Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
 
Critical Introduction by James Miller Dodds
Samuel Rutherford (1600?–1661)
 
[Rutherford was born near Jedburgh in 1600, and educated at Edinburgh University, where he became Professor of Humanity in 1623. In 1625 he left the University, and from 1627 to 1639 (with a temporary ejection for non-conformity), he was minister of Anwoth in Galloway. In 1639 he was appointed Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews. From 1642 to 1647 he was in London as a member of the Westminster Assembly of Divines. On his return he became Principal of the New College in St. Andrews, and subsequently Rector of the University. He died in 1661. His principal works were Exercitationes Apologeticæ (Amsterdam, 1636), Plea for Paul’s Presbytery in Scotland (1642), The Due Right of Presbyteries, and Lex, Rex (1644), The Trial and Triumph of Faith (sermons, 1645), Divine Right of Church Government and Excommunication (1646), Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself (sermons, 1647), A Survey of the Spiritual Antichrist (1648), A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (1649), The Covenant of Life Opened (1655), Influences of the Life of Grace (1659), and An Examination of Arminianism, and the Letters (dating from 1639 to 1661), both of which were published posthumously. Several editions of the Letters have been issued in the present century, and at least one of Lex, Rex.]  1
 
RUTHERFORD is a writer most of whose works have a memorial only in the graveyard of history. There was a moment when the Church which Knox had founded in the North seemed about to triumph in England also. Rutherford was at that moment the literary champion of Presbytery, and as such he was pilloried by Milton in the famous sonnet: “On the new Forcers of Conscience,” ending in the line “New presbyter is but old priest writ large.” His principal controversial work, Lex, Rex: The Law and the Prince, a Dispute for the just Prerogative of King and People, is a medley of politics and theology. In this book the revolutionary theories of the Scottish school which Buchanan and Knox had inaugurated, were for the first time expounded for the practical guidance of Englishmen. Fifty years before, Sir Robert Cecil expressed the current theory of sovereignty, when he described himself as “A vassal to the Creator’s celestial creature,” Queen Elizabeth. Fifty years later, the great preacher Bourdaloue, who was nothing if not sincere, assured James the Second’s exiled queen, Mary of Modena, in a sermon before the French Court, that God had chosen her “to display united in her person all the perfection of Christianity, with all the greatness of the age.” Rutherford sought to bring kings and queens from heaven to earth. He argued that the right to rule is divine only in so far as it is based upon a justly observed contract, express or implied, between ruler and people. “What excellency he hath as a man is the excellency of one mortal man, and cannot make him eminent in dignity, and in the absolute consideration of the excellency of a man, to be above many men and a whole kingdom.” Nor is the ruler above criticism, for “in the Pastors, Doctors, and Elders of the Church, there is a ministerial power, as servants under Christ, in His authority and name, to rebuke and censure kings.” On such a theory self-defence against a sovereign, and even retaliation, are obviously in certain circumstances quite justifiable. Lex, Rex was not a philosophical treatise, such as the Leviathan. Both in form and in substance it was a long pamphlet, adapted to the needs of the moment; it had a great vogue in the five years preceding the execution of Charles I., and again, in the next generation, among the Covenanters. The Revolution of 1688 justified its principles, but at the same time extinguished its vitality, for it had not the saving gift of style, and its scholastic argumentation could not in any case have long outlived the seventeenth century. Rutherford’s other controversial works are mainly directed against the Arminians and Antinomians, who have ceased to be interesting save in the pages of Hudibras.  2
  We pass from the brawls of the market-place to the cloistered, star-lit seclusion of those Letters, which the evangelical succession, from Baxter to Spurgeon, has united to declare seraphic and divine. Like Knox, Rutherford was a great father-confessor or director of souls. Knox, however, was no mystic. Rutherford had a quasi-oriental faculty of self-absorption in his ideal of “heavenly love.” This quality received partial expression in his sermons, but it is in his letters, where he was under no restraint, that its full development appears. The letters are the unstringing of a bent bow, the channel by which he delivered his soul. They are full of sympathy, but it is the sympathy rather of an angel writing from the seventh heaven than of a fellow-man. As an illustration, it may suffice to compare his efforts at consolation with those of two other men of a different stamp. Take a letter from Oliver Cromwell to his brother-in-law, whose son had been killed at Marston Moor. “Sir, God hath taken away your eldest son by a cannon-shot. It brake his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died. Sir, you know my own trials this way; but the Lord supported me with this, that the Lord took him into the happiness we all pant for, and live for…. You have cause to bless the Lord. He is a glorious saint in heaven; wherein you ought exceedingly to rejoice.” Here the sympathy is concrete and visible, but the tone is almost Roman in its repression. Take again, a letter from Fénélon to the Duc de Chevreuse. “Monsieur votre fils réussissait au milieu du monde empesté: c’est ce succès qui a fait trancher le fil de ses jours, par un conseil de miséricorde pour lui et pour les siens. Il faut adorer Dieu, et se taire.” What an admirable delicacy and tenderness of touch, with just a shade of artifice! The cause for rejoicing, which Cromwell expresses with a soldier’s bluntness, Fénélon barely suggests. Now take one of Rutherford’s letters to a mother on the death of her child. “A going down star is not annihilated, but shall appear again. If he hath casten his bloom and flower, the bloom is fallen in heaven in Christ’s lap; and as he was lent a while to time, so is he given now to eternity, which will take yourself; and the difference of your shipping and his to heaven and Christ’s shore, the land of life, is only in some few years, which weareth every day shorter, and some short and soon-reckoned summers will give you a meeting with him. But what, with him? Nay, with better company—with the Chief and Leader of the heavenly troops, that are riding on white horses, that are triumphing in glory…. Let all your visitations speak all the letters of your Lord’s summons. They cry, O vain world! O bitter sin! O short and uncertain time! O fair eternity, that is above sickness and death! O kingly and princely bridegroom! hasten glory’s marriage, shorten time’s short-spun and soon-broken thread, and conquer sin! O happy and blessed death, that golden bridge laid over by Christ my Lord, betwixt time’s clay-banks and heaven’s shore!” Rutherford, let it be noticed, first presents a vivid picture of those aspects of death which are most consolatory, and so far he is at one with Fénélon and Cromwell; but having done this, he goes further: he becomes aggressor instead of suppliant, and commands, rather than entreats, the sufferer to share his own ecstatic vision. This gift of communicating a fervid enthusiasm is the secret of his style, as it appears in the letters; but it has powerful allies in the aptness of his comparisons, in an abundant flow of racy Scottish idiom, in the simplicity and vigour of his metaphors (which with two principal exceptions are mainly chosen from out-door country life), and in his ready mintage of golden sayings which can be withdrawn and enshrined. The exceptional metaphors that give an air of alternate extravagance and quaintness to nearly every page of the Letters are borrowed, somewhat incongruously, from the imagery of the Song of Solomon, and from the devious practice of old Scots Law. Those of the former class at times sound in modern ears painfully grotesque and irreverent, and blemish the artistic form of a correspondence otherwise, of its kind, unmatched in our literature. But similar allusions may be found in the works of Crashaw and Baxter, to mention only two of Rutherford’s contemporaries, and we must not forget that the seventeenth-century Puritan revelled in symbolical interpretation, and demanded an unrestrained expression of personal religious experience. The Letters, as a Puritan classic, deserve a place beside The Saint’s Rest and The Pilgrim’s Progress.  3
 
 
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