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Northern Lights
Edward Irving


GENIUS involves its possessor in increased danger as well as increased responsibility. The height to which a man of great intellectual powers may aspire is the measure of the depth to which he may fall. He has in himself the possibility of conspicuous glory, and also of conspicuous ruin. Without moral restraint, superior mental gifts are developed in forms of more gigantic wickedness. The flame which might have irradiated a nation with beneficent light becomes an illumination for the orgies of vice. Genius, even in a godly man, will lead to disastrous errors if not accompanied by prudence. Sails may be unfurled and pennons rolled out, but if discretion be wanting, there will be sad submergence or fatal crash on the rocks. Edward Irving had princely endowments, but through defect of judgment he fell into mournful eccentricities of speech and action. By his fine bodily presence, his majestic voice, his elevated sweep of thought, his language, gorgeous as a calm sea when it has caught the hues of sunset, he was able to take a foremost place among the preachers of his time; but he was without the “wisdom” that is “profitable to direct,” and deviated into lines of conduct in which he found misery and abasement.

He was born in the year 1792, at Annan, a little town on the Solway Frith. Some of his relatives on his mother’s side obtained a local renown by their peculiarities. One of his uncles published an autobiography in the form of a tombstone; for, apprehensive that posterity wonld not do justice to his achievements, one of which was a lawsuit with his brothers and another the building of a bridge, he had the stone inscribed with them and set up in the graveyard while he yet lived. Another uncle was a man of Samson-like strength. Being once annoyed by a number of men when he was on a visit to Liverpool, he snatched up the poker, and twisted it, as if it had been but a green sapling, around the neck of one of his assailants, who had to get a blacksmith to take off the uncomfortable cravat. The first school that Edward attended was kept by an old dame named Peggy Paine, a relative of the notorious Thomas Paine. From Peggy, with her alphabet and words of one syllable, he was transferred to a more important school kept by Mr. Adam Hope, who had also the honour of numbering Thomas Carlyle among his pupils. The future preacher was more intent on splashing among the waves of the Frith, exploring glens and climbing hills, than on applying himself to his school-books; yet he evidenced considerable interest in mathematics, and hailed as a kind of holiday the day on which the master taught that branch of science. The time spent in wild rambles over his native country was. not altogether wasted. His early intimacy with natural objects,—the tangled copses, the lonely uplands, the waters dashing their foam at his feet, the sky with clouds floating like golden argosies, or shadowed by the dark sweep of the thunderstorm,—was an important element in his education. The pleasure he then found in the aspects of the outer world influenced him through life, and even in the dingy streets of London he was able to renew in fancy the Arcadian charms which 'expanded and gladdened his boyish heart.

His out-door exploits were on one occasion nearly brought to a sudden end. He and his brother John were in the sands of the Frith; the tide rushed in and out with great fury, but the beach, with its glistening pools, its seaweed and shells, bad so captivated them that they became unmindful of the swift and stealthy waves. Happily a horseman came galloping along, snatched up the lads, and rushed at full speed, not knowing who they were, until he got to a place of safety, when he found that they were his own nephews. A little longer and the voice that was to make music grand as that of golden organ-pipes would have been silenced by the impetuous surges. When thirteen years old, Edward was sent to the University of Edinburgh. He lodged with his brother on a lofty flat in one of the many-storied houses of the city. The lads were left very much to their own devices in the matter of housekeeping, and had to make their bed and cook their food; the latter not a very difficult operation, as their diet consisted principally of the national oatmeal, with its variations of cake, porridge and brochan.

In college as in school, Edward’s predilection for mathematics was manifest; but his mental development owed most to his careful study of the great masters of British literature. His soul grew larger by contact with their stately thoughts and imagery, and at a later time, when the antique splendours of his diction were assailed by a cold and narrow criticism, be thus nobly vindicated himself:—“I fear not to confess that Hooker and Taylor and Baxter in theology, Bacon and Newton and Locke in philosophy, have been my companions, as Shakespeare and Spenser and Milton have been in poetry. I cannot learn to think as they have done, which is the gift of God; but I can teach myself to think as disinterestedly, and to express as honestly what I think and feel; which I have in the strength of God endeavoured to do. They are my models of men, of Englishmen, of authors. My conscience could find none so worthy, and the world bath acknowledged none worthier. They were the fountains of my English idiom; they taught me forms for expressing my feelings; they showed me the construction of sentences and the majestic flow of continuous discourse. I perceived a sweetness in every thought, and a harmony in joining thought to thought; and through the whole there ran a strain of melodious feeling which ravished the soul as a vocal melody ravisheth the ear.”

