Protesters and Resolutioners schism. Another notable event which affected Rutherford in 1651 (the year when he became rector of St Andrews University) was the schism between the ecclesiastical parties known as the Resolutioners and the Protesters. It was a controversy, says Gilmour, “that estranged his dearest friends, broke his heart, and almost shattered the Kirk of Scotland to pieces”.
The background to that unhappy division was that Scotland, appalled by the execution of Charles I, crowned Charles II as king in 1651 – after he had subscribed the Covenants and promised to establish Presbyterianism in the nation. The Scottish army had been purged already, by the Act of Classes, of those who were known as malignants (that is, enemies to the Covenants and Reformed religion). But because of the defeat by Cromwell at Dunbar in the previous year, the Act of Classes was repealed and the Royalist malignants were again allowed a place in the army and the government. The General Assembly of the Church framed certain “Public Resolutions” for the admission of Royalists to places of trust and power, declaring that “in this case of so real and ardent necessity, we cannot be against the raising of all fencible persons in the land, and permitting them to fight against this enemy for defence of the kingdom . . .”. In the event, the measure was to no avail, for the army was defeated again by Cromwell at Worcester later that year, and Charles fled to the continent.
After the Church had passed the Resolutions, 22 ministers, with Rutherford at their head, tabled a Protest in the Assembly in which they remonstrated against the validity of that Assembly and protested against the Resolutions as contrary to the Word of God and the Covenant. When the Assembly was reconstituted in Dundee, it deposed three of the Protesters, or Remonstrants: James Guthrie, Patrick Gillespie and James Simson. They suspended another, James Nasmith of Hamilton, and called on presbyteries and synods to censure all signatories to the Protest. Although the Protesters were very much in the minority in the courts of the Church, their cause, as Gilmour rightly observes, “was the cause of the common people”.
The contention between the two parties was sharp and bitter. Rutherford himself, as the leading Protester, wrote and spoke with great warmth on this burning issue. However, he sadly deplored the schism. “One day when he was preaching in Edinburgh,” says Woodrow, “after dwelling for some time on the differences of the day, he broke out with: ‘Woe is unto us for these sad divisions that make us lose the fair scent of the Rose of Sharon’, and then he went on commending Christ, going over all his precious styles and titles about a quarter of an hour; upon which the laird of Glanderston said, ‘Ay, now you are right; hold you there’.”
There is no doubt, as J A Wylie writes in an introduction to The Scots Worthies, that “this division in the ranks of the Covenanters paved the way for the triumph of Charles and the downfall of the Presbyterian establishment”. Too late, some of the Resolutioners perceived their credulity, and the correctness of the Protesters’ predictions. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the overturning of the Second Reformation by the 1661 Act Recissory, one Resolutioner, James Wood, confessed: “Alas, alas, I see now the Remonstrants [the Protesters] were in the right; the Resolutions have ruined us!”
Rutherford’s last days and death. Samuel Rutherford was taken away almost a decade before he reached the allotted span of three score years and ten. His health evidently began to fail in his mid-fifties. No doubt there were times when he desired to be with Christ, which is far better, but his immediate concern was for the Church of Christ in Scotland in her riven and hard-pressed state. “It’s much selfishness,” he wrote to Lady Ralston, “to make post haste to be in the land of rest when a storm of persecution is rising for Christ.” And in 1659, as he approached 60, he wrote to Lady Kenmure, “I was lately knocking at death’s gate, yet could I not get in, but was sent back for a time. It is well if I could yet do any service to Him.” Eighteen months later he was gone to that land of rest.
“He died in 1661,” writes M’Crie in his Story of the Scottish Church, “shortly after his book Lex Rex was burned by the hangman at Edinburgh, and at the gates of the new college of St Andrews . . . . He departed just in time to avoid an ignominious death; for though everybody knew he was dying, the council had with impotent malice summoned him to appear before them at Edinburgh on a charge of high treason. When the citation came, he said, ‘Tell them I have got a summons already before a superior judge and judicatory, and I behove to answer my first summons; and ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come’.
