Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)

Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

Samuel Rutherford was born in 1600 in Nisbet, Roxburghshire, eldest son of a well-to-do farmer. His parents noted his intellectual gifts and believed that God would call him to the ministry, though they seldom spoke about Christ in an experiential way. Rutherford later wrote that in his birthplace “Christ was scarce named, as touching any reality or power of godliness” (Letters, p. 680). Rutherford was educated first at Jedborough, then at the University of Edinburgh, where he excelled in Latin and Greek, and earned a Master of Arts degree in 1621.

In 1623, Rutherford was chosen to serve as Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh, with responsibilities as a Latin tutor. Two years later, he was forced to resign after behaving inappropriately with a young woman named Euphame Hamilton, whom he subsequently married. God apparently used this incident to initiate or further his conversion. In a letter to Robert Stuart (1637), Rutherford wrote, “Ye have gotten a great advantage in the way of heaven, that ye have started to the gate in the morning. Like a fool, as I was, I suffered my sun to be high in the heaven, and near afternoon, before I ever took the gate by the end.”

In 1625, Rutherford studied theology at Edinburgh under Andrew Ramsay. Two years later, he was asked to pastor the church in Anwoth by the Solway in Kirkcudbrightshire—the charge with which his name is inseparably bound. John Welsh, the godly son-in-law of John Knox, had ministered at that church from 1595 to 1600. Anwoth was a rural parish; its people were scattered in farms over a hilly district.

Rutherford rose at 3 a.m. each day, devoting many hours to prayer and meditation. He wrote of a favorite place where he often walked to ponder spiritual truths: “There I wrestled with the angel and prevailed. Woods, trees, meadows and hills are my witnesses that I drew on a fair meeting between Christ and Anwoth” (cited in Nigel Clifford, Christian Preachers, p. 132).

Rutherford worked effectively and tirelessly for his congregation for nearly a decade. One aged, contemporary pastor wrote, “I have known many great and good ministers in this church, but for such a piece of clay as Mr. Rutherford was, I never knew one in Scotland like him, to whom so many great gifts were given; for he seemed to be altogether taken up with everything good, and excellent, and useful. He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechizing, always writing and studying…. Many times I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ. He was never in his right element but when he was commending Him. He would have fallen asleep in bed speaking of Christ” (Thomas M’Crie, The Story of the Scottish Church, p. 48).

An English merchant put it this way, “I came to Irvine, and heard a well-favored, proper old man [David Dickson] with a long beard, and that man showed me all my heart. Then I went to St. Andrews, where I heard a sweet, majestic-looking man [Robert Blair], and he showed me the majesty of God. After him I heard a little, fair man [Rutherford], and he showed me the loveliness of Christ.”

Marcus Loane writes, “Rutherford’s ministry while in Anwoth was a noble approach to the splendid ideal of Baxter’s Reformed Pastor or Herbert’s Country Parson” (Makers of Puritan History, p. 70). His years in Anwoth, though, were fraught with affliction. The comfort his ministry and letters brought to thousands was forged in the crucible of personal losses. His wife, Euphame, died in 1630 after suffering intensely for thirteen months. With the exception of one daughter, all the children she and Rutherford had died at an early age. Rutherford himself fell seriously ill with a high fever about this time. Then, in 1635, Rutherford’s mother, who had come to live with them, also died.

Rutherford was not always easy to get along with. On the one hand, he was godly and humble. On the other hand, he was a man of strong emotions who occasionally lost his temper and heaped abuse on his opponents. Rutherford himself once told David Dickson, “I am made of extremes.” He also frequently suffered from depression. Nevertheless, God used those times to prepare Rutherford to comfort other suffering believers.

Rutherford was politically active during his ministry. Though a minor parish, Anwoth was strategically located. It was home to several influential people, particularly the Gordon family, with whom Rutherford allied himself. Using that connection, Rutherford soon became a strong opponent of Episcopacy. He wrote his own catechism and organized seasons of fasting and prayer in response to the corruption of the church.

In 1630, Rutherford was called to appear before the Court of High Commission in Edinburgh for nonconformity to the Perth Articles. That did not stop him. As John Coffey writes, “He became engrossed in the Arminian controversy, disseminating political information, intervening in burgh elections.... [He] prepared a Latin treatise against the theology of Arminius and the Jesuits, and circulated manuscript treatises he had written to justify the conventicles” (Politics, Religion, and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford, pp. 41-42).

That put Rutherford in conflict with the church authorities, which were dominated by the English Episcopacy. He was called before the High Court in July 1636. After a three day trial, he was deprived of his ministerial office, forbidden to preach anywhere in Scotland, and confined to Aberdeen.

