1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Irving, Edward
IRVING, EDWARD (1792–1834), Scottish church divine, generally regarded as the founder of the “Catholic Apostolic Church” (q.v.), was born at Annan, Dumfriesshire, on the 4th of August 1792. By his father’s side, who followed the occupation of a tanner, he was descended from a family long known in the district, and the purity of whose Scottish lineage had been tinged by alliance with French Protestant refugees; but it was from his mother’s race, the Lowthers, farmers or small proprietors in Annandale, that he seems to have derived the most distinctive features of his personality. The first stage of his education was passed at a school kept by “Peggy Paine,” a relation of the well-known author of the Age of Reason, after which he entered the Annan academy, taught by Mr Adam Hope, of whom there is a graphic sketch in the Reminiscences of Thomas Carlyle. At the age of thirteen he entered the university of Edinburgh. In 1809 he graduated M.A.; and in 1810, on the recommendation of Sir John Leslie, he was chosen master of an academy newly established at Haddington, where he became the tutor of Jane Welsh, afterwards famous as Mrs Carlyle. He became engaged in 1812 to Isabella Martin, whom in 1823 he married; but it may be at once stated here that meanwhile he gradually fell in love with Jane Welsh, and she with him. He tried to get out of his engagement with Miss Martin, but was prevented by her family. If he had married Miss Welsh, his life, as well as hers, would have been very different. It was Irving who in 1821 introduced Carlyle to her.
His appointment at Haddington he exchanged for a similar one at Kirkcaldy in 1812. Completing his divinity studies by a series of partial sessions, he was “licensed” to preach in June 1815, but continued to discharge his scholastic duties for three years. He devoted his leisure, not only to mathematical and physical science, but to a course of reading in English literature, his bias towards the antique in sentiment and style being strengthened by a perusal of the older classics, among whom Richard Hooker was his favourite author. At the same time his love of the marvellous found gratification in the wonders of the Arabian Nights, and it is further characteristically related of him that he used to carry continually in his waistcoat pocket a miniature copy of Ossian, passages from which he frequently recited with “sonorous elocution and vehement gesticulation.”
In the summer of 1818 he resigned his mastership, and, in order to increase the probability of obtaining a permanent appointment in the church, took up his residence in Edinburgh. Although his exceptional method of address seems to have gained him the qualified approval of certain dignitaries of the church, the prospect of his obtaining a settled charge seemed as remote as ever, and he was meditating a missionary tour in Persia when his departure was arrested by steps taken by Dr Chalmers, which, after considerable delay, resulted, in October 1819, in Irving being appointed his assistant and missionary in St John’s parish, Glasgow. Except in the case of a select few, Irving’s preaching awakened little interest among the congregation of Chalmers, Chalmers himself, with no partiality for its bravuras and flourishes, comparing it to “Italian music, appreciated only by connoisseurs”; but as a missionary among the poorer classes he wielded an influence that was altogether unique. The benediction “Peace be to this house,” with which, in accordance with apostolic usage, he greeted every dwelling he entered, was not inappropriate to his figure and aspect, and it is said “took the people’s attention wonderfully,” the more especially after the magic of his personality found opportunity to reveal itself in close and homely intercourse. This half-success in a subordinate sphere was, however, so far from coinciding with his aspirations that he had again, in the winter of 1821, begun to turn his attention towards missionary labour in the East, when the possibility of fulfilling the dream of his life was suddenly revealed to him by an invitation from the Caledonian church, Hatton Garden, London, to “make trial and proof” of his gifts before the “remnant of the congregation which held together.” Over that charge he was ordained in July 1822. Some years previously he had expressed his conviction that “one of the chief needs of the age was to make inroad after the alien, to bring in the votaries of fashion, of literature, of sentiment, of policy and of rank, who are content in their several idolatries to do without piety to God and love to Him whom He hath sent”; and, with an abruptness which must have produced on him at first an effect almost astounding, he now had the satisfaction of beholding these various votaries thronging to hear from his lips the words of wisdom which would deliver them from their several idolatries and remodel their lives according to the fashion of apostolic times.
