Edward Irving was a noted Scottish clergyman generally regarded as the founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church. His followers were sometimes called Irvingites. Irving was a flamboyant pulpit orator, who became one of London's most famous preachers in the nineteenth century for his sermons on the topic of the Last Days. Many of his followers received revelations, saw visions, and spoke in tongues.
Irving is sometimes referred to as a forerunner of the Charismatic Movement. He was eventually excommunicated from the Church of Scotland for deviating from church doctrine. He claimed he was the new "John the Baptist" and emphasized the humanity of Christ. Today, Irving is remembered for being a leader of the pre-millennialism movement in the nineteenth century, an early originator of the doctrine of the Rapture, and a pioneer of modern Pentecostalism.
Irving was born in the town of Annan in the Scottish county of Dumfries and Galloway on August 4, 1792, and died on December 7, 1834. His father, Gavin, worked as a tanner and was a descendant of Huguenot refugees from France. His mother came from the Lowther family, who were farmers or small proprietors in the Annan area, and it seems that from her, he may have derived the most distinctive features of his personality. His early education took place at a school run by Margaret (Peggy) Paine, an aunt of Thomas Paine (who wrote Age of Reason). As a boy, Irving studied at the Annan Academy.
At the age of 13, he entered the University of Edinburgh and graduated in 1809. A year later, on the recommendation of the physicist Sir John Leslie, Irving was chosen as master of an academy newly established at Haddington, East Lothian, where he became the tutor of Jane Welsh, afterwards famous as wife of essayist Thomas Carlyle.
He was engaged in 1812, to Isabella Martin but fell in love with Jane Welsh. He tried to get out of his engagement with Miss Martin, but was prevented by her family, marrying her in 1823. After completing his divinity studies, Irving was licensed to preach in June 1815, but continued to focus on his scholastic endeavors for three more years. While studying mathematics and physical science, he also began to read the old classics, including works from the theologian Richard Hooker, who became his favorite author. At the same time, he became fond of Arabian Nights. He also reportedly carried a miniature copy of James McPherson's cycle of poems, Ossian, in his waistcoat pocket, which he would often recite passages from.
In the summer of 1818, Irving resigned his teaching position, and in order to increase the probability of obtaining a permanent appointment in the Church of Scotland, he took up residence in Edinburgh. Although he was well known for his public speaking, his prospects of becoming a minister in the church looked dim. Irving was about to go on a missionary tour in Persia when he finally found work in the church as an assistant and missionary to Dr. Thomas Chalmers in St. John's Parish, Glasgow.
Irving's passionate and lively style of preaching—which Chalmers, the first moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, compared to Italian music—found little interest among the congregation of St John's. However, as a missionary among the poorer classes in Glasgow, Irving was well received. He was welcomed into people's homes, where his benediction, "Peace be to this house," was greeted warmly. His ability to preach in homely settings won him many admirers and by many who were taken up by his embracing personality and vibrant spirit.
In the winter of 1821, Irving again turned his attention toward missionary work in the East, but received an invitation from the Church of Scotland congregation at the Caledonian Church in Hatton Garden, London, to minister to the small gathering there. He was ordained as a Presbyterian Church minister in July 1822. In previous years Irving had expressed a desire to preach to the leading figures in society, arts, and literature. Suddenly, he found himself in exactly such a situation, as important members of society flocked to hear him preach. His sudden leap in popularity may have been occasioned in part by a reference to Irving's striking eloquence made by George Canning, a leading member of the House of Commons, who had attended Irving's church.
It became clear that Irving was a brilliant preacher and orator. His intellect and theological arguments made an impression on the political, legal, and scientific men of the era. Irving was controversial as well as popular. He preached that the Christian church was entering a period of judgment in preparation for Christ's imminent return. These ideas did not often sit well with the more conservative leaders of his church.
In 1825, Irving was invited to preach to the Continental Society, where he met the influential banker Henry Drummond, who was to become a key figure and sponsor of the future Catholic Apostolic Church (the Drummond family to this day still funds the few remaining Catholic Apostolic churches in England).
Irving was now one of the most popular preachers in London. He had the intellectual capabilities to discourse with some of the great minds of England, while at the same time an ability to capture his audience with his passionate expression of emotions. He was a deeply spiritual man who appealed to his audience with his vision and zeal. Irving felt he was specially prepared to teach his prophetic and apocalyptic message to the leading figures of the age. However, he faced a fire of criticism from pamphlets, newspapers, and reviews for his volume of Orations, published in 1823, which was dedicated to the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was viewed with suspicion by the church. In his writings, Irving stated with certainty that, based on numerology derived from the Book of Revelation, humankind had entered the Last Days and that Christ would return soon.