Aberdeen was a bastion of Arminianism, was committed to episcopacy, and was strongly opposed to the Reformed Presbyterianism Rutherford held dear. All of that, plus being separated from his congregation, was a sore trial for Rutherford. Sundays were particularly difficult. “The memory of my communion with Christ, in many, many fair days in Anwoth, hath almost broken my faith in two halves,” he wrote to the provost of Ayr. During his exile, Rutherford debated Arminianism and ceremonies with Robert Barron, a doctor from Aberdeen, proving himself to be a remarkably effective disputant.

He also wrote many letters to his congregation. We are still blessed today by those letters, particularly by their Christ-centeredness. To the Laird of Cally, he wrote in 1637, “Give Christ your virgin love; you cannot put your love and heart into better hand. Oh! If ye knew Him, and saw His beauty, your love, your liking, your heart, your desires would close with Him and cleave to Him.” Rutherford had many sweet times of communion with Christ in Aberdeen. “I never knew, by mine nine years’ preaching, so much of Christ’s love, as He has taught me in Aberdeen,” he wrote to his congregation. “Sweet, sweet have His comforts been to my soul; my pen, tongue, and heart have no words to express the kindness, love and mercy of my Well-beloved to me, in this house of my pilgrimage” (Letters, pp. 227, 357).

In 1638, the struggles escalated between England’s Parliament and king as well as between Presbyterianism and Episcopacy in Scotland. After the National Covenant was signed, which heralded a new dawn for Christ’s cause in Scotland, Rutherford slipped out of Aberdeen and returned to Anwoth, but not for long. The Church of Scotland General Assembly soon restored Presbyterianism to the land and appointed Rutherford to the strategic position of professor of theology at St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews. He accepted the position reluctantly, and only on the condition that he be allowed to preach at least once every Sunday. Leaving Anwoth was difficult for him. “Never did I so much long for death,” he wrote. “The Lord help and hold up sad clay.” Rutherford shared a pulpit in the university’s church with Robert Blair and preached fairly regularly in various pulpits in St. Andrews. His lectures and preaching greatly impacted the theological students. One student spoke for many when he wrote, “God did so singularly second his indefatigable pains, both in teaching and in preaching, that the University forthwith became a Lebanon, out which were taken cedars for building the house of the Lord through the whole land” (cited in Clifford, p. 135).

In 1640, Rutherford married Jean M‘Math, described as “a woman of great worth and piety.” He had one daughter, Agnes, from his previous marriage, and six more from the second marriage, all of whom died before Rutherford. Two of them died as infants before Rutherford left to attend the Westminster Assembly. Two more died while he and his wife were in London.

When the Westminster Assembly began in 1643, Rutherford was one of six Scottish commissioners invited to attend; he stayed until October 1647, longer than any of the others. Although the Scots chose not to vote, they had a great influence. Rutherford in particular contributed substantially to the theological deliberations and to the Shorter Catechism. He also preached occasionally before the Long Parliament.

During this period, Rutherford wrote at least five books, including Lex Rex (1644). This book deals with a magistrate’s right to exact obedience from his subjects and a citizen’s obligations towards magistrates. It grapples with questions related to natural rights, civil law, Christian obedience, and Christian ethics. Rutherford argues for limitations on the divine right of kings. The crown is bestowed by the voluntary consent of the people; therefore, the people are at liberty to resist a tyrant.

Other books Rutherford wrote during his assembly years include The Due Right of Presbyteries (a defense of Presbyterianism against Independency), The Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication (a defense of regulating worship and of permanent obligations of church government by elders and presbyteries), Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist (a defense against antinomianism and various sects), and The Trial and Triumph of Faith (a book of sermons on Christ’s saving work in the Canaanite woman).

Less than two years after he returned to St. Andrews in the fall of 1647, Rutherford was appointed principal of St. Mary’s College and, in 1651, rector of the University. He spent the last fourteen years of his life teaching and preaching at St. Andrews. His books brought him fame and invitations in the late 1640s and early 1650s to join prestigious faculties in the Netherlands, including Utrecht, where Voetius was teaching. Rutherford declined every invitation.

Unfortunately, the 1650s were not peaceful; the Church of Scotland was torn by two parties. The Resolutioners supported the Scottish coronation of Charles II and public resolutions brought to the General Assembly of 1651 allowing the supporters of Charles I to return to office. Rutherford and his fellow Protestors opposed those actions. The subsequent strife separated Rutherford from some of his closest friends, including David Dickson and Robert Blair.

