…which began January 1, 1661, under King Charles II, did something more than pass laws which were fraught with mischief and misery. It determined to send to a violent death the leaders in the Protesting section of the Church, the men whose advocacy of the Covenant was most unfaltering and outspoken. Four of these leaders were marked for execution “Samuel Rutherford; the Marquis of Argyll; James Guthrie; and Archibald Johnston, Lord Wariston. The first and the last of the four eluded the doom intended for them: the one because the finger of God beckoned him, before his enemies could accomplish their purpose; the other because he contrived to hide himself until Middleton’s power was vanishing, although in this instance the scaffold was merely postponed, and the infliction of the sentence came at the hands of those who had ousted the Commissioner from his place. As for the Marquis and the minister of Stirling, they were crowned at once with the thorny crown which the Parliament had twined for their brows.
Ever since the Restoration Samuel Rutherford must have guessed the punishments which his enemies designed for him. Three months after Charles’s return, the Committee of Estates in Edinburgh [Parliament] issued a proclamation, worthy in its rage and impotence of the angriest of the Popes. It decreed that all copies of the Lex Rex which could be found should be gathered before the middle of October, and burned at the Mercat Cross in the capital and at the gates of the New College in St. Andrews. The thing was duly done; but, “full of seditious and treasonable matter” as the Lex Rex was announced to be, its teaching lives to this hour.
Lex Rex is the plea of the Covenanters for the majesty of the people; for the truth that the law, and no autocrat on the throne, is king; for the creed that limitless sovereignty is the property of God alone.
The Stuart monarch could not check the advance of these principles by bonfires in the streets of Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Much of the book, it has been said, is “the constitutional inheritance of all countries in modern times.”
Through forty-four chapters, or “Questions,” Rutherford develops his argument. The book, says Dr. Hume Brown, is “tediously pedantic”; and no doubt it is so, if one should attempt to read it in its entirety. There are too many minute details, and the hard and syllogistic method of the debater is over much in evidence. But, every little while, the underlying enthusiasm mounts to the surface, and refuses to be quite concealed. With all the strength of his conviction and all the fire of his zeal the author fights on behalf of the liberties of the nation. Prince and beggar, he reminds us, spring of one clay; yet he grants that government has a divine sanction, and is necessary and inevitable.
Ay, but to whom does government belong?
Not to a royal James or Charles, but to the men and women of their realm. They are the true rulers. They can delegate their authority to this representative or to that, selecting whom they please. They may measure it by ounce-weight or by pound-weight. They may limit and moderate and set its banks and march to its exercise. They can take it to themselves again, if the conditions on which they bestowed it are disregarded and broken.
The king, beyond dispute, has his special dignity and stately privilege; but, when all is said and done, the commonwealth is more excellent than the king; and he is ordained to serve it as its shepherd, its captain, its leader. Is not the pilot less than the passengers, the tutor less than the children, the physician less than the patients, the master less than the scholars? He who by his very office is obliged to expend himself and, in the last resort, to sacrifice his life, for the safety of those who are denominated his subjects, must in reality be inferior to them. If they invest him with politic honours and prerogatives, they keep to themselves natural prerogatives and honours which they never can surrender.
These are axioms of the Lex Rex: “The law is not the king’s own, but is given to him in trust”; “Power is a birthright of the people borrowed from them; they may let it out for their good, and resume it when a man is drunk with it”; “A limited and mixed monarchy hath glory, order, unity from a monarch; from the government of the most and wisest it hath safety of counsel, stability, strength; from the influence of the Commons it hath liberty, privileges, promptitude of obedience.” These are the axioms on which our regulated freedoms of to-day are broad-based.
Looking back to Rutherford, we see his forehead lighted with the prophecy of the better era, and we know that, almost three centuries since, he recognized
what health there is
In the frank Dawn’s delighted eyes.
In the autumn of 1660 the book received its martyrdom, and in the early spring of 1661 the Privy Council and the Parliament were eager to have its author martyred too. He had been denuded of his offices in the University of St. Andrews, and deprived of his pastoral charge; but these confiscations were not enough. He was cited to appear at the bar of the House on a charge of treason. The messengers carried the citation across the Firth of Forth. But God had forestalled them.
