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Significant Scots
Edward Irving

IRVING, REV. EDWARD, A.M.—This remarkable pulpit orator, and founder of a sect, was born in Annan, Dumfries-shire, in the year 1792. His family was originally from France, but had long been settled in the west of Scotland. His father, Gavin Irving, followed the business of a tanner, in which he was so successful, that he became a substantial burgess in Annan, and possessed considerable landed property in the neighbourhood of the town. The mother of Edward Irving was Mary Lowther, daughter of one of the heritors of Dornock. She had three sons, of whom Edward was the second, and five daughters; but the male part of her family died before her; the eldest in the East Indies, the youngest in London, and the second in Glasgow. Edward Irving’s earliest teacher was an aged matron named Margaret Paine, an aunt of the too celebrated Thomas Paine, whom, it was said, she also taught to read; and thus, at different periods of her life, she was the instructress of two men entirely unlike in character, but both remarkable for their religious aberrations. From her charge Edward Irving passed to that of Mr. Adam Hope, an excellent teacher of English and the classics; but his progress as a school-boy gave little promise of the talents which he afterwards manifested. From Annan he went as a student to the university of Edinburgh, and there his proficiency in mathematics was so distinguished, that before he had reached the age of seventeen he was recommended by Professor Leslie as the fittest person to teach that department of science in an academy at Haddington. After having occupied this situation for a year, he was translated to a similar office in the larger establishment at Kirkcaldy, where he also kept boarders, and employed his leisure hours in private tuition. In this way he was occupied nearly seven years at Kirkaldy, attending the Divinity Hall of Edinburgh as what is termed an "irregular student;" that is to say, giving attendance a certain number of weeks annually for six years, instead of four complete winters; this accommodation being made in favour of those students for the church who occupy settled situations at a distance from the college. During all this period his application to study must have been intense, and his progress considerable, though silent and unobstrusive. Of this he afterwards gave full proof, by his acquaintance with several of the living languages, as well as the wide range which his reading had comprised. At an early period, also, the subject of religion had occupied much of his solicitude; and, when only seventeen years old, he was appointed one of the directors of a missionary society. This fact he afterwards stated more than once, when his violent invectives against the secularity of missions made his attachment to missionary enterprise itself be called in question.

After completing the appointed course of study, Mr. Irving was licensed as a preacher, in his native town of Annan. But the prospect of a church was dim and distant, for he had secured no patron; indeed, even long before, he had regarded patronage as the great abomination of the Kirk of Scotland, while in those days popular suffrage went but a little way in the election of a minister. The inaction of an unpatronized probationer was, however, too much for one of his chivalrous love of enterprise, and he resolved to become a missionary, and follow the footsteps of Henry Martyn. Persia was to be the field of his labour; and he began to qualify himself by studying the languages of the East. It was, perhaps, as well that the experiment of what effect a career in the "land of the sun" would have produced upon such an inflammable brain and sturdy independent spirit was not to be tried. At all events, it is certain that his course would have been out of the ordinary track, whether for evil or for good. While thus employed, he was invited by Dr. Andrew Thomson to preach for him in St. George’s church, Edinburgh, with the information that he would have Dr. Chalmers, then in search of an assistant, for his auditor. Mr. Irving complied; but after weeks had elapsed, in which he heard nothing further of Dr. Chalmers, he threw himself at haphazard into a steam-vessel at Greenock, resolving to go wherever it carried him, previous to his departure for the east, on which he had now fully determined. He landed at Belfast, and rambled for two or three weeks over the north of Ireland, where he associated with the peasantry, slept in their cabins, and studied with intense interest the striking peculiarities of the Irish character. During this eccentric tour, a letter reached him at Coleraine, that quickly brought his ramble to a close: it was a letter from Dr. Chalmers, inviting him to Glasgow, for the purpose of becoming his assistant. To the great metropolis of northern commerce he accordingly hurried; and true to his anti-patronage principles, which were now brought to the test, he stipulated that he should be proved and accepted by the people as well as their minister, before he entered the assistantship. The trial was made, and was successful. Dr. Chalmers himself had made the choice, and this was enough to satisfy the most scrupulous.

It would have been difficult to have selected a pair so unlike each other, and yet so congenial, as Dr. Chalmers and his assistant. The latter, now twenty-eight years old, had at last found a sphere in which he could display, not only his striking advantages of person, but his cherished peculiarities of disposition. There was, therefore, even already, a measured stateliness in his bearing, and authoritative accent in his conversation, that were in full keeping with his tall figure, rich deep-toned voice, and remarkable Salvator Rosa countenance; and although the on-looker felt as if there was something too artificial and melodramatic in all this, yet he was obliged to confess withal, that it sat gracefully upon him, although it would have suited no other man. But what a contrast to Dr. Chalmers, the very personification of unstudied, unaffected simplicity! This contrast, so startling, but yet so amusing, was especially perceptible in a crowded company. The Doctor generally sat with all the timidity of a maiden, and was silent unless addressed, or even dragged into conversation; but as for his assistant—

"Stately step’d he east the ha’,
And stately step’d he west."

