The Mind and World of Edward Irving

The influences and world that shaped Edward Irving—an important Pentecostal forerunner.

The mystery behind Irving and his world has created many different portraits. A mad man, an entertainer, an image of Scottish national pride, and a pentecostal pioneer, are some of the diverse opinions displayed. These options are under investigation as we look to discover the man behind the pulpit.

Some of his views and behaviors, even by today’s standards, are controversial and oft-putting. On the other hand, Irving and his followers were mystics, and Britain took a fancy to it. How could an Empire so steeped in Calvinist rigorous living, Methodist structures, and Anglican strictures, even entertain such features?

The World of Irving

The French Revolution

The French Revolution that started in 1792 overturned the old systems of government and social order in France. The destruction of the church in the rebuilding of a new French republic was a source of concern and became an international threat on every Western-styled system.

1792 was seen by Irving and associates as the beginning of the end. David Ker, a person of the same conviction as Irving and was a witness examined by the Kirk Session1 held in London that investigated and discharged Irving from his duties. Ker described this angst from an internal Irvingite lens:

Mr. Irving was one of many who declared their convictions, that the end of this dispensation is at hand ; and that the breaking up of things established (as men vainly denominate things based only on mere earthly foundations), was begun by the French Revolution of 1792. Of this, many wise and good men are now convinced ; and they clearly perceive, in the daring assaults upon the Church, and also in the bold denial of many points of the common faith of Christians, “the first stealing over the sky of those lurid lights which shall be shed profusely around the great Antichrist.”—Bishop of Oxford.2

Irving also believed that 1792 was the starting point of the end. He calculated 1823 being a critical year and that his generation was likely the last. His formula for calculating is an odd composition of systematic theology, anti-Catholicism, and wonky math. The following is his explanation:

“What shall be the end of these things ?” and in answer received this information (ver. 11): “From the time that the daily sacrifice shall be taken away, and the abomination which maketh desolate set up, there shall be a thousand two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is he that watcheth, and cometh to the thousand and three hundred and thirty days.” All the time up to the conclusion of the Papal usurpation is reckoned by times, being thirty days and forty-five days, these being the odd days over the three times and a half ; a time or year being three hundred and sixty of these days, as we learn from the Apocalypse. (Compare xi. 2, 3, with xii. 6, 14.) The times and the fulness of the times, so often mentioned in the New Testament, I consider as referring to the great period numbered by times ; the days, to the thirty and the forty-five days by which the course of the Lord’s purpose overwent the three times and a half. Of these days, I should consider the forty-five days to be the last of the days in which these great events are to be revealed. Now if this reasoning be correct, as there can be little doubt that the one thousand two hundred and sixty days concluded in the year 1792, and the thirty additional days in the year 1823, we are already entered upon the last days, and the ordinary life of a man will carry many of us to the end of them.3

When there was a report of supernatural manifestations happening in Glasgow in 1830, especially the report of Mary Campbell speaking in tongues, it was all the evidence that Irving needed. The outpouring of the supernatural effects of God had begun. He felt the end was now minutes or a few years away.4

The revolution he was looking for had begun.

Being occupied with the ministry of these two great truths—Christ’s union with us by the one flesh and our present union with him by the one Spirit—I had not made sure to my own mind, nor taught my people to look or to pray for the restoration of the spiritual gifts, but confined myself to the confession of our sins and the sins of our fathers, for they had ceased, and the bewailing of our low and abject state before the Lord. Thus we stood, when the tidings of the restoration of the gift of tongues in the west of Scotland burst upon us like the morning star heralding the approach of the day, and turned our speculations upon the true doctrine into the examination of a fact.5

This was quite a dramatic change in theology for Irving, who, in 1825, believed the gifts had ceased.6 His mental formation of the supernatural realm began with his leadership and participation in the Albury Prophetical Conferences in 1826. One of the results of the conference was the correlation of the French Revolution as a precursor to the end.

Poverty, Politics, Disease, and Romanticism

The subsequent Napoleonic wars that finally ended in 1815 were still fresh on Britain and Scotland’s minds. It was also an era where Scotland was transforming from an agrarian to an urban society. Industrialism took a stronghold.

The Consequence of War

Britain’s prolonged war with France brought about high taxation and the diversion of their resources. These diverted resources were a significant cause of poverty and hunger. The demand for raw materials for the military in the late 1700s and early 1800s caused a sharp spike of local food prices. These caused riots and disturbances. One army officer described the people as not low on food but in a period of famine.7 Irving was a young man when these events were most severe, but they were recent enough to remain in the public memory during the height of his ministry.