For weeks, as Rutherford wrote in a letter, “a daily menacing disease” had been hanging over him; and he lay now on his deathbed.
It was a wasted hand which received the document the emissaries brought; but the voice had parted with none of its fire. “Tell them,” he said,” that I have a summons already from a superior Judge and judicatory, and I am behoved to answer my first summons; and, ere your day arrives, I will be where few kings and great folks come.” When they reported his condition, the Council declared with feeble malice that he must not be permitted to die within the College walls; but, even in the hostile court, one member had grace and fortitude to befriend him. Lord Burleigh rose and said, “Ye have voted that honest man out of his College, but ye cannot vote him out of heaven.” Nothing could be truer than those courageous words.
While he waited till it was time to “answer his first summons,” Samuel Rutherford must have been visited by moving memories. He was one of the most extraordinary men in an age of heroes; and he had many marvels to recall, as he tarried immediately outside the joys of what he loved to delineate as the Upper Garden of God.
He saw himself in the unprofitable half of his life “the little child in the Border village of Nisbet or Crailing, surrounded even then by miracles; the student and boyish Professor of Latin in Edinburgh; the offender, with whom the University officials quarreled because of some irregularity in his youthful marriage, the nature of which it is not easy now to unravel. These were the acid ingredients in the cup of recollection.
For it was the sorrow of his later years, as it was St. Augustine’s, that he allowed himself to reach manhood before he yielded his heart to God. “Like a fool as I was,” he says,” I suffered my sun to be high in the heaven, and near afternoon.”
Few things in the Letters are more beautiful than the earnestness with which he beseeches the young to consecrate their freshest hours to eternity. “It were a sweet and glorious thing for your daughter Grissel to give herself up to Christ, that He may write upon her His Father’s name and His Own new name.” “I desire Patrick to give Christ the flower of his love; it were good to start soon to the way.” To Earlston, when he was leaving boyhood behind, he writes: “There is not such a glassy, icy, and slippery piece of way betwixt you and heaven as youth the devil findeth in youth dry sticks and dry coals and a hot hearthstone; and how soon can he with his flint cast fire, and with his bellows blow it up!”
He is as vivid and as solicitous, when he addresses Lord Boyd: “It is easy to master an arrow and to set it right ere the string be drawn; but, when once it is shot and in the air and the flight begun, then ye have no more power at all to command it. And therefore O what a sweet couple are Christ and a young man! This is a meeting not to be found in every town.” Was it the thought of his own delays which stirred this yearning over others? He would have no one imitate him, “loitering on the road too long, and trifling at the gate.”
But this vision passed, and the dying man saw himself the minister of Anwoth. For nine years, from 1627 to 1636, he was the spiritual father of the quiet parish, lying round the Water of Fleet, among the soft green hills of Galloway. There was his manse, the Bush o’ Bield, where he rose each morning at three, to spend the day’s commencement in prayer and study. To its door, one unforgotten Saturday, Archbishop Ussher turned aside in the disguise of a traveller, to be hospitably entertained, and catechised, and reproved for his seeming ignorance of a fact so elementary as the number of statutes written by God’s finger on the Tables of Stone ” an ignorance explained when he spoke, next morning, in the Presbyterian kirk, on the new commandment of Jesus, “That ye might love one another.”
From the rooms of the Anwoth manse, the mistress of the home and more than one of the children went to God; “an afflicted life,” the husband and father wrote, “looks very like the way that leads to the Kingdom.” Close to the Bush o’ Bield stood the tiny sanctuary, as tiny as George Herbert’s in Bemerton; the visitor may still walk round its ivied and ruined walls. What a centre of zealous labour it was!” For such a piece of clay as Mr. Rutherford,” said James Urquhart, minister in Kinloss, “I never knew one in Scotland like him. He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always teaching in the schools, always writing treatises, always reading and studying.” The Sabbath was his crowning day. He had a “strange utterance, a kind of a screech.” But the shrillness of the voice could not hide the heart’s fervours, and the hearers hung upon him listening. Often, one of them confessed, he fancied the minister “would have flown out of the pulpit, when he came to speak of Christ, the Rose of Sharon”; then, indeed, he was “as a fish in the ocean, never in his right element but when he was commending his Lord.”