He was too impatient to be at rest, and too full of stirring thoughts to be silent; while the eloquence of his continuous stream of conversation, or rather discourse, made him always sure of a willing audience, with Chalmers himself at their head. This very circumstance of contrast, however, is often the strongest ground of affection; and it was delightful to witness the cordiality with which the pair moved together through their common duties in St. John’s parish. As a preacher, indeed, Mr. Irving enjoyed no great share of popularity; and for this two reasons may be assigned. In the pulpit of Dr. Chalmers, the established standard of excellence was so high, that no preacher but himself could reach it. Mr. Irving’s peculiarities, also, both of manner and style, which were afterwards such a rich treat to the people of London, were too highly seasoned for the simple tastes of the Glasgow citizens. It was chiefly among the students, who were able to appreciate the sterling worth of his sermons, that he was popular; and by many of these competent critics he was reckoned scarcely inferior to Chalmers himself. But it was in pastoral visitation that Mr Irving was best appreciated, both by Dr. Chalmers and the community at large. And, indeed, for such a duty he was admirably fitted, for the dark places of St. John’s parish were crowded with that sort of people who are seldom insensible to such personal advantages as he possessed; and while his kindness soothed the afflicted and encouraged the timid, his regal bearing or reproving frown could dismay the profligate and silence the profane. His warm-hearted open-handed benevolence kept pace with his zeal, so that among the poor of that populous but indigent district he was enthusiastically beloved. On one occasion, indeed, he manifested in a striking manner that utter disregard of money which he entertained to the close of his life. He had received, by the bequest of a departed relative, a legacy amounting to some hundreds of pounds. He threw the mammon into an open desk; and, without keeping count of it, was wont, in his daily rounds, to furnish himself with a sheaf of these notes, which he doled among the poor of his people until the whole sum was spent, which very soon was the case.

After living three years in Glasgow as assistant to Dr. Chalmers—the happiest portion, we doubt not, of his life, and perhaps, also, the most useful—a change occurred, by which Mr. Irving was to burst into full notoriety. Already he had been offered a call to a church in Kingston, Jamaica, which he would have accepted had he not been dissuaded by his relatives. He also, it was said, had got the offer of a living in one of the collegiate charges of Scotland, but refused it on account of his conscientious feelings regarding patronage. Now, however, instead of obscure exile, he was to be called into the vast and stirring world of London, and become a minister there independent of the presentation of a patron. A Presbyterian chapel in Cross Street, Hatton Garden, attached to the Caledonian Asylum, was at this time not only without a minister, but without a congregation; and a popular preacher was needed to fill both pulpit and pews. One of the directors of the Asylum had heard of Mr. Irving, and judged him the fittest person for the emergency: he represented the case to his brethren in office, and, in consequence, Mr. Irving was invited to London to preach before them. This was the kind of election that suited him, and he preached four Sundays in Hatton Garden with such acceptance to the handful of auditors, that he received a harmonious call to enter upon the charge. The only difficulty in his way was an old statute, by which the Scotch minister of Hatton Garden was obliged to preach in Gaelic as well as English; but this difficulty was soon got rid of through the influence of the Duke of York, the patron of the institution; and in August, 1822, Mr. Irving commenced his clerical duties as minister.

Few sights could have been more interesting than the growth of his popularity from such a small grain of mustard-seed. On the first day he seemed daunted, as he stepped from the vestry to ascend the pulpit, at the array of empty seats before him, and the very scanty number of his congregation; he had never seen the like in Scotland, and for a moment he turned pale: this, then, was his sphere of action, upon which he had prepared to enter with such tremulous hopes and fears! Besides this, his church, by its locality alone, was most unlikely to force itself upon public notice, being situated in an unknown and untrodden street, upon the very edge of the Alsatia of Saffron Hill and Fleet Ditch; and as if this was not enough, the building itself was at the extremity of an obscure court off the street, where no one, however curious, would have been likely to search for a place of worship. And yet his four Sabbaths of probation had not passed when there was a perceptible change. Strangers who happened to stroll into Cross Street in the course of their Sunday wanderings passed an open gate, and were arrested by the far-off tones of a deep, rich, solemn voice, that came like distant music to the ear; and on crossing the court with cautious steps, and peeping into the church, they saw a colossal man, of about six feet three, who, in this heart-subduing tone, and with commanding impressive gestures correspondent to the voice, was addressing them in a style of appeal such as they had never heard before. Could they retreat, and walk idly away?— it was impossible; and therefore they sat down, and listened entranced, while the next Sabbath and the next was sure to find them returning, until they became a part of the flock. And it was not enough that they were themselves delighted; they must have others also either to share in their delight or justify their preference; so that every new-corner brought his kinsfolks and acquaintances to hear this wondrous style of pulpit oratory. Thus the congregation grew with a rapidity that in a few weeks filled the building. But here the popular admiration did not pause. The strange advent in Hatton Garden attracted the notice of journalists; reporters from every metropolitan paper hurried to the spot; and, in consequence of their published manifestoes, the fashion, the literature, and the sight-seeing spirit of London were roused to their inmost depths, and borne onward to the hitherto unknown region of Hatton Garden. On the Sabbath morning Cross Street was filled—nay, wedged—with crested and coroneted carriages; and a torrent of lords, senators, and merchant-princes, of duchesses and ladies of fashion, might be seen mingled pell-mell with shopkeepers and mechanics, all sweeping across the open court, so that the church was filled in a twinkling; while disappointed hundreds pressed towards the porch, and clustered like bees round the open windows, to catch the swelling tones of the speaker, even if his words should be inaudible. It was a sudden growth--was it to pass away as suddenly? When mere curiosity is thus agog, the only question is, with how many trials will it rest satisfied?