Irving's passionate oratory increased his popularity, and his congregation in London grew so much that in 1827, he moved into the larger Regent Square Church.
Irving believed that the early spirituality of the Church had become stagnated. As his sermons began more and more to emphasize the supernatural and the imminent return of Christ, Irving faced criticism, especially on his views concerning the human nature of Christ.
In 1826, Irving was introduced to the ideas of Manuel Lacunza, a Spanish Jesuit who, under the assumed Jewish name of Juan Josafat Ben-Ezra, had written a book entitled, "The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty." Irving was so taken by the ideas of Lacunza that he mastered Spanish and, in 1827, published a translation of Lacunza's book with a 203 page preface.
It was through Irving that Lacunza's apocalyptic interpretation of the Book of Revelation was introduced to the early leaders of the Plymouth Brethren. At this time, Irving also discussed his ideas on millenarianism with Coleridge, who he viewed as an eloquent mystic.
The seeds for the establishment of the Irvingite or the Catholic Apostolic Church, were laid when the banker Drummond, in 1826, opened up his house at his estate in Albury Park to a select group of churchmen, including noted Anglican, Church of Scotland, Moravian, and Non-conformist ministers, who discussed unfulfilled prophecies and Irving's new ideas. Leaders of the Plymouth Brethren, such as John Nelson Darby, attended one of the conferences on biblical prophecy at Powerscourt House, the home of Lady Powerscourt. The meetings at Drummond's estate, which drew many of the great minds of the time, continued each year until 1830.
In 1828, Irving wrote his book, The Last Days: A Discourse on the Evil Character of These Our Times, Proving Them to be The 'Perilous Times' and the 'Last Day'. "I conclude," wrote Irving "that the last days… will begin to run from the time of God's appearing for his ancient people, and them together to work of destroying all Anti-Christian nations, of evangelizing the world, and of governing the Millennium…" Irving now began to focus his preaching exclusively on the prophetical books and especially of the Revelation. In a series of sermons on prophecy both in London and other towns in England he spoke to large crowds and filled some of the largest churches of Edinburgh in 1830.
It appeared Irving had tapped into the popular imagination concerning the Book of Revelation and the Last Days. However, his exercise of the gifts of prophecy and healing, his interpretation of the Gospel, and his absolute certainty that Christ was returning in 1868, soon stirred controversy. Most of all, it was his doctrines on the humanity of Christ that got him into trouble. While he taught that while Christ was sinless in thought, word, and deed, Irving emphasized the human side of Jesus' nature to a degree that many churchmen found unacceptable. He also believed the "absence of miraculous gifts was the fruit of the Church's long unbelief" and that the established churches had stagnated as a result.
In 1830, Irving was excommunicated by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. In the following year, he was declared unfit to remain the minister of the National Scotch Church of Regent Square. Following these events, Irving's followers began to describe themselves as the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church. In 1832, they moved to a new building in Newman Street. In March 1833, Irving was deposed from the ministry of the Church of Scotland by the presbytery of Annan on the charge of heresy.
The Newman Street Congregation, however, re-ordained him and retained him as their pastor. Irving had now in fact created his own church, which would develop its own creed and rites. The Catholic Apostolic Church grew out of this congregation in Newman Street and at its height had 50,000 worshipers and numerous churches throughout England.
Irving was later consecrated as an "Angel" in the Catholic Apostolic faith, which built a huge church, known as the Church of Christ at Gordon Square in London. The church recruited established men in society to take on the role of Christ's new disciples. It was open to new prophecies and the practice of speaking in tongues. In the basement of the Church of Christ, known as London's "third cathedral," the group prepared splendid robes and capes for the coming Messiah and his disciples.
Irving returned to Scotland in 1834, due to illness and hoped to recover there. He died of consumption, still in the prime of life, on December 7, 1834, at the age of 42. He left behind a widow and three children.
Edward Irving was the founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church, and his followers were sometimes called Irvingites. He was a pioneer of the pre-millennialism movement in England and the forerunner of modern Pentecostalism.
There is a statue of Edward Irving in the grounds of Annan Old Parish Church in Dumfriesshire.
The writings of Edward Irving published during his lifetime were:
His collected works were published in 5 volumes, edited by Gavin Carlyle. The Life of Edward Irving, by Margaret Oliphant, appeared in 1862, in 2 vols. Among a large number of biographies published previously, that by Washington Wilks (1854) has some merit.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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