1902 Encyclopedia > James Usher

James Usher
Prelate and scholar
(1580-1656)




JAMES USHER, (1580-1656), prelate and scholar, was born in the parish of St Nicholas, Dublin, on 4th January 1580. He was the eldest son of Arnold Usher, one of the six clerks in Chancery, and descended from the house of Nevill, one of whose scions, accompanying John Planta-genet to Ireland in the capacity of usher in 1185, adopted his official title as a surname. James Usher was sent to a school in Dublin opened by two political agents of James VI. of Scotland, who adopted this manner of averting the suspicions of Elizabeth's Government from their real object, which was to secure a party for James in Ireland in the event of the queen's death. In 1593 Usher matriculated as one of the first students at the newly-founded university of Dublin, whose charter had been obtained in 1592 by his uncle Henry Usher, arch-bishop of Armagh. He proved a diligent student, devoting much attention to controversial theology, graduated as M.A. in 1600, and became a fellow of Trinity College. On the death of his father in 1598 he resigned the family estate to his younger brother, reserving only a small rent-charge upon it for his own maintenance, and prepared to enter into holy orders. When he was but nineteen he accepted a challenge put forth by Henry Fitz-simons, a learned Jesuit, then a prisoner in Dublin, in-viting discussion of Bellarmine's arguments in defence of Boman Catholicism, and acquitted himself with much dis-tinction. In 1600 he was appointed proctor of his college and catechetical lecturer in the university, though still a layman, and was ordained deacon and priest on the same day, in 1601, while still under the canonical age, by his uncle the primate. In 1606 he became regius professor of divinity and also chancellor of St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin. He was a frequent visiter to England to purchase books for his college library, and upon similar errands, making on these occasions the acquaintance of the most eminent scholars in London, Oxford, and Cambridge, such as Camden, Selden, Sir Thomas Bodley, and Sir Robert Cotton. He took his degree of D.D. in 1612, and in the following year published his first printed work, though not his first literary composition,—Gravissimx Quxstionis de Christianarum Ecclesiarum, in Occidentis prxsertim partibus, ab Apostolicis temporibus ad nostram usque xtatem, continua successione et statu, Histórica Explicatio, wherein he took up the history of the Western Church from the point where Jewel had left off in his Apology for the Church of England, and carried it on from the 6th till past the middle of the 13 th century, but never completed it. In this same year he married Phoebe, daughter of Dr Luke Chaloner, a wealthy heiress. In 1615 he took part in an attempt of the Irish clergy to impose a Calvinistic confession, em-bodying the Lambeth Articles of 1595, upon the Irish Church, and was delated to King James in consequence. But on his next visit to England in 1619 he brought with him an attestation to his orthodoxy and high professional standing, signed by the lord deputy and the members of the privy council, which, together with his own demeanour in a private conference with the king, so influenced the latter that he nominated Usher to the vacant see of Meath, of which he was consecrated bishop in 1620. In 1622 he published a controversial Discourse of the Religion anciently Professed by the Irish and British, designed to show that they were in agreement with the Church of England and opposed to the Church of Bome on the points in debate between those churches. In 1623 he was made a privy councillor for Ireland, and in the same year was summoned to England by the king that he might more readily carry on a work he had already begun upon the antiquity of the British churches. "While he was detained on this business the archbishop of Armagh died in January 1624, and the king at once nominated Usher to the vacant primacy; but severe illness and other causes impeded his return to Ireland until August 1626.
For many years Archbishop Usher was actively em-ployed both in the government of his diocese and in the publication of several learned works, amongst which may be specified Emmanuel (a treatise upon the Incarnation), published in 1638, and Britannicarum Ecclesiarum Anti-quitates, in 1639. In 1634 he took part in the convocation which drafted the code of canons that formed the basis of Irish ecclesiastical law till the disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1869, and defeated the attempt of Bram-liall, then bishop of Derry and later his own successor in Armagh, to conform the Irish Church exactly to the doctrinal standards of the English. He put the matter on the ground of preserving the independence of the Irish Church, but the real motive at work was to maintain the Calvinistic element introduced in 1615. In 1640 he paid another visit to England on one of his usual scholarly errands, meaning to return when it was accomplished. But the rebellion of 1641 broke out while he was still at Oxford, and he never saw his native country again. He published a collection of tracts at Oxford in that year, inclusive of a defence of Episcopacy and of the doctrine of non-resistance. One blot on his memory is that, being one of the five prelates whom Charles I. consulted whether he could conscientiously assent to the Act of attainder against the earl of Strafford after having pledged his word to him for his safety, Usher joined in the casuistical advice given by all except Juxon, who alone told the king that his pledged word could not be lawfully broken. All Usher's property in Ireland was lost to him through the rebellion, except his books and some plate and furniture, but he was assigned the temporalities of the vacant see of Carlisle for his support. In 1643 he was offered a seat in the As-sembly of Divines at Westminster, but declined it publicly in terms which drew upon him the anger of the House of Commons, and an order for the confiscation of his library was averted only by the interposition of Selden. He quitted Oxford in 1645 and went into Wales, where he remained till 1646, when he returned to London, and was in 1647 elected preacher to the Society of Lincoln's Inn, an office he continued to hold till a little before his death. During his residence in Wales a hyper-Calvinistic work entitled A Body of Divinity; or the Sum and Substance of _the Christian Religion, was published under his name by Bownham; and, though he repudiated the authorship in a letter to the editor, stating that the manuscript from which it was printed was merely a commonplace-book into which he had transcribed the opinions of Cartwright and other English divines, often disapproving of them and finding them dissonant from his own judgment, yet it has been persistently cited ever since as Usher's genuine work, and as lending his authority to positions which he had long abandoned, if he ever maintained them. In 1648 he had a conference with Charles I. in the Isle of Wight, assisting him in the abortive negotiations with Parliament on the question of Episcopacy. In 1650-54 he published the work which at the time and for more than a century after-wards was accounted his most important production, the Annates Veteris et Novi Testamenti, in which he propounded a scheme of Biblical chronology which held its ground until disproved by very recent advances in scholarship, and whose dates were inserted by some unknown authority in the margin of reference editions of the authorized ver-sion. He was to some extent favoured by Cromwell after he became lord protector, who seems to have promised LTsher a pension and a grant for twenty-one years of the lands belonging to the see of Armagh; but there is no proof that either was actually carried out. In 1655 Usher published his last work, De Grmca LXX. Interpretum Ver-sione Syntagma. He died on 20th March 1656, in Lady Peterborough's house at Beigate in Surrey. His body was buried in Westminster abbey, in the chapel of St Erasmus. To one daughter who survived him he left his library, and she sold it to the officers and soldiers of Cromwell's army in Ireland, who deposited it in Dublin castle, whence it was removed at the Restoration and given, according to Usher's original purpose, by direction of Charles II. to the library of Trinity College, of which it still forms a part.
Usher's works are very numerous, and were first collected by
Elrington and Todd, Dublin, 1847, in 17 vols. (R. F. L.)








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