Edward Irving

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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [1]

"the great London preacher, and promoter of a strange fanaticism, whose name thirty years ago was in everybody's mouth, and whose career, so strange, grotesque, solemn, and finally so sad, was the theme of the sneers of the thoughtless and of the wonder of the thoughtful," was born Aug. 15, 1792, at Annan, county of Dumfries, Scotland, where his father was a tanner. He was piously brought up, having been early destined by his ambitious parents for the ministry. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh, and shortly after graduation (1805) was appointed to superintend the mathematical school at Haddington, whence he removed in 1812 to Kirkcaldy to assume the duties of a similar but more eligible position. About this time he also began his theological studies, and, in accordance with the usage of his alma mater, he entered as one of her students of theology. After a stay of about seven years, having completed the probation required by the Church of Scotland, he attained, by action of the Presbytery of Annan, to "the ambiguous position of a licensed preacher and candidate-a layman in fact, though often recognized as a clergyman by courtesy; and he only waited an opportunity to escape from his present occupation to that for which he had been formally designated."

But not finding an opening immediately, and tired of the occupation of teaching, he recommenced study at Edinburgh, devoting most of his time to the writings of Bacon, Hooker, and Jeremy Taylor. At last there came an invitation to preach in the hearing of the celebrated Dr. Chalmers, who was desirous of procuring for himself an assistant in the great parish of St. John's, Glasgow; and shortly after Irving was chosen for this position, and so enabled to begin "in earnest the great life-work for which he had been preparing, and which he had anticipated with most painful longings.

A parish of 10,000 souls, mostly the families of poor artisans and laborers, composed the pastorate of St. John's, Glasgow, and Irving at once entered on its varied duties with all his energies." But as his association in this parish with Dr. Chalmers only afforded him an inferior place, he soon grew dissatisfied with the position; and, his preaching having secured him quite a favorable reputation, he was invited to the great English metropolis as minister of the Caledonian Church a kirk of Scotland in Cross Street, Hatton Garden. Early in July 1822, he began his labors in this little out-of the-way church, composed of only fifty members, occasionally enlarged by some stray Scotchmen visiting the great city. In a very few weeks he began to attract large congregations; in three months the applications for seats had risen to 1500; at length it became necessary to exclude the general public, and to admit only those who were provided with tickets. Statesmen, orators, the noble, the wealthy, the fashionable, occupied the seats of the church, and their carriages thronged the adjoining streets. His ability and success as a preacher are thus stated by a writer on "Henry Drummond" in the London Quart. Review, October. 1860, p. 275: "The preacher's great stature, his bushy black hair hanging down in ringlets, his deep voice, his solemn manner, the impressiveness of his action, his broad Scotch dialect, his antiquated yet forcible style, all combined to rivet attention, and made you feel that you were in the presence of a power. Nor did his matter belie the impression which was thus created, He was bent upon accomplishing the end of the Gospel ministry in saving souls from death; and at the beginning of his course, before the disturbing influences of his position had done their full work upon him, he preached with great force and effect." The influence which Irving exerted among all classes of society of London was really surprising.

Such an amount of applause as was awarded to his pulpit discourses has never fallen to the lot of man since his day, excepting perhaps in the case of Spurgeon. In 1824, a volume containing some of his discourses was sent forth, not as sermons, but under the title of Orations: For the Oracles of God, for Orations; For Judgments to come, an Argument in nine Parts. The author shared the same popular favor as the preacher, and three editions of the book were sold in less than half a year. "Aimless, and without a wide or lasting interest, curiously quaint in style and manner, while the matter generally bears upon the topics of the passing hour, it contains many passages of extraordinary beauty and depth, many an outpouring of lofty devotion, and frequent bursts of the most passionate eloquence" (Encyclop. Brita. 12:625). But, as the production of the preacher of the little Hatton Garden chapel, everybody who wished to be up with the times had to read it, and so it soon "became the talk of the town, and was criticized by each according to his position and temper." The book had many vulnerable points, one of which, not the least perhaps, was the thrust in his introduction against the evident lack of success of the ordinary instructions of the pulpit, charging it all as the result of the defective manner of preaching generally prevalent in England at that time. But if this arrayed a number of critics against him, an estrangement of the great body of contemporary evangelical Christians only followed his course of action in 1824. In this year he was called upon, as one of the pulpit celebrities of the great metropolis, to preach before the London Missionary Society.

