Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
All students of church history are agreed that from the time of the apostles to today the history of the church of Christ has never seen two greater assemblies than the Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly. It is a surprising thing that they were both held in the first half of the 17th century—indeed that they were held within 25 years of each other. The times must have been particularly important or dangerous for the church of Christ, for God to give to His people two assemblies such as the world has never known. It was a remarkable age.
While God blessed the Westminster Assembly with many great men, one man is outstanding, and we choose to tell something of the Westminster Assembly by a sketch of this towering man of God, Samuel Rutherford.
It is strange that more is known about the early life of other of the saints in the Middle Ages than there is about the early life of these men of God who were instrumental in the work of reformation in the church. But so it is also with Samuel Rutherford. His early life is lost in the mists of forgotten centuries.
He was born around 1600 in a small farming community near Nesbit, in the southern part of the lowlands of Scotland, in the presbytery of Judburgh. His parents were farmers and he was one of three sons. How spiritually minded and God-fearing the family was remains a mystery. There is some reason to believe that Samuel did not receive much spiritual instruction and that his conversion took place at a later date. An old story, however, speaks of the fact that as a little boy he was barely saved from drowning in a well and that, in gratitude to God, his father dedicated Samuel to the service of Christ.
Even his early education is lost in the past. He probably received early training in an ancient abbey in Judburgh, and went on, at the age of 17, to the College of Edinburgh. Three years later he graduated with a Master of Arts degree, and was hired by the College in 1623, as Regent of Humanity. This post was about the lowest post one could hold in the faculty. The teacher was responsible for teaching Latin to the students who entered the College, for all the instruction was given in Latin Andy the student, quite obviously, had to be thoroughly adept ,at -Latin to gain an education.
There were four higher chairs of philosophy, and the professors in lower branches could apply for any of these four chairs when a vacancy occurred. And, at the first vacancy, four professors did apply, including Rutherford.
It is a measure of the emphasis placed on a classical education in those Reformation days that all four were required to talk for nearly an hour on a given Ode of Horace, and the one most able to do this was chosen. Rutherford won without difficulty. He was on his way to being a classicist without genuine religion. But God’s plans were different.
His tenure did not last long, for in 1625 he was asked to resign for what was apparently a moral misdemeanor. This quite effectively put a stop to all his aspirations and hopes for a career in Scotland’s universities. That he carried the burden of this lapse with him is evident from what he later wrote to a young man:
The old ashes of the sins of my youth are new fire of sorrow to me . . . The devil . . . is much to be . . . for in youth he findeth dry sticks, and dry coals, and a hot hearth-stone; and how soon can he with his flint cast fire, and with his bellows blow it up, and fire the house!
This lapse and dismissal must have made a profound impression upon Rutherford, and it appears as if the Lord used this folly to bring him to true repentance and conversion. He resolved to enter the pastoral ministry, and set about studying for it in the University of Edinburgh.
In 1627 he assumed the pastorate of a small farming parish in the beautiful area of Anwoth in the southwest part of Scotland, where he ministered to a few farm families and a few nobility scattered throughout the area. John Welsh, a son-in-law of John Knox, had labored in this very parish up to 1600.
The story of John Welsh is itself a story of constant struggle between the faithful in Scotland and the Stuart kings. One incident, a kind of parenthesis in our story, will illustrate the whole matter. After Welsh had been imprisoned and later exiled to France, he was permitted to return to England. In 1621 his wife was admitted to the presence of James I. A chronicler of those days describes the interview.
The king asked her who her father had been, and she replied, ” John Knox.”
“Knox and Welsh!” he exclaimed; “the devil never made sic [such] a match as that!”
“It’s right like, sir,” she said, “for we never speired [asked] his advice.”
He then asked how many of John Knox’s children were still alive, and if they were lads or lasses. She told ‘him that there were three, and that they were all lasses.
“God be thanked,” cried the King, lifting up both his hands, “for if they had been three lads, I had never buiked [enjoyed] my three Kingdoms in peace.”
She urged the King to let her husband return to Scotland and to give him his native air.
“Give him his native air!” said James; “give him the devil!”
But her wit flashed out with indignation as she rejoined: “Give that to your hungry courtiers!”
The King at last said that he could return if he would first submit to the Bishops. She lifted her apron, held it out, and made reply in her father’s spirit: “Please Your Majesty, I’d rather keep his head there.”2
Rutherford’s ministry in Anwoth lasted nine years and was greatly blessed. His fame as a faithful preacher of the gospel spread, and people came from great distances to hear him preach. But his ministry was also filled with great sorrows. His wife died after a long and painful illness. His mother, who had come to stay with him, also died in Anwoth. His two children were buried on the hillsides of Anwoth, and he himself was very ill for three months so that he had difficulty preaching even once on the Lord’s Day.
Many visitors from the land passed through, especially travelers between Scotland and Ireland; for Stranraer, not far distant from Anwoth, was Scotland’s nearest port of travel to Ireland. The renowned Bishop Ussher, Bishop of Dublin, Ireland, was present incognito at a worship service.3
But Rutherford had yet greater sorrows to face. He was a bitter opponent of prelacy and of the Arminianism that almost always accompanied it. For a book he wrote against Arminianism he was summoned to be tried by the Court of High Commission in 1636. Found guilty, he was forbidden to preach or teach and was banished to Aberdeen in the Scottish Highlands and a city which was a stronghold of prelacy.
In this exile in Aberdeen he was shunned by the good citizens of the city who feared the wrath of the king and his minions. But he willingly bore this reproach as from Christ, and wrote to a friend: “That honour that I have prayed for these sixteen years, with submission to my Lord’s will, my kind Lord hath now bestowed upon me, even to suffer for my royal and princely King Jesus.” The two years spent here were not idle years, however; during that time he wrote hundreds of letters, sent to all parts, of the British Isles. These letters have been gathered into a single volume, and contain some of his best writings.
After two years, with the resurgence of Presbyterianism in connection with the signing-of the National League and Covenant, Rutherford, felt free to leave Aberdeen and to return to his beloved congregation in Anwoth. But after being there for but a short time, he was assigned the chair of Divinity at St. Mary’s College in St. Andrews. He strenuously resisted, for his heart was not in teaching but in the pastoral ministry. But he had no choice in the he would be permitted to preach in St. Andrews in addition to his teaching responsibilities. He told the Commissioners: “There is woe to me if I preach not the gospel, and I know no one who can go between me and that woe.” This permission was granted him and he moved to St. Andrews, an influential parish at the center of church life in Scotland.
Here he married again, Jean McMath, but this marriage also was filled with much grief. Although his wife outlived him, he lost his children through untimely deaths. The first two died while he was away in London attending the Westminster Assembly; only one of the five more children given him lived. God, however, uses even a man’s sorrow for the comfort of others. To one who lost a son he wrote: “Your Lord may gather His roses and shake His apples at what season of the year He pleaseth.” And to another he wrote: “I know there is a true sorrow that is without tears; and I know there is a real sorrow that is beyond tears.”
In St. Andrews Rutherford set about his new work with vigor and favor. He was to remain in this position the rest of his life, although he was to be of service throughout Scotland.
We will continue our story another time.