Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.


In our last article, we left Samuel Rutherford busy with his work in the Chair of Divinity at St. Andrews College. Although he remained in that college the rest of his life, his work soon took him to London as a representative of the Scottish Churches on the Westminster Assembly.

Work at Westminster

When the Puritans in England gained the ascendancy in Parliament in England, they determined to bring true Presbyterianism to the entire realm. In order to accomplish this noble goal they called together an assembly of divines from every part of Great Britain for this work. This assembly has become known throughout subsequent history as the Westminster Assembly.

It is not our purpose in this article to give a detailed history of this Assembly. We are particularly concerned with the role played here by Samuel Rutherford—and even that only briefly. Let it be clearly said however that, with the possible exception of the Synod of Dort, no greater assembly of orthodox theologians has ever been assembled; and, indeed, the Assembly set the confession, liturgy, and government for all true Presbyterianism throughout the world in all following generations. Its shadow has been long and universal.

To this assembly the Scottish Presbyterians were invited to send delegates. Samuel Rutherford was chosen, an indication of the high esteem in which he was held throughout the Scottish Churches.

For four years the assembly met in the Jerusalem Room¹ of Westminster Abbey in London. Here in London Rutherford remained throughout the entire time, separated from his family. It is some measure of the devotion to the cause of Christ which these men possessed that during the four years’ separation from his family he did not return home when the two children he had with his second wife died; he returned to a home without children and to a wife who had grieved alone.

Sitting alongside his good friend and fellow Scotsman, George Gillespie, Rutherford rendered inestimable service to the Assembly.² The Assembly had to determine the type of church government which would prevail in England. Represented at the Assembly were not only Presbyterians, but also Independent Congregationalists and Erastians. The former proposed a form of church government in which no federation of churches would have any authority at all, but each congregation would be something of a law unto itself. The Erastians, on the other hand, favored a state controlled church in which ecclesiastical affairs would be regulated by the king. Rutherford fought long and hard for the Presbyterian form of church government which ultimately prevailed.

The Westminster Confession was the doctrinal product of this assembly. Its sound and virile orthodoxy, however, did not come about easily. No doubt the greatest threat to a soundly orthodox position was represented by Amyraldianism, which taught a hypothetical universalism in the work of salvation and the atoning work of Christ, and which insisted on a universal love of God and a desire of God to save all who hear the gospel. Again, Rutherford was adamantly opposed to such a perversion of the gospel and fought in the vanguard for the clear and biblically sound statements of the Confession as we have it today.

It was not until 1646 that Rutherford was able to leave London. So impressed was the House of Lords with his work that it sent a letter to the Scottish Churches at his departure which read in part: “We cannot but restore him with ample testimony of his learning, godliness, faithfulness and diligence, and we humbly pray the Father of spirits to increase the number of such burning and shining lights among you.”

Declining Years

Upon his return to Scotland in 1648, Rutherford became Principal of St. Mary’s College in St. Andrews, and in 1651 Rector of the University. His fame had by this time spread abroad and in 1648 Rutherford declined an appointment to the Chair of Divinity in Hardewyck in the Netherlands. The Dutch would have liked very much to have had him, and in 1651 he twice received the appointment to the Chair of Divinity in Utrecht. But his heart was bound to his fatherland, and both appointments were declined.

In the years following, Rutherford’s life was once again filled with sorrow. Charles I had been defeated by Cromwell’s armies on English soil and Charles had fled to Scotland. He was subsequently handed over to the English who beheaded him. But Cromwell’s successes did not solve Scotland’s problems and the Presbyterians in Scotland were bitterly divided over the question of the attitude which the Scottish Churches thought they should take towards Cromwell’s forces. Presbyterians were split, many friendships were broken, and bitter acrimony and fighting followed in which Rutherford found himself in a minority position. It was no wonder that the Scottish were the first to welcome back to the throne Charles II.

