I hesitated to write about Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) because I thought no one would believe me. In this frivolous day, when a preacher tells an obligatory joke at the opening of every sermon, is there anyone left who can understand a man like Samuel Rutherford? His letters were flights into heaven, his pastoral labors daunting, and his personal devotions superhuman. In what kind of soil did such a man grow?
Rutherford lived during Scotland’s long struggle with England in the 1500s and 1600s that produced the Scottish patriots and believers called Covenanters.
When towering oaks like Bunyan, John Owen and Richard Baxter grew, even then Rutherford was legendary. Born at Nisbet in Roxburghshire, Scotland, Samuel’s father was a successful farmer who gave his three sons, Samuel, George and James, academic training.
In 1617, Samuel enrolled at Edinburgh University. By 1621, he had earned his Master of Arts degree and two years later was a professor of Latin at the university.
We gather that he was an adventurous and sometimes reckless young man up to his conversion around the year 1624. Concerning his conversion, he wrote, “He hath fettered me with His love…and left me a chained man” (LSR 222, p. 431). About this time, he went back to school to study theology for two years. We assume it was about this time that Samuel married his first wife, Eupham.
King James’ son, Charles I, ascended the throne in 1625. Both father and son advocated superstitious rituals and control of the Church by the prelacy. This meant reprogramming the Church of Scotland. For instance, the king enjoyed the idea that church members receive communion at the hands of a bishop while kneeling before him. Godly Scots detested such practices.
In 1627, Rutherford took a preaching post at Anwoth, Kirkcudbrightshire. James Urquhart, a preacher in Kinloss, said, “He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick…always writing or studying.” He rose at three to be alone with God. His prayers went up from the hills of Galloway, where he prayed for an awakening in Anwoth.
Urquhart remembered how “he had two quick eyes, and when he walked it was observed that he held aye his face upwards.” His preaching was impassioned. Urquhart said, “Many times I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ. He was never in his right elements but when he was commending Him.”
His two infant children died at Anwoth, and then Eupham contracted a terminal disease. Samuel said she had “exceeding great torment day and night.” After a thirteen-month illness, she died in 1629. Thus Rutherford’s letters of comfort were spoken out of the same comfort wherewith he himself had been comforted. “Know, therefore,” he would write, “that the wounds of your Lord Jesus are the wounds of a lover, and that He will have compassion upon a sad-hearted servant… Give Him heart and chair, house and all…He will have all your love” (LSR 105, p. 217).
Charles I continued his father’s policies of force-feeding the Episcopalian prayer book and the English clergy to the Scots. Archbishop Laud was the hired nanny with spoon in hand. A fawning sycophant of Laud’s, Thomas Sydserff, was appointed bishop of Galloway in 1634. Rutherford knew that under Sydserff his tenure in Anwoth hung by a thread.
Rutherford detested Laud’s policies and especially his doctrines, and published a book in early 1636 to refute Laud’s Arminianism. Sydserff acted quickly, and by July of that year Rutherford stood on trial in Edinburgh. The sentence was banishment to Aberdeen and to be forbidden to preach.
For a man of his energy and temperament, to have his work taken away, was one of the great trials of his life, and he spoke about it often. “That day that my mouth was most unjustly and cruelly closed, the bloom fell off my branches, and my joy did cast the flower…I dare not say that the Lord hath put out my candle, and hath casten water upon my poor coal…but I have tasted bitterness, and eaten gall and wormwood since that day on which my Master laid bonds upon me to speak no more” (LSR 185, p. 362).
It was from his room at No. 44, Upper Kirkgate, that Rutherford’s letters of admonition, comfort, and warning poured out from this dear man’s heart. Many, such as James Guthrie or the men of the Gordon clan, would need that correspondence more than they knew.
The National Covenant in Scotland of 1638 (with the Confession of Faith) was a reply to the King’s agenda. Here certain Scottish believers pledged to keep the Church of Scotland separate from the State. This document, written on a large deerskin, was at the heart of their defense of the biblical idea that the Lord Jesus is Head of the Church, as opposed to earthly sovereigns. The Covenanters spoke about maintaining “the crown rights of the Redeemer.” It does not appear that Rutherford was present at the signing but James Guthrie, one of his correspondents, was. As he laid down his pen he said, “I know that I shall die for what I have done this day, but I cannot die in a better cause.”
Around 1640, Rutherford was appointed as a preacher at St. Andrews. Five months later he married a widow, Jean McMath. She would bear him seven children, but only one daughter, Agnes, survived him.
In 1643, the Solemn League and Covenant was ratified by the English Parliament. That year Rutherford was chosen as a commissioner of the Scottish delegation to the Westminster Assembly, which drew up the Westminster Confession. The next year he published the book Lex Rex, Latin for “Law is King,” or popularly called “The Law and the Prince,” the point being that the law of God is over the earthly king. Francis A. Schaeffer (1912-1984) made much of Rutherford’s Lex Rex in his books How Shall We Then Live, and The Christian Manifesto.
He credits Rutherford with stating “the clearest example of the Reformation principle of a people’s political control of its sovereign,” and says that by way of John Witherspoon directly and John Locke indirectly, Lex Rex had a “great influence on the United States Constitution.” This book taught that when a country recognizes the Bible as the final authority, that country has a government based on moral absolutes rather than arbitrary decisions and the winds of political expedience. The idea of inalienable rights, government by consent, separation of powers, and the right of revolution against tyranny were stated in Lex Rex.
Rutherford was a complex case study. He could be a cool thinker, who wrote doctrinal treatises and engaged in hard debate. Then he would write tearful letters dripping emotion. Those who have spent the most effort studying Rutherford will debate about these two sides of the man. Particularly difficult to reconcile is the way he used his writing ability to insult his opponents.
In 1661, the Covenant was repudiated by Charles II and so it became illegal to subscribe to it. The Duke of Argyle and James Guthrie were imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle for their adherence to it. Rutherford wrote them, “If Christ doth own me, let me be laid in my grave in a bloody winding-sheet; let me go from the scaffold to the spikes in four quarters–grave or no grave, as He pleases, if only He but owns me.”
The Duke of Argyle was beheaded, and on June 1, James Guthrie was hanged at the Cross of Edinburgh and afterward dismembered.
Middleton’s Ejectment Act came into force in 1663 which prohibited nearly 400 preachers from freely proclaiming the truth. It is estimated that 18,000 Scots had to leave their homes. Hardships, persecutions, prison cells and the gallows met many of those who would rather die than contradict their convictions. At least 672 sealed their testimonies with their blood.
That same year Lex Rex was publicly burned and Rutherford was summoned to appear in court. But he died before being arrested. Had he lived, the probable outcome would have been execution.
Rutherford is chiefly remembered for his letters, about 365 being in print. Some of his most memorable lines were woven into the hymn, “Immanuel’s Land” by Anne Ross Cousin.
When John Wesley tried to make inroads of his Methodism into Scotland, he was met with stoic disinterest and complained that the Scottish “know everything and feel nothing.” But reading Rutherford tells you that the Scottish can feel, they just feel differently.
E’en Anwoth was not heaven–
E’en preaching was not Christ,
And in my sea-beat prison
My Lord and I held tryst:
And aye my murkiest storm-cloud
Was by a rainbow spann’d,
Caught from the glory dwelling
In Immanuel’s land.
Material for this article taken from:
Bonar, Andrew [Ed.], Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Banner of Truth
Cook, Faith, Samuel Rutherford and His Friends, Banner of Truth, 1992
Whyte, Alexander, Samuel Rutherford and Some of His Correspondents, 1894