A detailed account of the 19th century Irvingite Church and its founder Edward Irving; who they were, what they believed, and why they are considered the source of the modern tongues movement.
Edward Irving was a Scottish clergyman in London, England during the 1830s. Pockets of England were in a period of prophetic expectation and excitement — a sense that the end was drawing near and the supernatural gifts of the original Apostles would return. Margaret Oliphant, one of the foremost biographers of Irving’s life, described this angst among her generation: “unclaimed and unexercised supernatural endowments, which had died out of use so long, would be restored only at the time of the Second Advent, in the miraculous reign, of which they form a fitting adjunct,” and “that the Holy Ghost ought to be manifested among us all, the same as ever He was in any one of the primitive Churches.”
Irving had this same prophetic feeling and believed that when the Holy Spirit had been released for the end of the world, one of the significant expressions of this occurring would be through the appearance of supernatural tongues — the same manifestation described in the Book of Acts. Oliphant wrote that Irving and the movement found it fulfilled in a woman named Mary Campbell. Here is a portion of the description given by Oliphant:
“When in the midst of their devotion, the Holy Ghost came with mighty power upon the sick woman as she lay in her weakness, and constrained her to speak at great length, and with superhuman strength, in an unknown tongue, to the astonishment of all who heard, and to her own great edification and enjoyment in God, –’for he that speaketh in a tongue edifieth himself.” She has told me that this first seizure of the Spirit was the strongest she ever had…”
Another Biographer, Washington Wilks, remained more decidedly general on who started it and did not specifically ascribe it to Campbell:
“When therefore, in the spring of 1830, he heard of Scottish women speaking as did the Twelve on the day of Pentecost, he suspected no travestie of that wondrous story, but felt only hope and thanfulness. He despatched an elder to inquire into the thing, who brought back a good report, and found the tongues of flame sitting on his own wife and daughters,”
Margaret Oliphant declared that Mary’s experience was the beginnings of the modern tongues movement, “It was thus that agitating and extraordinary chapter in the history of the modern Church, which we have hereafter to deal with, began.” She also added that the movement grew fast and became a national phenomenon, “There is not a corner of this part of the island where the subject of Prophecy and the Second Advent have not in the Church firm and able supporters.”
Irving himself became very popular. On at least one occasion he spoke before 12-13,000 people. One Church he pastored began with 50 people and quickly went up to 1500. Seating became a problem and had to be resolved with the issuing of tickets.
The concept of a tongues revival had become a top story in “every periodical work of the day,” and made its way into the then popular Fraser’s Magazine, where Irving was granted three articles on the topic. This helped to quickly expand this message.
Irving had a wide range of influence. Washington Wilkes described it best:
“The Duke of York repeated his visit, and carried with him other members of the royal family. …The parliamentary leaders of both sides, and even the Tory premier, Lord Liverpool (much to the lord Eldon’s horror)–the judges, and barristers of every degree–fashionable physicians and medical students–duchesses, noted beauties, city madams–clerics and dissenters–with men and women who rather followed the fashion than made particular to either intellect or religion…”
It also extended to the philosophical arena, where he held a friendship with the philosopher/writer, Thomas Carlyle; an acclaimed figure when London was at its peak of world dominance. Carlyle’s community included people such as Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Tennyson, John Stuart Mills and more.
What attracted Carlyle to the movement was not his longtime friendship to Irving or the Second Advent angst expressed in Tongues and Prophecy, but to “root out Established Churches altogether,” which was a reference to the Scottish National Church. Carlyle reflected the public wariness of this Church entity. This may have been part of the initial attraction with such a wide audience. When Carlyle wrote the obituary of Edward Irving in the Fraser’s magazine in 1834, he exclaimed how Irving opposed the fashion of the day and sought after the spiritual; an antithesis to was occurring in the Church during that era.
Irving’s end-time fervour, prophecy and gift of tongues became so popular that some reactionary forces began to develop. Andrew Drummond, author of Edward Irving and his Circle described that anti-Irvingite pamphlets were disseminated to counter Irvings theology and practices.
The gift of tongues was central to Irving’s message, believing that this was the precursor to the end of the world. In Irving’s personal appearances and speeches, the emphasis on tongues-speaking was central to his platform. So much so, Thomas Carlyle had him nicknamed “gift-of-tongues Irving.”
