The life of Samuel Rutherford

November 27, 2017


Samuel Rutherford is probably best-known as one of the Scottish Commissioners to the Westminster Assembly which produced the Westminster Confession of Faith – he was extremely influential in what was produced.


Little is known of his early life. He was born in the village of Nisbet, near Jedburgh – and received a good education, going on to university. There’s a story (whether true or not I don’t know – it’s told in semi-apocryphal terms) of Rutherford as a child playing one day with some other children, and falling down a well. When his parents arrived they found him wet and cold but alive, sat on a hill. He explained that “A bonnie white Man drew me forth and set me down.”


Whatever the truth of that story, the hand of God was certainly upon his life – Rutherford occupies a really important place in the timeline of Scottish Church history. John Knox died in 1572, 28 years before Rutherford was born. And Rutherford is really the man that bridges the gap between Knox and the Covenanters.


In 1621 he earned an MA from Edinburgh University, where (in 1623) he was appointed Professor of Humanity. But then – and this is the shock-factor in SR’s life – he got himself embroiled in a serious scandal. The records of the University of Edinburgh show that SR resigned his position on account of “an irregular marriage.” What exactly happened seems to have been lost in the mists of time, but it seems to be the case that Rutherford fell into sexual-sin with a Euphan Hamilton, whom he went on to marry.


It appears that Rutherford – having lived a ‘religious’ life up to this point – was then genuinely converted. Perhaps the scandal and its fallout led him to God to seek forgiveness, but there does seem to have been a major change in his life, and within a year of this scandal he was ordained as a minister. One commentator on his life has written: “These two aspects of Rutherford's life - a profound awareness of his sin and a profound gratitude for Christ's finished work on the cross - uniquely qualified and equipped him to speak so powerfully to the souls of others.”


Rutherford became pastor of the church in Anwoth (Galloway) in 1627. Anwoth (Rutherford’s church-building still stands as a ruin) was a rural parish, and the people were scattered in farms over the hills. He had a true pastor's heart, and he was ceaseless in his labours for his flock. Apparently it was said of Rutherford, “He was always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechising, always writing and studying.”


He loved Anwoth, and its people, and his calling – though he suffered there too. His wife, Euphan, died at a young age, and their 2 children also died in infancy. It is said that Rutherford was well able to comfort others because of the comfort he’d been given by God in his own times of distress, and there were more such times to come.


Rutherford lived through tumultuous times for the church. These were the post-Reformation times, and a power-play raged between those of the Reformed faith which had gained a strong footing in the days of Knox, and those who wished to impose Episcopacy on the Scottish Kirk. This was, of course, a political, as well as a spiritual, battle.


In 1636 Rutherford published a book promoting Calvinism, and critical of Arminianism, which was the theological way of thinking followed by many powerful men at that time, including King Charles I. Rutherford was duly summoned to appear before an ecclesiastic court (though it was more like a kangaroo-court!) and was found guilty. He was banned from preaching, and sent to Aberdeen!

Why Aberdeen?

I don’t know! (Other than that there was considerable support for Episcopacy there.)

Interestingly, in one of his letters (to Lady Cardoness) Rutherford says: “I never knew so well what sin is as since I came to Aberdeen.” Obviously the Granite City made an impression of some kind!


22 months were spent there – in a room at 44 Upper Kirkgate. Although he was banned from preaching, in the providence of God he was able to be productive – he was a prolific letter-writer, corresponding with many on a whole range of issues ... including his dear flock back at Anwoth. In all these letters he implored his people to continue on with Christ.


Meanwhile, as Rutherford languished in Aberdeen, big things were happening in Scotland.

Charles I was trying to cement his grip on Scotland – by using episcopacy (i.e. church-government by Bishops) and, obviously, to do so at the expense of Presbyterianism. But the Scots wouldn’t give up on Presbyterianism without a fight!


1637 saw the Five Articles of Perth, and the attempted imposition of non-presbyterian practices in the Scottish Church. This takes us to the famous Jenny Geddes and her infamous stool at St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, and the riot that followed the imposed Episcopal liturgy. Then, 1638, there was the national covenant signed in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, as an affirmation of Presbyterianism.


With that the tide had turned against the king. This meant Rutherford could return to his beloved Anwoth, which he did – but only for a year, because after that he was asked by the General Assembly to become Professor of Divinity at St Andrews University. It was with a heavy heart that he left Anwoth again, but his considerable talents were put to good use in academia, and in the power-play that continued for control of church and state. One happy point of note is that Rutherford re-married at St Andrews – a woman named Jean who was renowned as a deeply spiritual woman.


But the next big thing is Rutherford’s participation in the WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY OF DIVINES – the renowned gathering that produced the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. It was in 1638 that the National League and Covenant was signed between the Scots Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians – and the Westminster Assembly began later that year, continuing until 1649. It’s widely acknowledged that the Scots delegates punched well above their weight there, and this was especially true of Rutherford, who was specifically commended for his contribution.


During and after Rutherford’s time in London, he published several significant books, including (in 1644) LEX REX (The Law, the King). In this book he argued that God alone has absolute power; and that, while the people are duty-bound to obey their king, nonetheless a king who perverted justice and oppressed his people must be restrained, even removed.


This is a highly significant and influential work – being said to have had major influence in the French Revolution and American Independence, and it is still regarded today as one of the most important contributions to political science of all time, and is still regarded as a definitive text and studied today


However, Charles II (for the obvious reasons of self-interest) didn’t think much of it: copies were ordered to be burned, as they did in these days; Rutherford was accused of treason, and was to have stood trial, and would almost certainly have been convicted and executed. But when the summons arrived, Rutherford was lying upon what turned out to be his death-bed, and came up with this spectacular response – he said: “Tell them I have got a summons already before a superior Judge and judicatory, and I behove to answer my first summons, and ere your day come I will be where few kings and great folks come.”


So he died before he could face trial, on 29 March 1661 – his last words were said to be “Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land!”... and the hymn, ‘The sands of time are sinking’ is based on Rutherford’s writings.

He was buried the next day at St Andrews, and these words from the inscription on his gravestone give a clear testimony to his life and work:


What tongue, what pen, or skill of men

Can famous Rutherford commend!

His learning justly rais'd his fame

True goodness did adorn his name.

He did converse with things above,

Acquainted 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 covenanted laws,

Most constantly he did contend,

Until his time was at an end.

At last he won to full fruition

Of that which he had seen in vision.


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