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Samuel Rutherford nearly ended his days on a scaffold. But he was already on his deathbed when he was summoned to appear at the bar of the Scottish House to answer a charge of treason. ‘Tell them,’ he said to the officers, ‘that I have a summons already from a superior Judge and indicator, and I behave to answer my first summons; and see your day arrives I shall be where few kings and great folk come.’ That higher summons he answered on March 29, 1661.
Charles II had returned to his throne largely by the assistance of the Presbyterians of England and Scotland, after the exchange of solemn assurances of religious and political liberty and tolerance. But once in the seat of power again Charles and his government showed their true colours. A carefully packed Scottish Parliament — ‘the Drunken Parliament’ — assembled on New Year’s Day, 1661. One of its actions was to mark for execution four of the outstanding leaders of the Covenantors, among whom was Rutherford, then Principal of New College and Rector of the University of St. Andrew. Not the least of his crimes was the authorship of a then famous book, Lex Rex, ‘the Law, the King’, a denunciation of despotism and a plea for constitutional monarchy. Its standpoint is today a democratic commonplace, but it was then adjudged as ‘full of seditious and treasonable matter’. The book was publicly burned at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh and before New College in St. Andrew. It was then that Parliament sent for its author.
Born in 1600 at Jedburgh and graduated at Edinburgh in 1621, Rutherford became two years later the very youthful Professor of Humanity, or Latin, in the University. In 1627 he settled as parish minister at Anwoth in Galloway. Coming into conflict with the authorities he was in 1636 deprived of his ministerial functions and banished to Aberdeen; where, though he was not imprisoned, he found the experience irksome in the extreme. In 1638, however, the Kirk Assembly swept away the bishops and restored Rutherford to his parish, and in the following year he was appointed Professor of Divinity at St. Andrew. From 1643 to 1647 he took an important part in the work of the Westminster Assembly of divines as one of the Scottish Commissioners.
Most of the letters, 220 out of 365, were written during his exile in Aberdeen. It is, perhaps, not surprising that they catch him often in moods of depression, grieving over his absent friends and his ‘dumb Sabbaths’. But there are also times when he has been caught into the seventh heaven and tries to tell of unutterable things. Yet he is constantly reminding himself and his correspondents that the reality of the nearness and love of Christ is not to be measured by our feelings. For the rest, the letters are here to speak for themselves.
I have not made an anthology of striking passages picked out of the context, but have preferred a representative selection of the letters themselves, though few are reproduced quite completely. The omissions are partly to avoid repetition: writing to several people in much the same condition at about the same time Rutherford naturally gives much the same counsel. Partly the omitted sentences are concerned with the ecclesiastical, theological and political argumentation of his day, and would either be of little interest or would take too much explanation before they could be made intelligible to most of us. The guiding aim has been to select what might be of interest and practically helpful to present-day readers. In some instances I have given information about the correspondents, but of many little is known and often that little would not be very illuminating. So far as the date is ascertainable the letters are arranged chronologically.
Rutherford’s varied and pungent vocabulary is a delight, but it presents somewhat of a problem. The usage of some words, such as ‘professor’ and ‘painful’, has changed since the seventeenth century, and the unwary may be misled. Many more of his words have gone out of use altogether and some are not even in an ordinary dictionary. Not a few are familiar only to the Scot. So I have done what I could by the provision of a Glossary. It may be noted, however, that Rutherford follows the characteristic practice of much sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writing, including the Book of Common Prayer and Shakespeare, of frequently using synonymous words together: as ‘niffer and exchange’, ‘I dow not, I cannot’, ‘wale and choose’. It is thus often possible to make a good guess at the meaning of an unfamiliar word.
Selections from the letters have frequently been printed, often in a very bowdlerized version. An admirable complete edition was issued by Dr Andrew Boner in 1863, and was several times reprinted. Samuel Rutherford and Some of his Correspondents, by Dr Alexander White (1894) is also to be commended to those who can find a copy.
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