Sorrow, however, was mingled with his gladness. It grieved him much that his mouth was stopped indefinitely from preaching Christ, and that he would be separated from his beloved people in Anwoth. “Sweet, sweet and easy is the cross of my Lord,” he wrote to Gordon of Earlston. “Only the remembrance of my fair days with Christ in Anwoth, and of my dear flock (whose case is my heart’s sorrow) is vinegar to my sugared wine. Yet both sweet and sour feed my soul.”
A small company of Anwoth friends accompanied him all the way to Aberdeen, and it was with heavy hearts they bade him farewell and turned their faces towards home. They left him in Aberdeen, it is said, “with great regret at the want of such a pastor, so holy, learned and modest”.
“I am by God’s mercy come now to Aberdeen,” he wrote to Robert Gordon in September 1636, “and settled in an honest man’s house. . . . I find the townsmen cold and dry in their kindness, yet I find a lodging in the heart of many strangers. . . . Now, my dear brother, forget not me, the prisoner of Christ, for I see very few here who kindly fear God.” “Northern love is cold,” he wrote to another, “but Christ and I will bear it.” “I find folks here kind to me,” he told Lady Kenmure, “but in the night and under their breath.” Faith Cook expresses his new situation well in her verses in Grace in Winter:
A borrowed house, a borrowed bed,
A fire, though not my own;
My sorrows these, but greater far
This grief my heart has known:
A scattered flock beyond my reach
And silent lips that long to preach.
My heaviness is mixed with joy,
For love has cast my chain;
His consolations swallow up
My tale of short-lived pain.
Then let my sufferings preach His name,
A silenced tongue His love proclaim!
The ecclesiastical and university authorities gave “the banished minister”, as he was known in the town, the coldest reception of all – and little wonder, for Aberdeen was a centre of support for Archbishop Laud. “They regarded Rutherford with much suspicion,” says Robert Gilmour in his biography, Samuel Rutherford – A Study, “and their aversion increased as he grew in favour with the people.” It was not long before controversy arose. Dr Robert Barron, Professor of Divinity in Marischal College, and a rank Arminian in doctrine, was a determined opponent of such men as Samuel Rutherford and David Dickson, and he relished the opportunity to engage Rutherford in debate. Rutherford wrote to George Gillespie, “I am here troubled with the disputes of the great doctors (especially with Dr B) in ceremonial and Arminian controversies, for all are corrupt here; but, I thank God, with no detriment to the truth, or discredit to my profession. So, then, I see that Christ can triumph in a weaker man nor I; and who can be more weak? But His grace is sufficient for me.” If Barron – “the Goliath of his party”, as Andrew Thompson described him – and his learned colleagues counted on an easy victory they were soon disillusioned. “Dr Barron hath often disputed with me,” wrote Rutherford to William Dalgleish, his predecessor at Anwoth, “especially about Arminian controversies, and for the ceremonies. Three yokings laid him by, and I have not been troubled with him since.”
However, the greatest trial endured by Rutherford was his “dumb Sabbaths”. “My closed mouth, my dumb Sabbaths,” he wrote to the Provost of Ayr, “the memory of my communion with Christ, in many, many fair days in Anwoth, hath almost broken my faith in two halves.” To another he wrote, “My dumb Sabbaths burden my heart, and make it bleed”. To yet another, “My dumb Sabbaths are like a stone tied to a bird’s foot.”
Samuel Rutherford’s letters. Although his silenced tongue could not preach the gospel, his pen was exceedingly active on behalf of his “kingly King”, whom he highly extolled in those wonderful letters he wrote during his banishment. How precious to their recipients were the epistles he sent from his “King’s palace” in Aberdeen. But more than the actual recipients – Marion M’Naught, Robert Gordon, Lady Kenmure, Colonel Gilbert Ker, the cousins William and James Guthrie, and many others – derived benefit from them. Just as the writings of Bunyan, which came from his prison in Bedford in the 1660s, have helped many Christians heavenward since then, so the letters of Samuel Rutherford, which issued from his confinement in the north from September 1636 to June 1638, have consoled and fortified multitudes of the Lord’s people in the succeeding three and a half centuries. Indeed, some people were so helped by them that they began to gather them together, and had “whole books full of them”, says John Row the historian (writing at least 18 years before the letters were first published). Of the 365 letters in Bonar’s edition, 220 were written from Aberdeen. “Paradoxical as it may seem,” Gilmour says, “Rutherford lives by a book which he never wrote as a book at all – by a collection of letters written with no further intention than to edify or comfort his correspondents. It is by these that he, being dead, yet speaks so forcibly to so many hearts.”