He had long dreamed of a revival of apostolical missions, and to advance "these sublime fancies" this opportunity afforded him scope. For three mortal hours the vast assembly was held entranced by his gorgeous oratory while he depicted, not the work of that or any other body, but a grand ideal of a mission scheme after the model of apostolic times. During all this time the managers sat in painful solicitude, first for their usual collections, and ultimately for the damage that such a discourse must entail upon the cause in which they were engaged. But nobody could suspect the preacher of a design to harm the cause he was called to advocate. To his mind the missionary work was not the same thing with that contemplated by the society, and, as he spoke from his own inflamed fancy and full heart, his utterances were foreign to the subject as they viewed it. But the discourse was more than a blunder; it was a burning protest, though undesigned, against the spirit of cowardly prudence in which the work of missions was, and, alas! that it must be said, still is prosecuted. It unluckily struck precisely upon those points which annual reports and platform orators are usually careful to leave untouched, and by holding up the bright ideal it condemned the actual" (Dr. Curry).

However candid may have been his manner and true the zeal for the Christian cause which unquestionably impelled Irving at this time, the effect was to estrange from him many of his Christian friends. But the birth of a son for a time turned his attention from the controversy which his acts had provoked and to him, so fond of home life, atoned in a measure for the loss of friends. The child, however, soon died, and this additional loss incited him to the study of prophecy. His attention had already been called in this direction by Hatley Frere, "an earnest but one-sided student of the prophecies," who was propounding about this time a new theory of interpretation, the especial object of which was to establish the idea of a personal reign of Christ on earth. The study and translation of a Spanish work on this subject, generally attributed to Ben-Ezra, but really the production of the Jesuit Lacunza (q.v.) (published by Irving under the title of The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty), aided in "turning the balance of Irving's mind the wrong way just at the crisis of his intellectual fate. These prophetical studies met an original bias in his mind, and made him a fatal prey to religious delusion."

An opportunity soon occurred to lay before the public his favorite theory of the millennium by an invitation from the Continental Society to preach the annual sermon (1825). Like the missionary sermon of the previous year, it gave rise to considerable commotion, more especially among the friends of "Catholic Emancipation." England at this time was decidedly in favor of bestowing upon Roman Catholics unlimited political power, which Irving vehemently opposed. A good part of his audience left their seats before the speaker had finished his discourse, which, like the missionary sermon, occupied some "three or more hours in the delivery." To make a bad matter still worse, Irving determined to publish his discourse, enlarged and rearranged, in book form, and during the next year sent it forth under the title Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed, dedicating it "to my beloved friend and brother in Christ, Hatley Frere, Esq." "Irving now threw himself unreservedly," says Dr. Curry, "into the current that swept him away from his moorings.

By the strange fascination which often attends the study of prophecy and the expectation of a terrestrial millennium, he now came to expect the speedy coming of Christ to set up his kingdom on earth, and this wrought in him the usual results of excitement and specialty of religious thought and conversation. He had reached that stage of mental excitement in which almost every event becomes a proof of the cherished expectation, and the mind's own action steadily intensifies the dominant fascination. In this, too, he craved the sympathy of other minds inspired with the same sentiments, and these he readily obtained; a kind of mystic circle, among whom were Hatley Frere, now relieved of his isolation, the celebrated Rabbin, Dr. Wolff, Irving himself, and Henry Drummond, with others less distinguished, after numerous informal conversations, at length came together in a conference at Albury, the hospitable residence of Mr. Drummond, brought together, as Irving declared, by a desire to compare their views with respect to the prospects of the Church at this present crisis'"(comp. art. 9. "On Drummond," in the London Quart. Review, Oct. 1860). "Irving sat down with his motley associates, a giant among pigmies, the most docile of the company, and quite ready to yield his own' views to the superficial fancies of the least distinguished of the body, and to surrender his clearest intellectual convictions to what was styled the answer to prayer. From such sessions the only probable results followed: the fanaticism in which they began was heightened and confirmed, especially in the single mind capable of being damaged by it."

