Editor's Note: This is the final post in a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661). Find previous entries here.
Rutherford as a Preacher
There is no getting around the fact that Rutherford was an exceptional preacher. Historian Robert Wodrow even goes so far as to refer to him as "one of the most moving and affectionate preachers in his time, or perhaps in any age of the church." That makes it all the more fascinating that he is said to have had poor elocution and a voice that was "rather shrill." One of his friends (note, a friend, and not an enemy!) once described his preaching voice as "strange...a kind of skreigh [or, screech], that I never heard the like."
What is it, then, that made Rutherford's preaching so moving and memorable? There are at least two things that I think set his preaching apart. We would do well to learn from each of them and to apply them to our own contexts.
Before moving on, we need to pause and consider what lessons and encouragements we can glean from Rutherford's preaching. I find it interesting that Rutherford was regarded as an exceptional preacher and yet his elocution and his preaching voice were not what we would look for in a preacher of renown. This should be a lesson to us that elocution, the sound of our voices, and even our physical appearances (remember, Rutherford was said to be "little" and "fair," not tall, dark, and handsome!) will not determine whether or not we will be great preachers so much as our relationship with Jesus Christ. Eric Alexander once said that he used to read E.M. Bounds' Power Through Prayer at least once every year to remind himself that the power in his preaching and in his ministry stemmed not from his gifts and abilities so much as from prayer and his relationship with Christ. Rutherford seems to have understood this. Humanly speaking, our pulpits will be weak until and unless we understand it too.
In spite of Rutherford's exceptional preaching ability and his all-out efforts on behalf of Christ, he still saw precious little fruit during the first few years of his ministry in Anwoth. And I think that there is encouragement in this also for current and future preachers of the gospel. There will not always be visible fruit from our labors in pulpit ministry. In fact, there may be seasons in which we receive no visible confirmation of our ministry at all. And yet we will still be called on to pour ourselves out and to spend ourselves in service to Christ. Numbers of conversions is not our primary goal so much as faithfulness in our calling. Even if we see little or no fruit from our ministries, we should be encouraged to know that a great preacher like Rutherford also experienced times when he saw little or no fruit from his ministry. This should make us more reliant upon God, who alone brings the increase, and less reliant upon ourselves and our abilities.
After the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, Rutherford again found himself at the center of controversy. His book Lex, Rex was declared to be "a book inveighing against monarchie, and laying ground for rebellion" and was, therefore, recalled and burned in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Rutherford himself was removed from his positions in the university as a professor of divinity and principal of St. Mary's College, deprived of his pastoral charge in the church, divested of his stipend, and placed under house arrest. He was charged with treason and called to appear before parliament to respond to the allegation. Many of his friends feared he would face execution along with James Guthrie and Archibald Campbell, the Marquis of Argyll. Rutherford himself said that "he would willingly dye on the scaffold...with a good conscience." But before he could do so, he became ill and was prevented from answering parliament's summons by what he referred to as an earlier and more important "summons before a superior Judge and judicatory." His message to parliament was: "I behove to answer my first summons; and, ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come."
Rutherford died shortly thereafter, near the end of March 1661. But he did not die without leaving one final exhortation for those who were gathered around his bedside. It was the same message that had consumed him in life that also consumed him in death—the loveliness of Christ: "He is the cheife of ten thousands of ten thousands! None [is] comparable to him, in heaven or in earth. Dear bretheren, doe all for Him; pray for Christ, preach for Christ, feed the flock committed to your charge for Christ, doe all for Christ. Bewarr of men-pleasing, ther is too much of it amongst us."
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!