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Samuel Rutherford: A pastor who lives through his letters

1 March 2011 | by David Kingdon

Samuel Rutherford: A pastor who lives through his letters

Samuel Rutherford was widely known in his own day as an outspoken opponent of state-sponsored episcopacy, on the one hand, and Independency, on the other. Today he is remembered for his pastoral letters which have been republished no fewer than eighty times in English and at least fifteen times in Dutch.

In 1627 Rutherford became parish minister of Anwoth, Galloway where he proved to be a diligent pastor and ecclesiastical activist. His political activities having come to the notice of the authorities, in 1636 he was put under house arrest in Aberdeen. In his confinement Rutherford poured out a voluminous correspondence to godly men and women, nobles, lairds, burgesses and ministers all over Scotland but particularly in Galloway and Ayrshire for, as Andrew Bonar observes ‘these two counties at that time were rich in godly men of some standing.’ Rutherford’s house arrest lasted from 1636-37 but with the signing of the National Covenant in February 1638 he was able to return to Anwoth which he left in October 1639 on becoming professor of divinity at New College, St Andrews. Between 1643 and 1647 Rutherford lived in London as one of the Scottish Commissioners at the Westminster Assembly. His defence of armed resistance to Charles I in his Lex, Rex: or the Law and the Prince (1644) led to his second confinement. In September 1660 after the Restoration of Charles II copies of the book were publicly burned, Rutherford was deprived of his professorship and confined to his own house. He was summoned to appear before Parliament on a charge of treason which his friends feared might lead to his execution. But early in 1661 Rutherford fell seriously ill. Realising that he was on his deathbed, he sent this message in reply to the summons: ‘I behove to answer my first summons; and, ere your day arrives, I will be where few kings and great folks come.’

Extracts from his letters

Rutherford’s letters were largely replies to letters he received from a wide range of people who were sufficiently well educated as to be able to read and write. Fortunately for us hundreds of them were copied and circulated. How privileged we are to have them in this day of ephemeral emails!

What strikes me is how passionately Christ-centred they are. They are the nearest to the apostle Paul’s prayer in Philippians 3:10-11 that I have ever come across. The following quotation is one example among many that could be cited.

I have for the present a sick dwining [to pine away], with much pain, and much love-sickness for Christ. Oh, what would I give to have a bed made to my wearied soul in His bosom. I would frist [postpone] heaven for many years, to have my fill of Jesus in this life, and to have occasion to offer Christ to my people, and to woo many people to Christ… I profess to you, I have no rest, I have no ease, whill [while] I be over head and ears in love’s ocean. If Christ’s love (that fountain of delight) were laid open to me as I would wish, oh, how I would drink, and drink abundantly!

In a period of high infant and child mortality Rutherford often wrote letters of condolence to grieving parents. So he writes to a Christian gentlewoman on the death of her daughter:

Do you think her lost, when she is but sleeping in the bosom of the Almighty? Think her not absent who is in such a friend’s house. Is she lost to you who is found to Christ? … Take heed… that in showing your affection in mourning for your daughter, ye be not, out of self-affection, mourning for yourself.

In another letter he warns of the dangers of youth.

I must first tell you, that there is not such a glassy, icy, and slippery piece of way betwixt you and heaven, as Youth; and I have experience to say with me here, and to seal what I assert. The old ashes of the sins of my youth are new fire of sorrow to me. [The burgh records of Edinburgh for 3 February 1626 declare that Rutherford had ‘fallin in fornicatioun with Euphame Hamilton, and hes committit ane grit scandle in the college’] … In youth he [the Devil] findeth dry sticks, and dry coals, and a hot hearth-stone; and how soon can he be with his flint, and with his bellows blow it up, and fire the home.

These extracts come from a feast of spiritual food. Sometimes Rutherford’s vocabulary is not easy to understand because he employs words that are no longer in common use. But the Banner of Truth edition (pictured) has a good glossary. Reasonable effort will bring you great reward.

David Kingdon is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.