We must now turn to the object of this dangerous experiment,—to Mr. Irving himself. Even at his earliest entrance into Glasgow he had shown that he was no ordinary man. But he had done more, for he had shown his determination not to be confounded with ordinary mortals. Even his conversation, therefore, as well as his style of preaching, was evidently with the aim to astonish; and he was not satisfied with a striking idea unless it was also arrayed in striking language. And this aim, so faulty in a common orator, but absolutely sinful in a preacher, instead of being repressed, was nourished into full growth in London, amidst the hot atmosphere of his new popularity; so that his pulpit style assumed a luxuriance and rankness such as no oratory of the day could parallel. It was the language of the sixteenth century engrafted upon the nineteenth; the usages, the objects, and the wants of the present day embodied in the phraseology of a long-departed style of life. The same aiming at singularity was perceptible in his attitudes, which disdained the simple rules of elocution; in his dress, which imitated the primness of the ancient Puritans; and even his dark shaggy locks, which he kept unpruned until they rivalled the lion’s mane, and from which he was wont to shake warnings of most ominous significance. He had gone to London with the determination of being noticed, admired, and wondered at; and all this was but the fulfilment of his purpose. Gladly, however, we reverse the picture. In the first place, this outre manner, which would have sat so ludicrously upon any ordinary man, was in him so set off by his appearance, that, while the many delighted in it as something rich and new, the fastidious and the critical suspected that after all it was nothing more than the true natural expression of such a singular personage. In this way even the susquepedalian words and rolling sentences of his oratory were in full keeping with the deep thunder of his voice and majestic swing of his arm; while the most startling of his assertions were enforced by the singular squint of one of his eyes, that rivetted the attention with a sort of mesmeric power. But better far than all this, there was a fertility and richness of mind in Mr. Irving that would have made him remarkable under any circumstances; so that, while he imitated the ancient masters of England in his quaint phraseology, and stern abrupt simplicity, he resembled them in the more valuable qualities of profound thought, vivid imagination, and fearless uncompromising honesty as a preacher of the word. It was evident, in short, that while he wished to be an Elijah the Tishbite or John the Baptist, he was also animated by their righteous intrepidity, that would utter the most unpalatable truths, let them be received as they might. But was a crowded gay metropolis, instead of the wilderness, a fit place for such a John or Elijah? We shall soon see.

Hitherto Mr. Irving had not been known as an author, his only production from the press, which he acknowledged, being a farewell discourse to the congregation of St. John’s, at his departure to London. He was now, however, to give the public an opportunity of testing his powers, and ascertaining whether the popularity that crowned him had been justly bestowed. He had scarcely been a year in London, when he published a collection of sermons in a closely printed octavo volume of 600 pages. These discourses, which had already been preached in Hatton Garden, he afterwards prepared for the press; and as no ordinary title-page was sufficient for him, the work was thus inscribed, "For the Oracles of God, Four Orations: for Judgment to come, an Argument in Nine Parts." They were not sermons; he wished them to be considered something better; and the quaint title with which they startled the first glance of the reader, had cost him no little deliberation. And yet, they were sermons after all. It must be acknowledged, however, that as such they were no ordinary productions; for with all their literary faults and oddities, they contained an amount of rich original thought and stirring eloquence such as few pulpit productions of the present day can exhibit. This was indeed apparent at the first opening of the volume, where the following magnificent exordium caught the eye, and rivetted the attention. It would be difficult, however, to conceive its full power when it was first delivered in the pulpit, and when it pealed upon the ears of the congregation like the stately solemn sound of a church organ uttering the notes of the Te Deum:—

"There was a time when each revelation of the Word of God had an introduction into this earth which neither permitted men to doubt whence it came nor wherefore it was sent. If, at the giving of each several truth, a star was not lighted up in heaven, as at the birth of the Prince of Truth, there was done upon the earth a wonder, to make her children listen to the message of their Maker. The Almighty made bare his arm, and through mighty acts shown by his holy servants, gave demonstration of his truth, and found for it a sure place among the other matters of human knowledge and belief.

"But now the miracles of God have ceased, and nature, secure and unmolested, is no longer called on for testimonies to her Creator’s voice. No burning bush draws the footsteps to his presence chamber; no invisible voice holds the ear awake; no hand cometh forth from the obscure to write his purposes in letters of flame. The vision is shut up, and the testimony is sealed, and the word of the Lord is ended; and this solitary volume, with its chapters and verses, is the sum total of all for which the chariot of heaven made so many visits to the earth, and the Son of God himself tabernacled and dwelt among us."

