The Letters of Newton, Chalmers and Rutherford
Few books minister more effectively to my soul than compilations of letters written by spiritual giants. These private letters reveal a private concern for particular souls. They are intended to comfort the downcast and encourage frail sinners on the brink of eternity to set their minds on things above.
Over the past year we have seen a sharp rise in the printing of these treasured letters. The most substantial projects from the Banner of Truth in 2007 thus far have been the publishing of the Letters of John Newton and Letters of Thomas Chalmers. These join the Banner’s monumental production from last year, Letters of Samuel Rutherford. So at the Shepherd’s Scrapbook we pulled out the scales to compare the three Banner volumes. Here are the raw statistics.
The covers and statistics make the three appear very similar but there are noted distinctions between them.
Because topics change from page to page, the most important factor in using the volumes of published letters is a good topical index. If you are preaching on assurance, you want to access the topically relevant letters quickly. The Letters of Samuel Rutherford published last year included a short but very useful topical index to all the letters (pp. 715-717). Unfortunately, neither of the two newer volumes were published with a similar straight topical index. But like Rutherford, the Newton volume does have a short topical summary in the table of contents. So for example, we know from the table of contents that the first published letter from Newton to Mrs. Wilberforce covers two topics: “Scriptural views of sin” and “Looking to Jesus.” These short topical summaries of each letter are very useful to navigate the mass of letters quickly. The Chalmers volume has none of these topical guides.
As we have come to expect from Newton (1725-1807), his letters are filled with rich spiritual content that has proven timeless. Each letter is tenderhearted, sincere and conveys principles of relevance for the Christian today. These 128 letters are only a tiny selection from his writings, but they are a well-chosen selection. Rutherford (1600-1661) is rightly considered the most famous letter writer in all of church history. Charles Spurgeon considered Rutherford’s letters to be “the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men.” It takes little imagination to see why. The letters of Chalmers (1780-1847) are noticeably short. While there are letters that rise to the spirituality of Rutherford and Newton (see excerpt below), many seem to have their greatest value as records of history. It appears this volume of letters may have been intended to be read alongside Chalmers’ Memoirs by those familiar with his life. A number of letters include details about financial accounts and other historical details. It’s worth noting that the original editors of Chalmers’ letters strove to publish them in chronological order whereas Newton’s letters are printed without concern to chronology. This reveals a subtle but important distinction between the purposes of the two works.
Both Newton and Chalmers are very easy to read. Readers unfamiliar with Puritan literature should know that Rutherford is much older and a bit tougher to read. A helpful glossary of difficult terms is found on pages 718-733 (apparently even for a reader in 1891, help was needed to refresh the language of 1661). All three volumes are high quality facsimile reproductions.
The Newton volume includes only a very brief biography. Both the Rutherford and Chalmers volumes come with length biographical introductions. Rutherford’s was written by Andrew Bonar in 1891 and Chalmers’ by Iain Murray in 2007. Chalmers was used greatly in the revival of the Gospel in Scotland, and the biography by Murray is outstanding.
When it comes to spiritual letter writers, John Newton and Samuel Rutherford are in the Reformed Hall of Fame. It’s great that these two works are indexed topically in a way that will make them very easy to use in sermon preparation and for topic-specific devotional times. That within one year, the Banner of Truth has managed to publish these works in Smyth-sewn binding and beautiful cloth covers is itself a grand accomplishment that will serve the church for many decades.
My concluding recommendations for readers looking to pick up and read some spiritual letters this Summer: Chalmers’ letters are often spiritual but will be tougher to navigate due to lack of thematic summaries and index we see in the other two. Start with Newton and then move on to Rutherford. For those more interested in historical letters, return to Chalmers. In all three cases, your heart will be truly blessed as you read letters from three able physicians of the soul.
All three volumes can be purchased directly from The Banner of Truth.
EXCERPT: taken from the Letters of Thomas Chalmers (Banner of Truth; 2007). Chalmers apparently received a letter from a woman who feared that she did not see enough of her own personal sin to draw near the Savior. He writes,
“I would first, then, say to you, that you are not to wait till you have mourned enough for sin ere you accept the Savior. You complain that you have not such deep views of sin as experienced Christians speak of; but how did they acquire them? They are the fruits of their experience in Christ, and not of their experience out of Christ. They had them not before their union with the Savior. It was on more slender conceptions of the evil of sin than they now have that they went to Christ, that they closed with Him, and that they received from His sanctifying hand a more contrite spirit than before — a more tender conscience than before. Do as they did; wait not till you have gotten their deep sensibilities till you go to the Savior. Go to Him now; go to Him with your present insensibility; bring it before Him as part of your disease, and He, the Physician of souls, will minister to this and all other diseases. But, generally, you complain that you are ignorant of how to go — how to believe. Now, this has long been a stumbling-block to many; their thoughts are how they are to believe, when their thoughts should be what they should believe. They look inwardly for the work of faith, when they should look outwardly for the object of faith. ‘For every one thought,’ says Richard Baxter, ‘that he casts downwardly upon himself, he should cast ten upwardly and outwardly upon Jesus, and upon the glorious truths of the Gospel'” (letter 240, page 301).