Industrialism and the Poor

Peter Kirby, in his book, Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850 paints a grim portrait of regular British life in this era:

Migrants to manufacturing towns were also attracted by new job opportunities and increasing industrial wages which rose by around 50 per cent over the first half of the nineteenth century. However, the overcrowding and poor sanitation which accompanied the growth of manufacturing centres meant that higher industrial wages did not normally translate into better health for urban families. Rapidly built housing of poor quality and the rudimentary sanitary infrastructure of towns such as Manchester and Leeds were swamped by the influx of migrant workers. By the mid-1840s, for example, 80 per cent of Preston houses still lacked sewerage and half had no piped water. Urban and manufacturing districts also suffered rising rates of infant and child illness and mortality as a result of family migration to the poor health environment of early industrial towns…

This burning of coal for residential and industrial purposes, and the dense pall of urban smoke pollution in industrial towns, also drastically reduced the penetration of sunlight, contributing to vitamin D deficiencies amongst children and widespread rickets.8

W. W. Knox, an academic specializing in Scottish history at the University of St. Andrews (Fife, Scotland), offers important insights in Scotland and England starting in 1840. Irving died in 1834 but this work supplies insight into this earlier age:

The economic and social changes ushered in by industrialisation dramatised the problem of poverty in Scotland by concentrating it in large pockets within the rapidly growing urban centres. The boom and bust economics of the free market added to the problem as it brought with it periodic mass unemployment which in a pre-welfare society left thousands of workers in poverty. The extent of the social devastation of mass unemployment in Victorian Scotland can be grasped from a comment by the Provost of Paisley made at the height of the 1842 depression: “Unemployment was the rule …. few workmen of Paisley were employed: they were broken up and found to be wandering about in every town in the country, begging for bread, independent of those thousands whom they had at home supported by charity”.9

Margaret Oliphant, the premier biographer of Irving’s life, set poverty, hunger, and its logical consequence of discontent as the backdrop to his ministry:

Glasgow was at this period in a very disturbed and troublous condition. Want of work and want of food had wrought their natural social effect upon the industrious classes ; and the eyes of the hungry weavers and cotton-spinners were turned with spasmodic anxiety to those wild political quack remedies, the inefficacy of which no amount of experience will ever make clear to people in similar circumstances. The entire country was in a dangerous mood ; palpitating throughout with deep-seated complaint and grievance, to which the starving revolutionaries in such towns as Glasgow acted only as a kind of safety-valve, preventing a worse explosion. The discontent was drawing towards its climax when Irving received his appointment as assistant to the minister of St. John’s. In such a large poor parish he encountered on all sides the mutterings of the popular storm.10

Indeed, the history of Glasgow and surrounding areas in the period of 1819–1820 was tumultuous. There was a one-day strike in December 1819 and later 60,000 workers walked out for a week, requiring a military presence for three months to maintain order.11

Political and Religious Indifference

The word church conjured up various emotions within the English and Scottish rubric of the 1800s. Edward Irving and his associates were products of this environment.

William James Early Bennett, an Anglican Priest and editor of one of the first English parish magazines called The Old Porch reviewed the Irvingites in the 1850s. He described the development of the Irvingites as incongruous and contradictory from the tree that seeded it:

It seems a just retribution, and one coming from God Himself, that out of the intricate mazes of Presbyterianism should arise that peculiar sect which is called THE IRVINGITES. For, if any two things can be contradictory the of the other, these are two—Presbyterianism and Irvingism. The one, cold, dead, and spiritless, whose aim is no higher than to make religious worship an exercise of the intellect;—the other bounding away upon the wings of uncontrolled imagination, into every region of the marvellous12

There was a general feeling of the Scottish church being cold and aloof from its constituency. The emergence of the alleged Glasgow supernatural outpouring and the subsequent endorsement and promotion by Edward Irving was everything antithetical to the traditional Scottish religious conscience.

The church was central to the Scottish social system and, in many instances, viewed as a tool of the government.

This condition is rooted in the historic sovereignty battles between the English and the Scotts. The annexation of Scotland to Britain brought legislation that forced the appointment of religious ministers rather than election through a congregational vote. The Scottish called it patronage: a word odious to the Scottish churchgoer. The appointments allowed individuals who were often unfit for the constituency they served. The patron who granted the local church a minister could be the King, a university leader, council member, or a landowner.13 The ministers were appointed and guided by the self-interests of the patrons.

Thomas Carlyle thought the connection between church leadership and the political system was too close. This situation created apathy and dissonance of the church leaders with its congregants.

With the exception of the few whom superior talents or better stars exempted from the common fortune, every Scotch Licenciate must adopt one of two alternatives. If he is made of pliant stuff, he selects some one having authority before whom he bows with unabating alacrity for (say) haf-a-score of years, and thereby obtains a Kirk: whereupon he betakes him to collect his stipend, and (unless he think of persecuting the Schoolmaster) generally in a few months, falls into a state of torpor, from which he rises no more. If on the other hand, the soul of the Licencate is stubborn & delights not to honour the Esquires of the district,—heartless & hopeless he must drag out his life—without aim or object—vexed at every step to see surplices alighting on the backs of many who surpass him in nothing— love for gravy.* This is the result of patronage, and this is one of the stages thro’ which every church must pass, in its road to dissolution. No Government ever fostered a Church—unless for its value as a state-engine, and none was ever ignorant of the insecurity of this engine, till it is placed upon the rock of patronage. But it ends not here. Tho all ‘constituted authorities’ are ready to admit, that, Truth is great and will prevail—none have ventured to let their ‘true religion’ descend unsupported into the arena, and try its hand at mauling the heresies which oppose it.14

Carlyle also added that the public mood inclined towards alternatives to the Established Church. There were various entities competing for that status.15

The Scottish church was tasked with the role of providing aid to the poor, which it stumbled and inconsistently administered. Each parish had its own set of policies and stipends.16 This administration was a major task given the high waves of unemployment that occurred. It was also a form of coercion. One of the qualifications for poor support was moral character—indicated by church attendance.

