Removal to St Andrews. The year 1638 was memorable for the Church in Scotland, not least because the National Covenant was renewed, being signed in Edinburgh on February 28 with great solemnity and joy. During the previous year, the King had sought to mould the Church fully into an Episcopalian pattern by enforcing the Five Articles of Perth. This generated much popular opposition and stirred up the people to be resolute in their resistance to Arminianism, Popery and despotism. “The peculiarity of the struggle of 1638,” says Gilmour, “is that the Church then stood for the nation. Striving to secure her own spiritual independence, the Church really fought at the same time for the civil liberties of Scotland.” The King was constrained, or rather compelled, to allow a free General Assembly of the Church.
Samuel Rutherford had returned from Aberdeen to Anwoth after the National Covenant was renewed and was one of the commissioners to that famous Assembly, which met in Glasgow on November 21. The Assembly lost no time in re-establishing Presbyterianism and re-asserting the spiritual independence of the Church. That Assembly also considered the request of the town of St Andrews that Rutherford be appointed Professor of Divinity at St Mary’s College and referred it to a Commission of the Kirk. Rutherford was most reluctant to be moved from Anwoth for he could not bear the prospect of having more of the “dumb Sabbaths” he had to endure in Aberdeen. “I trust in God this Assembly will never take me from my pastoral charge,” he said, “for there is a woe unto me if I preach not the gospel, and I know not who can go betwixt me and that woe.”
To the dismay of his flock, the next year’s Assembly, on the recommendation of the Commission, did decide to move Rutherford to St Andrews. However, it also met his desire to continue preaching by making him a colleague of Robert Blair in the town pulpit. Rutherford was obliged to yield to the collective decision of his brethren, but his feelings are clear from what he wrote to Lady Kenmure: “My removal from my flock is so heavy to me that it maketh my life a burden to me, I had never such a longing for death. The Lord help and hold up sad clay.”
The Lord did indeed hear and help His servant. As Marcus Loane says, Rutherford “was henceforth to stand with the foremost men of the day in their efforts to guide the Church aright, and his hands were to help in replacing the crown on Christ’s brow in Scotland”. Although St Andrews University was “the oldest and most brilliant seat of learning in the kingdom”, it was far from being spiritually and morally healthy. M’Ward said that it “was the very nursery of all superstition in worship, and error in doctrine, and the sink of all profanity in conversation among the students”. But for the next 20 years Samuel Rutherford exercised a tremendous influence on the students, and thus on the future ministry of the Kirk. As Howie graphically puts it: “God did so signally second his servant’s indefatigable pains, both in teaching in the schools and in preaching in the congregation, that it became forthwith a Lebanon out of which were taken cedars for building the house of the Lord throughout the whole land”.
In 1640, after ten years as a widower, Samuel Rutherford married Jean McMath, a woman who was evidently fitted for such a husband. She was described as “a woman of great worth and piety”. One person who knew them both said, “I never knew any among men exceed him, nor any among women exceed her”. Before he went south to the Westminster Assembly, three children were born to them, but two of them died in infancy.
Rutherford’s work at the Westminster Assembly: After four years in St Andrews, Samuel Rutherford was given another enormous task – that of Scottish Commissioner (along with Alexander Henderson, Robert Baillie, George Gillespie and others) to the Westminster Assembly in London in 1643. Rutherford remained in the city for four years and during that time he not only took a prominent part in the Assembly’s debates on theology and Church polity but also preached before the Long Parliament and published five major books.
Rutherford took his wife and remaining child with him to London, and in 1645 another child – a daughter – was added to the family. But heavy sorrow became their lot again when the two children died. Marcus Loane notes: “There is a pathetic reference to this sorrow in one of his letters: ‘I had but two children, and both are dead since I came hither'”. More children were born in later years, but only one, their daughter Agnes, survived.
The influence which Rutherford and his Scottish colleagues exercised in the Westminister Assembly, says John Coffey, “was out of all proportion to their numbers”. J G Vos says, “The Westminster Assembly itself really belongs to English rather than to Scottish Church history, yet the Church of Scotland cooperated in the enterprise at the time, and the work of the Assembly has had far greater permanent effects in Scotland than in England. The chief doctrinal standards of all branches of Scottish Presbyterianism down to the present day were formulated by the Westminster Assembly of Divines.”