The popularity of the great preacher, however, continued unabated in the midst of all these difficulties; nay, his late meditations and yearnings rather increased his reputation, and soon a new and more commodious church had to be provided for the throngs of hearers that weekly came to listen to him. The money for the building of a new edifice was easily procured, and early in 1827 he was installed pastor of the newly-built church in Regent Square, Chalmers preaching on the occasion. "The transition from the little Caledonian chapel, so long thronged by a promiscuous crowd of London fashionable life, to the commodious National Scotch Church in Regent Square, with its well-ordered and well-defined congregation, marks the culmination and the beginning of the descent of Irving's popularity." Shortly after his removal to the new church, he again ventured before the public as an author by the publication of three volumes (1828) selected from his discourses preached since the commencement of his ministry at London.

Up to this time many of the extravagances of Irving had more or less displeased his brother laborers in the ministry, but no one had ventured to attack him publicly until "an idle clergyman called Cole," of whom Mr. Irving's biographer, Mrs. Oliphant, can barely speak with civility, accused Irving of inculcating heterodox doctrines on the Incarnation in the first volume of his sermons, which treats chiefly of the Trinity; first of the divine character, and especially of the person and work of Christ. "The perfect humanity of Christ was Irving's favorite theme. With the utmost intensity he clung to the idea of the brotherhood of his Master-an idea he held with perfect reverence. The first shock of the charge of heresy, and of heresy, too, in relation to his adorable Lord, utterly unmanned him. The last thought of his heart would have been to derogate from the dignity of his Master, his impassioned reverence for whom had probably stimulated the teaching which now bore the brand of heresy" (Lond. Quart. Rev. Oct. 1862, p. 193).

It would hardly be worth while to follow up the controversy incited by the impertinent, if not treacherous conduct of Mr. Cole in exaggerating "an error which should have been the groundwork of a brotherly expostulation," were it not for the fact that for these very views on the incarnation Irving was, some years later, deposed from the ministry. As we have already said, he was the last of all persons who could be led to believe that the views which he set forth on this subject had anything novel or unusual in them. All that he was possibly guilty of, says Dr. Curry, is that "he took in a larger view which contemplated the whole work of the incarnation of the Word as redemptive in that by it the Godhead came into vital union with humanity, fallen and under the law. This last thought carried to his realistic mode of thinking the notion of Christ's participation in the fallen character of humanity, which he designated by terms that implied a real sinfulness in Christ. His attempt to get rid of the odiousness of that idea by saying that this was overborne and at length wholly expelled by the indwelling Godhead helped the matter but little, and still left him open to grave censures for at least an unhappy method of statement. But under all this there is unquestionably a most precious Gospel truth, and if Irving was justly condemned for an unwarrantable misstatement of certain doctrines of Christianity, the orthodoxy of the age may be justly called to account for its partial exhibition of those doctrines. For centuries the Church has been actively occupied in setting forth and defending the doctrine of Christ's divinity, until that of his humanity has largely fallen out of its thinkings. It is quite time to cease from this one-sidedness and to take in a whole Gospel. Fallen humanity demands a sympathizing no less than an almighty Savior; and if indeed Jesus is to be that Savior, he must be apprehended by our faith, as man with man,' and as really and fully touched with a sense of our infirmities.'

The Church of Rome answers to the heart's yearning for human sympathy in the Mediator by giving that office to Mary; while our malformed practical creeds remove Jesus beyond our sympathies, and give us no other Mediator. The Church awaits the coming of a John, uprising from the Savior's bosom, to set forth in all fullness the blessedness of the grace of Jesus, the incarnate God, who hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows."' With this charge of heresy advanced against him, Irving set out on a visit to his native land "to warn, first his father's house and kindred, and the country side which had still so great a hold upon his heart, and then universal Scotland, of that advent which he looked for with undoubting and fervent expectations;" and brilliant was the success with which he saw his labors crowned wherever he went. For once he was a prophet who received honors in his own country. Wherever he preached, not only whole congregations from neighboring towns came to swell his already large numbers of hearers, but oftentimes even the ministers would adjourn their services and go with their flocks en masse to hear Scotland's noble descendant. While preaching at Edinburgh on the Apocalypse, the special theme of study in these later years, the services began at six o'clock A.M. Of these Chalmers writes: "He is drawing prodigious crowds. We attempted this morning to force our way into St. Andrew's Church, but it was all in vain. He changes to the West Church, with its three hideous galleries, for the accommodation of the public," and even then there was not room. As in Edinburgh, so was his success at Glasgow and other places that he visited, and we need not wonder that Chalmers himself exclaims "that there must have been a marvelous power of attraction that could turn a whole population out of their beds as early as five in the morning."