The Church operated under a legal framework called the Poor Law that unfairly and inconsistently discriminated against the poor and lower class. Knox best describes it:

Officially, the problem of poverty was dealt with under the poor laws. Until 1845 Scotland operated under the Old Poor Law. It divided the poor into the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. From this basic division three categories of poor were defined; one, the ‘impotent poor’, who were legally entitled to aid and as a result were given free medical treatment and education and a small sum to keep them; two, the ‘occasional poor’, who had no legal right to relief but were supported as ‘deserving’ out of church door collections; and, three, there was the ‘able-bodied poor’, who had no right to relief, although if deserving they might qualify for a charity handout. The system of relief was run by the kirk sessions in association with the landowners, or heritors, in rural areas and with the magistrate and ratepayers in the burghs.17

Disease and Sickness

Tuberculosis, cholera, and many other diseases were rampant throughout Scotland and Britain.

This story plays an important role later in the Irving saga as he lost children for unspecified reasons. There is a good chance they died from a virus or infection, and he as well succumbed to the ravages of tuberculosis.

Knox uncovered that diseases of the brain and nervous system, followed along with respiratory illness, eclipsed heart disease as the primary causes of death in Scotland.18

The diseases causing the most deaths were tuberculosis, typhus, scarletina, whooping cough, smallpox and measles.19

He attributed problems of access to clean drinking water, unsafe workplaces, bad hygiene, contamination of food products at the production level, overcrowdedness, high alcohol consumption, and the poor having little or no access to good health care.20

Cholera was an important contributor to the introduction of the tongues speakers at Irving’s Regent Square Church. David Brown, an assistant to Edward Irving, recounted about first service which contained tongues. It was the same time that cholera had crept into London. The threat of cholera was foremost on people’s minds and came to the church looking for heavenly answers. Irving saw the introduction of cholera and the sign of supernatural tongues as a message of God’s judgment. 21

The Age of Romanticism

Peter Elliott produced his Ph.D. on Romanticism. Elliott believed Romanticism was an essential influence in Irving’s world.

Despite the negatives associated with enthusiasm, there was a genuine drive to preserve the older understanding of the term which equated to “poetic inspiration”; there was also a particularly English identification of enthusiasm with their own perceived national “propensity toward liberty”. The real concern remained, as Mee amusingly puts it, that “this transport of enthusiasm . . .might not come with a return ticket”. Some Romantics, such as Coleridge, attempted to rehabilitate the term “enthusiasm” to mean something like “a quiet sense of the nearness of God’s being” rather than fanaticism. This attempt to etymologically domesticate enthusiasm speaks powerfully of its value as a concept in the Romantic view of religious life. It was one way of diluting the view that enthusiasm, millenialism and apocalypticism were virtually synonomous and all potentially revolutionary, envisaging and anticipating an ideal world, and pursuing it with various degrees of determination and violence. . .”22

With the complex combination of war, famine, hunger, revolution, inept Government, and church involvement, it is hard to vision Romanticism as a prominent influence. However, one can understand this as a natural consequence of the above features. What Elliott importantly points out is the fact that Irving’s world was in a state of social and religious upheaval. Their old world was not satisfactory for their present needs. Irving’s enthusiasm for the soon-to-be-coming perfect world fit nicely into the early 1800s British narrative.

Elliott significantly points out the ideals of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whom Irving greatly adored. Coleridge, too, attended Irving’s church (at least before the tongues outbreak) and held favorable views of Irving. Coleridge’s works appear to ask the same existential questions that Irving pursued. Who is man, and what is his distinguishing characteristics? Although they answer these questions differently, both agree that humanity and its characteristics of intellect, reason, and conscience transcend its physical limitations.23

Conclusion about the World Surrounding Irving

All of these factors created a bleak image of life. The hungry, sick, war-weary, and skeptical British mind had tremors that either the end of the world was nigh or a social revolution was necessary. Peter Elliot recently wrote a Ph.D. Thesis covering the aftermath of these episodes. He described this time as an environment where “present social and economic discomforts would come to an end, either through political or divine intervention.”24 Apocalyptic themes were a natural outcome.

It was a season readied for mystics like Irving and his associates.

Irving and his band of tongue speakers, partly transported from Glasgow, broke the religious stereotypes and classes. Irving could reach audiences from Scotland to England, the poor and the rich. He preached a message combining judgment and entertainingly putting down the principalities and leaders of his time while forwarding hope for a new world. His popularity brought on an alternative that was penetrating, but not breaking, the walls of patronage, and the status quo. The fruits of such agitation belonged not only to him but many others, such as his mentor, Thomas Chalmers. Chalmers began in 1834, the year of Irving’s death, a series of events that culminated in 1843 with the beginning of a new Scottish movement that abolished patronage, among other problems.25

The Mind of Irving

Edward Irving was a very complex and mystical individual. He never played his cards in such a way that it gives a clear indication of his motivations, thoughts, and actions. By doing so, there are multiple accounts of different Edward Irving’s portrayed throughout history.