Irving attended classes four or five years in Edinburgh, and was then employed as a school-teacher, but still went to Edinburgh at intervals as a Divinity student. About this time he began a friendship with a man who has outlived him many years, has thrown his rugged power into numerous books, has severed himself from the faith in which Irving found his joy and glory, and in his old age makes no sign of hope for himself, and seems to have no hope for the world but in its subjugation by red-handed despots. The reference is to Thomas Carlyle, who after Irving’s death thus wrote of him: “One who knew him well,” meaning himself, “and may with good cause love him, has said, ‘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. The first time I saw Irving was six and twenty years ago, in his native town, Annan. He was fresh from Edinburgh, with college prizes, high character and promise. We had come to see our schoolmaster, who had also been his; we heard of famed professors, of high matters, classical, mathematical, a whole wonderland of knowledge; nothing but joy, health, hopefulness without end, looked out from the blooming young man."

We can scarcely help wishing that we had a record of one of those Nodes Ambrosianoa in that secluded, wave-dashed Annan. There, while the breakers moan, on the sands, and Orion shines grandly above the Frith, and the lamp burns on the table, and the old clock in the corner sounds the swiftly-gliding hours, what glowing, eloquent and poetic discourse from the youth destined to pour a new light on the pulpit, and what intensity of interest in the youth who has since wielded the pen with surpassing, but often misdirected power! Irving was only eighteen years old when he became master of a school in Haddington, and had scholars nearly as old as himself. His government of the school was severe and imperious, and he let the biggest lads know, by unmistakable sensations on their backs, that he was dominie or lord; but out of school he walked and talked and sported with the scholars in a manner that won their affection and esteem. While he was in Haddington, Thomas Chalmers, who was just beginning to shake Scotland with the thunders of his stormy yet magnificent eloquence, was announced to preach in Edinburgh. The schoolmaster and a number of his pupils went to hear him, starting after school-hours and returning the same evening, walking altogether thirty-five miles for the sake of a single sermon! When they got to the church, they went up to the gallery, and were going into an empty pew, when a man told them it was engaged, at the same time stretching his arm across to prevent their entering. Irving reasoned with him, but in vain, and his patience exhausted, he raised his hand and exclaimed, “Remove your arm, or I will shatter it in pieces." The man was awed by Irving’s manner, took away his arm, and the wearied lads followed their master into the pew.

Irving was two years in Haddington, and then accepted the charge of a school in Kirkcaldy, where, as in his previous school, he was unsparing in the use of the rod. One day, when rueful sounds were coming out of the room, a joiner appeared at the door, axe in hand, and asked, “Do ye want a hand the day, Mr. Irving?” ironically intimating that he was able to supplement the birch with a more effective weapon.

But if stripes were frequent in school, kindnesses were equally frequent out of school. He taught the boys to swim in the Frith of Forth, not seldom gliding through the water with a lesser one on his shoulders, and at night took them out for astronomical observations. Once when they were busy with a telescope, meteors darted from the sky, and some of the townspeople imagined that Irving was drawing the stars down, or at least knew when they would fall.

In 1815 he was licensed to preach by the Presbytery of Kirkcaldy, and occasionally occupied the pulpit of that town, but was not much appreciated, for the people said he had “ower muckle gran’ner.” One man kicked open his pew door and stalked indignantly out of the church when he saw the tall schoolmaster in the pulpit.

The first time he preached in Annan there was a large congregation, drawn by curiosity to hear the youth so well known there as a boy. He was reading his sermon when he raised the Bible too high, and his manuscript fell over into the precentor’s desk. It was an exciting moment to the congregation. What would the preacher do without his paper? He leaned over the front of the pulpit, laid hold of the fallen leaves, crushed them up in his hand, and went on as fluently as before. The people were proud of a townsman who could thus assert his independence of paper.

He stayed seven years in Kirkcaldy and left in the year 1818, being then in the twenty-sixth year of his age. After waiting in vain for a call to a church, he began to prepare for a mission to Persia. He would leave the land of his nativity, the Frith shores, the banks and braes by which the burns and rivers winded on their romantic way, the heathery moors, the fir-crowned ledges, the snowy scalps of the ancient mountains, the green retirements of the woods, the lochs dimpled by the Highland breeze, the towns and hamlets so dear to him; and in Ispahan and Astrabad, and where Persepolis once stood the queen of the East, he would preach the everlasting Gospel. He would go not as the agent of any society, but strike out boldly and alone, like one of the primitive evangelists, and he would roll out his commission and announce a Saviour in regions covered with darkness and the shadow of death. Irving’s project never got beyond the region of dreams, but more than twenty years since we saw the magnanimous daring with which he meditated his Persian scheme worked into fact by the Methodist youth who went from Yorkshire to China on his own responsibility, to grapple with the heathenism of that huge empire.

