This is a short biography that I did for Dr. Roy Blackwood’s last History Class at 2nd Reformed Presbyterian Church. I wanted to do this since Samuel Rutherford is my youngest son’s namesake, Samuel Rutherford Snyder. May he and my other two children inherit the same heart for the Lord their namesakes had.
Born in 1600 in the village of Nisbet, Samuel Rutherford was born to a well to do Scottish farmer and his wife. He had two brothers George and James. All three of the boys received the best education the times could afford. Upon seeing the talents and ability of Samuel, his parents decided to send him to the University of Edinburgh in 1617 where he completed a Master of Arts degree in 1621.
Samuel was not yet converted to Christ when he graduated from the University. In fact, he stated that his home town of Nisbet was a place where Christ’s name was scarcely spoken. 1624 is the year that is recognized to be the year of his Conversion. It was not a long drawn out process for him apparently. He describes his salvation in this way. “Oh ,But Christ hath a saving eye! Salvation is in His eyelids! When He first looked on me, I was saved; it cost Him but a look to make hell quit of me.”1
After two years of theological training he was called to a new parish, Anwoth of Galloway. Samuel Rutherford was the Parish’s first Pastor. Pastor Rutherford was very laborious, it has been noted by another Pastor that he seemed to always be praying, preaching, visiting the sick, catechizing, and writing or studying. He saw little fruit of his ministry at first but the Lord enlarged the people’s hearts toward him as he had a deep affection for them. Christ was all-loving to Samuel Rutherford. The Lord gave Samuel great ability to show the beauty and love of Christ for His people.
Rutherford also suffered loss during his early ministry at Anwoth. Both his children died in infancy in 1629 and his wife Euphum took ill. She died after 13 months of illness. He was placed in a school of affliction that made him a tenderhearted, compassionate, and faithful Pastor to a people who suffered much of the same brokenness. In his brokenness and sorrow, he learned the consolation of God and was able to lead others to the Man of Sorrows whom was also acquainted with Grief, the Lord of Glory.
Samuel Rutherford also loved God’s book. It revealed the person he desired to know more than anything else in life. It revealed Jesus Christ, truth, salvation, and a peaceful comfort, which was immeasurable to Samuel. He was a man of God’s book. He ordered his life by the love that revealed this God.
Samuel lived during a time when true revival was going on. The Reformation was that time of Revival. But the Reformation was also a time of trouble, trials, and persecution. In Samuel Rutherford’s love for the truth he started writing theologically. In 1636 he wrote a book that exposed the errors of arminianism. Arminianism is a belief that man is capable of coming to Christ without mans need to overcome spiritual deadness. This teaching says that man is the chooser of his own destiny despite what God wills or does. By exposing this false teaching Samuel exposed the bad teachings of a very prominent Archbishop of King Charles I.
Archbishop Laud was King Charles I right hand man and he had no sympathy for the Reformers, Presbyterians, nor the Covenanters of Scotland. Under the authority of Archbishop Laud, Bishop Thomas Sydserff, the Bishop of Galloway, summoned Samuel Rutherford to face charges of non-conformity.
In England the King was pronounced as head of the Church. This was very unbiblical as Christ is the only King over His Church. The King appointed how the worship was to be done and whom should lead the congregations. Most of the men the King placed in positions of authority in the Church could not tell you the differences between the Old and New Testament. They did not know the Ten Commandments, Lord’s prayer, nor the four gospels. Yet these men were placed in the Churches as Pastors. The King was violating his boundaries and he was ruining the Church Christ loved and died for. If someone didn’t recognize the King’s authority over Christ’s Church he was considered a non-conformist and faced charges of treason.
At the trial Samuel Rutherford was sentenced to banishment from being a Pastor and Preacher. He was commanded to leave the area and live in exile in Aberdeen. While he was banished he didn’t stop having a Pastor’s heart. He started communicating with the members of his congregation by writing letters. They are some of the most comforting letters full of God’s expressed love and counsel. The reason they are so good is because Samuel Rutherford was a man who loved God’s book. Those letters are full of wisdom and encouragement because they express what God wrote to His Church. After Samuel’s death those letters were gathered up and made into a book. The ‘Letters Of Samuel Rutherford’ are published by Banner of Truth Trust to this day.