The following are notes from people with different opinions of Irving. Before proceeding, there are two undisputed aspects of his nature.

1. The Sincerity of Irving is hardly Questioned

None of the biographers or any person who personally knew and wrote about Irving doubted his sincerity. This conclusion is evident throughout almost all of the writers listed below. There are questions of him being misled, deceived, or mad, but never a deceiver or charlatan.

2. Irving was very intelligent

Irving was a very educated man who could quickly draw from a wealth of writers and texts.

These influences could and did subconsciously syncretize with what he thought was God’s immediate revelations. Washington Wilks in his 1854 biography quotes Irving on some of his external influences:

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.” 26

David Malcolm Bennett has recently forwarded a book on Edward Irving and produced a longer list of names such as the philosopher/theologian Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous Scottish enlightenment philosopher, historian, and writer, David Hume, the revered historian and Member of Parliament, Edward Gibbon, and James Macpherson.27 Macpherson is the great unknown here. He was a Scottish writer who forwarded emphasis of emotion and individualism rather than industrialization and rationalization.

Irving knew Spanish and used this skill to translate Manuel Lacunza’s La venida del Mesías en gloria y majestad into English. This book was highly influential on Irving and his apocalyptic output.28 For those interested, the name of his translation is, The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty.

Irving had to pass exams in Biblical Greek, Hebrew, and Latin.29 One wonders how extensive his powers were in the ancient languages. He did not recognize the later insertion of unknown as in unknown tongues as an oddity of English translation tradition. The adjective, except for one occasion, does not exist in the Greek.30 On the other hand, Tim Grass, author of one of the most extensive biographies of Edward Irving, portrays him otherwise. His entrance to the ministry required six years of preparatory training including discoursing on Latin, Greek, and Hebrew passages before a committee.31

The Morning Watch, a magazine about end-times and prophecies, to which he was a contributor, had an editor, John Tudor, that on occasion mixed in Greek and Latin quotes. The magazine also combined meaningful political considerations. Irving joined in a discussion that was not consisting of crackpots or eccentrics, but people who had credible skills of intellectual engagement.

His idea of unknown tongues had no matter of importance to language or sounds but as a symbol of divine agency. He may have been aware of the German theologians on the subject who emphasized it was the expression of inarticulate sounds of people in heightened ecstasy.32 Irving likely was aware of some thoughts on this subject, as his ties to Thomas Carlyle would have made such information readily available. However, he likely would have downplayed that aspect for two reasons. First of all, if he used the German theologians as his basis to justify the rite of tongues, then it would be an act described and controlled by dogma instead of the Spirit. The practice would then be an intellectual act and ritual. A state he wished to avoid. Secondly, as noted above, his emphasis on tongues was the identification of a sealed Christian, not language.

If he did acquire and digest the German definition, it would have a subconscious effect or purposely avoid on mystical grounds.

Who came first, the Irvingites and their glossolalia, or the German definition first appearing and giving the Irvingites the ability to redefine their experience outside of traditional christian interpretation? Or were the Irvingites the catalyst for the German theologians developing and refining the definition of glossolalia? The assumption here is the Irvingites were the initial thrust of the new doctrine of glossolalia. The movement helped shape the definition of the German theologians in the 1800s and beyond.33

Different Portraits of Irving

When one looks at the matters of Irving’s intellectual capacity and his sincerity, the overall picture of Irving is quite disparate. It depends on the viewpoint of the writer.

Thomas Carlyle on Irving

The revered essayist, philosopher, mathematician, historian, and author, Thomas Carlyle,34 personally knew Edward Irving. Many pieces of Carlyle’s correspondence are available today—some which contain vivid insights about Irving. His thoughts were all over the map about him. David Malcolm Bennett, in his book Edward Irving Reconsidered: The Man, His Controversies, and the Pentecostal Movement, cautions readers that Carlyle tends to exaggerate.35 However, even with this caveat, his coverage is more comprehensive than anyone else. There is no alternative. One has to use his data as a central component in building a portrait.

  • Carlyle believed Irving a friend36 and an intellectual equal.37

  • His celebrity and networking created a source for acquiring tutor work and academic recommendations.38

  • He thought Irving could be vain.39

  • He assessed his wife as dead ugly,40 lacks enthusiasm but possesses many household virtues,41 a liar,42 and the person who ruined Irving.43 These comments reflect that Thomas Carlyle and Isabelle Irving did not like each other. Partly out of the fact that Carlyle’s spouse, Jane Welsh, had a serious relationship with Irving years earlier.44

    Carlyle’s comments and opinions on Irving and especially his wife did not go unnoticed. Oliphant described an unflattering counter by an unnamed Irving family member. The return volley was an account of Edward Irving bringing home a stranger:

    On one of these occasions he introduced a stranger of shy and somewhat gruff demeanour, who spoke little, whose name nobody heard distinctly, and whom the good people set down as some chance pedestrian, a little out of his ease in “good society,” whom Irving had picked up on the way. They were not undeceived until years after, when a member of the family, then in London, had one of the greatest of living authors, Thomas Carlyle, reverentially pointed out to her, and recognised, with horror and astonishment, the doubtful stranger whom she had entertained and smiled at her father’s house.45

  • Irving had unspeakable absurdities,46 and an intelligent man surrounded by fools and blockheads.47

Carlyle had a high opinion of Irving in the early 1820s, especially after his installment as the leader of the Church in London. He claimed that he had celebrity status throughout England and Scotland. “Nothing since the days of Knox or the Erskines has excited so much speculation in the theological world as his appearance here.”48 Carlyle’s admiration seems to go beyond Irving. He suggests the arrival of Irving and his high acceptance in the London scene was a source of pride for the Scottish national identity.