“Rutherford gave of his best in this Assembly,” says Gilmour; “his work has been described as ‘the supreme conscious effort’ of his life-time.” He deemed himself quite unworthy of the honour of being, as he put it, “a mason to lay the foundation for many generations, and to build the waste places of Zion”. “Mr Henderson, Mr Rutherford, and Mr Gillespie,” said Robert Baillie, their fellow Commissioner, “all three spoke exceedingly well, with arguments unanswerable.” It is said that Rutherford’s vast store of learning and his great ability in expressing himself “compelled men to hear him with the deepest respect”. In the debates on church order, government and authority, some of the most decisive contributions came from the Scottish Commissioners. “Had not God sent Mr Henderson, Mr Rutherford and Mr Gillespie among them,” wrote Baillie, “I see not that ever they could agree on any settled [church] government.” While Gillespie made one of the most memorable contributions to the debate, it was Rutherford who, of all the Scottish Commissioners, made the most lasting impression on the other members of the Assembly.
When Rutherford left London it was with the prayerful good wishes of the other Westminster divines sounding in his ears. The Assembly minutes for 9 November 1647, record that “Mr Rutherford took his leave of the Assembly. The Prolocutor, by order of the Assembly, in the name of the Assembly, gave him thanks for the great assistance he hath afforded to this Assembly in his constant attendance upon the debates of it”. He was the last of the Scottish Commissioners to leave, and when he did, the English Divines wrote to the Church of Scotland: “We can not but restore him with ample testimony of his learning, godliness, faithfulness and diligence, and we humbly pray the Father of spirits to increase the number of such burning and shining lights among you”.
During his four years at the Westminister Assembly, Rutherford, as we noted already, wrote five volumes, almost 600 pages long on average. These were: The Due Right of Presbyteries; Lex Rex, or, The Law and the Prince; The Trial and Triumph of Faith; The Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication; and Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself. He also published two sermons of more than 60 pages each.
His renowned work, Lex Rex: When Rutherford’s Lex Rex came off the press, it caused a great stir in London and beyond. He wrote it in response to a 1644 work by John Maxwell, formerly Bishop of Ross, entitled, The Sacred and Royal Prerogative of Christian Kings, which defended absolute monarchy. The basic premise of Lex Rex is that the king is not above the law, but subject to it. Rutherford’s aim was to demonstrate that “all civil power is immediately from God in its root”, and that “power is a birthright of the people borrowed [by a ruler] from them”. In cases of gross oppression and unlimited prerogative, said Rutherford, parliament has an authority superior to the king. Therefore, in extreme circumstances, the people may reasonably and constitutionally resume that power which they had reposed in the hands of their sovereign.
Altogether, says Loane, “it provides us with a fine statement of the principles and policies of Puritan government. It was well-knit with a convincing argument and great dialectical ability, bound and clamped with the iron bands of proof from Scripture and a mass of syllogisms. . . . The king is the highest servant of the state, but is a servant always; absolute power would be both irrational and unnatural.”
Of course, these ideas were not new. John Macleod, in his book, Scottish Theology, points out that “the tradition of Scottish Reformed teaching in regard to the obedience that the people owed to the civil power was to the effect that the power of the king is restricted and that his authority has bounds within which it ought to be kept. . . . Of this teaching, the best-known document that there had been so far was Buchanan’s De jure regni apud Scotos” (On the Right of Kingship among the Scots).
An indication of the sensation caused by Rutherford’s book is found in a statement by Bishop Guthrie. Every member of the General Assembly, he said, “had in his hand that book lately published by Mr Samuel Rutherford, which was so idolized, that whereas Buchanan’s treatise was looked upon as an oracle, this coming forth, [Buchanan’s] was slighted as not anti-monarchical enough, and Rutherford’s Lex Rex only thought authentic”. “It is reported,” says Howie, “that when King Charles the First saw Lex Rex, he said it would scarcely ever get an answer; nor did it ever get any, except what the Parliament gave it in 1661, when they caused it to be burned at the cross in Edinburgh by the hands of the hangman.”
Rutherford’s fame spread far and wide. On his return to St Andrews from London in 1647 he was appointed Principal of St Mary’s College. Other universities offered him professorships, but he remained in St Andrews. The chair of Divinity at Harderwyck in the Netherlands was offered to him in 1648 but he declined it; and in 1649 he refused the chair of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. Then in 1651 he twice declined an invitation to succeed Charles de Matius in the chair of Divinity at Utrecht. In that same year he became the Rector of St Andrews University
1. Thedealt with Rutherford’s exile in Aberdeen, and his renowned letters.
This article is part 4 of a series