Have you ever had to write one of those difficult sympathy letters to a friend or family member going through the most dreadful of circumstances? If you are anything like me, you put it off for a while, then end up sounding trite, whilst tacking on a verse of scripture at the end to give it some weight. You are sincere in your condolence, but you fail abysmally to put it into words. Perhaps it’s because you are sitting comfortably in your own home, which hasn’t been repossessed, with your beautiful children, who are all doing well at school, have lovely friends and even lovelier prospects, and you feel a bit of a fraud?
Samuel Rutherford was the master of the “awkward” letter, which in his hands, wasn’t awkward at all. Perhaps, it was because he was supremely qualified in suffering. He knew what he was talking about. I have just finished reading the sixty-nine letters in the abridged version of Letters of Samuel Rutherford, and I have been struck by some of the letters he wrote to bereaved parents, fellow prisoners for Christ facing possible martyrdom, and friends about to meet their maker.
He had known heartbreak, outliving his first wife Euphame, all his children from this first marriage apart from one, Agnes, and six daughters from his second marriage to Jean McMath. So, when he writes to a grieving mother whose son has drowned in a river in France, he knows the sorrow she is engulfed by. “There is no way of quieting the mind, and of silencing the heart of a mother, but godly submission. The readiest way for peace and consolation to clay-vessels is, that it is a stroke of the Potter and Former of all things.” (Letter to Mistress Craig, St. Andrews, 4 August 1660).
When his fellow minister and good friend, David Dickson lost a son, this is what he wrote: “Your Lord may gather his roses, and shake his apples, at what season of the year he pleaseth. Each husbandman cannot make harvest when he pleaseth, as the Lord can do. You are taught to know and adore his sovereignty which he exerciseth over you, which yet is lustred with mercy. The child hath but changed a bed in the garden, and is planted up higher, nearer the sun, where he shall thrive better than in this out-field moorground. You must think your Lord would not want him one hour longer; and since the date of your loan of him was expired (as it is, if you read the lease), let him have his own with gain, as good reason were. I read on it an exaltation and a richer measure of grace, as the sweet fruit of your cross…” (Letter to David Dickson, St. Andrews, 28 May 1640).
To another minister, James Durham, of Blackfriars Church, Glasgow, whom he knows is on his deathbed, Rutherford does not flinch, writing a short, spiritual letter: “The Way you know, and have preached to others the skill of the Guide, and the glory of the home beyond death. And when he saith, “Come and see”, it will be your gain to obey and go out and meet the Bridegroom.” Durham died shortly after receiving this letter, aged just thirty-five. (Letter to James Durham, St. Andrews, 15 June 1658).
Most of his letters were written during his two year exile in Aberdeen, but after the signing of the National Covenant in Scotland in 1638, he was able to resume his ministry at Anwoth. Shortly afterwards, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland sent him to the University of St. Andrews as Professor of Theology at St. Mary’s College. He accepted reluctantly, on condition that he be allowed to preach at least once on Sundays, sharing the pulpit of the University church with Robert Blair. Between 1643-1647, he was one of six Scottish Commissioners sent to the Westminster Assembly in London. On his return to St. Andrews, he became Principal of St. Mary’s College, and finally Rector of the University.
When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Rutherford expected trouble to come his way, and it soon did. In 1661, he was charged with treason, deprived of his church, his university chair and his stipend, and put under house arrest. In a Royalist backlash, many Covenanters in Scotland were imprisoned, and the most prominent leaders were sentenced to hang. James Guthrie, the cousin and tutor of William Guthrie was hanged at the Market Cross in Edinburgh on 1st June 1661, and his head placed over the Nether Bow city gate. Rutherford had written to him earlier that year, covering all bases: “Think it not strange that men devise against you; whether it be to exile, the earth is the Lord’s; or perpetual imprisonment, the Lord is your light and liberty; or a violent and public death, for the kingdom of heaven consisteth in a fair company of glorified martyrs and witnesses, of whom Jesus Christ is the chief witness, who for that cause was born, and came into the world. Happy are you, if you give testimony to the world of your preferring Jesus Christ to all powers.” (Letter to James Guthrie, St. Andrews, 15 February 1661).
Rutherford expected the scaffold as well, and was prepared to die. In 1660, he had written to James Guthrie, Robert Traill, and other leaders imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle that: “If Christ doth own me, let me be in the grave in a bloody winding-sheet, and go from the scaffold in four quarters, to grave or no grave.” (Letter to James Guthrie, Robert Traill, and other brethren imprisoned in the castle of Edinburgh, St. Andrews, 1660). However, he was already on his deathbed by the time the summons arrived for him to appear on a charge of treason. He wrote back “Tell them I have got a summons already before a superior judge and judicatory, and I behoove to answer my first summons; and ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come.” He died peacefully at St. Mary’s College on 30th October 1661, and was buried in the Old Cathedral graveyard.
Running through his letters have been the themes of God’s sovereignty, the brevity of life and the privilege of sharing in Christ’s sufferings. Writing to another long-suffering saint, Alexander Leighton, a minister and practising physician from Forfarshire, he reminds him of the “surplus of glory,” which awaits him in heaven. This is a minister, who was cruelly and shamefully treated by the authorities. He had his face branded with the letters S.S.: Sower of Sedition, was fined the huge sum of £10,000, sentenced to whipping at the pillory, to have his nose slit, and his ears cut off, and given life imprisonment! Apparently, he was released after ten years by the Long Parliament, his fine was cancelled and he was awarded £6,000 compensation.
Rutherford writes: “O, but your sand-glass of sufferings and losses cometh to little, when it shall be counted and compared with the glory that abideth you on the other side of the water! …….If the wisdom of Christ hath made you Anti-christ’s eye-sore, and his envy, you are to thank God that such a piece of clay as you are is made the field of glory to work upon. It was the Potter’s aim that the clay should praise him; and I hope it satisfieth you that your clay is for his glory. Oh, who can suffer enough for such a Lord! and who can lay out in bank enough of pain, shame, losses, torture, to receive in again the free interest of eternal glory? (2 Cor 4 :17). O, how advantageous a bargaining it is with such a rich Lord! If your hand and pen had been at leisure to gain glory on paper, it had been but paper-glory; but the bearing of a public cross so long, for the now controverted privileges of the crown and sceptre of free King Jesus, the Prince of the kings of the earth, is glory booked in heaven.” ( Letter to Alexander Leighton, St. Andrews, 22 November 1639).
That glory was what engaged his mind more than anything else, and what he spoke of just before his death: “I shall live and adore Christ; glory to my Redeemer forever. Glory, glory dwelleth in Emmanuel’s land.”