A new millennium calls for new biographies of the great, influential servants of God. Rev. Samuel Rutherford was indeed such a mighty servant of the Lord. He is to be remembered not only for the hymn “Immanuel’s Land” (which Anne Ross Cousin composed after being inspired by Rutherford’s last words), but also because God used him greatly to help establish Presbyterianism in Scotland, to guide the Westminster Assembly regarding church government, and to heavily influence the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.
Dr. Kingsley Rendell in Samuel Rutherford: A New Biography of the Man & His Ministry has provided a well-researched biography with over forty pages of indexed bibliography and documentation. Rendall is fair in recognizing Rutherford as a man of his times without forcing twenty-first century prejudices upon him. God blessed His Church with a Rutherford and also a Rendell to explain him. Rendell had a similar background of teaching theology and preaching in Scotland. Although Dr. Rendell did not live to see his book published, David McKay of Belfast, Northern Ireland, did the final editorial work that prepared it for the press.
The history begins with Rutherford’s farming ancestors in the southwest of Scotland. Some facts about his boyhood are recorded, but the author moves quickly to Rutherford’s professional life. Rutherford’s well-remembered pastoral ministry spanned the twelve years that he spent preaching and visiting in the little parish of Anwoth in Galloway. While he was in exile from his beloved flock, he wrote many of those sweet, evangelical letters compiled by Andrew Bonar in his Letters of Samuel Rutherford.
The remainder of the book chiefly deals with the many conflicts arising from Rutherford’s and his colleagues’ efforts to see Reformed religion solidly established in Scotland for the generations to come. At that time, many of the saints were monarchists, who believed that the king must be a major force in the governing control of the church —a “nursing father”(Isaiah 49:23). Other godly people with Samuel Rutherford saw the danger of one man having too much power in and over the church, like the pope in Rome. In 1643, Rutherford was chosen as one of the eight commissioners from the Church of Scotland to attend the Westminster Assembly. It was Rutherford’s insight and leadership that caused the form of government in the Westminster Standards to be Presbyterian. While he was in London, Rutherford perceived the great dangers that surrounded Westminster. Those dangers were the existence of two extreme views in church government. First, the majority of English Puritans had become used to ministering under episcopal church government (i.e. rule by a hierarchy of bishops), and many of them were willing to continue under that arrangement. Rutherford completely abominated episcopacy for several reasons: 1) It put one mere man at the head of the hierarchy. Christ alone is King and Head of His Church; 2) Episcopacy was forced upon the Scottish church by a compromising nobility and by persecuting bishops; 3) He viewed clerical robes as “the attire of mass priests” or the “garments of Baal’s priests”; 4) He regarded their kneeling for communion as idolatry.
The second extreme view, to which Rutherford referred, was independent church government, which was excessively democratic: 1) Rutherford could not tolerate a congregation ordaining ministers and elders alone without a presbytery (I Timothy 4:14); 2) Rutherford viewed their idea of gospel liberty as “every man doing that which is right in his own eyes”; 3) Rutherford considered those who made conscience their guide as people averse to being controlled by the clear and essential authority of Scripture; 4) In 1649, he wrote Against the Pretended Liberty of Conscience, saying, “Conscience is far too subjective a guide. Even when it is activated by the Holy Spirit, it is still too delicate a mechanism. Liberty of conscience is an extremely dangerous weapon that is used both against friend and against foe.”
Rutherford was a very sweet and spiritually passionate preacher. The common people and some of the nobility received his ministry gladly. Many were the souls brought out of darkness and death by his preaching of Christ. Yet his most well-known work is Lex Rex (The Law and the Prince), in which he shows the Law of God (Lex) is King (Rex), rather than the King (Rex) being the Law (Lex). The lovers of liberty in America can be thankful for God’s hand on Samuel Rutherford. The founders of the United States, such as Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Hamilton were men well-versed in Rutherford’s Lex Rex of 1644. Therefore, they boldly stood up to George III by framing the Declaration of Independence as well as the United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights.
Today, we can thank God for the legacy left by Rev. Samuel Rutherford, the Covenanters, and other saints who suffered persecution so that the generations to come might enjoy the fruits of righteousness in the freedom to worship the living God in accordance with His Word.
Rev. Myron Mooney is the minister of Trinity FPC, Trinity, Alabama.