The memory of Samuel Rutherford will be ever fragrant in the minds of all who savour the spirituality of his letters. The fame of his name will also live on among those who appreciate our Presbyterian heritage, and prize our religious and civil liberties. Samuel Rutherford, renowned as “the saint of the Covenant”, was one of the greatest men that Scotland ever saw, whether considered as a preacher, theologian, devotional writer or political theorist.
A measure of the greatness of the man is that at least 16 of his works were published (most of them being large, scholarly tomes); his Letters, or at least selections from them, have been issued in at least 100 editions (80 of them in English, 19 in Dutch, four in German, one in French and one in Gaelic). No fewer than 37 biographies or biographical sketches of him have been published, those of Robert Gilmour, Andrew Thompson (2) and Marcus Loane being among the best, and Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions – The Mind of Samuel Rutherford by John Coffey the most recent. In addition, Rutherford is the subject of several post-graduate theses and dissertations.
To many of his contemporaries, Rutherford was an altogether extraordinary person. James Urquhart, the aged minister of Kinloss in Morayshire, who lived on till after the Revolution, said as he looked back over his long life: “I have known many great and good ministers in this Church, but for such a piece of clay as Mr Rutherford was, I never knew one in Scotland like him to whom so many great gifts were given”.
By the grace of God, Samuel Rutherford spent and was spent in using those gifts to the glory of God and for the good of His Church, especially in Scotland. And his labours were blessed to the spiritual benefit of numerous souls in his beloved Anwoth and far beyond.
The times into which he was born. To help us in considering the tremendous impact Samuel Rutherford made on the religious and political life of Scotland, we must take a brief overview of the revolutionary times into which he was born in the year 1600. Forty years earlier the Scottish Parliament, under the guidance of John Knox, espoused the Reformed Faith as the national religion. When Mary Queen of Scots began to exercise her power as Scotland’s monarch in the following year, 1561, she tried to revive the interests of Romanism, but her immoral conduct alienated the nation from her and led to her abdication six years later. Her infant son was proclaimed James VI of Scotland, but during his childhood the country was governed by regents. After James himself assumed the reins of government in 1578, the Court and Church engaged in a long and hard struggle over the right of the Church to govern her affairs independently of the civil powers. The king’s aim was to eradicate Presbyterian church government and to control the Reformed Church and her General Assemblies by means of bishops.
One major response to the king’s absolutist ambitions was the signing of the National Covenant in 1580, by which the Protestant leaders solemnly pledged themselves to support the Reformed doctrine and discipline. Four years later, the Court party being predominant, Parliament took away the independence of the Church by the Black Acts, which decreed that no church assembly was to be held without the King’s consent and that all ministers were to acknowledge the bishops as their ecclesiastical superiors.
The tables were turned in 1592 when the Black Acts were repealed and Presbyterianism was re-established. Even the king himself, under the pressure of public opinion, now professed to be a true Presbyterian. When the National Covenant was renewed in 1596, a revival of religion ensued but this proved to be but the sunshine before the storm. James VI, who became also James I of England in 1603, used his increased power to give bishops a place of authority in the Church by the crafty strategy of requiring each Presbytery to have a perpetual Moderator. The existing Bishops were made Moderators of such Presbyteries as usually met at Episcopal seats. This introduction of “Perpetual Moderators” was one of the final steps in the King’s plan to foist complete diocesan Episcopacy on the Church of Scotland. He also manipulated the General Assemblies of the Church, exiled the leading Presbyterians, and sought to make Scottish worship conform to the pattern of the Anglican Church by the notorious Articles of Perth of 1618 – in which year, of course, Samuel Rutherford was an 18-year-old student at Edinburgh University.
The days of his youth – 1600-1617. Rutherford was born in the parish of Nisbet, not far from the English border in the south east of Scotland. His father was evidently a gentleman farmer, and the family, says John Coffey, “was neither particularly poor nor especially distinguished”. Rutherford was first educated in the grammar school in Jedburgh, where, as Andrew Thomson notes, the master “soon discovered in the farmer’s son the signs of remarkable natural abilities, and year after year confirmed him in his belief that he was dealing with a mind of no common order”. Under the master’s tuition Samuel Rutherford progressed to proficiency in Latin in preparation for university.