While Irving was looking across to Asia as the scene of his future movements, he was invited by Mr. A. Thomson to preach in St. George’s, Edinburgh, at the same time receiving an intimation that Mr. Chalmers would be present, that he was looking out for an assistant, and might make choice of him. After some waiting he had an interview with Mr. Chalmers, and the conclusion was, “I will preach to your people if you think fit, and if they bear with my preaching they will be the first people who have borne with it.” He was diligent in his visitation of the Doctor’s parishioners, and when he entered a house, no matter how mean or poor it might be, he began with the salutation, “Peace be to this house,” and ere he left he laid his hands on the head of each child of the family, and said in tender and affectionate tones, “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee.” But though he won his way to the hearts of the poor, it was not easy to content those who could only see excellence in Chalmers, and when it was discovered that he was to preach, numbers left the church with disappointment on their faces, saying, “It’s no himsel’ the day.”

Irving was quite as wonderful in his own way as the great “himsel',” but it was not then the fashion to admire him; his name was still in obscurity, and not, as it became, a charm to draw multitudes together. Besides, to say nothing of the power which Chalmers found in a direct and faithful evangelicism, he was better fitted to gain immediate popularity than Irving. Chalmers at once stormed his way to the hearts and electrified the souls of his hearers; Irving appealed by the slower processes of argument and reason to the intellect of the congregation. Chalmers’ discourses had the quality of suddenness and startling grandeur, resembling avalanches thundering down an Alpine precipice ; Irving’s discourses were characterised by a less tumultuous yet broader magnificence, and might be likened to a stately river sweeping through a luxuriant valley, and reflecting the grim masonry of lone keeps and the pinnacles of great cities.

Irving was unappreciated in Glasgow save by a comparative few; but the day was at hand when his genius was to assert itself, and when, so far as popular effect is concerned, he was to win some of the greatest pulpit triumphs ever known. Before leaving Glasgow for the charge he had accepted in London, he preached a farewell sermon, in which he thus beautifully expressed himself, “God alone doth know my destiny, but though it were to minister in the hall of nobles and the courts and palaces of kings, He can never find for me more natural welcome, more kindly entertainment, and more refined enjoyment than He hath honoured me with in this suburb parish of a manufacturing city. My theology was never at fault around the fires of the poor; my manner never misrepresented, my good intentions never mistaken. Churchmen and Dissenters, Catholics and Protestants, received me with equal graciousness. Here was the popularity worth the having, whose evidences are not in noise, ostentation and numbers, but in the heart opened and disburdened, in the cordial welcome of your poorest exhortations, in the spirit blessed by your most unworthy prayer, in the flowing tear, the confided secret, the parting grasp, and the long, long entreaty to return. Of this popularity I am covetous, and God in His goodness hath granted it in abundance, with which I desire to be content."

He began his labours in the Caledonian Chapel, London, one Sabbath morning in the year 1822. His first text was, “Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what intent ye have sent for me?” Crowds were soon drawn to the mean building by the melodious strain sounded from the pulpit. Sir James Mackintosh was induced to hear the preacher, and one phrase he used in reference to an orphaned family in his prayer, “thrown upon the fatherhood of God,” was repeated by Mackintosh to George Canning, on whom it made such an impression that he determined to hear for himself, and, having done so, spoke of the sermon in the House of Commons as the most eloquent he had ever listened to. Canning’s words gave a further impulse to the feeling in favour of Irving, and noblemen, statesmen, poets, orators, philosophers, artists, thronged to catch the streams of rhetoric thus eulogised. Carriages with gorgeous coats of arms on their panels with difficulty made their way to the church door, and titled ladies were thankful for a seat on the pulpit steps. What lofty brows, what bright eyes, what representatives of every sphere of human genius were grouped before the preacher! He faltered not, but prophet-like in majesty of aspect, with grand voice and in stately periods he expatiated on the great themes with which he was charged. At last he attained the position due to his powers, and was recognised as a king of men.

In 1827 the new church which had been built for Mr. Irving in Regent-square was opened by Dr. Chalmers. Irving offered to assist him by reading the chapter. He made choice of the longest in the Bible, and, as if forgetful that a sermon was yet to come, expounded for an hour and a half. The brilliant crowds that thronged the old and dingy building did not follow him to the towered temple, which had been reared with hopes of larger and more commanding influence. The novelty was over, and, as Thomas Carlyle says, “Fashion went her idle way to gaze on Egyptian crocodiles, Iroquois hunters, or whatever might be, and forgot this man.” The church was well filled, but there was no longer the rush of high aristocrats and men of genius; and Irving ceased to be the orator setting London in a ferment with imperial accents, and was simply a preacher limited to a large yet commonplace congregation. He might still have been happy and useful, but the enormous popularity he had enjoyed made the ordinary life of a minister distasteful to him; consciously or unconsciously, he aimed at being the great light of his age, and where genius failed, he resorted to singularity.