The announcement of a work from the press by the Rev. Edward Irving, acted upon the critics as a view-halloo does upon a band of huntsmen beating about for game, but at a loss as to its whereabouts. As yet, they had got nothing but the tidings of the diurnals, and the scraps of the penny-a liners, which they had regarded as the mere yelping of the curs of the pack; but now the start was made in earnest, and off went the hunters in full cry. Never, indeed, had a volume of sermons, even from Chalmers himself, excited such a stir, and every review was immediately at work, from the Jupiter Tonans of the Quarterly, to the small shrill whistle of the weekly periodical. And never, perhaps, on any one occasion was criticism so perplexed and contradictory, so that Mr. Irving was represented as the truest of talented men and the most deceptive of quacks—a profound thinker, and a shallow smatterer—a Demosthenes of the real sublime, and a Bombastes Furioso of mere sound and nonsense. It often happened, too, that the very same paragraphs which were quoted by one set of critics as master-pieces of eloquence, were adduced by another class to prove that his oratory was nothing but sheer noise and emptiness. And whereabouts lay the truth? With both parties. Scarcely was there an excellence attributed to him which he had not manifested, or a defect of which he had not been guilty; and the work itself, after the personal interest excited by its author had passed away, was dispassionately tried, and in spite of its manifold excellencies consigned to oblivion. As it was, however, such was its immediate reception, that six months after its appearance a third edition was in demand, which he prepared accordingly, with the following defiance to his reviewers in the preface:—

"I do now return thanks to God, that he hath saved these speculations (whatever they be) from the premature grave into which the aristocracy of criticism would have hastened them; and that two large editions are now before the world, which can judge for itself whether the work be for its edification or not. I have been abused in every possible way, beyond the lot of ordinary men, which, when I consider the quarters whence it hath come, I regard as an extraordinary honour. I know too well in whom I have believed to be shaken by the opposition of wits, critics, and gentlemen of taste, and I am too familiar with the endurance of Christians, from Christ downwards, to be tamed by paper warfare, or intimidated by the terrors of a goose quill. Even as a man I could have shaken a thousand such unseen shapeless creatures away from me, and taken the privilege of an author of the old English school, to think what I pleased, and write what I thought; and most patiently could I have born exile from the ranks of taste and literature, if only the honest men would have taken me in. But as a Christian, God knoweth, I pray for their unregenerate souls, and for this nation which harboureth such fountains of poison, and is content to drink at them. Their criticisms show that they are still in the gall of wickedness and the bonds of iniquity, and I recommend them once more to look unto themselves, and have mercy upon their own souls."

But the head and front of Mr. Irving’s literary offences, and the chief subject of merriment or condemnation with his judges, had been his antiquated style of English—his obvious imitation of the great masters of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Upon this point, therefore, he was most earnest to defend himself; and for this purpose he states that Hooker, Taylor, and Baxter, in theology—Bacon, and Newton, and Locke, in philosophy—and Shakspeare, Spenser, and Milton, in poetry, had been the chief objects of his study. "They were the fountains," he adds, "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 vocal melody ravisheth the ear. Their books were to me like a concert of every sweet instrument of the soul, and heart, and strength, and mind. They seemed to think, and feel, and imagine, and reason all at once, and the result is to take the whole man captive in the chains of sweetest persuasion." Having thus, as he opines, completely exonerated himself by such sacred examples, Mr. Irving again turns with tenfold ardour upon those losel critics who, in pronouncing his condemnation, had condemned not only him, but the honoured company in which they found him. The following is but a portion of his terrible objurgation:—

"‘They are not always in taste!’ But who is this Taste, and where are his works, that we may try what right he hath to lift his voice against such gifted men? This taste, which plays such a part in these times, is a bugbear, an ideal terror, whose dominion is defended by newspaper scribblers, reviewers, pamphleteers, and every nameless creature. His troops are like King David’s: ‘Every one that is in distress, every one that is in debt, every one that is discontented.’ And what are his manifestoes?—paragraphs in the daily papers, articles in magazines, and critiques in reviews. And how long do they last?—a day, a week, a month, or some fraction of a year—aye and until the next words of the oracle are uttered. And what becomes of the oracles of the dreaded power?—they die faster than they are born; they die, and no man regardeth them."

Such was but one specimen among many of the magnificent disdain with which Mr. Irving could trample down whatever withstood him in his career. Strong in the uprightness of his own purpose, and with his eye exclusively fixed upon the goal, he regarded everything that crossed his path as an unhallowed obstacle, and treated it accordingly. It need not be added that his critics, whom he chastised so roughly, were by no means disposed either to accord with his views, or submit in silence to the insolence with which he elbowed them aside; and, accordingly, they treasured up the injury for future count and reckoning. In the meantime, two events, important in the life of a clergyman, had taken place with Mr. Irving. The first was his marriage. It will be recollected that, when a mere stripling, he had been settled at Kirkcaldy, where he not only taught in the Academy, but gave lessons as a private tutor in the town. One of his pupils was Miss Isabella Martin, daughter of the Rev. John Martin, one of the ministers of Kirkcaldy; and between this young couple, so employed, a mutual attachment sprang up, which led to an engagement of marriage as soon as the unpatronized teacher should be provided with a living. Mr. Irving never lost sight, amidst the uncertainties that followed, and the blaze of beauty and fashion by which he was afterwards idolized in London, of the sacred compact of his youthful days; and, accordingly, as soon as he was permanently settled in the metropolis, he hied down to Kirkcaldy, and returned with his long-expecting bride. Stories, of course, were rife at the time of more than one lady of rank and fortune who would willingly have taken her place, to be the partner of such a goodly man, and eloquent widely-famed divine. The other event was the building of a new church for the crowds that had settled under his ministry. The chapel in Hatton Garden, which, at his arrival, did not muster more than fifty hearers, had, at the end of three months, about fifteen hundred applicants for church-sittings, although the building could scarcely have accommodated half the number. And this, too, irrespective of the unnumbered crowds that thronged round the walls, unable to find standing-room, or even a footing upon the threshold. The necessity of a larger building was urgent, and preparations were promptly adopted, which were so successful, that the Scotch National Church in Regent Square was commenced, which was finally completed in 1820—a stately building, capable of accommodating at least 2000 persons.