Some critics have focused on what they see as faults in his letters, but, says Marcus Loane in his Makers of Religious Freedom, “The faults in his letters are of minor account when we bear in mind the surpassing excellence of their merits; their grandeur outweighs their mistakes, and they have brought strength and comfort in verbal music to a thousand souls”. “His Letters, with all their faults, which are those of the age,” says Thomas M’Crie in The Story of the Scottish Church, “have excellences which must be felt to the end of time. ‘Hold off the Bible’ [that is, apart from the Bible], said Richard Baxter, ‘such a book the world never saw the like.'” “So far as I know,” says James Walker, in his The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, written 130 years ago, “they are the only letters two centuries old which are still a practical reality in the religious life of Scotland, England and America.” Spurgeon exclaimed, “What a wealth of spiritual ravishment we have here! Rutherford is beyond all praise of men. Like a strong-winged eagle he soars into the highest heaven and with unblenched [unflinching] eye he looks into the mystery of love divine.”
Some readers have found it profitable to trace a particular topic through his letters – for example, his concern for the spiritual welfare of young people. With some young friends he communicated directly. “I exhort you in the Lord”, he wrote to young Grizzel Fullerton, “to seek your one good thing, Mary’s good part that shall not be taken away from you. Learn the way, as your dear mother hath done before you, to knock at Christ’s door. Many an alms of mercy hath Christ given to her, and He hath abundance behind [remaining] for you.” To others he sent faithful and affectionate advices through their parents. “I desire your children to seek the Lord”, he wrote to John Gordon of Cardoness. “Desire them from me, to be requested, for Christ’s sake, to be blessed and happy, and to come and take Christ, and all things with Him.” Andrew Bonar said of Rutherford, “He had a heart for the young of all classes, so that he could say of two children of one of his correspondents, ‘I pray for them by name'”.
To most readers, three topics stand out in his letters: (1) his love to, and desire for, Christ; (2) his devoted concern for the cause of Christ, especially in Scotland; and (3) his profound sympathy with those burdened by trouble and sorrow. To a Mrs Craig who had lost her young son by drowning, he wrote, “There is no way of quieting the mind, and of silencing the heart of a mother, but godly submission. The readiest way for peace and consolation to clay vessels is, that it is a stroke of the Potter and Former of all things. And since the holy Lord hath loosed the grip, when it was fastened sure on your part, I know that your light, and I hope that your heart also, will yield. It is not safe to be pulling and drawing with the omnipotent Lord. Let the pull go with Him, for He is strong; and say, ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’.”
“It was his own frequent journey at the side of wife or mother, son or daughter, to the dark and troubled waters of death, that gave him such superb skill in words of consolation,” says Marcus Loane. “He never wrote in finer vein than when he wrote for the comfort of the bereaved. It was as though all the springs of pity in his own heart found a spontaneous outlet in true fellow-feeling with those who mourned. . . . It was out of the depth of his own heart that a noble sentence in one of his sermons was wrung: ‘I know’, he said, ‘there is a true sorrow that is without tears; and I know there is a real sorrow that is beyond tears’.”
Although no stranger to such sorrow, he also knew, even in the very midst of his griefs, the joy and peace that comes to the soul in having communion with the blessed Beloved of the Church. “I cannot but write to my friends that Christ hath trysted me in Aberdeen”, he wrote to Lady Kenmure, “and my adversaries have sent me here to be feasted with love banquets with my royal, high, high and princely Lord Jesus.” “None is so kind as my only royal King and Master, whose cross is my garland,” he wrote to Alexander Colville. “The king dineth with His prisoner, and his spikenard casteth a smell. He hath led me up to such a pitch and nick of joyful communion with Himself, as I never knew before. When I look back to by-gones, I judge myself to have been a child at ABC with Christ. Worthy sir, pardon me, I dare not conceal it from you.” But even when he did not have such times of spiritual elevation and delight, he could bless God for even the yearning for Christ which filled his heart. “I have little of Christ in this prison but groanings, and longings, and desires,” he wrote on one occasion. “All my stock of Christ is some hunger for Him, and yet I cannot but say that I am rich in that.”
The last of his known Aberdeen letters was written on 11 June 1638. Evidently it was soon after this date that he was able to return to his “fair Anwoth by the Solway”.
1. The previous instalment dealt with Rutherford’s Anwoth ministry (1627-36), the action of the Court of High Commission in 1636 forbidding him to exercise his ministry, and his banishment to Aberdeen.
This article is part 3 of a series
Other articles in this series: [part 1] [part 2] [part 4] [part 5]