While still preaching in the Caledonian Chapel, he began to engage his mind with the difficult questions of unfulfilled prophecy, and as it has been said, “the gorgeous and cloudy vistas of the Apocalypse became a legible chart of the future to his fervent eyes.” Albury Park, the seat of Mr. H. Drummond, was the scene of prolonged conferences, in which he united with a number of ministers and laymen in the examination of those portions of God’s Word which were supposed to bear on the destiny of the Jews, or on the personal reign of Christ. But imagination rather than reason was the faculty he brought to his prophetic studies, and many of his interpretations of Scripture were forced and fanciful.

His first prophetical work was “Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed by God.” It contains, with much that is childish in argument, passages rising to rapture of eloquence, and there is in it a description of Popery so masterly and accurate that it must be quoted: “O, it is an ample net for catching men! A delusion and bondage made for the world, as the Gospel was a redemption made for the world! No partial error like that of the Gnostics, framed out of mystic imaginations; or that of the Arians, framed out of the proud arguments of reason, but a stupendous deception and universal counterfeit of truth, which hath a chamber for every natural faculty of the soul, and an occupation for every energy of the natural spirit, permitting every extreme of abstemiousness and indulgence, fast and revelry, melancholy abstraction and burning zeal, subtle acuteness and popular discourse, world-renunciation and worldly ambition; embracing the arts and the sciences and the stores of ancient learning, adding antiquity and misrepresentation of all monuments of better times, and covering carefully with a venerable veil that only monument of better times which was able to expose the false ministry of the infinite superstition, and overthrow to the ground the fabric of this mighty temple, which Satan had constructed for his own glory, out of those materials which were builded together for the glory of God and Christ.”

Having adopted Millenarian views, he preached them with his usual fervour, and went to Scotland to warn his countrymen of the coming of Christ. In his own county of Dumfries there was great excitement. On the Sabbath, ministers closed their churches and went with their flocks to hear him. From the scenes of his youth and childhood he passed to Edinburgh, where he lectured on the Apocalypse in St. Andrew’s Church, and though he began at six o’clock in the morning, vast crowds assembled, and numbers were unable to get in. Soon after his visit to Edinburgh he preached in Perth from a text in one of those chapters in St. Matthew’s Gospel which have reference to “the coming of the Son of Man.” While he was unfolding his theme the church was darkened by a cloud, from which came a vivid flash of lightning and a tremendous peal of thunder. He paused, and then with deepened solemnity quoted the words, “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be.”

Unfortunately he became erratic, not only in prophetical interpretation, but also in doctrinal statement. With all his powers, he lacked the qualities of the theologian, and while sincerely desirous of making known the truth, fell into serious error as to the person of Christ, teaching that He had the grace of sinlessness, not by nature, but by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; in other words, that Christ had propensities to sin such as we have, but that they were restrained by Divine influence. On account of this heresy, and the disturbances caused by the voices and strange tongues which he encouraged in his church, he was deposed from the ministry.

He did not long survive this exercise of discipline. Yielding himself to the guidance of foolish and fantastic men, he went to Glasgow on a prophetic mission. When he got to the city, he took off his hat in the street, exclaiming, “Blessed be the name of the Shepherd of Israel, Who has brought us to the end of our journey, in the fulness of the blessing of the gospel of peace.” In Glasgow he was stricken down by fatal sickness. He was heard one day murmuring to himself in Hebrew, “The Lord is my Shepherd,” and there was something of the old exultant swell of voice as he went on. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death; I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.” His last words were, “If I die, I die unto the Lord;” and in the forty-second year of his age, he found the rest for which he had vainly struggled on earth.

He was buried in one of the crypts of Glasgow Cathedral, and near his grave is a window in which John the Baptist is represented, but with Irving’s grand head and face, as preaching in the wilderness.

But his writings are his best monument, and however much we may dissent from his prophetical fancies, from his error as to the person of our Lord, from certain eccentricities of thought, and from occasional remarks on Methodism not over-courteous but balanced by others in which he warms into eulogy; we must allow him the praise of being a great master of spoken and written language, and of having given delineations of Christian morality scarcely surpassed in the whole range of religious literature. His discourses, in their blending of literary and historic interest, in their gleams of softened beauty and their upheavals of wild grandeur, suggest comparison with a noble prospect to be enjoyed from the bridge that spans the Tay at Dunkeld. Hear by, Bimham stands proudly in its Shakesperian fame; the river clear as glass rushes swiftly over its rock-paven bed; in the foreground of the picture, half veiled by delicate foliage, are the mansion of the Duke of Athol, with its fair lawn sloping to the water, and the shattered cathedral in which Gawin Douglas, the translator of Virgil, sat throned in prelatical pomp; and beyond are dark firs, steep bald cliffs, and the hazy blue*of distant mountains: such beautiful variety, such panoramic magnificence are to be found in the discourses of Irving, of whose character we cannot say less, than that he was a good man, and, up to the measure of his convictions, a faithful minister of Jesus Christ.


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