In the meantime, how fared the popularity of Edward Irving? A "ninedays’ wonder" has generally a still shorter date in London, and he who can sustain it beyond that point must have something within him worth more than merely to be wondered at. Mr. Irving’s, however, continued, with little visible abatement, for nearly two years; and although much of this was owing to the fact that only a limited number could hear him at one time, while myriads waited for their turn, much was also owing to his solid sterling qualities, about which there could neither be controversy nor mistake. His peculiarities were innumerable, from the stilted style of his oratory down to the squint of his eye; while each was the subject of discussions innumerable, both in conversation and print. And yet, with all this, one fact was incontestable, which was, that he was the most eloquent and original preacher in London, and this even his maligners were compelled to confess. But, unfortunately, a fault was growing upon him for which no human eloquence can atone. He was now becoming prolix—prolix to a degree which no mortal patience, in modern life, at least, can well endure. It was not unusual with him to give an opening prayer of an hour long, and follow it by a sermon that took at least two hours in the delivery. This, too, was not only in the earlier part of the day, but in the evening also. It was a trial which mere hunters in quest of pulpit popularity could not sustain, and therefore the crowd melted away, and left him in undisturbed possession of his own regular auditory. And even they, too, much as they admired and loved him, were growing restive at services by which their attention was worn out and their domestic arrangements subverted. But this Mr. Irving could not understand; with him it was enough that what he felt it his duty to preach, it was the duty of his people to hear. The tide had reached its height, and the ebb was commencing. Such was the state of matters when he was invited to preach the anniversary sermon of the London Missionary Society, in May, 1824. He complied, and on the 14th he preached in Tottenham Court Chapel, on Mat. x. 5-42. He was still, with every drawback, by far the most popular preacher in London; so that, notwithstanding a heavy continued rain, the spacious building was filled at an early hour. But on this occasion he outdid even his wonted prolixity. Twice he was obliged to rest in the delivery of his almost interminable sermon, during which the congregation sang a few verses of a hymn; and when it was published it occupied 130 large and closely-printed pages, while the dedication and preface bulked the volume into thirty pages more.

But faults more serious than that of lengthiness pervaded this unfortunate discourse, and made Mr. Irving’s best friends wish that it had been unpublished, and even unpreached. It was his practice, like other men of ardent minds, to see too exclusively, and condemn too unsparingly, whatever error he detected; and the exaggerated language which he used on such occasions was more fitted to irritate than persuade. Such was his fault in the present instance. He thought there was too much secularity and self-seeking in the management of missions, and was impatient to announce the fact, and point out a better mode of action; but, wound up exclusively in this one idea, his discourse looked too much like a violent condemnation of all modern missionary enterprise whatever. After having sorely handled the missionary directors, and the missionaries themselves, as if they had been mere hucksters of religious truth, and sordid speculators, who thought of nothing pertaining to the sanctuary but its shekels, he proceeded to propound the remedy. And this was tenfold more extravagant than his exposure of the offence. All money provision for missions was to be foregone, and all prudential considerations in their management given to the winds. Missionaries were to be considered as the veritable successors of the seventy, and, like them, therefore, were to be sent forth without money and without scrip. It was enough for them that they were to be wafted to their destination, and thrown upon its shores, after which they were to go forward, nothing doubting. The world had been thus converted already, and thus it would be converted again. He forgot that the seventy were sent on this occasion, not into heathen and savage countries, but to the towns and villages of their own Judea; while their commission was simply to announce their Master’s coming. and prepare the people for his arrival. This, however, was not enough for Mr. Irving. His missionary must go forth in faith, without a farthing for his journey, or even a purse to hold it. It was only by thus making himself nothing that the sacred cause could become all in all; and in proportion to his trials and necessities would be the greatness and number of the miracles by which he would be assuredly relieved. Who does not see in all this the germ of that strange system of religious error of which Mr. Irving was afterwards the hierophant. Becoming every day more impatient of the world of reality, he was hungering and thirsting for miracles; and these, any man whatever, in such a mood, is sure either to make or find. But another fact, almost equally significant, in this published sermon, or, as he called it, "Oration," was its dedication to S. T. Coleridge, a man certainly of rich original mind and splendid endowments, and yet not the fittest guide for so enthusiastic a theologian as Mr. Irving. But the latter thought otherwise; and, discarding all his former preceptors, he now sat at the feet of this eloquent mystic, in the new character of a silent, humble listener.

