lonely. Here he discovered and developed his gift of .letter-writmg; most of his published ‘Letters’ are from this period, prison-epistles, though in fact his restraint was no more than a form of house arrest. On the long journey north, to a place selected for its known hostility to the Reformed faith, Rutherford was accompanied by a deputation of his Anwoth congregation, who all ‘wept sore at their separation from a pastor so holy, learned, and Â“modest.” This northern city was then renowned for its commitment to arminian principles; its ministers were opposed to Rutherford’s understanding of the gospel; and so also were the divinity professors at the university. As he took his exercise among the unfamiliar surroundings of the city streets, the country pastor from the south overheard people whisper as he passed, ‘There goes the banished minister.’
Soon after his arrival in Aberdeen Rutherford was challenged by a group of ministers known as ‘the Aberdeen doctors’ (all were D. D. ‘s), to a disputation on arminianism, having no doubt that their superior dignity and skill would quickly discredit the ‘little fair man’ from the south. In fact, by the third encounter, Rutherford’s skill as a controversialist gave them all such loss of face that they speedily cancelled all further debate, thereafter giving this champion of free-grace religion a wide berth.
The greatest pain of the Aberdeen years was Rutherford’s inability to preach. He wrestled with the question as to why God had allowed his enemies to seal his lips. Many a lingering thought of his pastorless flock at Anwoth crossed his mind, and many a lamentation for his ‘dumb sabbaths’ crossed his lips. It was a time of withdrawal and reflection, and, as such, it was profitable indeed, as the letters show:
Oh that Christ would come to me and bring summer with Him;
that I might preach His beauty and glory as once I did …. that my branches might be watered with the dew of God, and my joy in His work might grow green again, and bud, and send out a flower.
Again, he complains:
I had but one eye, and they have put it out. My one joy, next to the flower of my joys, CHRIST, was to preach my sweetest, sweetest Master and the glory of His kingdom; and it seemed no cruelty to them to put out the poor man’s one eye.
So the ‘banished minister’ speaks his deepest longing:
Oh, if I might but speak to three or four herd boys of my worthy Master, I would be satisfied to be the meanest and most obscure of all the pastors in this land, and to live in any place, in any of Christ’s basest outhouses.
Though there was no public ministry in Aberdeen, there were private conversations here and there:
There are some blossomings of Christ’s kingdom in this town, and the smoke is rising, and the ministers are raging; but I like a rumbling and roaring devil best.
Those who kept company with the ‘banished minister’ were threatened, and there were suggestions of sending him still further north, to Caithness, or to the Orkneys. In his loneliness, Rutherford wrote a commentary on Hosea, and another on Isaiah, though neither survived to be published.
During Rutherford’s Aberdeen years, a strong movement for a return to the faith of Knox and the Reformation was taking place in Edinburgh. After a period of sad decline there came what was afterwards referred to as ‘the second Reformation’. Under the influence of William Laud, one of the most powerful men in the
whole kingdom at the time, an attempt was made to force an alien liturgy (the Scottish Prayer Book of 1637) on the Scottish Church. The Dean of Edinburgh was reading it one sabbath in the year of its appearance at St Giles’s in Edinburgh, so infuriating a God-fearing servant woman, traditionally known as Jenny Geddes, that she picked up her stool and flung it at the dean with the cry, “Wha dar ye sa mass a ma lug” (How dare you say mass in my ear!). What the poor woman felt, was, in principle, what was felt by vast numbers of servants and masters, ministers and peoples, ploughmen and nobles, in many parts of the land. It was the movement out of which came the National Covenant of 1638, in which there was a banding together to defend the Reformed religion and to resist every Romanising tendency. It was signed, in many copies, in many parts of Scotland, sometimes in blood, but nowhere more notably than in the old Greyfriars kirkyard in Edinburgh. There, noblemen like Johnston of Warriston, a future martyr, and godly ministers like Alexander Henderson and the two Guthries, and Samuel Rutherford, came forward publicly to commit themselves ‘for Christ’s Crown and Covenant’, and against ‘popery and prelacy’.
Aberdeen was the only place of note in all Scotland that refused the National Covenant. Rutherford made his escape, via Edinburgh, and returned to Anwoth, to the delight of his beloved people who had declined all other ministerial nominees in his absence. He returned also to the good will of the reconstituted General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and to an immediate desire on its part to make greater and wider use of his grace and gifts. In this ‘second Reformation’ Rutherford took a leading part;
and it was perhaps inevitable that he should be preferred to a post of more far-reaching influence. This came towards the end of the year 1638 when he was appointed professor of theology in the university of St Andrews. Anwoth received the news with dismay, and Rutherford himself wished to stay with those to whom he considered himself wedded in the gospel. In the end, however, it was recognized that his contribution to the whole cause of Christ in Scotland would be multiplied many times over by his going to St Andrews. So he went, his character and his teaching attracting a new generation of ministers who, in their turn, would continue his work when he was gone the way of all flesh.