“When they returned and reported that he was dying, the Parliament, with a few dissenting voices, voted that he should not be allowed to die in the college. Upon this Lord Burleigh said, ‘Ye have voted that honest man out of his college, but ye cannot vote him out of heaven’.”
Samuel Rutherford did not die as the martyrs died. Yet, as Howie says, “Surely he was a martyr both in his own design and resolution, and in the design and determination of men”. “My tabernacle is weak,” he said on his deathbed, “and I would think it a more glorious way of going hence, to lay down my life for the cause at the cross of Edinburgh or St Andrews – but I submit to my Master’s will.”
With ardent longing did the dying contender for the faith yearn for heaven, vehemently desiring to see the King in His beauty. “O, when shall the night be gone,” he cried, “the shadows flee away, and the morning of that long, long day, without cloud or night, dawn?” He frequently repeated: “O for arms to embrace Him, O for a well-tuned harp!”
“During the time of his last sickness,” says Howie, “he uttered many savoury speeches, and often broke out in a kind of sacred rapture, exalting and commending the Lord Jesus, especially when his end drew near.” When Robert Blair asked him what he now thought of Christ, he replied, “I shall live and adore Him. Glory, glory to my . . . Redeemer for ever!” When a remark was made about his work for God, he said: “I disclaim all; the port I would be in at is redemption and forgiveness of sin through His blood”.
As he longed for his Lord to receive him to Himself, he was heard saying, “I shall shine; I shall see Him as He is. I shall see Him reign, and all the fair company with Him, and I shall have my large share. Mine eyes shall see my Redeemer, and no other for me.” Then he added, “This seems to be a wide [excessive] word; but it’s no fancy nor delusion; it’s true, it’s true!”
On the evening before he died, he said, “This night will close the door, and fasten my anchor; and I shall go away in a sleep by five in the morning”. “And thus it happened,” says Alexander Smellie, “for at that hour on the morning of March 29, God hid Samuel Rutherford with Himself from the wrangling and cruelty of wicked men.” The last words which he was heard to breathe were: “Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s Land!” One biographer says, “It was as though a glimpse of the distant mountains and the kingly glory were flashed before his eyes”. “And thus,” says Howie, “the renowned eagle took its flight into the mountains of spices.”
His latter end was peace in great measure. That wonderful deathbed scene is beautifully captured by Mrs A R Cousins:
“They 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.”
Samuel Rutherford’s mortal remains were laid to rest in the grounds of St Andrews Cathedral, there to await the morning of the resurrection. As John Macleod notes in his Scottish Theology: “At the foot of the ruined wall of the Cathedral of St Andrews there are two graves side by side, where lie buried two of the brightest ornaments of Scottish Evangelical Christianity, Samuel Rutherford and Thomas Halyburton”. Truly, Samuel Rutherford was “a burning and a shining light” in the Church of Christ, and through his instrumentality many who were in darkness were brought to be children of light. He departed to enjoy the reward of such good and faithful servants, for it is written, “They that turn many to righteousness [shall shine] as the stars for ever and ever” (Dan 12:3).
A final look back. In conclusion, how shall we sum up Samuel Rutherford’s character and the contribution he made to the spiritual and temporal welfare of Scotland? We cannot but echo words on his tombstone in St Andrews:
“What tongue, what pen, or skill of men
Can famous Rutherford commend!”
Numerous assessments have been made of him, some hyper-critical and denunciatory, displaying an obvious lack of spiritual understanding. A few have gone to the opposite extreme and have been quite uncritical and adulatory. Any balanced assessment – and there are many of these – must conclude that, mentally and spiritually, he was a colossus and that Scotland in her long history has rarely seen his like.
We shall glance for a moment at his appearance. Samuel Rutherford was small of stature and very fair and had, as Woodrow says, “two quick eyes”. His movements were brisk and energetic and, whether he was walking or preaching, it was observed that “he held ay his face upward and heavenward”. The only surviving portrait of Rutherford shows, as Coffey expresses it, “his face plump, his features prominent and his gaze intense but enigmatic”. In the pulpit he was very energetic and his hands were never still for a moment. He preached with a shrill voice – “a kind of screigh”, said Woodrow, but he was “one of the most moving and affectionate preachers in his time or perhaps in any age of the Church”. Woodrow also recorded that one hearer “many times thought Mr Rutherford would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Christ, the Rose of Sharon”.
