1902 Encyclopedia > Edward Irving

Edward Irving
Scottish clergyman

EDWARD IRVING, (1792-1834), a minister of the Scotch church, was born at Annan, Dumfriesshire, 4th 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 Scotch 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 wliom there is a graphic sketch in the Reminiscences of Thomas Carlyle. Of living's career at school there is nothing special to record if we except a slight liking for mathe-matical study, which afterwards developed itself more decidedly. Even in his early years he had a predilection for what was grave and solemn, but this tendency was also united with genial mirthfulness and a special fond-ness for athletic exercises.

At the age of thirteen Irving 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 the wife of Thomas Carlyle. His appointment at Hadding-ton 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 other three years. As a teacher he acquired the reputation of being a severe disciplinarian,—apparently rather from the stern gravity with which he regarded every kind of delinquency than from excessive severity in the actual administration of chastisement; out of doors he identified himself with the recreations of his pupils in a degree rare even at the present time, mingling instruction and amuse-ment so as to win their enthusiastic respect. During the latter period of his stay at Kirkcaldy Irving renewed an acquaintanceship with Thomas Carlyle, which ripened into lifelong friendship. While waiting with some impa-tience for a permanent opportunity to exercise his gifts in the ministry, he devoted his leisure, not only to mathe-matical 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, denominated by him "the venerable companion of my early days," was his favourite author. At the same time his love of the mar-vellous 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 fre-quently recited with " sonorous elocution and vehement gesticulation."

The impression which Irving's early appearances as a preacher produced upon his hearers seems to have been more of a perplexing and bewildering than an edifying character; but he himself never seems to have been troubled with doubts as to whether preaching was his "vocation." 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, where he now resolved to write according to a new system specially adapted to the wants of the age. Yet, 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 nourishes, com-paring it to " Italian music appreciated only by con-noisseurs "; but as a missionary among the poorer classes he wielded an influence that was altogether unique. The benediction " Peace be to this house," with wdiich, in accordance with apostolic usage, he greeted every dwell-ing he entered, was not inappropriate to his figure and aspect, and it is said " took the people's attention won-derfully," the more especially after the magic of his per-sonality 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 aspi-rations 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 Cale-donian church, Hatton Garden, London, to "make trial and proof" of his gifts before the " remnant of the con gregation 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 vvnich 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. As far as the mere manner of Irving's eloquence was concerned, it was improbable that any eulogy could err on the side of warmth and enthusiasm, for perhaps there never was any one more highly gifted with what may be called the personal qualifications of an orator. His commanding stature, the admirable symmetry of his form, the dark and melancholy beauty of his coun-tenance, 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 j 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 I in terms of warm eulogy or measured blame, but of severe 1 satire varied by fierce denunciation, and with a specific minuteness which was concerned primarily with individuals. Indeed it was the titillation produced by his picturesque unconventionality rather than any contagious emanation from his intense moral energy that formed the principal basis of connexion between him and his audience, with the majority of whom he was so deeply out of sympathy. The pungency of the titillation was sufficiently evidenced by the fire of criticism from pamphlets, newspapers, and reviews which 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 ha 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 mail current of S the thought of his time, the failure of the commission j he had undertaken was sooner or later inevitable; and shortly after the opening of his new church in Begent Square in 1827, he found that "fashion had taken its de-parture," 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 imparted to his tendency towards supernaturalism a supremacy which virtually produced the partial suspension of his intellectual faculties. 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 corro-boration 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, although Irving's imagination laid hold of this doctrine as an indispensable contrast to the dark and hopeless foreground of the present, which his morbid and incurable melancholy had led him to represent as robed in the gloomy draperies of the " reign of Satan." Towards supernaturalism he was indeed impelled, apart altogether from any accidental association with individuals, both by certain peculiar blemishes in his character and by its noblest excellences ; and it seemed a foregone necessity that he should become the moral victim of the struggle between the old and new faiths. He had so imbibed the spirit of apostolic times, and had accepted the old forms of Scriptural truths in such entire good faith, that he virtu-ally lived in an atmosphere of which the miraculous con-stituted the principal element, and the tendency towards supernaturalism thus associated with a profound moral sincerity was strengthened as well as tainted by alliance with a love of outward magnificence and splendour, and a restless craving after excitement, the result of misused and over-exerted energy.

The history of the remainder of Irving's career is a striking example of the power of one delusive prepossession partly to stifle and partly to frustrate the beneficent exercise of noble mental and moral gifts. Impracticable, visionary, deficient in appreciation of a whole side of human nature, and without real depth of humour, he became the compliant tool of almost any one who offered to supply him with the necessary corroboration of his own absorb-ing hallucination. The first stage of his deflexion was associated wifh the prophetical conferences at Albury, 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 doctrines regarding the humanity of Jesus Christ now generally held by the broad school of theologians, and the condemnation of these opinions by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in the following year, were irrelevant and 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 Eegent Square. After he and those who adhered to him had 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. "Commis-sioned" by the "power" as "a prophet to do a great work in his native land," he, notwithstanding that he was '' sinking under a deep consumption," undertook a mission to Glasgow, where, though his "gigantic frame" was now seen to "bear all the marks of age and weakness," and his "tremendous voice" had become "tremulous," he bated no jot of heart or hope; and even when '' stretched in utter weakness," and " visibly dying," he, with unfaltering faith in the testimony of the prophetic voice, waited for the moment when God "should bring life and strength." He died worn out and wasted with labour and absorbing care while still in the prime of life, 4th December 1834.

The writings of Edward Irving published during his lifetime are For tlie 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 introduc-tion to a translation of Ben Ezra ; and an introduction to Home's Commentary on the Psalms. His collected works have been published in 5 volumes, edited by Gavin Carlyle. The earlier of his writings abound in passages of finely figurative eloquence rising occasionally into a strain of sublime poetic spiritualism, sometimes breaking out into wild notes of melancholy and touching lamentation, and again hardening into vehement and scornful invective. They manifest, not only a keen sense of the beauties of nature, but a genuine interest in literature and art, a comprehensive if somewhat vague intellectual grasp, and a moral discernment penetrating and subtle, but tending towards narrowness of temper and sympathy. The style, however, is so much influenced in its forms by his study of the older writers as to seem stiff and antiquated, in addition to which many of its finer passages are marred by glaring errors of taste, wdiile there are already signs of that tendency to irrelevancy and diffuseness which imparts such tediousness to his later writings, and along with the exaggeration of his other defects, contributed to deprive them of nearly all literary charm as well as of moral and intellectual worth.

The Life of Edward Irving, by Mrs Oliphant, appeared in 1862 in two 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 Cariyle's Reminiscences, vol. i., 1881. (T. F. H.)

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