Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Irving, Edward

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IRVING, EDWARD (1792–1834), divine, was born at Annan on 4 Aug. 1792, on the same day as Shelley. His father, Gavin Irving, was a tanner, of a family long established in the neighbourhood; his mother, Mary Lowther, was the daughter of a small landed proprietor. As a boy, he was eminently successful in gaining school prizes, and showed a partiality for attending the services of extreme presbyterians, seceders from the church of Scotland, at the neighbouring hamlet of Ecclefechan, Carlyle's birthplace. There he doubtless received impressions which influenced his future career. At thirteen he went to Edinburgh University, where he graduated in 1809. Though he does not appear to have been a remarkably distinguished student, he attracted the favourable notice of Professors Christison and Leslie, by whose recommendation he obtained in 1810 the mastership of the so-called mathematical school just established at Haddington. Here he remained two years teaching, studying for the ministry, and at the same time giving private lessons to a little girl, Jane Baillie Welsh, who was destined to influence his life in future years. In 1812, by the continued patronage of Sir John Leslie, he obtained the mastership of a newly established academy at Kirkcaldy, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth, which he administered successfully, but, if lingering traditions may be trusted, with unreasonable severity towards his scholars. He found another female pupil destined to affect his future life in Isabella Martin, daughter of the minister of the parish, and, after obtaining a license to preach in June 1815, occasionally assisted her father, not greatly, as would appear, to the edification of the people. ‘He had ower muckle gran'ner,’ they said. While at Kirkcaldy he made the acquaintance of Carlyle, who arrived in the autumn of 1816 to take charge of an opposition school. Irving received his competitor with the utmost generosity. ‘Two Annandale people,’ he said, ‘must not be strangers in Fife.’ Neither teacher appears to have taken a very engrossing or strictly professional interest in his pursuit, and they speedily became fast friends. Irving, the elder man, and at the time by much the more interesting and conspicuous, was in a position to be of the greatest service to Carlyle, who gratefully records the stimulus of his conversation and the access to books which he afforded to him. ‘But for Irving I had never known what the communion of man with man means.’ In 1818 Irving resigned his appointment, a proceeding speedily imitated by Carlyle, and he repaired to Edinburgh with a view to qualifying himself for some profession. He learned French and Italian, he attended lectures in chemistry and natural history, and, not wholly despairing of being a preacher yet, burned all his unappreciated Kirkcaldy sermons, and exercised himself in writing others on a new model. When, in August 1819, he found another opportunity of preaching, he succeeded so well that Dr. Chalmers, one of his audience, invited him to become his assistant at St. John's, Glasgow, where he settled in October. This congregation thus had for a time the two most famous modern preachers of Scotland; but Irving felt himself entirely eclipsed by Chalmers. The consciousness that he was unjustly depreciated combined with increased confidence in his own powers to stimulate the ambition which had always been a leading trait in his character, but which circumstances had hitherto repressed. He became restless and uncomfortable, and embraced the opportunity of a new sphere afforded by the invitation which he received in 1822 from the little chapel in Hatton Garden, London, connected with the Caledonian Asylum, although a knowledge of Gaelic should have been a requisite, and the congregation was so small and poor that it at first seemed unable to give the bond for the minister's due stipend required by the church of Scotland. These difficulties were eventually surmounted, and, ‘at the highest pitch of hope and anticipation,’ Irving removed to London in July 1822. He had already, in May 1821, given Carlyle an introduction to Jane Welsh, and had parted from his friend after an earnest conversation on Drumclog Moss, unforgotten by either.

