Rutherford for the 21st Century (Part II)
Editor's Note: This is the second part of a four-part series on the life and relevance of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661). Read part one here.
Rutherford received the M.A. degree in 1621 from Edinburgh and, two years later, was appointed Regent of Humanity for the university. He was chosen for this position over three other candidates—who far exceeded him in years—because of his "eminent abilities of mind, and vertuous [sic] disposition." Shortly after being named Regent in 1623, however, Rutherford was embroiled in two controversies that called this virtuous disposition into question and resulted in his being removed from the university. The more serious of the two controversies is recorded in the city records of Edinburgh for February 3, 1626. There we are told by the Principal of the university John Adamson that Rutherford had committed a great scandal by falling in fornication with his eventual wife Eupham Hamilton. Unfortunately, this account does not completely square with the university's record, which states that Rutherford resigned on account of an "irregular marriage."
Because the details lying behind this charge are nowhere given, a great debate has ensued over the years as to what exactly happened. Those who dismiss Adamson's charge against Rutherford do so largely on the basis of the difficulty they have in believing that Rutherford could commit fornication one year and then be appointed minister in Anwoth the next. While this is a legitimate point that ought not to be treated cavalierly, it, nevertheless, seems best to conclude that Adamson's charge was in fact correct. For one thing, the committee that was formed to investigate the charge against Rutherford and to appoint a replacement for him in the event that the charge was substantiated, did in fact appoint a replacement, which suggests that they did in fact find that the charge was substantiated.
Before moving on, it may be helpful to pause for a moment and to consider what lessons there might be for us to learn from Rutherford's sin of fornication. There is, in the first place, a stark warning here to those who are ministers of the Gospel or who are candidates for the ministry. The allurement of sexual immorality has ensnared far too many men and done untold harm (from a human perspective) to the cause of Christ. We need to be on guard against this in our own lives. In the second place, there is a warning here to those who might think they are above this sin and that something like this could never happen to them. Although it is true that Rutherford was probably not converted at the time he fell—as we will soon see—he was nevertheless described as being of a "vertuous disposition." The example of Rutherford and many other at least outwardly godly men should be enough to alarm us and to teach us that none of us, no matter how virtuous, are above the reaches of this (or any other) sin.
This was clearly a profoundly difficult time in Rutherford's life, one in which he was confronted like never before with the corruption of his own heart. As a result, Rutherford appears to have experienced Christian conversion. On this there is little disagreement among his biographers; even some of those who deny the charges of fornication still trace his conversion to this point in time. If they are right that this event did precipitate Rutherford's conversion, then it would help to explain why he might have been shown leniency and been appointed as minister in Anwoth only a little over a year after committing what certainly would have been a serious sin in the eyes of the church.
One of the most convincing reasons for tracing Rutherford's conversion to the time of the fornication scandal is that this event sets the paradigm for the remainder of Rutherford's Christian life. From this point on, Rutherford's Christianity becomes deeply experiential, which one would expect to find following conversion, especially a conversion brought on by a public humiliation such as Rutherford endured. Beginning at this decisive moment and continuing throughout the remainder of his days, Rutherford's life becomes marked by a profound sensitivity to the sinfulness of his own sin. And this, in turn, ensured that his life would also be marked by a profound gratitude and an overwhelming appreciation for what Christ accomplished on the cross on his behalf. These two aspects of Rutherford's life—a profound awareness of his sin and a profound gratitude for Christ's finished work on the cross—will uniquely qualify and equip him to speak so powerfully to the souls of others.
Rutherford's Ministry in Anwoth
Sometime in mid-1627, Rutherford was called to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in Galloway, in the southwest of Scotland. The church building—the stone ruins of which still stand—is reported to measure 18' wide by 60' long. And, as those who have seen it will testify, it seems much smaller than that in actual fact. (Many churches today have Sunday School rooms that are bigger!) But as insignificant as Anwoth was in terms of its population, it had a geographical and a political importance that far outpaced its size. Anwoth was located on the highway between England and Ireland, and it was the parish of the Viscount Kenmure. Kenmure's wife, Jane Campbell—one of Rutherford's closest friends and correspondents—was the sister of Lord Lorne (Archibald Campbell), who was later to become the Marquis of Argyle and the most powerful nobleman in all Scotland.
However, when Rutherford accepted the call to come to Anwoth in 1627, these political factors remained quite unknown to him. We see something of Rutherford's humility and his lack of earthly ambition in the fact that he accepted the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in the first place and, in the second place, that he did so at a stipend that was significantly less than the average for his day (n.b., Rutherford's stipend was approximately 40% of the going rate for the day!). Perhaps because of his public scandal with his eventual wife, Rutherford felt unworthy of a larger parish with a larger stipend. Whatever the case may be, he still exhibited a selflessness and humility that is rarely seen today in the church. Some ministers tend to look for the most significant calls they can with the largest salary packages they can get. Rutherford's humble and unassuming approach was an altogether different thing.
More interestingly, Rutherford not only chose to accept the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth for an extremely low stipend, but he also chose not to leave once he got there. The General Assembly actually had to force him to leave in 1639, in order that the church might make better use of his talents and gifts as a professor of divinity at St. Andrews University. Rutherford did not play on his newly acquired political connections in Anwoth to seek wider fields of influence for himself or to magnify his own name. Nor did he seek to move on to greener pastures. He preferred to stay where God had placed him. Of course, one possible explanation for Rutherford's not wanting to leave Anwoth is that he did not want to be taken away from the political connections that he had so recently established there and that he wanted to capitalize on them for the propagation of the cause of Christ in Scotland. But, even if that is true, it does not change the fact that Rutherford's overriding motivations were not selfish but wholly selfless. In a way that is contrary to much contemporary thought, Rutherford placed a far lower value on himself and his own ministry than did the church at large.
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 three!