The pinnacle of Irving’s celebrity status began to wane in 1823 after he published For the Oracles of God, Four Orations for Judgment to Come, An Argument, in Nine Parts. The reviews were often negative. The high expectation for a magnificent piece as an intellectual master was unmet when Thomas read it. He found it dull to his sense.49 By 1824, his popularity had diminished, but the London society still held a positive review of his ministry. The intellectuals became ambivalent, while the “warm hearts and half-cultivated heads,” continued to support him actively.50

1825, according to Carlyle, is when things began to change with Irving. Irving experienced several personal tragedies. At this point, Carlyle saw his mind and body begin a process of deterioration.

His first observation was in January, 1825.

Irving is enveloped with delusions and difficulties; wending somewhat down-hill, to what depth I know not;51

Ten months later, his son died. People were noting Irving’s change in personal demeanor—some rather crudely.

Edward Irving was in Annan last week for a little while; and I passed half a day with him. He is of a green hue, solemn, sad, and in bad bodily condition. The worthy man (for so he is, when every say is said) has lost his boy at Kirkcaldy, and left his wife there, who had brought him a daughter only ten days before that event. He bears it well; for his heart is full of other wondrous things, from which he draws peculiar consolation. He seems, as his enemies would say, still madder than before. But it is not madness: would to Heaven we were all thus mad! He is about publishing another Book, or Prophecy. Irving is actually one of the memorabilia of this century.52

This sense of alienation from the loss of his son Edward is only heightened in 1826 with the sickness and loss of Mary, Edward’s daughter in 1827. Carlyle writes that it is a black shadow to Irving, who is already unwell.53

From approximately 1827 to 1831, Carlyle is largely quiet about Irving. In 1831, he again lifted his pen. His language more direct and purposed, forced upon by the rupture of tongues in Irving’s Church.

. . .the people at Mill and Smithy were universally talking of Edward Irving as a man that had long been mad, and had now only broken loose54

Even Edward Irving’s brother, George, implored Carlyle at the point of tears, to try and dissuade Edward from his agenda. Carlyle thought that such an attempt was useless.55

Carlyle struggled to defend his friend’s honor by blaming his leadership and mind on the undue influence of others. Namely, his wife, “who is reckoned the beginner of it all,”56 “the creature Campbell,” (Mary Campbell)57 and “hysterical women, and crackbrained enthusiasts.”58

A few more quotations about indirect references to his sanity could be mentioned, but this one, written in 1832 stands out:

I saw Irving yesternight, for the fourth time since you[his wife] left us. He is still goodnatured and patient; but enveloped mad (not madder than a Don Quixote was); but his intellect seems quietly settling into a superstitious caput mortuum; he has no longer any opinion to deliver worth listening to on any secular matter.59

If Carlyle’s references are true, then one can suggest some form of mental illness was part of Irving’s psyche. If this thought is theoretically taken a step further, was his mental decline a result of tuberculosis? None of the stories seriously take into account that Irving was struggling with this devastating disease. At least one study that examined tuberculosis before the advent of modern medicine pegs a 5 to 10-year duration of the disease in an active state before the person succumbs.60 If this is the case, then pronouncement of the disease occurred anywhere from 1824 to 1829 on Irving.

Tuberculosis may be the reason for his change in intellect and less tactfulness especially after 1828.

Whatever the reason, something happened to Irving’s mind. His writing demonstrates a change where his, For Missionaries After the Apostolical School, A Series of Orations : in Four Parts, written in 1825 is focused and polished. He had positive thoughts about the Kirk of Scotland.61 Whereas his contributions about the Manifestations written in 1832 lacks cohesiveness, often rambling, full of angry protestations and judgments against the authorities. It was not the same Irving.

Even today, the association between tuberculosis and cognitive impairment is not thoroughly researched. One can only guess.

His Church Assistants

Edward Irving had several assistants helping at his Regent Square Church. Two especially come to mind, A. J. Scott and Brown. There may be more people, but these two are documented. They are both negative portraits, and that may be the reason they still exist. Positive feedback is usually taken for granted and hardly expressed in print form.