In Anwoth the sermons were prepared and spoken, which afterwards were given to the world under the title of The Trial and Triumph of Faith ” a retelling and expansion of the immortal story of that pleading and prevailing mother from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, who enmeshed Jesus in the net of His Own promises, and clung about His feet until she had obtained all her desire; those other sermons too, which were to be known in their printed form as Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself. Both volumes, in spite of the dull yellow paper and the dim and faded ink, palpitate still with their author’s affection for his divine Master. “We but play,” he protests in the preface to one of them, “about the borders and margent of knowledge of Christ, as children do with the golden covering and silken ribbons of an Arabic Bible that they cannot read.” Even the Middle Ages, he thinks, encrusted with superstition as they were, put their more prosaic and less exuberant successors to shame. “O, how rarely do the needle-eyed schoolmen write of Christ!
O, how subtle and eagle-eyed seem they to be in speculations –grave-deep, or rather hell-deep, touching His grave-linens, what became of them when He rose from the dead, and the chestnut colour of His hair, and the wood of His Cross, and the three nails that wedged Him to the Tree, and the adoring of anything that touched His body!” But the glow of the saint and singer who poured forth his soul in the Jesu ! dulcis memoria influenced every look and tone and gesture of the Covenanting preacher, and no mediaeval recluse was more rapt in his devotion.
His parishioners, the herd boys as well as the Viscount Kenmure, revered the “little fair man.” They recounted his untiring charities. In his very gait they detected his communion with God; “when he walked, it was observed he held aye his face upward and heavenward.” The home, the church, the “blessed birds” of Anwoth, the path among the trees which he paced talking with his unseen Friend –he beheld them again in dying, and thanked God for them.
Then, once more, his dream changed. He was a prisoner in Aberdeen. Thomas Sydserf, who had come from the northern diocese of Brechin to be Bishop of Galloway, was no lover of Samuel Rutherford; and his repugnance was heightened when the preacher published his book against the Arminians: Exercitationes pro Diuina Gratia he called it. He hauled him before the High Commission Court, in Wigtown and in Edinburgh, and had him deposed and exiled to the northern city, far enough distant from the familiar hills and tides. “I go,” the banished man said, “to my King’s palace at Aberdeen; tongue, pen, and wit cannot express my joy.”
But, if he carried music in his heart, he had his experiences of depression during his eighteen months of seclusion. It was hard for the impassioned servitor of Jesus to maintain silence. “I had but one eye,” he mourned,” and they have put it out.” Yet, long before he came to his deathbed, he saw that God’s purpose was one of purest grace.
A new field of work had been disclosed. If his lips were shut, his pen was busy. Two hundred and twenty of the Letters, those amaranthine Letters, whose glow and tenderness and pungency are the best demonstration of his spiritual genius, were sent from Aberdeen.
It is easy doubtless to deride the tropical luxuriance which marks the style of “Joshua Redivivus.” The clever, but supercilious, author of A Literary History of Scotland is only amused by the faults of taste and tact and discretion which the Letters reveal. Few will question that there are faults in the Letters, when they are appraised by literary canons alone. But, even before this tribunal, their grandeurs and sublimities are as conspicuous as their mistakes. And they have spoken to ten thousand souls, in the rhythm and cadence of the better country which is the heavenly. In “the little flock named after God’s own heart ” their writer needs no defense; for its members crowned him long ago. This, therefore, was the divine necessity for the loneliness and hatred to which Rutherford was subjected.
Perhaps another dream followed…
He was in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster, one of the Scottish commissioners to the Assembly of Divines. “For the great parts God had given him,” wrote Robert Baillie with the pride of a countryman, ” Mr. Samuel’s presence was very necessary.” Again, in his thoughts, he debated the doctrine of the Church’s freedom against those captains of Erastianism, Lightfoot and Selden.
