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Torchbearers of the Truth: Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

R W Cargill, St Monans

The well-loved hymn In Immanuel’s Land has helped to perpetuate the name of Samuel Rutherford. This hymn was not actually written by Rutherford but is taken from a long poem written by Anne Ross Cousin in 1856. After a lifetime’s study of his life and letters she wrote the nineteen verses which skilfully evoke Rutherford’s own words and feelings.1 A constant theme of those letters is the sweetness of Christ and the emptiness of this passing world. They show him to be one of the most godly men Scotland has known, a beacon light in the darkness of the seventeenth century. It shines to this day.

Rutherford lived just before the terrible "killing times" of the Scottish Covenanter movement. His life bridges the sixteenth century Reformation and the later evangelical revivals. The torch of truth which he held and passed on even to us was based upon his deep personal knowledge of Christ born out of long hours of communion and intimacy with Him. His devotion to Christ in those turbulent years led to his imprisonment in mid career, and would have led to his martyrdom later if his call to "Immanuel’s Land" had not forestalled his accusers’ plot to send him to execution as they sent others.2

Samuel Rutherford was born in a village near Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, one of three sons of a prosperous farmer. He sent him to the University of Edinburgh where in 1621 he obtained his MA, two years later being appointed professor of Latin language and literature. In 1626, however, he resigned to begin studying theology, having become "seriously religious".

What had happened was that, aged about twenty-four, he was converted and afterwards wrote: "He hath fettered me with His love...and left me a chained man", and explained: "Oh, but Christ hath a saving eye! Salvation is in His eyelids! When He first looked on me, I was saved". He regretted not having sought the Lord sooner, writing: "Like a fool, as I was, I suffered my sun to be high in the heaven, and near afternoon, before ever I took the gate by the end". He warned that none should "loiter on the broad road too long, trifling at the gate".

In 1627 he accepted an invitation from Lord Kenmure of Cardoness Castle in Kirkcudbrightshire to come to preach in the new parish of Anwoth where his ministry would last for nine busy and fruitful years. Visiting the many scattered hamlets in this rural parish was a task in itself. He often rose at 3am for worship, prayer, and communion with Christ. One wrote, "He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechising, always writing or studying". His great burden was for souls and he wrote: "If the Lord furnish not new timber from Lebanon to build the house, the work will cease". He said that he would "be glad to know of one soul to be my crown and rejoicing in the day of Christ". He often paced up and down the path outside his house pleading for souls and for divine help to reach them. This path became known as Rutherford’s Walk.

He had many trials and discouragements. His two children died in infancy and then in 1629 his wife Eupham contracted a lingering disease from which she died over a year later. He wrote, "My wife is so sore tormented night and day, that I have wondered why the Lord tarrieth so long. It is hard to keep sight of God in a storm". Just after this he developed a fever himself which lasted for thirteen weeks and he was hardly able to preach.

His greatest trial came when Thomas Sydserff became Bishop of Galloway. He was an arrogant supporter of Archbishop William Laud, the right-hand man of King Charles I who wanted to reintroduce the episcopacy and its litany into Scottish churches. Rutherford published a Treatise against Arminianism which exposed the doctrinal errors of Laud. As a consequence of this, Rutherford was summoned to an ecclesiastical court in Wigtown, and then in Edinburgh. He was forbidden to preach in Scotland and was banished to Aberdeen where he would spend the next two years under house arrest at 44 Upperkirkgate.

His immediate reaction to this sentence was quiet resignation and even joy, but as time wore on he seriously missed the privilege of preaching the Word of God and serving his Anwoth flock. He called these his "dumb Sabbaths". The devil suggested to him that God had cast him off, that he was a spiritual failure. But eventually he was able to call Aberdeen his garden of delights, and in "his sea-beat prison" his Lord and he "held tryst". He enjoyed so much of the love of God in Christ that he could write: "Christ and His cross are sweet company, and a blessed couple. My prison is my palace, my sorrow is with child of joy, my losses are rich losses, my pain easy pain". On the other hand he wrote: "I find the townsmen cold, general, and dry in their kindness. Many think me a strange man, and my cause not good".

Like another "prisoner of Jesus Christ" his confinement benefited many. It was his main "letter-writing period" – altogether 365 have been preserved.3 Although the old style of writing makes them difficult to read at times, they are a soul tonic and a challenge to our godliness today.

In 1638 the National Covenant was signed in Edinburgh, granting freedom to Nonconformist churches. Rutherford discharged himself from exile and returned to Anwoth to the great joy of his waiting people. But less than a year later he was asked to take the influential position of Professor of Divinity at St Mary’s College, St Andrews. Reluctantly he agreed, leaving Anwoth for the second and last time.

St Andrews had by then acquired a bad reputation: "the very nursery of all superstition in worship and error in doctrine and the sink of all profanity in conversation among the students". But Rutherford transformed the College to produce many godly men who would preach the gospel in Scotland. Although invited to better posts he remained there, becoming Principal of the College in 1647 (after four years’ absence in London involved in formulating the "Westminster Confession of Faith"). He continued to write letters, books and pamphlets. After ten years of widowhood he married Jean McMath. They had seven children of whom only one, Agnes, survived. She was eleven years old when he died.

In 1660, Oliver Cromwell’s death removed several years’ restraint on Roman Catholicism in Scotland. Charles II was restored to the throne and began to reverse the work of the Reformation. Rutherford was now a marked man, particularly for his book Lex Rex, written in 1644, which opposed the absolute powers of the monarchy. It was publicly burned in Edinburgh and St Andrews.

He was deprived of all his offices and summonsed to appear before the king on a charge of treason. When the summons document reached him, he was a very sick man. Taking it in his hands, his famous reply was, "Tell them that I have a summons already from a superior Judge and judicatory and I behove to answer my first summons. Ere your day arrives I shall be where few kings and great men come".

Among his last words to his friends were: "My Lord and Master is the chief of ten thousand, none is comparable to Him in heaven or earth. Dear brethren, do all for Him; pray for Christ, preach for Christ, feed the flock committed to your charge for Christ, do all for Christ; beware of men-pleasing - there is too much of it amongst us". Another asked him, "What think ye now of Christ?" He answered, "I shall live and adore Him. Glory! glory to my Creator and my Redeemer for ever! Glory shines in Immanuel’s land".

In the afternoon of 28th March, 1661 he was heard to say, "Oh! that all my brethren in the land may know what a Master I have served, and what peace I have this day. I shall sleep in Christ, and when I awake I shall be satisfied with His likeness. This night shall close the door, and put my anchor within the veil. Oh! for arms to embrace Him! Oh! for a well-tuned harp!" By 5am the next morning he had entered into it all.4

1 "The sands of time are sinking…". Full poem and original tune Rutherford in www.cyberhymnal.org (to be published in next month’s magazine).

2 In May and June of 1661, two of Rutherford’s friends and colleagues, the Marquis of Argyll and James Guthrie, were publicly executed, and a third, Archibald Johnstone, escaped this fate by fleeing to the continent.

3 Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Andrew Bonar 1848, 1863, & 1891. Abridged version with 69 letters published by Banner of Truth Trust, Edinburgh, 1973.

4 His gravestone and its epitaph are worth seeing in St Andrews old cemetery.


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