Rutherford for the 21st Century (Part III)

Rutherford for the 21st Century

Editor's Note: This is the third post in a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661).  Find previous entries here


A Ministry of Sacrifice and Suffering 

Being called to the small, obscure parish of Anwoth did not give Rutherford an opportunity to take it easy and get by with only minimal effort, which has no doubt been a temptation to many ministers in similar conditions. Instead, he gave the work of the ministry his all. Rutherford was said to be "always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechizing, always writing and [always] studying." He slept no more than six hours each night, in order that he might devote himself more fully to the work of the ministry. He regularly rose to begin each day at 3 a.m., spending the early morning hours in prayer and communion with Christ. Over the course of his lifetime, he wrote 13 major theological treatises, a detailed catechism, a short discourse on predestination, several political works, an account of the deathbed conversion of the Viscount Kenmure, and a testimony detailing the work of the reformation in Scotland. In addition to this, he carried on a letter-writing ministry with friends and parishioners until near his death in 1661. He served the church at the Westminster Assembly so faithfully that he was commended by the Assembly for his "great assistance" and "constant attendance." And he preached somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500-2000 sermons over the course of his ministry. 

Rutherford gave himself completely to the work of the ministry. He was a man driven to accomplishment for the sake of Christ. In this he was in good company; John Calvin was likewise driven, such that he once lamented his perceived uselessness as a minister of the Gospel because he had not done anything in the past month besides preach a measly 20 sermons and lecture a mere 12 times! Calvin and Rutherford were men who wearied themselves in doing kingdom good. Far from gaining the reputation of not being able to make it in the "real world" of modern commerce, Rutherford, and Calvin, labored sacrificially and relentlessly. The pastorate was anything but a fall-back option for them. They were servants pressed into duty by the most high God, and their work ethic reflected it. Young ministers and church leaders today would do well to learn from this kind of an approach to the ministry.

Rutherford's early ministry was marked from the beginning by profound difficulty. The first few years he spent in Anwoth were discouraging ones. In spite of his strong work ethic, Rutherford still reported that he had seen very little visible fruit after his first two years of ministry, and he doubted that there was even one person who had benefited spiritually from his preaching and teaching: "I see exceeding small fruit of my ministry, and would be glad to know of one soul to be my crown and rejoicing in the day of Christ." Even after nine years, Rutherford could still lament, "I fear I have done little good in my ministry."

Obviously this is Rutherford's own evaluation of his ministry. And perhaps it is an overly pessimistic one, stemming from his own acute awareness of his deficiencies and shortcomings. But Rutherford is not atypical at this point. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once reportedly once evaluated his own influential preaching ministry similarly by acknowledging that he would not even cross the street to hear himself preach. Most ministers, I think, are all too aware of their deficiencies and struggles as preachers and pastors to be able to evaluate the impact of their ministries with anything but a degree of pessimism. It certainly would seem to be the case for Rutherford. But although he may have been discouraged about the impact his ministry was having in Anwoth, his friends and parishioners were apparently nowhere near as melancholy. For, as many of his biographers tell us, Rutherford was in Anwoth only a short time before he gained a reputation for being an effective preacher and pastor—a reputation that extended far beyond the bounds of the parish of Anwoth.

Rutherford's early ministry was also marked by profound suffering, which makes the extent of his accomplishments all the more astounding (not to mention convicting, for those of us who have had much easier lives and, yet, accomplished much less!). Within the first few years in Anwoth, Rutherford had to face the deaths of at least one child, his wife, and his mother, and his own ill health. His wife, whom he referred to as the "delight of mine eyes," died near the end of his third year in Anwoth (only the fifth of their marriage), after a thirteen-month struggle with an illness that Rutherford later described as an "exceeding great torment night and day." Her death wounded him so deeply that even four years later he said that it was "not yet fully healed and cured." During his wife's illness, Rutherford himself struggled with a tertian fever for about 3 months and was unable to carry out many of his pastoral duties. In his Letters, he laments that "life was never so wearisome" as it was for him at this juncture.

Following the publication of his first theological treatise, Exercitationes Apologeticae Pro Divina Gratia in 1636—which he published after being in Anwoth for 8 or 9 years—Rutherford was called before the Court of High Commission in Edinburgh, found guilty of non-conformity, and exiled to Aberdeen for the next eighteen months. While in Aberdeen, he was kept at a great distance from his congregation, forbidden from preaching (his "one joy out[side] of heaven") and openly preached against in his hearing and insulted by passers-by in the streets. Though the signing of the National Covenant in February 1638 temporarily released him from his persecutions and enabled him to return to his beloved Anwoth, it did not provide permanent emancipation.

Ministry in St. Andrews

The 1639 General Assembly removed Rutherford from Anwoth, despite Rutherford's protests and those of his congregation as well, and sent him to St. Andrews to serve as professor of theology at the university there. Rutherford ultimately acquiesced to their wishes on the condition that he could share in the regular preaching duties at the town kirk. This request was granted, and Rutherford moved to St. Andrews in October 1639. 

The next 11 or so years were by far the most productive of Rutherford's life. During this time, he wrote and published 9 of his 13 theological treatises; he remarried and had 7 children with his new wife, all but one of which died before he did (4 of the 7 died during this 11-year period); he was selected by the church to represent it as a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly; he was named Principal of St. Mary's College and Rector of the university as a whole; he received at least three different offers to teach from universities outside of Scotland; and, besides sharing the preaching responsibilities in St. Andrews, he was widely sought after by the church at large as a preacher and pastor.

It was particularly this last part—the preaching—that Rutherford cherished most. No matter how gifted and influential he may have been in the classroom (and there is good reason to believe that he was quite gifted and profoundly influential), there can be no doubt but that Rutherford's real passion was to preach. That was the main reason he objected to the General Assembly's wishes to relocate him to St. Andrews. He could not bear to be kept from preaching. He had had his share of "silent Sabbaths," as he called them, while in exile in Aberdeen. And he did not like them one bit. He longed to preach. It was his "one joy, next to...Christ." And apparently it was something that he did quite well (as we will see next week). 


Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.


This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part four!

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