The signals of a downward course had thus been given, and the thoughtful friends of Mr. Irving looked on with sad anxiety. His popularity also was wearing out, and he might be tempted into some strange measure to revive it. A change was evidently at hand, but what was to be its commencement? As yet he was unprepared for a departure from his old standards, or the promulgation of a new doctrine. But the field of prophecy lay temptingly in his way—that field which has been common to expositors for eighteen centuries, and in which every one has been held free to entertain his own opinion. Here, then, lay the allurement, and for this also he had, for some time, been unconsciously under a course of training. In 1824 he had met, in company, Mr. Hatley Frere, a gentleman whose mind was much employed in the exposition of the Book of Daniel and the Apocalypse, and by whom he was asked to take a walk into the fields on the breaking up of the party. As they strolled along, Mr. Frere took the opportunity of expounding his views on the fulfilment of prophecy, and found in Irving a willing auditor. After a year they again met, when the subject was resumed, and Irving listened with the same docility which he was wont to bestow upon Coleridge. He had now found a new guide to direct, as well as a new theme to interest him. Thus stood matters when he was invited to preach the anniversary sermon of the Continental Society in 1825. And will it be believed that, on this occasion, he plunged right downwards into a new interpretation of prophecy? A few conversations with Frere, who, as he thought, had furnished him with the right key, and his own miscellaneous readings upon the subject, were enough to qualify him as a guide upon a path where so many thousands had erred! The "oration," as may well be supposed, was perplexing in the extreme; and while some of his audience thought that he was advocating Catholic Emancipation, others thought that he was battling against it. Some of the leading members of the committee had not even patience to wait the issue of the question, but left the church before the sermon was finished. To set himself right with the public, as well as announce his new interpretation, Mr. Irving published the substance of this sermon, which swelled, as he wrote, into a work of voluminous bulk, under the title of " Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed of God." He was the first expositor who ventured to connect particular predictious with the events of the French Revolution. According to him, the Papacy commenced in A.D. 533, which, with the 1260 prophetic days or years of its continuance, brings Popery down to the year 1793, the year when the French Revolution commenced, at which date Mr. Irving considers the reign of Popery to have been superseded by that of Infidelity, and the judgments upon Babylon to have commenced. From that period to the date of his preaching, comprising a period of thirty years, six vials, as he imagined, had been poured out upon the seat of the beast. The seventh and last vial, which was reserved for the destruction of Infidelity, he calculated would occupy forty-five years more, thus bringing the consummation of judgment to the year 1868, when the millenial kingdom was to commence on earth, with Christ himself, and in person, as its sovereign.

Such is but a brief sketch of that system expository of the fulfilment of prophecy into which Irving now threw himself with headlong ardour, and of which he talked as if it were the sum and substance of revelation. His pulpit rang with it, and with it alone; his whole conversation was imbued with it; and while his fervent imagination revelled with almost superhuman excitement among pictures of Armageddon and the millenium, the Inferno and Paradiso of his preaching, his finger incessantly pointed to the year 1868 as the date emblazoned upon the heavens themselves, at which all old things were to pass away, and all things become new. And with what desire he longed to live to this year, that he might behold its glories with his own bodily eyes! Besides his work, also, of "Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed of God," his active pen was soon resumed upon the same subject. In the course of his studies on the completion of prophecy, he had met with a production that in some measure accorded with his own views. This was a large work, written by a Spanish ecclesiastic, who shrouded his liberal and Protestant sentiments under the character and name of a Jewish convert, to escape a controversy with the Inquisition; and, deeming it well worth the notice of the British public, Mr. Irving immediately studied the Spanish language, translated the volume into English, and published it in 1827, under the title of "The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty, by Juan Josafat Ben Ezra, a Converted Jew." It was not long before his zeal and eloquence procured many converts to his opinions, who held their stated meetings at Albury, near Guildford, in Surrey, in the mansion of Mr. Drummond, the banker, a warm friend and coadjutor of Mr. Irving. The result of these meetings was given to the world by Mr. Drummond, in three volumes, entitled "Dialogues on Prophecy." A quarterly periodical, also, called the "Morning Watch," was soon commenced by the "Albury School of Prophets" and their supporters, in which their peculiar views about prophecy and the millenium were advocated and illustrated with great talent and plausibility.

Well would it have been for Mr. Irving if he had now stopped short. As yet his views, if eccentric, had been comparatively harmless; and even if his calculations had been erroneous, he had only failed in a subject where such men as Bacon, Napier, Sir Isaac Newton, and Whiston had been in fault. But here he could not stop. He had commenced as an independent expounder of prophecy, and he must needs be the same in doctrine also. It was about the year 1827 that he was observed to preach strange sentiments respecting the human nature of our blessed Redeemer, as if the Holy One, while on earth, had been peccable like any son of Adam, although completely sinless in thought, word, and deed. It may be that his ideas of the second advent of Christ, in 1868, and the nature of the millenial reign, which was then to commence, had thus secularized and degraded his conceptions respecting the second person of the Godhead. His first public annunciation of these most culpable opinions was before the London Society for the Distribution of "Gospel Tracts," in whose behalf he preached a collection-sermon. Many of his hearers were astonished, and not a few shuddered. He still continued to preach upon the same subject, at every step entering into additional error, until a monstrous heresy was fully organized, which he fearlessly published to the world in 1828, in a work of three volumes, closely printed in octavo, entitled "Sermons, Lectures, and Occasional Discourses." These discourses, and his new creed, one might think, should have been immediately followed by trial and deposition. But heresy is a difficult subject even for the grasp of a church-court, as it does not always wear a sufficiently tangible and specific form. Besides, it was not always easy, from Mr. Irving’s language, to ascertain the full amount and nature of his meaning. On every subject he spoke as if there was no degree of comparison but the superlative. He soon, however, received a silent, but significant warning. Having gone down to Scotland in 1829, he was desirous of the honour of a seat in the General Assembly, and was nominated a ruling elder, for that purpose, by his native burgh of Annan. But the Assembly refused the appointment. His heretical sentiments were already too well known, and would, of themselves, have been sufficient for his rejection. But the refusal of the venerable court was founded upon a more merciful principle; as a non-resident in the kingdom of Scotland, and as an ordained minister beyond its bounds, he could not at that time take his seat as a ruling elder among them. During this tour Mr. Irving was not otherwise unoccupied; and in Dumfries and its neighbourhood he preached in the open air, and in a style that astonished his sober-minded countrymen. His sermons on these occasions comprised all his errors in doctrine, and all his singularities of exposition, from the downfall of Popery and the peccability of our Saviour’s human nature, to the millenial reign, and the restoration of all things, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral—from man, the lord of creation, to the crawling worm or the senseless stone.