Over the years, Irving’s emphasis on tongues became a serious point of disagreement with Carlyle. To Carlyle, this was no longer an intellectual or religious pursuit, but a personal one that led Carlyle to believe Irving was mentally unstable. Carlyle described this state in some of his letters, “his body and mind seem much broken; yet if he could but live, we rather fancied he might shake off the Tongue-work.” And that he was overzealous with it, “the Tongue concern is quite out in this quarter: my poor lost Friend! Lost to me, to the world and to himself.” One night Irving demonstrated personally the gift of tongues to Carlyle and company, to which Carlyle wrote, “with singular calmness, [Irving] said only “There, hear you, there are the Tongues!” And we too, except by our looks which probably were eloquent, answered him nothing, but soon came away, full of distress, provocation, and a kind of shame.”
His prominence as a national and international phenomenon was a short lived span of three to four years. Oliphant summed it:
“Never was congregation of Scotch Presbyterians, lost in the mass of a vast community, which never more than half comprehends, and is seldom more than half respectful of Presbyterianism, so followed by the observation of the world, so watched and noted. In the mean time, the mystic world within concentrated more and more around the only man who to bear the brunt, he whom the outside world accused of endless vagaries, whom his very friends declared to be seeking notoriety at any cost, and from whose side already the companions of his life were dropping off in sad but inevitable estrangement…”
Wilks took on a different, albeit more populous conclusion:
“Fashion had gone, her idle way, to gaze on Egyptian crocodiles, Iroquois hunters, or what else there might be: forgetting this man–who, unhappily, could not in his turn forget.”
The biggest question in relation to this work, relates to what Irving and his followers thought this gift of tongues to be. Mary Campbell initially thought herself to have miraculously spoken in the language of the Pelew islands, which M. Oliphant noted could not be authoritatively disputed. On at least one occasion it was believed to be Turkish or Chinese. The definition immediately became a source of discussion. For example, there was an account of a member of the Regent Square Church who argued that the gift of tongues was not a short-cut to missionary success; inferring that the gift of tongues was xenoglossolalia. This question also brought on the debate of whether a spirit-filled Christian really needed to perform the intensive process of studying a language, or wait for a spiritual infilling which would consequently render the spontaneous ability.
Robert Baxter, a close and controversial associate to Irving, initially believed it to be a foreign language, for when he spoke in tongues:
“of which he recognised Latin and French, both of which he appears to have understood previously; and Italian, which his wife recognised; and a fourth language, which she declared to be Spanish. Mr. B. forgets to state whether he had ever studied these latter languages, and he confesses that his wife neither remembered nor was able to translate what he spoke in them.”
One must note that Baxter recanted on all that he had said or done later on, but the quote above still validly reflects what the common opinion was at the time.
Andrew Drummond also described in his book, Edward Irving and his Circle, that Irving had changed his position on the gift of tongues. It moved from the historic traditional position to that of a dual one. He made a distinction between the tongues of Pentecost and that of Corinth.
“The final article in Fraser’s Magazine appeared in April, 1832. He opens by claiming that tongue-speech was same form of utterance given at Pentecost; whereas in his March article he distinctly denied that glossolalia in his time was designed as a miraculous way of evangelising by languages unlearnt – Pentecost being unique and modern manifestations resembling rather those at Corinth.”
It is clear here that Irving believed that the xenoglossolalia that occurred in the Book of Acts, was unreproducible. The question naturally arises then, what did Irving think was the tongues at Corinth.
Drummond once again supplied the answer, “Irving replied that he had not the least idea of the meaning of Tongues”, and “aspired to be no more than the humble pastor of the flock”. It is clear from both Oliphant’s history and especially Carlyle’s correspondence that tongues was integral to Irving’s religious experience. His “least idea” statement initially may lead the reader to believe that he was avoiding the definition, but in reality, it was an important part of his glossolalic doctrine which will be clarified in the following paragraphs.
First of all George Pilkington’s first-hand experience with Edward Irving and his followers documented a clue to his theology. Pilkington thought he was destined to be a tongues interpreter in Irving’s assembly but shortly discovered major problems. In his autobiographical writing, The Unknown Tongues discovered to be English, Spanish, and Latin; and the Rev. Edward Irving proved to be erroneous in attributing their utterance to the influence of the Holy Spirit, he outlined the perceived failures, specifically about his participation in the use of glossaly in the public worship. He assumed the glossaly as nuances of different languages mixed together, and attempted to publicly expound translations. In the initial try, he was called into a meeting with Irving and his leaders, by which he was told, “You cannot interpret by human understanding; interpretation must be given by the Spirit.” Irving believed tongues to be entirely divine and to be mixed with human reason or language he thought to be impossible. If humans were to be able to define it, then it is no longer supernatural.
