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The Language of Samuel Rutherford
by Bill Carson
Why does Rutherford sound so different? Not only different from other writers, but different from himself? There are great variations of vocabulary, phraseology and grammar in his writings. Perhaps you have noticed that his sermons sound so different from his letters, and different sermons from each other, and even different letters? That they sound as though they were written by a committee? That is, well, because they were.
First, it must be recognized that when Rutherford lived, English was in a much more fluid state than it is today. Spelling, for example, was very much a matter of personal taste. Indeed, the shapes of the letters were still in a state of flux and had not yet attained their present forms.
Secondly, English was much more dialectical than it is today. People from different areas of Britain, or from different social classes, would use strongly different dialects of English. They would also use vocabularies leavened with French, Gaelic, Welsh, Latin or other words depending on their area or class. The dialect Rutherford used was called 'Scotch' and had many Gaelic and French words.
Thirdly, it must be admitted, that even though his writings are of the highest spiritual quality, they are not a high point in the history of the language. As Alexander Whyte points out, "what extremes of beauty and sweetness there are in Rutherford's style, [are] too often intermingled with what carelessness and disorder. What flashes of noblest thought, clothed in the most apt and well-fitting words, on the same page with the most slatternly and down-at-the-heel English." Whyte observes that "all his days he could write in Latin better than either in Scotch or English." But alas, his Latin was nothing to brag about, either.
For these reasons, every editor of his letters sermons has struggled to make Rutherford readable, without stifling or doing away with the qualities that make his writings so valuable in the first place. Each has obviously had a different degrees of sympathy with Rutherford, and varying degrees of skill. In some cases the same material has been worked over several times, which really makes the result the work of a committee!
Here is a sample of a letter, taken from a manuscript and reproduced by Bonar in his edition of the Letters:
Sir I would ere now have writin to you had I not
knowin yor health weaker and weaker could scarce ha
permitt you to hear. I need not speak. The way you know and have
preached to others the skill off the Guyd and the glorie of the
hom beyond death And qn he says com and sie it will be yor
gain to obey and goe out and meet the brydgroom What accession
is mad to the higher hous off his kindom sould not be our loss
though it be reall loss to the church of God Bot we count on
way and the Lord counts anoyr way Who fst bid you
cast your thoughts bak on wyff or children when he that said Leav
ym to me and com up hither or who shall persuad you to die or
liv as iff that wer abritarie to us and his alon who hat determined
the number of yor moneths. If so it seem good to him
follow your forrunner and guyd. It is an unkown land to you who
was never ther beffor bot the land is good and the company befor
the thron desyreable and he who sittes on the throne is alon a
sufficient heaven. Grac grac be with you
St Andrews 15 jun. 1658. Yours in the Lord S R
(Of course this is sample is still not quite the original, in that it has modern letters. Nevertheless you can see the challenge for an editor!)
The letters of Rutherford on Fire and Ice, then, have gone through the following course: the manuscript letters by Rutherford were collected, edited, and first published by Robert M'Ward, who was Rutherford's secretary. (M'Ward was in exile at the time, but that is another story.) The Letters then went through many editions. Andrew Bonar edited the letters again in 1891, comparing all the printed editions against what manuscripts he was able to find. This, the "Bonar edition," is the definitive edition of Samuel Rutherford's letters. In turn, I have taken the letters on Fire and Ice and modernized them by updating the (17th-19th Century) vocabulary and trying to smooth some of the rougher phrases and peculiarities of grammar. I have also eliminated most of the quaint Scotch words, which was hard to bring myself to do. (But I didn't have the heart to take out the "bairns"!) It is my hope that the reader will take the time and effort to acquire and read one of the print editions of the Letters. I am confident that it will be effort well repaid, and ample recompense for my labors as well.
The sermons on Fire and Ice are taken from "Quaint Sermons of Samuel Rutherford hitherto unpublished" which appeared in 1885 with a preface by Bonar. The volume consists of 18 sermons taken from a previously unknown manuscript, which appear to have been written down directly from the lips of Rutherford. In an introductory note, Rev J. H. Thomson explained some of the procedures he followed as editor of the sermons, such as retaining the Scotch words with footnotes explaining their meaning. The reader will readily see that he generally brought Rutherford into another century, and I have only made the slightest changes myself, not feeling it necessary to transport him yet again. (However I reluctantly decided to remove the Scotch words.)
So how can the reader decide, which part of what he reads is Rutherford, and which part is editor? I would ask you, can a candle illumine the Sun? If it glorifies Christ, if it helps you to be more like Him, then it is Rutherford. Soli Deo Gloria. Amen!
Index to Samuel Rutherford
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