During his banishment the Church in Scotland was still striving to reform from the influences placed upon it during the time the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings were prominent. It was also striving against the King who wanted to be in power over the Church in Christ’s stead. In 1637 the King (Charles I) tried to enforce the Five Articles of Perth which his father (James VI) introduced. The Five articles were a step backwards for the church in that they provided a way for kneeling during communion, private baptisms, private communion, confirmation by bishops, and observance of holy days. These were steps to reintroduce some of the Roman doctrines and to bring the power of the King back over the church.
The King sensed that he needed to reintroduce and enforce the Articles or his hold over the Northern part of his Kingdom would be weak. King Charles I then enforced Archbishop Laud’s new liturgy upon the Church. This enraged the Scots so much that it became a riotous situation. The result of his enforcement of the Articles and Laud’s new liturgy backfired on the King.
The Presbyterian Scotsmen decided to answer the King by way of Covenant. The Scots were a Covenanting people. Covenanting was a personal way to declare ones spiritual intent and resolve before a Covenanting God. They did this in the presence of each other very often. In February of 1638 the National Covenant was written up on deer skin and signed by men of all backgrounds. It was based upon the Kings Covenant of 1581, which was the beginning of the Covenanting Church and the breaking of the bondage which Rome had placed upon the people. The Kings Covenant emphasized Scotland’s loyalty to King James VI but would not tolerate any moves toward Roman Catholicism. The signing of the National Covenant brought a great revival and binding of the hearts of the Scotsmen to one another and a great recognition of Christ as King over all things for the Church.
The National Covenant was read and signed at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh. It repudiated popery, forms of worship that were alien to God’s written Word, and it confirmed Reformation principles that the signers adhered themselves to in both civil and church matters. Copies were distributed throughout the land for all to sign. It appears that Samuel Rutherford had not yet returned home from Aberdeen till June of that year so he could not have been one of the initial signers.
After 22 months in Aberdeen, Samuel Rutherford decided to risk his return. So he was received back into his Parish only to be summoned by the General Assembly a short time after to become a Professor of Divinity at St. Mary’s College in St. Andrews. He agreed only as long as he got to share the pulpit and preach on the Sabbath. He was so burdened for people that for him to stay silent and absent from the pulpit just wore on him physically and mentally. Being away from his flock at Anwoth caused him to worry for their souls. Not capable of feeding his flock face to face worried him so much. It was a pain he never forgot. He referred to his Sabbaths while in exile as ‘Dumb Sabbaths’. I can only imagine what that meant.
His time spent at St. Mary’s was very active and beneficial to the Kingdom. He lectured on theology, Hebrew, and Church History. He shared the pulpit with Robert Blair at St. Andrews. He also played a prominent role in the General Assembly.
In 1640, shortly after his arrival at St. Andrews, Samuel Rutherford remarried after having been a widower for ten years. He married a woman of remarkable Christian Character named Jean McMath. The Lord brought him a help meet to heal up the scars that wounds leave behind.
After the signing of the National Covenant a great revival in the Church started to appear. Along with that also came the Bishop’s Wars. King Charles I made many unsuccessful attempts to overthrow the Covenanters. During this period of time Parliament and the Royalists grew at odds. A Civil War ensued which brought Parliament and the Covenanters together against the Royalists. This resulted in what is known as the Solemn League and Covenant.
In the signing of this Covenant it was pledged by its adherents to promote a uniformity in church confessions, church government, and in the order of worship between the English and Scots. In order to do this an Assembly of Divines (clergymen) was convened which included Episcopalians (Hierarchical), Independents (Congregationalists), Erastians (who believe in states primacy over the Church), and Presbyterians. Their job was to work out a careful definitive confession of faith and practice on behalf of the English and Scottish Churches. This Assembly was the infamous Westminster Assembly. The Westminster Divine’s took four years to produce one of the best systematic theologies of the Bible set in the form of a Confession of Faith. It also produced a Directory of Worship and the Larger and Smaller Catechisms, which are still being used today.