Another person named Vero Catholicus, who personally visited Edward’s Church around 1830, gave another clue about Irving’s opinion on tongues:
“I accordingly took convenient lodgings in London and attended Mr. Irving’s Lectures, &c. especially at 6 every morning for about a week, when he closed his lectures on “the Unknown Tongues.” His reasoning to prove that the unknown tongue spoken in the apostolic times as well as by themselves, was in many instances a language not spoken or understood by any people of the earth, and only to be comprehended by immediate revelation, was to my mind quite unsatisfactory and inconclusive…”
Thomas Carlyle noted that whatever Irving was doing had little association with a human language. This was demonstrated by a meeting where Irving walked around with his child in his arms and “burst forth a shrieky hysterical, “Lah lall lall!” (little or nothing else but l’s and and a’s continued for several minutes)”
Wilks gave a very good commonsense observation of the whole matter:
“The mental condition out of which it arose was just then a very common one in the religious world, and is not without parallel in ecclesiastical history–namely, despair of the world’s conversion by the ordinary methods of evangelization; and the desire of supernatural manifestations as a prelude to the Lord’s second advent.”
Oliphant also notes that there is a discrepancy between the definition at the start of the movement and later on, “the hypothesis of actual languages conferred seems to have given way to that of a supernatural sign attestation of the intelligible prophecy.”
Pilkington, Vero Catholicus, and Oliphant clearly demonstrated that Irving and his followers later believed that the gift of tongues was a heavenly language that could not be translated by human interpreters. Any attempt to do so was to limit the divine into human terms, a concept that was sacrilegious to the Irvingites.
It is clear from the evidence submitted so far, that Irving and his followers shifted from the traditional position of tongues being a spontaneous utterance of a foreign language unknown beforehand by the speaker to a heavenly language. Which naturally begs the question, why?
Obvious nonetheless and described from his article in Fraser’s Magazine, the historical gift of tongues as outlined in the Book of Acts was not happening in the context of his community. This brought on a serious dilemma, the gift of tongues was so central to Irving believing the end-time was coming, that he could not withdraw an activity already stated to have begun. This forced Irving and his followers into a quick re-definition.
Did Irving and his circle come up with this new definition themselves or did they borrow from some other source?
Irving had the intellectual capacity to come up with his own definition and also to borrow from the literary and philosophical community. He was well-read and aware of the current theology. Wilks described him thusly, “though devoted to the pulpit, he had prepared himself for a possible application to the bar, and indeed for any learned profession. He added large classical knowledge to his mathematical excellence, and acquaintance with the modern languages and their literature to both”. The naming of his literary favourites also demonstrates a strong intellectual capacity: “I fear not to confess that Hooker, and Taylor, and Baxter, in theology; Bacon, and Newton, and Locke, in philosophy; have been my companions, as Shakespeare, and Spencer, and Milton, have been in poetry.” He also treasured the works of the Spanish Jesuit priest, Manuel Lacunza. It inspired him to publish a translation of Lacunza’s work regarding the second coming in 1827. More importantly was his close relationship with Thomas Carlyle who lived with him for a brief period and was a writer concentrating on German literature for English Magazines.
At the same time Irving redefined tongues as a non-xenoglossolalic language not understood by the people on earth, German theologians introduced a similar sentiment with the Irvingites albeit from a more scientific perspective. Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer in his book, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians, attributed the redefinition to two German scholars, Friedrich Bleek and FC Baur. “Bleek believes that glôssai is a poetic, inspired mode of speech, whereas Baur believes it to be “a speaking in a strange, unusual phrases which deviate from the prevailing use of language.” – partly borrowed from foreign languages.” Meyer does not indicate exactly when Bleek or Baur introduced this thinking, but does date the opposition to it; 1829 for Bleek, and 1830 for Baur, which falls right into the same years as Irving’s prominence.
It was 1830 when the Scottish women first spoke in tongues which began the Irvingite movement and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that Irving syncretized this German definition within the context of their experience, especially when the original definition was failing.
Irving had made the personal decision to allow the practice of utterances in all the Regent Church services. This became very disruptive. The Trustees of the Regent Square Church advised Irving that this gift no longer be part of the Sunday worship service, but free to do otherwise on any other day. Irving refused, “If it be so, it will be simply because I have refused to allow the voice of the Spirit of God to be silence in this church… And now I am ready to go forth and leave them, if the Lord’s will be so. If we should be cast out for the truth, let us rejoice; yea, let us exceedingly rejoice,” believing it to be an unholy thing to deny such an expression and if forced to do so, he would resign.
