Samuel Rutherford is perhaps the best known Scottish Puritan. But his life and history seem not to be as widely remembered as other Puritan ministers. Rutherford’s legacy lays chiefly in collections of his profound and moving personal letters.
Richard Hannula brings renewed attention to Samuel Rutherford in his contribution to the “Bitesize Biographies” series from Evangelical Press (2014).
Rutherford had humble beginnings and even a possibly scandalous start to his ministry. He ended up resigning his post at the University of Edinburgh after some possible impropriety with his fiance. This may have been just an ill rumor, and Hannula doesn’t take pains to sort out the facts too closely, but moves on in his simple and straightforward account of Rutherford’s life.
The next chapter of Rutherford’s life finds him as a humble pastor in Anworth. And there he labored in preaching and declaring the loveliness of Christ. His life was caught up in the perils of Scotland’s church, and his Reformed stance eventually landed him in exile 200 miles to the north. And it was this exile that may have birthed his precious letters. He wrote to his flock at Anworth and encouraged them to remain true to the Reformed faith.
Eventually when the Reformed party was in ascendancy, Rutherford was appointed as a professor against his will, in the University of St. Andrews, where he would serve for the remainder of his life. Rutherford’s scholarship was important and his devotion for Christ was unquestioned. He was needed to help shape the future pastors for Scotland. And so he did.
Rutherford was influential as a member of the Scottish delegation to the Westminster Assembly in London, which gave to the church the most enduring English confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith. He played a part in its shape, defending a Presbyterian form of church government. He also helped work on the catechisms.
This story includes the founding of the National Covenant in Scotland and the various wars against Charles I, and the eventual betrayal brought by Charles II when Scottish Covenanters unwisely accepted his promises in exchange for help. The intricacies of Scottish history still baffle me, but the phrase “for Crown and Covenant” has new meaning for me. Ultimately, the Crown was restored and went on to persecute the Reformed branch of the Church of Scotland mercilessly and again Samuel is found writing letters of encouragement to ministers who will soon lose their lives. Rutherford himself would have faced a martyr’s death but for his own sickness that eventually took his life. After his death, Rutherford’s letters were collected and published, and they continue to be widely readable and an enduring devotional classic.
This little book is not a true biography and includes no end notes or footnotes at all. It does recommend works for further study. It is a sympathetic biography too. And further, it is packed with quotes from Rutherford’s much prized correspondence and so it is part biography, part devotional classic in itself.
A few snippets from Rutherford’s letters may encourage readers to pick up this book and learn more:
I find it a sweet and rich thing to exchange my sorrows with Christ’s joys, my afflictions for that sweet peace I have with Him. (p. 64)
Believe Christ’s love more than your own feelings. (p. 64)
Your heart is not the compass that Christ sails by. (p. 64)
O if you saw the beauty of Jesus, and smelled the fragrance of His love, you would run through fire and water to be at Him. (p. 65)
It is not I, but Christ; not I, but grace; not I, but God’s glory; not I, but God’s love constraining me; not I, but the Lord’s Word; not I, but Christ’s commanding power in me! (p. 65)
You must in all things aim at God’s honour; you must eat, drink, sleep, buy, sell, sit, stand, speak, pray, read, and hear the Word, with a heart-purpose that God may be honoured. (p. 106)
Woe unto us for these sad divisions that make us lose the fair scent of the Rose of Sharon! (p. 115)
When the head is filled with topics, and none of the flamings of Christ’s love in the heart, how dry are all disputes? Far too often, fervour of dispute in the head weakens love in the heart. (p. 115)
Glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel’s land. [Rutherford’s last words] (p. 132)
The work makes for a quick read, but many of the quotations merit contemplation and extended meditation. In fact, this book makes me want to get a copy of Rutherford’s letters to read the quotes in their fuller context. I recommend this book for those looking to learn from the spiritual journey of a man whose writings continue to bless the Church as a whole. It is an admirable introduction to Rutherford’s life and a testament ultimately to God’s grace.
About the author
Richard Hannula lives in Tacoma, Washington, where he serves as the principal of Covenant High School and is an elder in a Presbyterian Church of America congregation. He is the author of Trial and Triumph: Stories from Church History, and of the Bitesize Biography on Hugh Latimer.
Bob Hayton has a BA in Pastoral Theology with a Greek emphasis and a MA in Bible from Fairhaven Baptist College and Seminary in Chesterton, IN. He is a happily married father of seven who resides in St. Paul, MN. Since 2005, he has been blogging theology at FundamentallyReformed.com, where he has also published over 190 book reviews. He can also be found occasionally at KJVOnlyDebate.com.