A. J. Scott was his assistant. He had a heavy influence on Irving about the end times and the miraculous.62 Over time, the relationship between him and Irving had become strained. Irving became more authoritarian and hierarchical, which alienated Scott. The toll started to put a strain on his health. The above was explained by a well-known and respected church leader, Thomas Erskine, who initially supported, but later retracted his support for Irving. Erskine also added, “You know that Mr. Scott is entirely separated from Mr. Irving and his church, believing it, as I understand, to be a delusion party, and partly a spiritual work not of God. He conceives that there is a disposition to yield to spiritual influence, as in animal magnetism, which lays open to such possession.”63 Mr. Scott had left Irving’s church to preside over another in Woolwich, Scotland. Shortly afterward, a mutual agreement was made to part ways with the Scottish National Church. From Scott’s standpoint, it had occurred because he could not subscribe to some specific creedal formulations established by the National Scotch Church.64 From the National Church standpoint, he was about to be investigated for his views on Christ’s fallen nature espoused by Irving. They were anticipating to declare him heretical and remove him from office.65

David Brown was an assistant to Edward Irving from 1830–1832. He later went on to lead a distinguished career as a christian leader and writer. “He collaborated with R. Jamieson and A. R. Fausset in preparing the Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments (6 vols., Glasgow, 1864–70), furnishing the portion devoted to the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistle to the Romans; wrote the commentary on the Epistles to the Corinthians for Schaff’s Popular Commentary on the New Testament (1882).”66 He portrays Irving as a conceptualist caught up with the prophetic realm with little skills in discretion:

In Mr. Irving’s case, however, there were dangers attending it from his constitutional tendencies—a rich and surging imagination, never under sufficient control ; while the spell of a mysterious future which this study led him to believe was fast approaching, and indeed at the door, laid him open to influences fitted seriously to warp his judgment.67

William Hazlitt

Wikipedia describes Mr. Hazlitt as “one of the greatest critics and essayists in the history of the English language, placed in the company of Samuel Johnson and George Orwell.”68 He witnessed Irving at the height of his celebrity and published a review about him in 1825. Hazlitt died in 1830 and did not observe the decline and controversy of Irving. His insights portray Edward Irving as a unique combination of showmanship with traditional Calvinism.

To hear a person spout Shakspeare on the stage is nothing—the charm is nearly worn out—but to hear any one spout Shakspeare (and that not in a sneaking under-tone, but at the top of his voice, and with the full breadth of his chest) from a Calvinistic pulpit, is new and wonderful. The Fancy have lost something of their gloss in public estimation, and after the last fight, few would go fare to see a Neat or a Spring set-to;—but to see a man who is able to enter the ring with either of them, or brandish a quarter staff with Friar Tuck, or a broad-sword with Shaw the Life-guard’s man, stand up in a strait-laced old fashioned pulpit, and bandy dialectics with modern philosophers or give a cross-buttock to a cabinet minster, there is something in a sight like this also, that is a cure for sore eyes.69

He also believed Irving to be very intelligent70 but that this did not extend to putting his thoughts into writing. He criticized Irving’s book For the Oracles of God, Four Orations for Judgment to Come, An Argument, in Nine Parts which he condensed to call The Four Orations on the Oracles of God.

We believe the fairest and fondest of his admirers would rather see and hear Mr. Irving than read him. The reason is, that the groundwork of his compositions is trashy and hackneyed, though set off by extravagant metaphors and affected phraseology ; that without the turn of his head and wave of his hand, his periods have nothing in them; and that he himself is the only idea with which he has yet enriched the public mind. He must play off his person, as Orator Henley used to dazzle hearers with his diamond-ring.71

Oliver Yorke on Irving

Oliver Yorke, the editor of Fraser’s Magazine, during the period where Irving contributed three articles on the Manifestations to the magazine, profiled Irving in this way:

The Rev. Edward Irving is a man of large and mighty intellect, and speech has in him a province as extensive and a weapon strong. It is impossible to despise a mind so gigantic in its grasp, and so elevated in its tendencies as his. As a theologian, he is unrivalled in this land and time. But he is haunted with, and overpowered by, a mystical predominance. He suffers his genius to overmaster him, and seeks for the realisation of all ideas, the growth of reason, in the intuitions of his sense. He seeks to find the Word tabernacled in the flesh, in all countries and in all ages. It is a glorious seeking—it is a divine desire ; but he aims not to find it, as he expects not in the Common World about him. His soul yearns for the Uncommon and the Extraordinary.72

Margaret Oliphant

Mrs. Oliphant’s book, The Life of Edward Irving, Minister of the National Church (in two volumes), was the most popular and widely accepted biography on his life. She wrote it in the shape of tropes, a saint and a martyr who faced the punishing blows of life, made mistakes, and who bent but did not break. She appears to put him in the realm of a super-persona, entranced more so by the larger myth that surrounded him more than the actual person. Her portrait is a soft one as if she is directing her message to juvenile readers. She avoided, as did Carlyle, confrontation of anything concerning Irving’s character. One can see it in the shadows. She accurately compiles a complete list of source data and quotes but fails to make a certain judgment on them.

She instead opts to build a portrait around a hero archetype. Here is an example of this image that she built. It is found at her description of the death of Irving:

He died in the prime and bloom of his days, forty-two years old, without, so far his last writings leave any trace, either decadence of intellect or lowering of thought ; and left, so far as by much inquiry I have been able to find out, neither an enemy nor a wrong behind him. No shadow of unkindness obscures the sunshine on that grave which in old days would been a shrine of pilgrims. The pious care of his nephew has emblazoned the narrow Norman lancet over him, with a John Baptist, austere herald of the cross and advent ; but a tenderer radiance of human light than that which encircled the solitary out of his desert, lingers about that resting-place.73

Granted, she did pull back and did not build a messianic image of Irving at the trials which Irving had attempted to perform. His theatrical antics, especially before the Annan Presbytery, were intended to be like a lamb led to the slaughter. He was positioning himself as a martyr like Jesus before the Sanhedrin, the chief priests, and Pontius Pilate.