This matter was referred to the London Presbytery in 1832, where he was charged with allowing the Church service to be interrupted on the Sabbath, speaking by people not licensed; neither members or seatholders, allowing females to speak, and for the Church service to have a time for the gifts. Note that neither tongues nor prophecy is mentioned specifically. The Presbytery concluded:
“…that the charges in said complaint are fully proven; and therefore, while deeply deploring the painful necessity thus imposed upon them, they did and hereby do, decern that the said Rev. Edward Irving has rendered himself unfit to remain the minister of the National Scotch Church aforesaid, and ought to removed therefrom, in pursuance of the conditions of the trust-deed of the church.”
The Times newspaper gave a strong indictment on Irving and his band of tongues speakers, “It would, indeed, have been a subject of wonder had they come to a different conclusion, though they had the benefit of a concert upon the ‘tongues’ from the whole male and female band of Mr. Irving’s select performers….- when he profaned the sanctuary of God, but introducing hideous interluded of ‘the unknown tongues,’ it was impossible any longer to tolerate the nuisance.”
Two years later in 1834, Irving died of tuberculosis.
Irving and associates began a new independent Church, called the Catholic Apostolic Church, and although he was one of the central figures in the initial development, he was not considered the founder.
The Catholic Apostolic Church continued with their understanding of this gift until the gradual decline of this movement in 1901.
The broad evangelical movement in that century did not accept the theology of the Irvingites or the Catholic Apostolic Church as a fundamentalist standard. Rather, many, if not most, exemplified them as frauds and charlatans, as the following examples provide.
The Christian examiner and Church of Ireland magazine 1833, wrote:
“I am strongly inclined to adopt Mr. Baxter’s opinion, and conclude that there really is now, as there was in the case of the French prophets, and that of other honest but misled souls, a special agency of the evil spirit, and that Mr. Irving and Sir R. Bulkeley are the passive subjects and victim of supernatural delusion, so as to believe a lie.”
The great Ulster revival in 1859, in which William Arthur, a leader and extensive writer on the subject, was well aware of the Irving doctrine of tongues and purposely excluded it:
““THEY began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” It is not said, “with unknown tongues.” In fact, the expression, “unknown tongues,” was never used by an inspired writer. In the Epistle to the Corinthians, it is found in the English version but the word “unknown” is in italics, showing that it is not taken from the original. Speaking unknown tongues was never heard of in the apostolic days. That miracle first occurred in London some years ago. On the day of Pentecost no man pretended to speak unknown tongues; but just as if we in London suddenly began to speak German, French, Spanish, Russian, Turkish, and other foreign languages, so it was with them.”
The nature of his writing can be understood from two perspectives: the miracle in London was not the ancient tongues as the established Church understood, or, that this was fraudulent with people pretending to speak in tongues. The latter understanding of the text appears to be more correct.
Mr. Arthur took the ancient Church position that the gift of tongues was the ability to speak in the spontaneous endowment of a foreign language for missionary purposes.
William Gibson, another eyewitness writer on the Ulster revival, wrote that Ulster was one of the greatest movements since Pentecost “… a work has had its rise in the past year, not inferior in interest and importance to any, even the most striking manifestations of the Spirit of God, that have been witnessed since the pentecostal period itself.” And of containing, “the occasional suspension of the bodily powers, as indicated by the loss of speech, sight, and hearing; the subjects of them affected as in a trance –deaf, dumb, blind, and motionless–while they would frequently fall into a sleep, in which they continued for hours, and the commencement and termination of which the intimated beforehand to the bystanders,” did not contain the gift of tongues as one of his expressions. He was actively trying to distance himself and the Ulster revival from the Irvingites and their ecstasies.
The British historian, Thomas Arnold, tried to personally make sense of the tongues outbreak and concluded, “(In answer to a question about Irvingism at Port Glasgow.) . . . If the thing be real I should take it merely as a sign of the coming of the day of the Lord, – the only use, as far as I can make out, that ever was derived from the gift of tongues.”
The Irvingites and the Gift of Tongues was temporarily at the forefront of the religious community for a brief period, but was quickly marginalized in the Western Christian religion. But as, Margaret Oliphant noted, it was the start of the modern tongues movement, setting the framework for a bigger manifestation in the years to come.