Characteristically, Rutherford went to St Andrews with the stipulation that he should be free to preach every sabbath day. He became joint-pastor with Robert Blair in the parish church, where town and gown flocked to feed on the Word of life from his lips. It was at this period that an English merchant, travelling in Scotland, made an oft-quoted entry in his journal about churches and ministers there:
First I went to Irvine, where I heard a grave and solemn man (David Dickson) who showed me all the darkness of my own heart. Then I went to St Andrews, where I heard a sweet, majestic-looking man (Robert Blair), and he showed me the majesty of God. After him, I heard a little, fair man (Rutherford) and he showed me the loveliness of Christ.
Rutherford’s subjects at St Andrews were theology, the Hebrew language, and church history. Before his arrival, the divinity school in the University had been, “the very nursery of all superstition in worship, of error in doctrine, and the sink of all profanity in conversation among the students.” When he had been there a year or two one of his students testified, “God did so singularly second his indefatigable pains, both in teaching and in preaching, that the university forthwith became a Lebanon, out of which were taken cedars for the building of the house of the Lord throughout the whole land.” History shows that those who teach prospective ministers of the Word have an immense influence, for good or for ill, upon the whole church, and for generations to come. Rutherford’s influence was an incalculable blessing to God’s cause in Scotland, for he taught many of the men who became such constant defenders of the faith in the ‘killing times’. Far from his beloved Anwoth, and equally from the hostile Aberdeen, Rutherford’s walks now took him by places in St Andrews which had witnessed the martyrdoms of an earlier generation of faithful witnesses such as George Wishart and Patrick Hamilton; by the castle with its memories of Knox, and the ruined cathedral with its associations with the Culdees and their simplicity of worship long before.
Five months after his settlement in St Andrews Rutherford married again, following ten years as a widower. His second wife outlived him, and what may be gleaned of her from his letters suggests a woman of spiritual calibre, altogether suited to such a husband. In this happy state they went along together four or five years. But another change in life’s ‘varied scene’ was impending. In London the Long Parliament which had resisted the king’s ecclesiastical policy, set up a grand committee to reform the church, so that it would be “more agreeable to God’s word, and bring the Church of England into a nearer conformity with the Church of Scotland and other Reformed churches abroad.” In this way the celebrated Westminster Assembly came into being, a gathering of some one hundred and twenty English divines meeting with some regularity at Westminster Abbey over a period of four years (1643-47). The Scottish church was asked to send commissioners. Desiring to send the best she had, four ministers and two elders were despatched by sea from Leith to London, among them Samuel
Rutherford, and the younger, though not less able, George Gillespie. “When we were brought in,” says one of them, “to the Jerusalem chamber,” Dr Twisse had a long harangue for our welcome, after so long and hazardous a voyage by sea and land, in so unseasonable a time of the year.” Thus the erstwhile minister of “fair Anwoth by the Solway”; the ‘banished minister’ from Aberdeen; and the professor from St Andrews, took his seat alongside English puritans, Owen and Goodwin, John White the ‘patriarch of Dorchester’, Stephen Marshall, Edmund Calamy, loseph Caryl, Thomas Manton and others.
“So far as I am able to judge,” wrote Richard Baxter, “the Christian world, since the days of the apostles, had never a synod of more excellent divines.” “Whether,” says another, “we look at the extent or the ability of its labours, it stands first among protestant councils.” So Rutherford became a reluctant Londoner. What he did there is all part of the history of the Westminster Assembly, producing, as it did, the Confession, Catechisms, Directories of Church Government, and of both Private and Public worship, all destined to have an immense effect on the promotion of godly religion in England, Scotland, and Ireland for years to come. It proved impossible to keep him from the pulpit, and his two books, The Trial and Triumph of Faith and Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself preserve for our benefit some of his London sermons.
It is little surprise to find Rutherford becoming impatient at the length of time taken by the Westminster proceedings. More than once he implored the General Assembly of his own church for permission to return to his students and flock at St Andrews. “We were so weary,” he said, “with our exceeding long absence …. that we humbly entreat from you a permission to return so soon as you think fit”. His appeals fell on deaf ears, not least because his fellow-commissioners had also reported back that, “for the great parts God had given him, Mr Samuel’s presence was very necessary.” Personal sorrow was a factor in his home-sickness: “I had two children” he says, “and both are dead since I came hither. The supreme and absolute Father of all things giveth not an account of any of His matters . . . . ” When at last he returned to St Andrews the testimonial of the Westminster Assembly to the Scottish Assembly was warm in appreciation of his work: “Mr Samuel Rutherford, signifying that he is presently to return to his particular station and employment among you, we cannot but restore him with an ample testimony of his learning, godliness, faithfulness, and diligence; and we humbly pray the Father of spirits to increase the number of such burning and shining lights among you, and to return all the labour of love which you have shown to this afflicted church and kingdom a
thousandfold into your bosoms.” On two occasions he had preached before parliament in London, and he carried home with him a piece of silver plate as a memento of his service in that respect.