Gordon Strachan

Strachan would disagree with such negative caricatures of Irving.

Gordon Strachan was a Church of Scotland minister who completed his doctoral thesis on Edward Irving.74 He converted it into book form in 1973, titled, The Pentecostal Theology of Edward Irving. He sought to restore Irving from being a heretic to a Scottish folk hero. It is a well-researched work that attempted to reframe Irving through both a Pentecostal and contemporary glossolalia framework. He argued that Irving was not crazy or deluded. Rather, his theology and mission were based on sound principles.

He reframed the trial of Irving and the panel judging him as a heretic. He believed Irving’s so-called stance on the human nature of Christ went beyond a theological debate. It was an unnecessary attack on his character. A condition which Strachan wanted to soften and reverse:

Since that time, the majority of commentators on this aspect of Irving’s ministry have been in agreement with the decision of the Presbytery. Irving himself has been represented as a great man who was by that time rapidly going out of his mind, the manifestations have been seen as delusions and those by whom they were manifested as hysterical. All these opinions have been based on psychological or psychiatric surmise and not on theological fact. As such, they cannot claim serious Scriptural or theological attention. There have, however, been a minority of writers who have disagreed with the decision of the Presbytery and with the support which its action received form the whole religious world at that time. All of these writers who support Irving give Scriptural or theological reasons for doing so. Some of them do so with reluctance and misgivings but all feel bound to admit that if he is to be judged by the canons of Scriptural authority or theological consistency, then he must be exonerated and cleared of the charges for which he was condemned.75

He further added a connection with modern Pentecostals:

Neither can he be dismissed as one who was unbalanced or deluded. All his writings during his last years show a lucid and ordered mind unfolding a complete theological system which can now be clearly understood as cogent and coherent in the light of the theology an experience of the twentieth-century Pentecostal movement. Irving can now be seen as John the Baptist, for church history has shown him to be the forerunner of all those who believe in Christ as the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, the ‘initial evidence’ or ‘standing sign’ of whose ministry is the speaking with other tongues.76

The Modern Pentecostal view of Irving

Most early Pentecostal magazines and newsletters cite the Irvingites as brief historical quotes acquired from the primary sourcebooks. There was no attention given to an inheritance of their legacy. However, there are some connections with the earliest leaders. A. B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian Missionary Alliance Church, saw both the good and bad of Irving. John Alexander Dowie, a popular and controversial faith healer in the late 1800s, thought Irving to be a mighty man of God. Charles Parham heavily borrowed from the Irving blueprint in the development of his movement. The results are found in another article in construction, The Legacy of Edward Irving.


The world of Edward Irving was ripe for change. He was part of a people challenged from the perplexities of war, anxious because of the ever-present threat of disease. He lived in a time of hunger and poverty, and a monolithic church and government unprepared for present or future realities. He was a Scotsman entering London, one of the centerpieces of the whole world at the time. His tall frame, distinct Scottish accent, entertaining thoughts, and his theology were for a time a fashion to the London elite.

The people closest to Irving paint a portrait of a sincere and intelligent man. They believed this Scottish Pastor was a theological genius and a charismatic speaker with a magnetic personality. The evidence suggests a man of great ambition, but impatient with others who differed, aggressive on his hobby-horses, with a touch of narcissism, and arrogance.

In the end, he had insulated himself to a collection of prophets, prophetesses, apocalyptic voyeurs, and mystics. He closed his mind and deep relationships to anything outside that circle.

The end of the world and the prophetic themes attached to it, especially unknown tongues, gripped his mind. Perhaps, they were ideas that took too strong a hold of him. A distraction from grief, a prejudiced and jeering opposition, a National Scotch Church administration oblivious to his physical and mental health, and later in life, his daily battle with tuberculosis.

For further reading, see The Irvingites and the Gift of Tongues.