Samuel Rutherford was one of six Scottish commissioners to go to London. Samuel Rutherford, Robert Baille, Alexander Henderson, and George Gillispie were the first four commissioners sent from Scotland. Samuel went full steam into his work with unabated zeal to oversee the Presbyterian form of government established in the English Church. He wanted to see the scriptural form of Presbyterianism government to replace the hierarchical form of episcopacy. The episcopal form had threatened the Church of Scotland so much that it needed to be done away with.
During his time in London he produced a trilogy to combat those opposed to Presbyterian system. To Rutherford the glory and honour of Christ was purely bound up in the nature and worship of Christ’s Church. So he worked hard at debating and setting up the right teaching of those doctrines. Even though Samuel was strong in his opinions he was generous in complementing those who differed from him at the Assembly. Rutherford also worked diligently at producing a catechism. He is given credit for producing much of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Life for Rutherford was still full of trials during this time. The civil war was still in progress, he lost a very close friend and two of his children from his recent marriage died during this time. He remained steadfast in understanding that the Lord owned life and could do as he pleased. He waxed poetically upon those situations of trial, with prose of how the Lord picked his roses and lilies as he saw fit. When they were just buds or in full bloom, the gracious Lord never wasted a thing. They were his flowers and he could pluck them up whenever he chose.
In 1647 Samuel returned home. The King and Royalists had been defeated in the civil war. Peace seemed to be coming. But more trials were on their way. By the mid 50’s Samuel had become weaker and sick. He felt like his passage to the next world was coming. He so longed for this final passage. He lived for the next life. He wanted to see the one whom loved him face to face. Rutherford lived life believing that this world was a training ground where Christ’s children were being prepared for their eternal home with Him.
During this time of slow degenerating health the King of England was restored back into power. He had deceived the nobles of Scotland by signing the Solemn League and Covenant pretending that he endorsed the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Vengeance was in the heart of the King against the Covenanters. Shortly after the King’s signing of the Solemn League and Covenant the Marquis of Argyll placed the crown back upon the Kings head. Immediately following this event the King’s deceptive nature was revealed and the Marquis of Argyll was imprisoned in the tower of London only to be executed in May of 1661.
Civil war ensued again and Samuel Rutherford was a marked man. In 1644 he published his famous work ‘Lex Rex’, the Law and the Prince. This book excited a lot of people and enraged the King. It was not original in thought but pointedly called upon the King to recognize that God was the only one who had absolute authority. The book strongly advocated obedience to Kings and authorities but the King who perverted Justice and oppressed the rights of his subjects must be restrained and in some instances removed from power. Lex Rex is one of the best defenses of constitutional democracy. The King condemned the book and copies were collected up and burned outside of St. Mary’s college where Rutherford had taught.
Not content with just the burning of the book the King set his sights on Samuel Rutherford. But he was already dying. When the Kings men arrived with a summons to arrest Rutherford for treason he was unable to go. He told 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 were few kings and great folks come.”
Samuel Rutherford died with his friends around him on March 30, 1661. His only surviving daughter Agnes was by his side. He commended her care to the Lord and joyed in the fact that he was about to see his Redeemer and be with him forever.
This reveals Samuel Rutherford’s heart in the matter.
“Our fair morning is at hand, the day star is near the rising, and we are not many miles from home; what does it matter if we are ill-treated in the smoky inns of this miserable life? How soon a few years will pass and this life’s lease be expired. We are not to stay here, and we will be dearly welcome to him to whom we go. O happy soul forever! Jesus Christ is the end of your journey; there is no fear, you may look death in the face with joy.” – Samuel Rutherford, The Loveliness of Christ
Samuel Rutherford lived like a saint and sojourner in this world. He lived like Abraham the father of all who are in Covenant with God. He died in faith having not seen the final fruit of his desire. Nevertheless, he knew the builder and King who was doing the work. He trusted in King Jesus. He lived, died, and lives evermore as one who built upon the foundation of the Master Builder’s work. He loved God’s book because God spoke to him through it. He was a man of the Bible, recognizing and extoling the King of kings.
(Heb 11:8) By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.
(Heb 11:9) By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise:
(Heb 11:10) For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God….
…(Heb 11:13) These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
(Heb 11:14) For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country.
(Heb 11:15) And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.
(Heb 11:16) But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.
Samuel Rutherford and his friends by Faith Cook Banner Of Truth Trust
Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology IVP