Some visitors to the ivy-clad ruins of Rutherford’s church in Anwoth are surprised by two things: the smallness of the building and the isolation of the beautiful spot. They wonder at the greatest preacher in Scotland in his day labouring for nine years in an obscure part of the country, among a people sparsely scattered over a wide area. But a bond had been forged between the soul of Samuel Rutherford and his Anwoth flock that remained intact to the end of his days – a fact that is beautifully brought out by Mrs Cousin’s verse, based on Rutherford’s own words:
Fair Anwoth by the Solway,
To me thou still art dear.
Ev’n from the verge of heaven
I drop for thee a tear.
O, if one soul from Anwoth
Meet me at God’s right hand,
My heaven will be two heavens
In Immanuel’s land.
In the past, Anwoth had benefited indirectly from the ministry of the renowned John Welsh, son-in-law of John Knox, who laboured in neighbouring Kirkcudbright with apostolic zeal until 1600. Another famous minister of the time, John Livingstone, remarked that those Christians in the area who had been the fruits of Welsh’s ministry found Rutherford to be “a great strengthener of them all”. Their high estimate of Rutherford’s preaching is shown by the fact that most of his published sermons, carefully taken down by appreciative hearers, were preached in and around Anwoth during his nine years there.
He was not long settled in Anwoth when he experienced sorrow upon sorrow in his family. Both his children died in infancy. His wife Eupham became seriously ill. “My wife’s disease increaseth daily, to her great torment and pain night and day,” he wrote to a friend. “She has not been in God’s house since our communion, neither out of her bed. . . . She sleeps none, but cries as a woman travailing in birth.” She died in 1630 after suffering greatly for more than a year. With humble submission to the divine will he wrote to a friend, “The Lord hath done it; blessed be His name”. Five years later, his mother, who was living with him, passed away. He himself fell ill with a recurring fever and was forced to curtail his work greatly for three or four months. No doubt, his painful experiences and deep sorrows enabled him to enter, with the tenderest sympathy, into the griefs and sorrows of his friends and flock – as indeed his letters show.
Year after year, he spent and was spent for Christ among the people he faithfully pastored, as he prayed and preached, studied and wrote, visited and catechised. “My soul was taken up,” he wrote, “when others were sleeping, how to have Christ betrothed with a bride in that part of the land.” To another he said, “There I wrestled with the angel and prevailed. Wood, trees, meadows and hills are my witnesses that I drew on a fair match between Christ and Anwoth.” “While he was at Anwoth,” says John Livingstone, “he was the instrument of much good among a poor, ignorant people, many of whom he brought to a knowledge and practice of religion.” Robert MacWard, his close friend, stated that he laboured night and day, and that the people of the whole region around Anwoth were to him his particular flock, and they regarded themselves as such. When there was a proposal in 1631 to have him translated to another parish, he wrote to Marion M’Naught, “The great Master Gardener, in a wonderful providence, with His own hand planted me here, and here I will abide till the great Master of the vineyard think fit to transplant me.”
In the same year as his wife died he was summoned to appear before the Court of High Commission in Edinburgh for nonconformity to the Perth Articles, but for various reasons the case did not proceed. J G Vos explains in his book The Scottish Covenanters: “In 1609 two Courts of High Commission were erected, one in Glasgow and the other in St Andrews. The purpose of these courts was to enable the Bishops to enforce the powers which had been placed in their hands. Later the two courts were combined into a single tribunal with both civil and ecclesiastical powers. This court was not authorised by any Act of Parliament, but only by the royal prerogative. No appeal could be taken from its decision. This move of King James was a piece of high-handed tyranny over the liberties, estates and even the consciences of his subjects.”
The Perth Articles, to which Rutherford refused to conform, were devised by King James VI to impose Episcopalian worship ceremonies on the Scottish Church. They authorised kneeling at the Lord’s Supper, the observance of private communion and baptism, confirmation by bishops, and the celebration of holy days such as Christmas and Easter.