This sudden leap into popularity seems to have been occasioned in connexion with a veiled allusion to Irving’s striking eloquence made in the House of Commons by Canning, who had been induced to attend his church from admiration of an expression in one of his prayers, quoted to him by Sir James Mackintosh. His commanding stature, the symmetry of his form, the dark and melancholy beauty of his countenance, rather rendered piquant than impaired by an obliquity of vision, produced an imposing impression even before his deep and powerful voice had given utterance to its melodious thunders; and harsh and superficial half-truths enunciated with surpassing ease and grace of gesture, and not only with an air of absolute conviction but with the authority of a prophetic messenger, in tones whose magical fascination was inspired by an earnestness beyond all imitation of art, acquired a plausibility and importance which, at least while the orator spoke, made his audience entirely forgetful of their preconceived objections against them. The subject-matter of his orations, and his peculiar treatment of his themes, no doubt also, at least at first, constituted a considerable part of his attractive influence. He had specially prepared himself, as he thought, for “teaching imaginative men, and political men, and legal men, and scientific men who bear the world in hand”; and he did not attempt to win their attention to abstract and worn-out theological arguments, but discussed the opinions, the poetry, the politics, the manners and customs of the time, and this not with philosophical comprehensiveness, not in terms of warm eulogy or measured blame, but of severe satire varied by fierce denunciation, and with a specific minuteness which was concerned primarily with individuals. A fire of criticism from pamphlets, newspapers and reviews opened on his volume of Orations, published in 1823; but the excitement produced was merely superficial and essentially evanescent. Though cherishing a strong antipathy to the received ecclesiastical formulas, Irving’s great aim was to revive the antique style of thought and sentiment which had hardened into these formulas, and by this means to supplant the new influences, the accidental and temporary moral shortcomings of which he detected with instinctive certainty, but whose profound and real tendencies were utterly beyond the reach of his conjecture. Being thus radically at variance with the main current of the thought of his time, the failure of the commission he had undertaken was sooner or later inevitable; and shortly after the opening of his new church in Regent Square in 1827, he found that “fashion had taken its departure,” and the church, “though always well filled,” was “no longer crowded.” By this desertion his self-esteem, one of his strongest passions, though curiously united with singular sincerity and humility, was doubtless hurt to the quick; but the wound inflicted was of a deeper and deadlier kind, for it confirmed him finally in his despair of the world’s gradual amelioration, and established his tendency towards supernaturalism.
For years the subject of prophecy had occupied much of his thoughts, and his belief in the near approach of the second advent had received such wonderful corroboration by the perusal of the work of a Jesuit priest, writing under the assumed Jewish name of Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra, that in 1827 he published a translation of it, accompanied with an eloquent preface. Probably the religious opinions of Irving, originally in some respects more catholic and truer to human nature than generally prevailed in ecclesiastical circles, had gained breadth and comprehensiveness from his intercourse with Coleridge, but gradually his chief interest in Coleridge’s philosophy centred round that which was mystical and obscure, and to it in all likelihood may be traced his initiation into the doctrine of millenarianism. The first stage of his later development, which resulted in the establishment of the “Irvingite” or “Holy Catholic Apostolic Church,” in 1832, was associated with conferences at his friend Henry Drummond’s seat at Albury concerning unfulfilled prophecy, followed by an almost exclusive study of the prophetical books and especially of the Apocalypse, and by several series of sermons on prophecy both in London and the provinces, his apocalyptic lectures in 1828 more than crowding the largest churches of Edinburgh in the early summer mornings. In 1830, however, there was opened up to his ardent imagination a new vista into spiritual things, a new hope for the age in which he lived, by the seeming actual revival in a remote corner of Scotland of those apostolic gifts of prophecy and healing which he had already in 1828 persuaded himself had only been kept in abeyance by the absence of faith. At once he welcomed the new “power” with an unquestioning evidence which could be shaken by neither the remonstrances or desertion of his dearest friends, the recantation of some of the principal agents of the “gifts,” his own declension into a comparatively subordinate position, the meagre and barren results of the manifestations, nor their general rejection both by the church and the world. His excommunication by the presbytery of London, in 1830, for publishing his doctrines regarding the humanity of Jesus Christ, and the condemnation of these opinions by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the following year, were secondary episodes which only affected the main issue of his career in so far as they tended still further to isolate him from the sympathy of the church; but the “irregularities” connected with the manifestation of the “gifts” gradually estranged the majority of his own congregation, and on the complaint of the trustees to the presbytery of London, whose authority they had formerly rejected, he was declared unfit to remain the minister of the National Scotch Church of Regent Square. After he and those who adhered to him (describing themselves as of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church) had in 1832 removed to a new building in Newman Street, he was in March 1833 deposed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland by the presbytery of Annan on the original charge of heresy. With the sanction of the “power” he was now after some delay reordained “chief pastor of the church assembled in Newman Street,” but unremitting labours and ceaseless spiritual excitement soon completely exhausted the springs of his vital energy. He died, worn out and wasted with labour and absorbing care, while still in the prime of life, on the 7th of December 1834.
The writings of Edward Irving published during his lifetime were For the Oracles of God, Four Orations (1823); For Judgment to come (1823); Babylon and Infidelity foredoomed (1826); Sermons, &c. (3 vols., 1828); Exposition of the Book of Revelation (1831); an introduction to a translation of Ben-Ezra; and an introduction to Horne’s Commentary on the Psalms. His collected works were published in 5 volumes, edited by Gavin Carlyle. See also the article Catholic Apostolic Church.
The Life of Edward Irving, by Mrs Oliphant, appeared in 1862 in 2 vols. Among a large number of biographies published previously, that by Washington Wilks (1854) has some merit. See also Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age; Coleridge’s Notes on English Divines; Carlyle’s Miscellanies, and Carlyle’s Reminiscences, vol. i. (1881).