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Rutherford knew persecution awaited him. In 1661, he was charged with treason, deprived of his church, his university chair, and his stipend. Lex Rex was ordered to be burned and his presbytery to be overthrown. Rutherford himself was put under house arrest. Ultimately, Parliament, seeking to eliminate all resistance to Charles II, sentenced the most prominent covenantal leaders to hanging. Rutherford anticipated that and considered it a privilege to give his life for his Savior. He was comforted that Lady Kenmure agreed to care for his wife and eleven-year-old daughter, Agnes.

But by the time the summons arrived from the Council in 1661, charging him with treason and demanding his appearance, Rutherford was already on his deathbed. He appealed to a higher tribunal, giving the memorable response: “Tell them I have got a summons already before a superior judge and judicatory, and I behoove to answer my first summons; and ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come.” When the Council returned and reported to Parliament that Rutherford was dying, Parliament almost unanimously decided that he not be allowed to die in the college. To this, Lord Burleigh responded, “You have voted that honest man out of his college, but you cannot vote him out of heaven” (M‘Crie, pp. 51-53).

Rutherford sought to reconcile with those with whom he had quarreled and died peacefully on March 30, 1661, at St. Mary’s College, St. Andrews. Some of his last words were, “I shall live and adore Christ; glory to my Redeemer forever. Glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel’s land.” To his fellow ministers he said, “Dear brethren, do all for Christ. Pray for Christ. Preach for Christ. Beware of men-pleasing.” With his death, Scotland lost one of its greatest theologians, powerful preachers, devotional writers, and political thinkers.

Rutherford was buried at the Old Cathedral graveyard in St. Andrews. His tombstone, which can still be seen today, bears these memorable words:

What tongue or pen or skill of men
Can Famous Rutherford commend?
His learning justly raised his Fame,
True godliness adorned his name.

He did converse with Immanuel’s love.
Most orthodox he was and sound
And many errors did confound.

For Zion’s king and Zion’s cause
And Scotland’s covenantal laws
Most constantly he did contend
Until his time was at an end.

Then he won to the full fruition
Of that what he had seen in vision.

Communion Sermons (BB; 362 pages; 1986). Edited by Andrew Bonar in the 1870s, this volume contains fourteen Communion sermons, published from the notes of Rutherford’s listeners. Bonar wrote in the preface, “All who relish Rutherford’s letters will welcome the reprint of this volume, entitled, when first printed, Collection of Valuable Sermons Preached on Sacramental Occasions, in the years 1630, 1634, and 1637.”

Here is an example of that work: “Many have light, as sick men have meat at their bedside, but cannot use it.” According to Rutherford, many converts have light in their souls but cannot discern it for their own comfort and consolation. These sermons help believers toward this comfort and consolation. Bonar writes of these sermons, “All breathe the same spirit as the famous ‘Letters,’ and are full of racy remark and illustration, bearing on scriptural doctrine and Christian experience.”

Modern Reprints

The Covenant of Life Opened (Pur Pub; 518 pages; 2005). With keen insight, Rutherford unfolds the manner in which God covenants with man. He investigates the nature of the covenants of works, grace, and redemption. Along the way, he shows how God’s sovereignty, the extent of Christ’s work of satisfaction, justification, sanctification, and infant baptism are related to covenant. This edition has been re-typset from the original 1655 edition, making it much more reader-friendly.

The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (BTT; 768 pages; 1984). A facsimile of the Oliphant edition from the late nineteenth century, this edition contains all of Rutherford’s letters. They were originally collected and published by Robert MacWard, a former student, and edited in the nineteenth century by Andrew A. Bonar. In addition to this Banner hardback, an abridged paperback has been printed by the Trust. Its 206 pages contain choice extracts from Rutherford’s letters. Other publishers have printed smaller selections of letters under such titles as Loveliness of Christ and Gleanings from the Past.

Most of Rutherford’s letters (220 of 365) were written while he was in exile in Aberdeen. The letters beautifully harmonize Reformed doctrine and the spiritual experiences of the believer. Six topics dominate the letters: (1) Rutherford’s love to and desire for Christ (“I would desire no more for my heaven beneath the moon, while I am sighing in this house of clay, but daily renewed feasts of love with Christ,” he wrote); (2) his deep sense of the heinousness of sin (he spoke often of his own “abominable vileness”: “Only my loathsome wretchedness and my wants have qualified me for Christ!”); (3) his devoted concern for the cause of Christ (to David Dickson he wrote on May 1, 1637, “My sorrow is that I cannot get Christ lifted off the dust in Scotland, and set on high, above all the skies, and heaven of heavens”); (4) his profound sympathy for burdened and troubled souls (to one troubled saint, he wrote, “Our crosses are like puffs of wind to blow our ship home; they convey us to heaven’s gate, but they cannot follow it into heaven”); (5) his profound love for his flock (he wrote to Anwoth on July 13, 1632, “My witness is above; your heaven would be two heavens to me, and your salvation two salvations”); and (6) his ardent longings for heaven (“Oh, how long is it to the dawning of the marriage day! O sweet Jesus, take wide steps! O my Lord, come over the mountain at one stride”).