But even farther yet Mr. Irving was to go. A strange religious frenzy had commenced at Row and Port-Glasgow, on the Firth of Clyde, engendered by extravagant notions about the assurance of faith and universal redemption, under which several weak minds became so heated, that they began to prophesy and attempt to work miracles. But the most remarkable part of the delusion consisted in wild pythoness contortions into which the favoured of the sect were thrown, under which they harangued, raved, and chanted in strange unintelligible utterances, that were asserted to be divine inspiration, speaking miraculously in languages which neither speaker nor hearer understood. It was a craziness as contemptible as that of the Buchanites in the preceding century; and, like the system of Elspeth Buchan, it was unsuited for a permanent hold upon the Scottish intellect; so that, while its action was chiefly confined to hysterical old women and nympholeptic girls, it fell into universal contempt, and passed away as rapidly as it had risen. But just when this moon-governed tide was at the height, one of its female apostles went to London, and connected herself with Mr. Irving’s Congregation, many of whom were fully ripened for such extravagances. They were wont to assemble for prayer-meetings and religious exercises at the early hour of six in the morning, and there the infection spread with electric rapidity; while prophesying, denouncing, and speaking in unknown tongues, took the place of prayer and exhortation. As in the eases of Row and Port-Glasgow, also, these visitations were chiefly confined to the female sex, and a few unlucky men, the victims of feminine susceptibility. But the London form of the disease soon took a higher flight than that of Scotland. Private rooms and session-houses were found insufficient for such important manifestations, and they were daringly transferred to the church, and incorporated with the solemn public services. And how could the spirit of Mr. Irving brook such arrogant interruptions? But, alas! the lion within him was tamed, cowed, and chained; and he who daringly sought to be more, was now less than man. He believed that the second Pentecostal day had come, of which the first was but a type; that these were the divine supernatural manifestations by which the second coming and reign of Christ upon earth were to be heralded; and that himself, the while, was the honoured John the Baptist, by whom the coming had been heralded and the way prepared.

These were proceedings which the church could no longer tolerate, and the case was taken up by the London presbytery in the early part of 1880. As yet, the charge brought against him was only that of heresy, one, as we have already mentioned, so difficult to substantiate; and, therefore, the discussion was prolonged for eighteen months without any final result. But during the interval the excesses at the Caledonian Church, Regent Square, had become so wild, and withal so notorious, that the question of his offence was no longer one of nice metaphysical subtlety. These were matters of fact, not of mere opinion, and soon received from the depositions of examined witnesses their full amount of proof. It is to be observed that, for some time, Mr. Irving had been in the practice of exalting the authority of the church as paramount and supreme, while, by the church, he meant the ministers and office-bearers exclusively, in their courts assembled for the purposes of ecclesiastical legislation. Their dictates were infallible, and therefore to be received without disputation or scruple. It was the system of his favourite Hooker pushed into the extremes of Puseyism, and even of downright Popery. According, therefore, to his own teaching, he should have accepted the presbytery’s award with implicit submission. But it happened with him, in his own case, as it has done with many others, that this particular instance was an exception to the general rule. His light and knowledge, his vocation and labour; were superior to those of his brethren; they were working and blundering in darkness, upon subjects which they were not worthy to comprehend; and how, then, could they be qualified to judge in such a case as this? This, his conclusion, was apparent in his conduct during the course of trial. He lost patience during the cross-examination of the witnessess, and charged the presbytery with being a "Court of Antichrist." His defence, which occupied four hours in the delivery, was more the language of denunciation and rebuke, than confession or exculpation; it was even a fierce defiance and full rejection of Presbyteries, Synods, and General Assemblies to boot, when they came in contravention with himself and his kirk session. The result of this trial was, that he was found guilty of the charges libelled against him, and sentenced to deposition from his local cure as minister of the Scotch National Church in Regent Square. Regarding, or pretending to regard this sentence as a mere nullity, he attempted to hold his early morning meetings in that building as before; but when he presented himself, with his followers, for that purpose, he found the gates locked, and all access refused. True to his new character, he uttered an awful prophetic denunciation at this rejection, and turned away in quest of another place of meeting.