The fact that Rutherford refused to conform to these Articles is confirmed, for example, by one of his pastoral letters written later from Aberdeen, in which he says, “Remember that I forewarned you . . . that ye should forbear the receiving of the Lord’s Supper except according to the form that I delivered it to you, according to the example of Christ our Lord, that is, that ye should sit as banqueters at one table with our King and eat and drink and divide the elements one to another. . . And that crossing [making the sign of the cross] in baptism was unlawful, and against Christ’s ordinance. And that no day besides the Sabbath (which is of His own appointment) should be kept holy, and sanctified with preaching and the public worship of God, for the memory of Christ’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension, seeing such days so observed are unlawful will-worship, and not warranted in Christ’s Word.”
Charles I, who succeeded to the thrones of England and Scotland in 1625, pursued his father’s anti-Presbyterian policy with renewed vigour, spurred on by Archbishop Laud. It was inevitable that faithful Samuel Rutherford would sooner or later become the object of his persecuting zeal.
When Thomas Sydserff, a proud and intolerant man, succeeded Lamb as Bishop of Galloway in 1634, he zealously set about enforcing conformity to the Episcopal ceremonies. “I expect”, wrote Rutherford to Lady Kenmure, “our new prelate shall try my sitting; I hang by a thread, but it is (if I may speak so) of Christ’s spinning.” Not surprisingly, Rutherford was brought before the Court of High Commission in Edinburgh. “The most part of the bishops,” he wrote to Marion M’Naught, “when I came in, looked more astonished than I, and heard me with silence.” He was under trial for three days on a charge of non-conformity, but other matters were also taken up by the Court. “The Chancellor and the rest tempted me with questions,” he wrote, “nothing belonging to my summons, which I wholly declined, notwithstanding of his threats. My newly printed book against Arminians was one challenge; not Lording the prelates [that is, not addressing them as ‘My Lord’] was another.” Some of the bishops in fact spoke in support of him, and he had a good friend on the High Commission in the person of young Lord Lorne (later the renowned Marquis of Argyle). “He hath done as much as was within the compass of his power”, said Rutherford. “God gave me favour in his eyes.”
The “newly printed book” to which Rutherford refers was his learned work, Exercitationes Apologeticae Pro Divina Gratia (A Defence of Divine Grace). James Clark, in The Life and Works of Samuel Rutherford, sums up the treatise: “In the first part, Samuel Rutherford discourses upon the divine decrees, how they are from eternity and immutable, absolute and unconditional, and refutes the Arminian error that God’s decrees depend upon His foreknowledge of events occurring in time. In the second part, he shows the sovereignty of the divine will, how God’s good pleasure cannot be frustrated and that God does not permit anything which He does not will. In this section he annihilates the heretical writings of Dr Thomas Jackson, Dean of Peterborough, whom Rutherford describes as ‘a wicked Arminian’. In the third part, he proves from Scripture the omnipotence of the divine will over man’s will and that God’s grace is saving and irresistible.”
The Commission alleged that the work reflected upon the Church of Scotland, but “the truth was,” says John Howie in his Scots Worthies, “the argument of that book did cut the sinews of Arminianism, and galled the Episcopal clergy to the very quick; and so Bishop Sydserff could endure him no longer”.
Although Rutherford had a measure of sympathy from some members of the High Commission, the bishop’s will prevailed. On 27 July 1636, sentence was finally pronounced on the Lord’s faithful servant: he was forbidden to exercise any part of his ministry within Scotland and ordered to confine himself within the city of Aberdeen, during the King’s pleasure.
1. The first part of this paper, presented at the 2001 Theological Conference, followed Rutherford’s young days from his birth at Nisbet, in the Scottish Borders, to his time as a divinity student in Edinburgh.
This article is part 2 of a series
Other articles in this series: [part 1] [part 3] [part 4] [part 5]