Samuel Rutherford: Biography, Letters & Quotes

Instructor: Joshua Wimmer

Joshua holds a master's degree in Latin and has taught a variety of Classical literature and language courses.

He never put on war paint or stood shaking a sword on the battlefield, but Samuel Rutherford nevertheless went to war and suffered for Scottish liberty. Find out more about the life, work, and words of this religious freedom fighter in this lesson!

Religious Rebel: A Brief Biography of Samuel Rutherford

When we think of a Scottish rebel, many of us might first think of someone like William Wallace. However, throughout its long history with England, Scotland's had a number of rebellious spirits stand up for its people's rights - even religious ones.

Samuel Rutherford (ca. 1600-1661), Scottish preacher, theologian, and commissioner to the Westminster Assembly
Portrait of Samuel Rutherford

Samuel Rutherford was one of those Scottish rebels for religious freedom, born the son of a farmer sometime around 1600 in the village of Nisbet, Scotland. For his early education, Samuel traveled a short distance to the town of Jedburgh, where he would've been instructed in Greek and Latin classics. In 1617, Rutherford left to attend what is now the University of Edinburgh, from which he graduated in 1621 with a Master of Arts degree. Soon after graduating, Samuel was appointed to the position of regent (professor) of humanity at Edinburgh; however, he left the post in 1625 following record of his 'irregular marriage' to Eupham Hamilton.

Despite rumors of scandal, Rutherford had no hard time obtaining a position in the Church, and in 1627 he began tending a flock in Anwoth - a very rural Scottish parish. Even after the death of his wife in 1630, Samuel was always noted for his passionate preaching and his empathy for his many friends and parishioners. Rutherford was also an active scholar of theology and put forward many different works devoted to fundamental principles of Christianity, as well as to criticizing the Anglican Church system that was invading Scotland. In 1636, Samuel published his Exercises in Grace, which condemned the English Church's rejection of predestination. It also resulted in his exile to Aberdeen, Scotland, when Church officials charged him with 'nonconformity.'

It was while he was in Aberdeen, though, that Samuel was able to write many of his famous letters to friends, parishioners, and even several affluent correspondents. After almost two full years in exile, government turmoil allowed Rutherford to slip out of Aberdeen apparently unnoticed, and he returned to Anwoth in 1638. The following year, Samuel was given a teaching post at St. Andrew's, and in 1640 he married his second wife, Jean M'Math. One of the most defining moments in Rutherford's life, though, would come three years later.

With the power of the monarchy in tatters during the English Civil War of the 1640s, Rutherford and other Scottish commissioners met at the Westminster Assembly. Between 1643 and 1647, the Assembly set about negotiating religious freedoms for the Kirk (Church) of Scotland, which favored Presbyterianism - a denomination of Reformed Christianity originating in Scotland and governed by councils of church elders (Greek, presbyter), as opposed to the episcopacy (government by bishops) of Anglicanism or Catholicism.

While at Westminster, Samuel also wrote his famous Lex, Rex (Latin, 'The Law (and) the King'). The text criticizes the notion of the divine right of kings, and its principles were said to be instrumental in the foundations of the French and American revolutions. They also caught the attention of Charles II, who once being fully restored to power in 1660 sought to have Samuel charged with high treason. By the time he received the summons, though, Rutherford was already deathly ill. He died 30 March 1661 without ever going to trial for his rebellious streak that ensured the religious freedom of generations of Scottish parishioners whom he loved so dearly.

Letters from Rutherford

  • To a Christian Gentlewoman, 6 July 1637

This is one of the many letters Rutherford wrote while exiled in Aberdeen. It demonstrates his true compassion for all his Christian brethren, even those such as this lady whom he was 'not acquainted.' In the letter, though, he addresses her in much the same way he does many of his faithful parishioners: citing biblical passages and urging her to find the blessings of God even in darkest circumstances. For, Samuel would argue (perhaps from his own experience) that enduring such hardships is a mark of being chosen by Christ.

  • To Mr. Thomas Wylie, 20 October 1643

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