The last twelve or thirteen years of Rutherford’s life were spent at St Andrews, where he happily pursued his duties with an increasing recognition of him as the pre-eminent teacher in the Scottish church. Edinburgh university sought his services, and he declined. The noted reformed universities of the Netherlands sought to entice him thither, but without success. The opportunity to return to parochial service came when the parish of Lanark petitioned for him as their minister, but he “could not get his release from the college of St Andrews.” There he remained in college and kirk pouring forth his eloquent testimony to the loveliness of Christ, participating in the controversies of the times, and sending to press volume after volume of sanctified scholarship.
With the restoration of Charles II in 1660 Scotland’s ecclesiastical sufferings were akin to those in England. The covenants were revoked; presbytery was abolished in all but name; arbitrary power of state over church led to the ejectment of godly ministers. Then the moors and glens became the scene of conventicles at which those who refused to worship after forms which they believed to be without scripture warrant, gathered against all threat and attack of arms. Persecution followed, and hundreds “of whom the world was not worthy” had land and property confiscated, were driven into exile, or tortured by the iron boot or the thumb screw, or hanged on the scaffold. It was the dawn of the “killing times”. What, then, could be the royal reaction to that leader among the Covenanters, Samuel Rutherford? One of his books, particularly distasteful to prelacy, was burned by the common hangman in Edinburgh. A week later the same title received the same treatment under its author’s nose in St Andrews. Mere possession of a copy of his Lex Rex entailed the status of enemy to the king. One writer has said, “It was no doubt easier to burn the book than to answer it.”
Finally, Rutherford was deprived of all his offices in the university; his pastoral charge was taken away; his income was stopped; and he was placed under house arrest, and all at a time when his health, never robust, was visibly declining. When the climax came with the arrival of royal messengers from Edinburgh with a summons for him to appear in person on a charge of high treason, they were obliged to deliver it in his bedchamber with its recipient on what proved to be his death bed. When he had read the summons he told the messengers: “Tell them that I have got a summons already, from a superior judge and judicatory, and I behove to answer my first summons. Ere your day arrives I will be where few kings and great folks come.”
Returning to Edinburgh, the messengers reported that Rutherford was dying. In spite, the council voted that he should not be allowed to die within the college. From this venom, one brave dissentient spoke up: “Ye have voted that honest man out of his college, but you cannot vote him out of heaven.”
All this took place in the closing months of 1660. Rutherford lingered for a few months, put his affairs in order, and wrote, from the borders of ‘Immanuel’s Land’, A Testimony to the Reformation in Great Britain and Ireland. Then he gave himself to meditation on “the king’s great city up above those visible heavens”. It was a season of spiritual triumph. The powers of evil were held back and not allowed to come near him. His dying sayings were written down by those who heard them, and treasured for many a day. “I shall shine,” he said; “I shall see Him as He is. I shall see Him reign, and all His fair company with Him.” When some spoke admiringly of his ministry, he said: “I disclaim all that God ever made me will or do, and I look upon it as imperfect and defiled as coming from me. But Christ is to me wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.” To other admirers he said, “I disclaim all. The port (gate) I would be in at, is redemption, and salvation through His blood.” To brethren in the ministry he said, “My Lord and Master is a chief of ten thousand of thousands; none is comparable to Him in heaven or in earth. Brethren, do all for Him. Pray for Christ, preach for Christ. Do all for Christ. Beware of men-pleasing.” As though he had already caught a glimpse of the delectable mountains, he repeatedly cried, “O for a well-tuned harp.” Last of all he whispered, “Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.”
The “little fair man” went home on 29 March 1661, and all the gody in the land mourned for him as Israel mourned for her greatest and best judge. What was mortal of him was laid to rest in the burial ground of the ruined cathedral of St Andrews. Next to him lies Thomas Halyburton of Ceres, a divine of equal calibre, whose dying wish was, “Bury me beside Rutherford.”
I have borne scorn and hatred,
I have borne shame and wrong,
Earth’s proud ones have reproached me
For Christ’s thrice blessed name;
Where God His seal set fairest
They’ve stamped their foulest brand;
But judgement shines like noonday
In Immanuel’s land.
They’ve summoned me before them,
But there I may not come;
My Lord says, “Come up hither,”
My Lord says “Welcome home!”
My kingly king, at His white throne
My presence doth command,
Where glory, glory dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land.
K. W. H. Howard