Byron scarcely leapt into fame with more suddenness than Irving. The new preacher's oratory was pronounced worthy of his melodious and resonant voice, noble presence, commanding stature, and handsome features, which were marred only by a slight obliquity of vision. The little chapel was soon crowded, and the original congregation was almost lost in the influx of the more brilliant members of London society. His celebrity is said to have been greatly aided by a compliment paid him by Canning in the House of Commons, but, however attracted, his hearers remained. One great source of magnetism in Irving was undoubtedly the tone of authority that he assumed. Others might reason and expostulate, he dictated. The effect of Irving's success on his own character was unfavourable; it fostered that ‘inflation’ which Carlyle had already remarked in him in his obscure Kirkcaldy days, and, by encouraging his belief in his own special mission, made him a ready prey to flatterers and fanatics. His first important publication, ‘An Argument for Judgment to come,’ published along with his ‘Orations’ in 1823, is in its origin almost incredibly silly, being a protest against the respective Visions of Judgment of Southey and Byron, which Irving thought equally profane. It is no wonder that he himself soon became a mark for satirists, but their attacks only served to evince his popularity.

Irving's domestic circumstances were not satisfactory. On 13 Oct. 1823 he was married at the manse of Kirkcaldy to Isabella Martin, after an eleven years' engagement, which, as Mrs. Oliphant significantly says, ‘had survived many changes, both of circumstances and sentiment.’ It is in fact now known that Irving had been in 1821 deeply in love with Jane Welsh, who had before conceived a childish attachment to him, that she at that time reciprocated his feeling, that he had endeavoured to persuade the Martin family to release him from his engagement, that they had refused, and that he fulfilled it reluctantly, though with the best grace in his power. The marriage proved nevertheless much happier than might have been expected; but it was still the greatest of misfortunes to Irving to have missed a wife capable of advising and controlling him, and found one who ‘could bring him no ballast for the voyage of life.’ Her admiration and affection led her to surround him with worshippers, inferior people themselves, who kept superior people away. Carlyle, whose criticism might have been very valuable, found it impossible to keep up any intimate intercourse with his old friend. ‘If I had married Irving,’ said Jane Welsh Carlyle long afterwards, ‘the tongues would never have been heard.’

While Irving's extravagant assumptions in the pulpit served to provide frivolous society in London with a new sensation, the student of ecclesiastical history may see in them a premonition of the great sacerdotal reaction which occurred ten years later, a reaction grounded on very different postulates and supported by very different arguments, but equally expressive of a tendency in the times. Indeed, when Irving arrived in London in 1822, partly by inevitable reaction from the lukewarmness of the eighteenth century, partly from the marvellous political history of the preceding thirty years, a great revival of enthusiastic religious feeling was beginning. People could hardly be blamed for seeing a fulfilment of prophecy in the events of the French revolution; and, this granted, the corollary of an impending end of the world was but reasonable. The Apocalyptic tendency expressed itself in the poetry and art of the time; in Byron's ‘Heaven and Earth’ and Moore's ‘Loves of the Angels;’ and in the pictures of Danby and Martin. It was inevitable that Irving should go with the current, and equally so that he should be entirely carried away by it. His entire absorption in the subject may be dated from the beginning of 1826, when he became acquainted with the work of the Spanish jesuit Lacunza, published under the pseudonym of Aben Ezra, ‘The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty.’ Deeply impressed, he resolved to translate it, and the intimacy which this task occasioned with Henry Drummond [q.v.] and others of similar sentiments gave birth to the conferences for the study of unfulfilled prophecy which for many years continued to be held at Drummond's seat at Albury. The translation was published in 1827, with a long preface, which has been reprinted separately. Irving's eloquence had long ago transformed his originally small and poor congregation into a large and rich one, and at this time the fact became externalised in a new church in Regent Square, then regarded as the handsomest of any not belonging to the establishment in London. There, Sunday after Sunday a thousand persons assembled to hear Irving expound for three hours at a stretch, though, as he assured Chalmers, he could bring himself down to an hour and forty minutes. A less devoted congregation at Hackney Chapel dropped away at the end of two hours and a half, and the prudent Chalmers began to fear ‘lest his prophecies and the excessive length and weariness of his services may not unship him altogether.’ Chalmers was right. Whether from Irving's prolixity, or their own fickleness, or from the distance of the new church from any leading thoroughfare, the fashionable crowds that had filled Hatton Garden stopped short of Regent Square. Irving proved his sincerity by making no attempt to bring them back. Early in 1828 he published his ‘Lectures on Baptism,’ evincing a decided approximation to the views of the sacramental party in the church of England. In May of that year he undertook a journey in Scotland, with the object of proclaiming the imminence of the second advent. The experiences of this tour were of a chequered character. Chalmers thought his Edinburgh lectures ‘woeful,’ but he brought the Edinburgh people out to hear them at five in the morning. At his native Annan he was received with enthusiasm; but at Kirkcaldy an unfortunate accident from the fall of the overcrowded galleries made him, most unreasonably, an object of popular displeasure. On this tour he contracted a friendship with Campbell of Row, soon about to be tried for heresy, which gave support to the suspicions of heterodoxy which were beginning to be entertained against himself. They were increased by the publication at the end of the year of his ‘Sermons on the Trinity,’ though these had been delivered in 1825 without exciting criticism from any quarter. Early in 1829 the ‘Morning Watch,’ a journal on unfulfilled prophecy, entirely pervaded, as Mrs. Oliphant remarks, by Irving, was established by the members of the Albury conference. Another expedition to Scotland followed, and at the beginning of 1830 his tract, ‘The Orthodox and Catholic Doctrine of our Lord's Human Nature,’ exposed him to open charges of heresy, intensified by the accusations similarly brought against his friends Campbell, Scott, and Maclean. For the time, however, inquisition remained in abeyance, while public attention was directed to matters of a more exciting character, and which gave an easier handle to Irving's adversaries.