Again he argued with the Independents; although now, more than ever, he felt that they were “gracious men,” and, “of all that differed from us, came nearest to walking with God.” Again he busied himself in writing his Peaceable and Temperate Plea for Paul’s Presbytery and his Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication.
Again he did his emphatic part in framing the Confession, and the Directory, and the Catechisms. Did he recall, too, the fresh and poignant home-griefs of these London years? “I had two children,” so he had related the sorrow when it was new, “and both are dead since I came hither. The good Husbandman may pluck His roses and gather His lilies in the beginning of the first summer months. What is that to you or to me? The Creator of time and of winds did a merciful injury, if I may borrow the words, in landing the passenger so early.”
Samuel Rutherford was at Westminster from the middle of 1643 to the end of 1647; and he was glad when, at length, he could set his face northward to his students and congregation and childless home –glad with that emotion which the poet calls a “bitter-sweet” delight.
To his students he returned; for, since the close of the Anwoth ministry in 1639, he had been Professor in St. Andrews. And there, in labours more abundant than any of his compeers, he lived the remainder of his life. They made him Principal of the New College and Rector of the University. Since Alexander Henderson had gone, he was the senior member of Scottish thinkers and teachers. Edinburgh tried, in 1649, to secure him for its own; and other lands coveted him.
Twice Utrecht sent him a call to occupy its chair of theology. But the tempest- driven Kirk, with its unhappy controversies and those dangers that loomed ahead, had thrown its hoops of steel about his soul.
He could not go away. “I had rather be in Scotland with angry Jesus Christ,” he said, “than in any Eden or garden in the earth.” So he continued in St. Andrews, until the Earl of Middleton bade him answer for his fearless witness against all arbitrary power in Church and State.
In that tumultuous Scotland which tugged so constrainingly at his heart-strings, he had, from the early days in Anwoth to the last hours in St. Andrews, made every class and rank in the community his debtors. We are surprised not by the number only but by the variety of his friends. There are godly women, like Marion M’Naught, the wife of William Fullerton, Provost of Kirkcudbright, to whom, because of her rare insight, he could lay open his very soul; or like Lady Jane Campbell, the Viscountess Kenmure, whom in her illnesses and depressions he comforted with many words of cheer; or like the mother of John Brown of Wamphray, most redoubtable of Calvinists and most learned of theologians. There are Churchmen famous in the transactions of the General Assembly, and humbler ministers scattered throughout the land, and young students of divinity to whom he commends not so much the erudition of the schools as the practice of personal sanctification.
Congregations appeal to him in their perplexities, and he never fails to send them a message as shrewd and penetrating as it is high pitched and spiritual. The nobles of Scotland, some of them headstrong and turbulent, others temporizing and disposed to halt between two opinions, are often in his thought and prayer; and he has for each a discriminating advice and a definite command. To Lord Lothian he says, “to want temptations is the greatest temptation of all”; to Lord Loudoun, “Events are God’s; let Him sit at his Own helm”; to Cassillis,” The Earldom of Cassillis is but a shadow in comparison of the city not made with hands; it is no wisdom to be silent, when they are casting lots for a better thing than Christ’s coat”; to Craighall, “Fear your light, stand in awe of it, for it is from God. Kings cannot heal broken consciences; it is common for men to make doubts when they have a mind to desert the truth.” He passes through life, giving to everyone who crosses his path a word in season and a veritable pronouncement from the King of kings.
Yet Rutherford was not himself a perfect man. There were defects both in his creed and in his character. His temper was fiery, and too frequently he made no serious effort to moderate its energy; “I am made of extremes,” he wrote to his friend, David Dickson. Dialectician and polemic all his days, he had scant mercy for those who saw the truth from other angles than his own. Towards the Resolutioners he showed, on many occasions, an acrimoniousness which was far from admirable. Perhaps it was inevitable that it should be so.