During his years in Aberdeen, Rutherford experienced deep communion with God. He wrote of those encounters with astonishing freedom. Here’s an example of what he shared with John Nevay in 1637: “I would willingly subscribe an ample resignation to the Christ of the Fourteen have no other exercise than to lie on a love-bed with Christ, and fill this hungry and famished soul with kissing, embracing, and real enjoying of the Son of God: and I think that then, I might write to my friends that I had found the Golden World” (Letter 272).

Additional letters testify of God’s special care, encouraging believers to persevere in faith. The beauty of Rutherford’s work is that he saw himself as the chief of sinners and Christ as the only Savior. His favorite theme is the union of Christ and His people as illustrated by courtship and marriage. Richard Baxter, one of Rutherford’s most persistent critics, confessed that “such a book of letters the world never saw the like.” Robert Murray M‘Cheyne used Rutherford’s letters as
devotional material and saw Christ on every page. Spurgeon considered these letters closer to inspiration than anything else ever written.

Although he did not write these letters for publication, they are Rutherford’s most popular work. They have been reprinted more than eighty times in English, fifteen times in Dutch, and several times in German and French and Gaelic.

Lex Rex, or The Law and the Prince (SPR; 307 pages; 1982). This book refutes John Maxwell’s Sacro-Sancta Regnum Majestus, which supported the divine right of kings. Answering fortyfour questions, Lex Rex argues for limited government and the restraint of monarchical power. It vindicates the covenant rights of the people against absolute monarchy.

Nearly every member of the Westminster Assembly owned a copy of Lex Rex. It remains one of the most comprehensive expressions of Calvinistic political theory. Some scholars say it was a major influence in the formation of modern political theory.

The Power of Faith and Prayer (RP; 88 pages; 1991). This slender paperback, first reprinted since 1713, offers teaching on the miracle of Christ in healing the two blind men (Matt. 9:27-31). Especially instructive are Rutherford’s comments in Chapter 5 on the reflex action of the faith of the blind man. This book is written in Rutherford’s devotional, Christcentered, quaint style.

Quaint Sermons of Samuel Rutherford (SDG; 384 pages; 1999). This collection of sermons, published first in 1885, was taken from a volume of manuscripts compiled in shorthand by a listener. Among the eighteen sermons are: “Fear Not,” “Weeping Mary at the Sepulcher,” “The Forlorn Son,” “The Apostle’s Choice,” and “The Spouse’s Longing for Christ.” The warmth of
Rutherford’s preaching is clearly evident in this collection.

Rutherford’s Catechism: or, The Sum of Christian Religion (BB; 105 pages; 1998). Like many Scottish divines, Rutherford was a keen catechist. He drafted this catechism for his Anwoth flock. It is a compact primer of Reformed theology.

This edition of Rutherford’s catechism is based on Alexander Mitchell’s collection, Catechisms of the Second Reformation (1886). It is vintage Rutherford; many of the metaphors and quaint words are also found in Letters. Noteworthy for its pithiness and numerous scriptural proof texts, this catechism was probably completed at the Westminster Assembly where Rutherford was asked to suggest catechetical materials.

Catechizing was very important to Rutherford. In a letter to his Anwoth flock, he wrote, “If ye fall away and forget [the good doctrine] and that catechism I taught you, the Lord judge between you and me” (Letter 167).

The Trial and Triumph of Faith (BTT; 406 pages; 2001). Originally published in 1645, this book contains twenty-seven sermons on Christ’s saving work in the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15 and Mark 7). Rutherford sees the woman as an example of Christ’s new creation, “a flower planted and watered by Christ’s own hand.” He says, “To any seeking Jesus Christ, this text crieth, ‘Come and see.’” In nearly every sermon, Rutherford shows the overflowing grace of Christ to Gentiles. He opens up the nature of genuine prayer and addresses practical aspects of the trial of faith. Throughout, he also speaks against antinomianism and other doctrinal errors.

Like Letters, these sermons show Rutherford’s devotion to Christ as well as the poetic and experiential gifts that made his preaching so moving. Here is one example: “Christ, for this cause especially, left the bosom of God, and was clothed with flesh and our nature, that he might be a mass, a sea, and boundless river of visible, living, and breathing grace, swelling up to the highest banks of not only the habitable world, but the sides also of the heaven of heavens, to over-water men and angels” (p. 11).


Excerpt from Meet the Puritans
by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
Posted with permission on by Reformation Heritage Books