The ‘unknown tongues’—the crowning development of Irving's ministrations—were first heard on 28 March 1830, from the mouth of Mary Campbell, ‘in the little farmhouse of Fernicarry, at the head of the Gairloch.’ On Irving's theories of the second advent, this and the miraculous cure of Miss Campbell, which was believed to have occurred shortly afterwards, were events to be expected, and he can scarcely be excused of excessive credulity for having rather encouraged than repressed the manifestations which rapidly multiplied. They were at first confined to private prayer-meetings, but on 16 Oct. 1831 the public services in Regent Square Church were interrupted by an outbreak of unintelligible discourse from a female worshipper, and such occurrences speedily became habitual. ‘I did rejoice with great joy,’ owns Irving, ‘that the bridal jewels of the church had been found again.’ The manifestations have been described by many, both speakers and hearers. The best descriptions are the vivid account of Robert Baxter, himself an agent, who ended by attributing them to diabolical possession, and that by Irving himself, who, obliged to maintain the Pentecostal affinities of the phenomenon, is exceedingly indignant with ‘the heedless sons of Belial’ who pronounced the utterances mere gibberish; and protests that, on the contrary, ‘it is regularly formed, well proportioned, deeply felt discourse, which evidently wanteth only the ear of him whose native tongue it is to make it a very masterpiece of powerful speech.’ But whose native tongue was it? Miss Campbell conjectured, for unknown reasons, the Pelew Islanders'. The whole story is a curious instance of religious delusion.