Nisbet was spiritually stagnant – a place where, as Rutherford said later, “Christ was scarce named, as touching any reality or power of godliness”. However, young Rutherford sat under the ministry of the parish minister, David Calderwood, who was one of Scotland’s most ardent Presbyterian polemicists in those early years of the century. When Calderwood was summoned before the King at St Andrews in 1617, he boldly defended Presbyterianism, which so enraged the King that he cried, “Away with him, away with him,” following which Calderwood was deprived of his charge.
So Rutherford had the rare experience, as John Coffey says, “of hearing a true exponent of Andrew Melville’s theory that the two kingdoms, Scotland and England, had the duty of asserting the independence of the Church from the crown, and the need of eschewing all popish ceremonies”. Undoubtedly it was teaching which profoundly affected Rutherford and permanently shaped his thinking on the burning issues of that era.
His Edinburgh years. In 1617 Rutherford left his native Nisbet for Edinburgh, where he enrolled in the University – still a young and struggling college – having passed the long and very taxing Latin entrance examination. During his years in Edinburgh – first as an arts student, then a university teacher and later a divinity student – Samuel Rutherford was possibly acquainted with certain Presbyterian merchants in the city who led a group which was seeking actively to resist Episcopacy. “This radical party,” says John Coffey, “was a remarkably close and coherent group, motivated by a clear and fervent vision of ecclesiastical renewal.”
Two years after Rutherford graduated as a Master of Arts, he was appointed, at the age of 23, Professor, or Regent, of Humanity, having been recommended by the professors for “his eminent abilities of mind and virtuous disposition”. In this position he had special responsibility for giving tuition in Latin language and literature.
However, within two years he resigned in rather perplexing circumstances – a fact that has generated much discussion. The most satisfactory summing up of the situation is given, I believe, by Andrew Thompson in his Life of Samuel Rutherford. Rutherford, says Thompson, “entered on the married state [with a Miss Eupham Hamilton], and some indiscretion or irregularity connected with the formation of this union appears to have produced so much irritation and unpleasantness between himself and his colleagues, that from a sense of discomfort, or wounded feeling, or self-displeasure, he demitted his charge. That the offence, whatever it was, could not have been one of much gravity, or fitted to leave a permanent stain upon his character, seems beyond doubt, both from the testimony of continued confidence with which his demission was received, and yet more from the fact that, in the future conflicts of parties in which he afterwards intermingled, when scandals are so often raised from their graves to do the work of faction, no reference appears to have ever been made to this, by his most relentless adversaries.”
His Conversion. The exact time of Samuel Rutherford’s conversion is unknown, but it is presumed by some of his biographers that it was in 1625, the year in which he resigned his professorship. They base that on certain parts of his letters. “Like a fool, as I was,” he wrote to Robert Stuart, son of the Provost of Ayr, “I suffered my sun to be high in the heaven, and near afternoon, before ever I took the gate by the end.” To another young man he wrote, “I had stood sure if I had in my youth borrowed Christ to be my bottom: but he that beareth his own weight to heaven shall not fail to slip and sink”.
However, Faith Cook, in her excellent book Samuel Rutherford and His Friends, thinks that another of Rutherford’s letters strongly suggests 1624 as the year of his conversion. Writing from Aberdeen in 1638 to Robert Gordon of Knockbrex, he says, “Christ hath been keeping something these 14 years from me, that I have now gotten in my heavy days . . . even . . . fresh joys . . . from the fairest face of Christ my Lord”.
Another writer, James Clark, in his booklet The Life and Works of Samuel Rutherford, gives an even earlier date. “The time of Rutherford’s conversion is not known precisely,” he says, “but was probably in 1620, judging from his letter (no 61) to Lady Kenmure in July 1636.” There he speaks of his banishment as “that honour that I have prayed for these 16 years”.
In any case, Samuel Rutherford in early manhood was brought under conviction of sin, a fact to which he probably alludes in a letter to Alexander Gordon. “I knew a man”, he wrote, “who wondered to see any in this life laugh or sport.” Having then received the salvation which is in Christ Jesus, he experienced that wonderful deliverance of which he afterwards said, in writing to Lady Busbie, “O but Christ hath a saving eye! Salvation is in His eyelids! When He first looked on me, I was saved; it cost Him but a look to make hell quit of me!”
Rutherford was now led to study for the ministry. He commenced his two-year divinity course in 1625 under Andrew Ramsey, Professor of Divinity in Edinburgh University, a man of Calvinistic principles.
1. The first part of a paper presented to the 2001 Free Presbyterian Theological Conference.
2. This Life is available from Free Presbyterian Publications in paperback.
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