Charles II came to the throne with solemn promises to observe the National League and Covenant, but as was true of the Stuarts in general, lying came easy to him. No longer than his position was secure Presbyterians and did all in his power to force prelacy on Scotland once again.

During the days when Rutherford was at the Westminster Assembly he had written a book entitledLex Rex (The Law and the King) which had outlined carefully the position of Scottish Presbyterians towards tyrannical kings and had set forth what was the Presbyterian position on the relation between the people of Scotland, the Church in Scotland, and Scotland’s king.

Quite naturally, Charles II hated this book with a passion, for it argued forcibly against all for which kings stood. In September of 1660 the book was examined by the king’s commissioners. It was condemned, and the nation was ordered to turn in all copies by October 16. Those who refused to do this were declared enemies of the king. On October 16 all the collected copies were burned, with ominous implications, by the hangman in Edinburgh, and a few days later at the gate of Rutherford’s own college in St. Andrews.

Rutherford was ordered to appear personally before the King’s commissioners. This, however, he was unable to do because of his many infirmities and weaknesses. So he was tried, condemned, deposed from the ministry, and dismissed as professor in absentia. He was ordered to remain under guard in his own house until a further sentence could be executed.

It was indeed the “Killing Times.” Rutherford’s two colleagues were killed: Argyle was beheaded on the scaffold and Guthrie was hanged. Rutherford was next in line, but by the time his turn came around he was dying.

In fact, according to his own confession, he preferred a martyr’s death: “I would think it a more glorious way of going home to lay down my life for the cause, . . . but I submit to my Master’s will.” And when he was ordered to appear in court to have the death sentence passed on him, he responded to the messengers: “Tell them I behove to answer my first summons, and ere your day come, I will be where few kings and great folk come.”

It was the time when God’s saints were called to “love not their lives unto death.” Freely and joyfully they chose the way of obedience though it led across the dark scaffold, for it was for them the only way home.

Rutherford’s Character

In many ways Rutherford was a man of strange paradoxes, paradoxes of character reflected in his writings. He was a man of easy anger and fiery temper before whose fierce fury bold men quailed. But he was also of infinite patience and kindness towards suffering parishioners, and they loved him for it. When Rutherford was exiled to Aberdeen from his humble parish church in Anwoth, many of his people went the entire distance with him, walking on foot 230 miles, only to have to return the same dreadful distance. And when they left him at the gates of Aberdeen, they wept as those whose hearts were broken.

His writings could be, and often were, long, tedious, monotonously argued, and filled with extensive and heavy metaphors which all but crushed his thoughts beyond understanding. He could, however, write beautiful poetry that soared with the eagles. In our home library we have a small book of his poetry that stirs the soul.

In like manner, his writings could be, and often were, bitter, angry, intolerant, filled with seeming malice – especially when enemies of the gospel were the objects of his fury. But his letters, written from Aberdeen in the days of his exile, were warm, comforting to the sorrowing, encouraging to the discouraged, filled with the overflowing of a pastor’s heart.

While often times his writings sank beneath the weight of heavy and ponderous arguments and high-flown and over-blown rhetoric, sometimes his statements could come like a rapier. To a would-be professor in the University he said: “If you would be a deep divine [theologian], I recommend to you sanctification.” And on his deathbed he died with the words on his lips from which many preachers could profit mightily: “I betake myself to Christ for sanctification as well as justification.”

His forte remained his preaching. It is said of him that crowds were attracted to his preaching not so much by the persuasiveness of his argumentation, not because of the power of his oratory, not out of amazement at his exegetical skills, but because he preached Christ—and did so with passion.

He lived a faithful servant of Christ and died escaping a martyr’s death by a hair’s breadth. His legacy lives on in that towering monument to orthodoxy, the Westminster Confession.

¹ This room is surprisingly small, not much larger, if any, than my classroom in Seminary.

² George Gillespie was a man of ability equal to or perhaps even greater than that of Rutherford. Gillespie is known for his famous book, “Aaron’s Rod Blossoming.”