Samuel Rutherford possessed a giant intellect, had tremendous force of character and was blessed with vast stores of mental and physical energy. Above everything he was a man who lived very near to God, who gave his all so that his Divine King would have the pre-eminence in all things, and that the Church of Christ, especially in Scotland, would flourish as the garden of the Lord. In his work as pastor, preacher, professor of divinity, principal of the university and protagonist for the faith, he was the very epitome of diligence, faithfulness, and persistence.
Some have wondered how two such diverse books, Lex Rex and his Letters, could come from one person. Marcus Loane says, “That the same man should have been the author of both volumes is the final proof that he was a man of no common mental stature, with rare powers of original thought and accomplishment. He was in fact so far from an unrelated dualism that we are more likely to be correct if we conclude that he was ‘a very much greater man than even his most sympathetic critics are prepared to allow’.” Gilmour notes that Taylor Innes, in an essay on Rutherford, makes the interesting observation that “the contrast between Rutherford in his letters and Rutherford in his other books was not nearly so visible to the men of his own time – it was bridged over by the Rutherford of his sermons”.
Like every great and godly man in the history of the Church, Samuel Rutherford was not without his frailties. Being of a most ardent disposition, he spoke and acted on occasions with excessive warmth. “He was usually mild and gentle,” says Alexander Morton in his Galloway and the Covenanters, “but when roused, his zeal oft outran his discretion.” On one occasion, when interviews had been conducted for the appointment of a regent in the College, the choice was reduced to two men of equal ability – an unnamed acquaintance of Rutherford and a Mr Jameson. It was decided therefore to make the final choice by casting lots. Principal Howie engaged in prayer, the lot was cast, and the appointment fell to Mr Jameson. “Mr Rutherford,” we are told, “was extremely stormy at this, and says, ‘Sirs, the prayer was not right gone about, and therefore the determination is not to be sisted upon’. And without any more [ado] he rises up and prays himself, and the lot was casten over again, and it fell on Mr Jameson again. This perfectly confounded Mr Rutherford, and no doubt let him see his rashness and error, and immediately he turned to Mr Jameson and said, ‘Sir, put on your gown; you have a better right to it than I have to mine’.”
While Rutherford had his detractors, he was not only a man greatly beloved by God but also by the godly in Scotland. Among his contemporaries, he had a quite extraordinary reputation. Woodrow says that those who knew him did not know whether to admire him most for his profound scholarship, his skill in debate, or his wonderful preaching. Thomas M’Crie notes: “Rutherford was the most popular preacher of his day, but it is not so generally known that he was as much distinguished for his learning and metaphysical attainments as for his eloquence and devotion”. James Urquhart, the old minister of Kinloss, said, “I never knew one in Scotland like him to whom so many great gifts were given. He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always teaching in the schools, always writing treatises, always reading and studying.”
Many link his name first and foremost with his letters. Others, however, remember him especially as a Mr Valiant for the Truth who contended especially for the crown rights of the Redeemer, and thus for the precious liberties, religious and civil, which we yet enjoy. As Gilmour says, “Rutherford is more than a name or a memory, however fragrant. He was a maker of history too, a man of strenuous action, one of those great churchmen who have done so much to shape the destinies of Scotland.” In that work he was faithful unto death and at last was given the crown of life by His kingly King. These further lines on his gravestone aptly sum up his life and labours:
“For Zion’s King, and Zion’s cause,
And Scotland’s covenanted laws,
Most constantly he did contend,
Until his time was at an end”.
1. Thedealt with Rutherford’s professorship at St Andrews University, his work as one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly (1643-7), his principal writings, and his appointment as Rector of St Andrews. This is the last article in the series, which was originally a paper presented to the 2001 Theological Conference.
This article is part 5 of a series
Other articles in this series: [part 1] [part2] [part 3] [part 4]