As if to augment the difficulties already in his way, in his candid and straightforward manner, he further estranged his friends of the Scottish Church by extending his sympathy to a minister of his native Church, a Mr. Campbell, of Row, who was just then under the odium of teaching false notions on the Procrustian high Calvinistic doctrine of the Atonement as set forth in the Westminster Confession.

But the grand and final divergence from his mother Church further resulted, not from the communication of any doctrinal excitement from the banks of Guirloch, but from a very strange phenomenon which about this time took its rise along the quiet banks of this river. For some time Irving had been pondering on the heritage of the gift of tongues (q.v.; (See Gifts) ), and was inclined to believe this spiritual gift to have been not only possessed by the apostolic Church, but an actual heritage of the Church of all times; indeed, a necessary condition for the healthy state of any Church of Christ.

These thoughts of his became convictions when seconded at this juncture by some remarkable instances. In the locality of Row, celebrated for the piety of its inhabitants there had lived and died a young woman, Isabella Campbell by name, of rare and saintly character. A memoir which her minister had written of her attracted the attention of people far and near, and many of them came as pilgrims to visit the spot where she had lived and prayed. These visits to the earthly dwelling-place, as well as the noble reputation, if not example of a departed sister, had a wonderful influence on the surviving sister Mary gifted with the same spiritual temperament, with powers of mind of no ordinary character, and, moreover, with the personal fascination of beauty." For a long time she had been afflicted with the same disease which had made a prey of her sister, and while lying, as all believed, at the point of death, she professed to have received "the gift of tongues," and, "as she lay in her weakness," the Holy Ghost, they said, had come upon her with mighty power, and "constrained her to speak at great length, and with superhuman strength, in an unknown tongue."

Similar cases occurred in other neighboring places, and the news of the wondrous phenomena soon reached the ears of Irving. To him of course, these indicated "an approaching realization of his prophetic dreams." Not for an instant was he to hesitate to acknowledge them as the natural answer of his aspirations and prayer; and many of his own flock, prepared by his previous teachings, seconded his leanings in favor of these long-lost spiritual gifts. Manifestations of a similar character soon appeared in his own Church at first privately, then at the weekday matins, and finally even in the public service on the Sabbath. "The die" had truly been "cast, and from that time the Regent Square church became a Babel." His oldest and most discreet friends one by one deserted him, finding that their counsel was of no avail. Even a visit of Chalmers and Coleridge, both his friends, could not in the least stay the current that was fast hurrying him to a most frightful abyss. A collision between the pastor and his flock was inevitable, though some of his people shared his views. Against the continuation of the "new prophets" even his own brother-in-law voted, and the inevitable result was of course the ejectment of the minister and his believers in the "gift of tongues" from Re, gent Square Church. But it must not be supposed that a man of Irving's great abilities, though his course was now downward, was surrounded only by a few weak followers. Among those who faithfully followed their pastor were some of London's most distinguished characters, and when on the following Sunday he met his adherents in the hall of the great infidel Owen, no less than 800 were there to partake of the Lord's Supper. Indeed, the place they had temporarily secured was far too small to contain all that still flocked to hear Irving, and they removed to a large gallery in Newman Street, generally designated as West's Gallery, because it had formerly belonged to West the painter.

The denouement of the play had now fairly begun, and it rapidly hastened to its close. The "gifted ones" at Newman Street had things in their own hands, and everything proceeded by "vision," and "prophecy," and in the "Spirit;" to all which Irving gave the most reverent and obedient attention. The Presbytery of Annan, by which body Irving had been first licensed to preach, but not ordained, "by a remarkable stretch of power" condemned him as guilty of heresy, and excommunicated him from the Church of Scotland. But as if his cup of sorrows was not yet sufficiently bitter, to add to the condemnation which he had just received at the hand of his mother Church, which he so dearly loved, he was, on his return from Annan to London, deprived even by his own adherents of the authority which by reason of his superiority had universally been granted to him, and, in accordance with a "revelation," was interdicted "from exercising any priestly function, or administering the sacraments, or even preaching, excepting to those less sacred assemblies to which unbelievers were admitted. Astounded, he yet uttered no murmur, but sat in the lowest places of the Church which he himself had created, in silent and resigned humility." Mr. Andrews, in an article on Irving in the New Englander (1863, p. 816 sq.), seeks to refute this statement, so generally accepted as made by Mrs. Oliphant in her biography of Mr. Irving. But even Mr. Andrews acknowledges that when Mr. Irving was finally reordained by these " superior" officers, who claimed to have been called by God to higher distinctions, his position "was in some respects less independent than before," and that it could not have been otherwise than "that Mr. Irving should have met with trials and difficulties in the progress of the work under his new phase," especially " a man. of his great strength of character, and gifts for leadership, accustomed hitherto to be foremost in whatever he engaged in" (p. 821). But for once fortune favored Irving. The great degradation which he was called upon to suffer was to be his last, and a short one at that. In the autumn of 1834, the severe task which he had been imposing on his mind and body began to tell upon him, and while on a journey to Scotland for the recovery of his failing health, he was taken dangerously ill, and died at Glasgow Dec. 8,1834.