“The intellectual gladiator, the rejoicing and remorseless logician, the divider of words, the distinguisher of thoughts, the hater of doubt and ambiguity, the scorner of compromise and concession, the incessant and determined disputant, the passionate admirer of sequence and system and order in small things as in great “in the corner of an argument as in the mighty world outside”: thus Dr. Taylor Innes paints him in a portrait as masterly as any of Mr. Sargent’s; and so intent and vehement an ecclesiastic forgets at times the urbanities of thought and the courtesies of speech. But, when these deductions are made, he still rises to a stature attained by only the select few in Christ’s dazzling host” by a St. Bernard, a Madame Guyon, a Brainerd. Dr. Taylor Innes is as felicitous in depicting the more celestial side. This man, he says, was “impatient of earth, intolerant of sin, rapt into the continual contemplation of one unseen Face, finding his history in its changing aspect and his happiness in its returning smile.”
That is Rutherford’s glory, his absorption in Christ
…Christ, whom he lauds as “the outset, the master flower, the uncreated garland of heaven, the love and joy of men and angels.” Many temperaments, many goals; but for him there is only one Goal, and no other is worth the mentioning.
Samuel Rutherford went to sleep with Christ for his pillow; he awoke in Christ.
Doubtless he loved both the girl-wife of his youth and the home-companion of his riper years, although in him, as in others of his Covenanting kin, we note a certain detachment from the ties and tendernesses of the family; but, while he could endure widowhood, he would have refused the offering of life without his Christ. His heart, as he said, was not his own; Jesus had run away to heaven with it.
Christ had been near him in infancy, though he was a man before he confessed his Lover’s grace. Playing once with the boys of Crailing, the child stumbled into a deep well; and his frightened comrades ran to acquaint his father and mother. They hurried out, fearing that they would not see their Samuel alive. But they discovered him “sitting on a hillock, a little from the well, all wet and cold,” but unharmed and safe. How had he got there? they asked, and he answered, ” A bonnie white Man drew me forth and set me down.” The old story-teller adds, “It is thought it was an angel.” But we may surmise that, in later years, the boy ascribed his deliverance to One more excellent than the angels, their Lord, Who had “come riding on the rainbow and clouds” to rescue him.
And, if Christ was the Beginning, the End was Christ, beheld with clearest intelligence and firmest faith and consuming love. The Analecta preserves some “words that dropped from him at several times,” as, in that March of 1661, Rutherford lay in his room and looked for his Master. “I shall shine; I shall see Him as He is. I shall see Him reign, and all the fair company with Him, and I shall have my large share. Mine eyes shall see my Redeemer, and noe other forme. This seems to be a wide word; but it’s noe fancy nor delusion: it’s treu, it’s treu!”
These, too, were his exultations: “My blessed Master ! My kingly King ! Let my Lord’s name be exalted; and, if He will, let my name be ground to pieces, that He may be all and in all. If He should slay me ten thousand times ten thousand times, I’ll trust.”
Often he repeated the text, Thy Word was found, and I did eat it, and it was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart. “It’s no easy thing to be a Christian,” he said to one; “but, for me, I have gotten the victory, and Christ is holding out both His arms to embrace me.”
When the end drew near, Robert Blair asked, “What think you now of Christ?” “I shall live and adore Him,” he replied; and in whispers he was heard saying again and again, “Glory to Him in Emanuel’s land!”
That One Face was more and more his Universe.
Someone alluded to his own work of faith; but he was quick to interrupt: “I disclaim all. The port I would be in at is redemption and salvation through His blood.” To four of his brethren who visited him, he gave the counsel: “Pray for Christ; preach for Christ; do all for Christ; beware of men-pleasing.”
Once or twice he cried for “a well-tuned harp,” as if already he would participate in the strains of the worshippers within the veil. On the afternoon before he died, he predicted: “This night will close the door, and fasten my anchor; and I shall go away in a sleep by five in the morning.” And thus it happened; for at that hour on the morning of the 29th of March “the daybreak hour which, as Henry Vaughan sings, “best doth chime” with the glory of the divine Bridegroom, God hid Samuel Rutherford with Himself from the wrangling and cruelty of wicked men.
Between the Parliament in Edinburgh and the deathbed in St. Andrews there is more than the distance which separates earth from heaven.
Taken and Adapted from, Men of the Covenant, Vol 1.
Written by, ALEXANDER SMELLIE, M.A., D.D.
Edited for thought, sense and space