Edward Irving, the infamous preacher, died on the 7th of December, 1834.
Edward Irving had a reputation for being a highly demonstrative and charismatic preacher. If television had been invented in his day, he would have been the presenter of one of those interminable, fund raising religious programmes. In the early 19th Century, Irving was also the main public figure in a movement obsessed with what he prophesised was a rapidly approaching apocalypse. In many ways, he was a Pentecostalist before such a label existed, and embraced speaking in tongues and other absurdities. Fred Kaplan, a biographer of Irving’s one time friend, Thomas Carlyle, wrote that Irving “had an extraordinary capacity for self-dramatisation, which he revealed in his preaching …and his heightened rhetoric about his own and his nation’s Christian destiny”.
Not everyone in the Church of Scotland approved of Irving and Thomas Chalmers, who became a leader of the ‘Disruption’ and to whom Irving was at one time an assistant, described Irving’s preaching as “full of bravuras and flourishes” and “like Italian music, appreciated only by connoisseurs”. His prolixity was wondrous and one interminable sermon, during which he was obliged to rest while the congregation sang a few verses of a hymn and which was later published, ran to one hundred and thirty pages, plus thirty more of dedication and preface. In 1822, his fervent sermons in the Caledonian Chapel in London attracted great attention and he became a “larger than life” figure who put Walter Scott “in mind of the devil disguised as an angel of light”.
By 1827, his early popularity had begun to subside, but he squared that with the typical denial, choosing to ignore the serious blow to his self-esteem. He developed an interest in the supernatural and, in 1828, took to lecturing throughout England and Scotland about his prophesies of the ‘Second Coming’. In 1833, his notoriety became too much for the Church of Scotland and it accused him of heresy, resulting in his excommunication. Undeterred, and together with the politician Henry Drummond, he had already formed his own sect. From that ‘school of the prophets’, the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church had emerged, otherwise known as the ‘Irvingite Church’ with its loyal congregation of ‘Irvingites’.
Edward Irving was born in Annan on the 4th of August, 1792. He began his education at a school kept by Peggy Paine, a relation of Thomas Paine, the author of ‘The Age of Reason’. Irving went next to Annan Academy and in 1805, to the University of Edinburgh, from where he graduated with an M.A. in 1809. The following year, he took up a teaching post at a newly established Academy in Haddington and in 1812, moved to a similar post in Kirkcaldy. In the meantime, Irving completed divinity studies through a series of partial sessions and licensed to preach in June, 1815. However, he remained a teacher for three more years until he resigned and moved to Edinburgh, to seek a position in the Church of Scotland. Unsuccessful at first, he was on the point of going to Persia as a missionary when he was appointed to a post in St John’s Parish, Glasgow, in October, 1819, as assistant to the theologian, Thomas Chalmers.
In July, 1822, he moved to London, to preach at the National Scotch Church in Cross Street, Hatton Garden, where with the help of its Patron, the Duke of York, he avoided the obligation to preach in Gaelic as well as English. Irving probably wished to be seen as an Elijah the Tishbite or a John the Baptist, judging by his 1823 publication, ‘For the Oracles of God, Four Orations: for Judgment to come, an Argument in Nine Parts’. It got mixed reviews in which Irving was either a profound thinker or a deceptive quack; a sublime Demosthenes or a ‘Bombastes Furioso’ of stuff and nonsense. He believed his “solitary volume… [was] the sum total of all for which the chariot of heaven made so many visits to the earth”. Unbeknowing of the real truth behind his revelations, he contrasted a time “when [at] each revelation of the ‘Word of God’ …there was done upon the earth a wonder” with “now the miracles of God have ceased …No burning bush …no hand cometh forth from the obscure to write his purposes in letters of flame”. By then, mankind had grown up somewhat.
Crowds flocked to hear Irving preach and his success continued into the late 1820s, but by 1827, his decline had begun. Also in 1827, having developed his interest in prophesies and the supernatural, Irving translated ‘The Coming of the Messiah in Glory and Majesty’. That strange book, which was ‘indexed’ (or banned) by the Catholic Church, told of the biblical events of Daniel and Revelation as if they were about to take place and it was written in 1790 by Manuel De Lacunza, an ex-Jew who wrote under the pen name of ‘Juan Josafat Ben Ezra’. During his travels in Scotland, in 1828, Irving’s imagination had been stirred by the seeming revival of “apostolic gifts of prophecy and healing”. He persuaded himself that such ‘gifts’ had been kept in abeyance only by the absence of faith. Unsurprisingly, in 1831, the year after he published his doctrines regarding the humanity of Jesus Christ, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland condemned his “irregularities” connected with the manifestation of ‘gifts’ and he gradually estranged the majority of his own congregation. The establishment of the Holy Catholic Apostolic Church and excommunication followed.
Edward Irving continued to preach in London until his early death on the 7th of December, 1834. He was buried in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, near to the tomb of St. Mungo and is remembered by a statue in the grounds of the old Parish Kirk in Annan.
Today, if we were being polite, we’d call Irving’s parishioners ‘charismatic’. Carlyle wrote of them that suddenly, during regular service and with Irving's encouragement hysterical women and crackbrained enthusiasts uttered confused ‘Ohs’ and ‘Ahs’ and absurd interjections about ‘the Body of Jesus’. He also wrote that they pretended to work miracles and cast out Devils. Irving wasn’t too complimentary of his native land; one of his quotes being “I perceive two things in Scotland of the most fearful omen: ignorance of theological truth, and a readiness to pride themselves in and boast of it”. Pragmatic Presbyterians would no doubt argue.