Irving had never been on cordial terms with the religious world, and since the delivery in 1826 of a powerful sermon advocating the prosecution of missions by strictly apostolic methods, he had been regarded by it with suspicion and dislike. An attempted prosecution for heresy in December 1830 had failed for the time in consequence of Irving's withdrawal from the jurisdiction of the London presbytery, but he was now helpless. The church trustees, who disapproved of the tongues, were clearly bound to take steps for the abatement of what they regarded as an intolerable nuisance, and as Irving was not prepared ‘défendre à Dieu de faire miracle en ce lieu,’ no course but his removal was possible. He defended himself with an imperious haughtiness little calculated to conciliate his judges, most of whom were probably inimical to him on other grounds, but the most friendly tribunal could hardly have come to any other decision, and he was removed from the pulpit of Regent Square Church on 26 April 1832. The larger part of the congregation, numbering no less than eight hundred communicants, nevertheless adhered to him, and found temporary refuge in a large bazaar in Gray's Inn Road, which was shared with them, much to their dissatisfaction, by Robert Owen. In the autumn Irving's followers, reconstituted (as they asserted) with ‘the threefold cord of a sevenfold ministry,’ and assuming the title of the ‘Holy Catholic Apostolic Church,’ removed to the picture gallery in Newman Street which had formerly been used by Benjamin West. Though now the minister of a dissenting congregation, Irving retained his status as a clergyman of the church of Scotland until his deprivation by the presbytery of Annan, on 13 March 1833, on a charge of heresy respecting the sinlessness of Christ. The tribunal was not a highly competent one, and its decision carried little moral weight. It broke Irving's heart nevertheless. He travelled for some time through his native county, addressing crowded audiences in the open air, and then returned to London to find himself suspended and almost deposed by his own congregation, of which the world naturally supposed him to be prophet, priest, and king. It was far otherwise. Irving himself had never been favoured with any supernatural gifts; he was consequently bound, on his own principles, to give place to those who had. When, therefore, immediately upon his return an inspired voice proclaimed that, having lost his orders in the church of Scotland, he must not administer the sacraments until he had received fresh ones, he could only acquiesce and stand aside. He accepted the situation with the utmost meekness, consenting without a murmur to be controlled and on occasion rebuked by inferior men, whose alleged revelations on points of ceremonial were often in violent contrast with his own ideas and the traditions of the church to which he had hitherto belonged. He still preached, and occasionally undertook missions at the bidding of the authorities who had assumed the direction of his conscience, but never came prominently before the world, and his own rank in his community was only that of an inferior minister. His health declined rapidly. The last glimpse of him as a writer is obtained, in the autumn of 1834, from a series of letters written to his wife while he was on a journey through the west midland counties and Wales in search of health, and preparing for another mission to Scotland. These letters, in every way more simple, natural, and human than the more celebrated epistles of former years, convey a most affecting picture of the man sinking into the grave. After his arrival at Glasgow his strength entirely failed, and he expired on 7 Dec. 1834, his last words being, ‘If I die, I die unto the Lord.’ He was buried in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral. Few of his children survived to adult age, but he left a son, Martin Howy Irving, who obtained distinction as a professor in Australia.

The ‘Irvingite’ or ‘Holy Catholic Apostolic Church’ still survives. A fine Gothic church, built in Gordon Square in 1854, is the chief home of the denomination.

Irving's character offers a paradox in many respects. As a general rule, a person in whom the moral qualities are greatly in excess of the intellectual may be a pleasing figure, but not a picturesque or imposing one. The person, too, who obtains a large share of public notice by mere eloquence, without solid acquirements or valuable ideas, is usually something of a charlatan. Irving was one of the most striking figures in ecclesiastical history, and as exempt from every taint of charlatanism as a man can be. He cannot be acquitted of an enormous over-estimate of his own powers and a fatal proneness to believe himself set apart for extraordinary works; but this mistaken self-confidence never degenerated into conceit, and on many occasions he gave evidence of a most touching humility. Morally his character was most excellent; his life was a succession of tender and charitable actions, in so far as his polemics left him time and opportunity. Intellectually he was weak, to say nothing of his deficiency in judgment and common sense; his voluminous writings are a string of sonorous commonplaces, empty of useful suggestion and original thought. This poverty of matter is in part redeemed by the dignity of the manner, for which Irving has never received sufficient credit. The composition is always fine, often noble; and, though it is certainly framed upon biblical models, such perfect imitation implies delicate taste as well as rhetorical power. In his familiar letters, however, the maintenance of this exalted pitch soon becomes exceedingly tiresome.

[Oliphant's Life of Edward Irving; Wilks's Edward Irving, an Ecclesiastical and Literary Biography; Carlyle's Reminiscences, and Essay on Irving in Fraser's Mag. for January 1835; Froude's Thomas Carlyle; Jane Welsh Carlyle's Memorials; Mrs. Alexander Ireland's Life of Jane Welsh Carlyle; Baxter's Narration of Facts; Hazlitt's Spirit of the Age; Collected Writings of Edward Irving, edited by G. Carlyle.]

R. G.