Of Irving it may truly be conceded that a more devout or earnest spirit has not appeared on the stage of time in the 19th century. Destined to be a Christian minister, "he strove" (said of him a friend who knew him well), "with all the force that was in him, to be it. He might have been so many things; not a speaker only, but a doer-the leader of hosts of men. For his head, when the fog of Babylon had not yet obscured it, was of strong, far- reaching insight. His very enthusiasm was sanguine, not atrabiliar; he was so loving, full of hope, so simple-hearted, and made all that approached him his. A giant form of activity was in the man; speculation was accident, not nature. There was in him a courage dauntless, not pugnacious; hardly fierce, by no possibility ferocious; as of the generous war-horse, gentle in its strength, yet that laughs at the shaking of the spear. But, above all, be he what he might, to be a reality was indispensable for him." In another place the same friend exclaims: "But for Irving I had never known what the communion of man with man means. His was the freest, brotherliest, bravest human soul mine ever came in contact with. I call him, on the whole, the best man I have ever, after trial enough, found in this world, or now hope to find." Similar was the judgment of all Irving's friends, and even of most of his opponents. "All admired the man, his many virtues, his matchless eloquence; all deplored his fall, and the gulf of separation which it created between him and his mother Church." His works have been collected by his nephew, the Rev. P. Carlyle, who has published them under the title of Collected Writings of Edward Irving (Lond. 1864-5, 5 vols. 8vo). See Mrs. Oliphant, Life of Edward Irving (Lond. 1862; N. Y. [Harpers'] 1862, 8vo); Carlyle, Miscellaneous Essays; Meth. Qu. Rev. Jan. 1849; 1863; Lond. Quart. Rev. Oct. 1862, art. oi; Edinb. Rev. Oct. 1862, art. 7; Encyclop. Britain. 12:s.v.; Baring Gould, Post Mediaeval Preachers (of England only); Littell's Living Age (on Irving's works), Feb. 23, 1867, art. 1; and M. V. Andrews (of the Catholic Apostolic Church, the name now assumed by the Irvingites), in the A New Englander, July, 1863, art. 1; Oct., art. 8. (J. H. W.)

The Nuttall Encyclopedia [2]

A great pulpit orator, born in Annan, Dumfriesshire; bred for the Scotch Church, became in 1819 assistant to Dr. Chalmers in Glasgow, and removed in 1822 to the Caledonian Church, London, where he attracted to his preaching the world of fashion as well as intellect in the city, who soon grew tired of him and left him, after which he took to extravagances which did not draw them back, and drew around him instead a set of people more fanatical than himself, and whose influence over him, to which he weakly yielded, infatuated him still more; the result was that he was deposed from the ministry of the Church that sent him forth, and became for a time the centre of an organisation which still exists, in a modified form, and bears his name; he was the bosom friend in his early days of Thomas Carlyle, and no one mourned more over his aberration than he, for he loved him to the end. "But for Irving," he says, "I had never known what the communion of man with man means. His was the freest, brotherliest, bravest human soul mine ever came in contact with; I call him on the whole the best man I have ever, after trial enough, found in this world, or now hope to find. Scotland sent him forth," he says, "a herculean man, but our mad Babylon wore him and wasted him with all her engines, and it took her 12 years"; he died in Glasgow, aged 42, "hoary as with extreme age," and lies buried in a crypt of the cathedral there (1792-1834).