I used to keep a copy of the Letters of Samuel Rutherford on my nightstand to read each evening before going to bed. The grand theme of his letter writing was the loveliness of Jesus Christ–though even Rutherford knew that his pen could never express it fully. To read these pastoral epistles is to read the heart of one who was well acquainted with his Savior. For that reason alone I have often retreated to them when my own affections seem dull and faint and have found, again and again, a kindling spark for my cold heart. But the value of these letters does not end there. Rather, as a pastor writing to many members of his congregation, Rutherford displays the soul of a shepherd that is worth imitation.
Born around 1600 Samuel Rutherford was a man of remarkable talent both in learning and in preaching. At the age of 27 he became the pastor of the insignificant parish of Anwoth. It was the very ideal of a country church though far removed from influence and a place of little consequence. According to his biographer, Andrew Bonar, that was never a concern for Rutherford: “[Anwoth] had no large village near the church. The people were scattered over a hilly district, and were quite a rural flock. But their shepherd knew that the Chief Shepherd counted them worth caring for; he was not one who thought that his learning and talents would be ill spent if laid out in seeking to save souls, obscure and unknown.” After nine years of ministry among his rural flock Rutherford was banished from Anwoth to Aberdeen for his nonconformity to the Episcopacy.
It was in this period of exile that Rutherford took his pen to write many of the letters we still have. In them he reveals the distress at being removed from that place that had become so much to him. He wrote of his time in Anwoth as “fair days with Christ,” and it was to him a Bethel, “There I wrestled with the angel and prevailed. Woods, trees, meadows, and hills, are my witnesses that I drew on a fair match betwixt Christ and Anwoth.” In his absence he envied even the birds saying, “the sparrows and swallows that build their nests in the kirk of Anwoth, are blessed birds.” He once noted: “My only joy out of Heaven is to hear that the seed of God sown among you is growing, and coming to a harvest.” So great was his “heart’s sorrow” he once lamented: “the memory of my communion with Christ, in many fair, fair days in Anwoth, hath almost broken my faith in two halves.” But his absence would not continue forever and with the signing of the National Covenant in 1638 he was able to return to Anwoth. Nevertheless, in that same year the Glasgow Assembly wanted him to become the Principal of the New College in St. Andrews. His biographer wrote of the difficulty of this transition: “In spite of his reluctance, arising chiefly from love to his flock–his rural flock at Anwoth–he was constrained to yield to the united opinion of his brethren.” Rutherford would go on to leave his imprint on history–especially with his masterful treatise Lex Rex and as a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly–but Anwoth had forever left an imprint on his heart.
It is here that we learn a valuable pastoral lesson from Rutherford. What accounted for his deep love to Anwoth? It wasn’t because it was a place of great joy and happiness. In fact, it was during his time in Anwoth where he experienced heavy crosses. His wife was sickly and he once wrote: “[She] is so tormented, night and day, that I wonder why my Lord tarrieth so long. My life is bitter unto me, and I fear that the Lord be my contrary party.” She eventually died from her sickness as did two of his children. It wasn’t because Anwoth was a place of ministerial success. While his preaching was remarkable–even if he spoke with a shrill voice–he experienced little growth among his people once complaining he had spent his strength in vain: “I see exceedingly small fruit of my ministry, and would be glad to know of one soul to be my crown and rejoicing in the day of Christ.” It wasn’t because Anwoth could serve as a stepping-stone to the achievement of personal ambitions since he gave himself entirely to the work of the pastor. Thomas M’Crie said of him: “He seemed to be altogether taken up with everything good, and excellent, and useful. He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechizing, always writing and studying.”
So, what explains his love for Anwoth? Andrew Bonar gives the simple answer: “Anwoth was dear to him as the sphere appointed him by his Master.” As obscure, unknown, and inconsequential as his country church was, Jesus was there–and where Jesus is there is a little bit of heaven on earth. Thus, Rutherford cherished every soul in his sphere and even inanimate creation–the trees, rocks, and fields–because he labored under the sense that this is where the Great Shepherd of the sheep would have him. The church in Anwoth now stands in virtual ruins. But it is a lasting memorial to the bond between a pastor and his flock, and a reminder to all who pass by that the glory, joy, and crown of a pastor is those whom he serves (1 Thessalonians 2:19). There is a sweet contentment that comes in serving the Lord where he has placed you, and to do so with a deep and affectionate love that reflects the love of Jesus–a love that Samuel Rutherford was well acquainted with.
Fair Anwoth by the Solway, to me thou still art dear,
Even from the verge of heaven, I drop for thee a tear.
Oh! If one soul from Anwoth meet me at God’s right hand,
My heaven will be two heavens, In Immanuel’s land.