This was but the first step of Mr. Irving’s ecclesiastical punishment; for, though deprived of his church, his standing as a minister of the Church of Scotland was still untouched. The question whether he should thus continue was, therefore, to be next tried before the bar of that presbytery by which he had been ordained—the Presbytery of his native Annan. This ecclesiastical assize was held on the 13th of March, 1833, and Mr. Irving appeared at the summons. His conduct on this occasion was, if possible, still more wild and fanatical, as well as more peremptory, than it had been before the Presbytery of London. The most serious part of his offence was now to be taken into account; and therefore, the charge against him was, of "printing, publishing, and disseminating heresies and heretical doctrines, particularly the doctrine of the fallen state and sinfulness of our Lord’s human nature." His answer was rather an authoritative harangue to the by-standers, justifying his doctrine, and commanding them to receive it, than the reply of an office-bearer to his court of judicature; and at the conclusion he wound up his rebellion in the following words: "I stand here, not by constraint, but willingly. Do what you like. I ask not judgment of you; my judgment is with my God; and as to the General Assembly, the spirit of judgment is departed from it. Oh! ye know not how near ye are to the brink of destruction. Ye need not expedite your fall. All are dead around. The church is struggling with many enemies, but her worst is within herself—I mean that wicked Assembly!" After full trial, he was found guilty, and the sentence of deposition was just about to be prefaced with prayer, when a loud voice was heard from a pew behind Mr. Irving, exclaiming, "Arise, depart!—arise, depart—flee ye out, flee ye out of her! Ye cannot pray. How can ye pray? How can ye pray to Christ, whom ye deny? Ye cannot pray. Depart—depart—flee—flee!" The church, at this late hour, was almost enveloped in darkness; and the crowd of 2,000 people within the walls started to their feet, as if the cry of "Fire!" had been suddenly sounded. But a minister, on lifting up the solitary candle to which they were now reduced, and searching cautiously about, discovered that the words were uttered by Mr. Dow, late minister of Irongray, who had been deposed for holding sentiments similar to those of Mr. Irving. The latter, who seemed to consider the call as a command from heaven, rose up to depart; and turning his colossal form toward the passage, which was almost blocked up, he thundered in a tone of impatience, "Stand forth! Stand forth! What! Will ye not obey the voice of the Holy Ghost? As many as will obey the voice of the Holy Ghost, let them depart." He strode onward to the door, and, pausing for a moment, he exclaimed—"Prayer indeed! Oh!" Such was his parting salutation to the church of which he had been so distinguished a minister. In a few minutes more the sentence of the presbytery was pronounced, and his connection with the church dissolved.

The subsequent history of an individual so good and talented, but whose course withal was so erratic, and worse than useless, may be briefly told. Immediately after his deposition, he commenced a tour of open-air preaching in Annan, Dumfries, and other places, and then returned to London. On his ejection from the Caledonian Church in Regent Square, he had settled, with a great portion of his congregation, who followed him, in a building in Newman Street, formerly the picture gallery of Benjamin West, which was fitted up for a place of worship; and here, completely removed beyond the control of church courts, Mr. Irving gave himself up to his prophets and prophetesses, whose exhibitions became wilder, and revelations more abundant than ever. A new creed, a new church, and new office-bearers and rites were soon established; itinerant preachers were sent forth to proclaim the advent of a better world at hand, while miracles, effected upon the weak-minded and hypochondriacal, were announced as incontestable proofs of the divine authority of the new system. At length 50,000 worshippers, and numerous chapels erected throughout England, proclaimed that a distinct sect had been fully established, let its permanency be what it might. And now Mr. Irving had attained that monstrier digito which, with all his heroic and disinterested labours, he never appears to have lost sight of since his arrival in London. But as the honoured and worshipped mystagogue, with a church of his own creation, was he happy, or even at peace with himself? His immeasurably long sermons, his frequent preachings and writings, his incredible toils both of mind and body, were possibly aggravated and imbittered by the apostasy of some of the most gifted of his flock, and the moral inconsistencies of others; while the difficulties of managing a cause, and ruling a people subject to so many inspirations, and exhorted in so many unknown tongues, would have baffled Sir Harry Vane, or even Cromwell himself. His raven locks were already frosted, and his iron frame attenuated by premature old age; and in the autumn of 1834, he was compelled to return to his native country, for the recovery of his health; but it was too late. His disease was consumption, against which he struggled to the last, with the hope of returning to his flock; but on arriving at Glasgow, his power of journeying was ended by the rapid increase of his malady; and he was received under the hospitable roof of Mr. Taylor, a stranger, where, in much pain and suffering, he lay down to die. In his last hours he was visited by his aged mother, and his sister, Mrs. Dickson, to the first of whom he said, "Mother, I hope you are happy." Much of the time during which he was sensible was employed by him in fervent prayer. A short time before he expired, the Rev. Mr. Martin, his father-in-law, who stood at his bed-side, overheard him faintly uttering what appeared a portion of the 23d psalm in the original; and on repeating to him the first verse in Hebrew, Mr. Irving immediately followed with the two succeeding verses in the same tongue. Soon after he expired. This event occurred on the 6th of December, 1834, when he was only forty-two years old. His death occasioned a deep and universal sensation in Glasgow, where his ministry as a preacher had commenced, and where he was still beloved by many. He left a widow and three young children, one of them an infant only six months old, at his decease.

I found an article about a book about him in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine and also the book itself so have made these available here in pdf format.

The Article
The Book

The Life of Edward Irving
Minister of the National Scotch Church, London by Mrs. Oliphant in two volumes, Illustrated by his Journals and Correspondence (1863) (Second Edition)
Volume 1  |  Volume 2

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