  1. A parish level system of government overlooking all the affairs of the church.
  2. David Ker. Observations of Mrs. Oliphants “Life of Edward Irving:” and Correction of Certain Mistakes Therein. Edinburgh: Thomas Laurie. 1863. Pg. V
  3. Edward Irving. The last days: a discourse on the evil character of these our times, proving them to be the “Perilous times” of the “Last days.” London: R. B. Seeley and W. Burnside. 1828. Pg. 23ff
  4. For more information about their theological history of tongues see The Irvingites and the Gift of Tongues
  5. Edward Irving. Facts Connected with Recent Manifestations of Spiritual Gifts. As found in Fraser’s Magazine. IV August-Jan. 1832. London: James Fraser. Pg. 755
  6. Edward Irving. For Missionaries After the Apostolical School, A Series of Orations : in Four Parts (Part 1) London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co. 1825. Pg. Pg. XIXff “
  7. Roger Knight. Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815. United Kingdom: Penguin. 2013. Pg. 137ff
  8. Peter Kirby. Child Workers and Industrial Health in Britain, 1780-1850. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 2013. Pg. 36-37
  9. A History of the Scottish People: Poverty, Income and Wealth in Scotland 1840-1940 Pg. 2
  10. Pg. 101
  11. Tim Grass. The Lord’s Watchman: A Life of Edward Irving (1792-1834). Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications. 2012. Pg. 31
  12. “A collection of extracts from various periodicals, referring to Edward Irving” from: The Theological Critic. Vol. II. London: Gilbert and Rivington. 1852. Pg. 97
  13. Church Patronage (Scotland) Act 1711
  14. TC TO ROBERT MITCHELL; 31 March 1817; DOI 10.1215/lt-18170331-TC-RM-01
  15. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 10 February 1833; DOI 10.1215/lt-18330210-TC-JAC-01
  16. W. W. Knox. A History of the Scottish People: Poverty, Income and Wealth in Scotland 1840-1940 Pg. 4ff
  17. W. W. Knox. A History of the Scottish People: Poverty, Income and Wealth in Scotland 1840-1940 Pg. 4
  18. A History of the Scottish People: Health in Scotland 1840–1940 Pg. 2. Knox’s study refers to 1840–6 years after Irving’s death but the parallels are too close to ignore in Irving’s time.
  19. W. W. Knox. A History of the Scottish People: Health in Scotland 1840–1940 Pg. 2
  20. W. W. Knox. A History of the Scottish People: Health in Scotland 1840–1940 Pg. 3ff
  21. David Brown. Personal Reminiscences of Edward Irving. As found in, The Expositor. VI. Third Edition. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1887. Pg. 270
  22. Peter Elliott. Edward Irving: Romantic theology in crisis. Ph.D. Thesis; Murdoch University. 2010. Pg. 22
  23. Coleridge spreads this concept out in his work, Aids to Reflection and the Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit
  24. Peter Elliott. Edward Irving: Romantic theology in crisis. Ph.D. Thesis; Murdoch University. 2010. Pg. 21
  25. See the Wikipedia entry on The Free Church of Scotland
  26. Washington Wilks. Edward Irving: And Ecclesiastical and Literary Biography. London: William Freeman. 1854. Pg. 127
  27. David Malcolm Bennett. Edward Irving Reconsidered: The Man, His Controversies, and the Pentecostal Movement. Oregon: Wipf & Stock. 2014. Pg. 13.
  28. See Edward Irving Reconsidered: The Man, His Controversies, and the Pentecostal Movement by David Malcolm Bennett. Pg. 126 for more information.
  29. David Malcolm Bennett. Edward Irving Reconsidered: The Man, His Controversies, and the Pentecostal Movement. Oregon: Wipf & Stock. 2014. Pgs. 7 & 15
  30. On the insertion of the adjective of unknown tongues in the English Bible, see the article, The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible.
  31. Tim Grass. The Lord’s Watchman: A Life of Edward Irving (1792-1834). Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications. 2012. Pg. 21
  32. see The History of Glossolalia for more information
  33. see once again the series The History of Glossolalia
  34. The reader must keep in mind that there is another Thomas Carlyle associated with the Irvingite movement. This second Carlyle was an active participant within the congregation. He had no kin relationship to the philosopher of the same name. He is a diminutive contributor compared to the first. He is not referred to in any research generated on this website.
  35. David Malcolm Bennett. Edward Irving Reconsidered: The Man, His Controversies, and the Pentecostal Movement. Oregon: Wipf & Stock. 2014. Pg. viii.
  36. The friendship is echoed throughout his letters. Here are five that demonstrate this: (1.) TC TO ALEXANDER CARLYLE; 19 February 1821; DOI 10.1215/lt-18210219-TC-AC-01; (2.) TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 28 June 1821; DOI 10.1215/lt-18210628-TC-JBW-01; (3.) TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 19 July 1821; DOI 10.1215/lt-18210719-TC-JAC-01 (4.) TC TO EDWARD ; 14 August 1821; DOI 10.1215/lt-18210814-TC-EI-01 (5.) TC TO WILLIAM GRAHAM; 15 December 1821; DOI 10.1215/lt-18211215-TC-WG-01. These letters are all found at
  37. TC TO EDWARD IRVING; 3 June 1820; DOI 10.1215/lt-18200603-TC-EI-01
  38. TC TO MARGARET A. CARLYLE; 12 January 1822; DOI 10.1215/lt-18220112-TC-MAC-01
  39. TC TO MARGARET A. CARLYLE; 28 September 1823; DOI 10.1215/lt-18230928-TC-MAC-01 “He is one of the best men breathing: but I will not give his vanity one inch of swing in my company; he may get the fashionable women and the multitude of young men whom no one knoweth to praise and flatter—not I one iota beyond his genuine merits.”
  40. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 20 October 1823; DOI 10.1215/lt-18231020-TC-JAC-01
  41. TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 22 October 1823; DOI 10.1215/lt-18231022-TC-JBW-01
  42. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 15 June 1835; DOI 10.1215/lt-18350615-TC-JAC-01″
  43. TC TO MARGARET A. CARLYLE; 17 February 1835; DOI 10.1215/lt-18350217-TC-MAC-01
  44. JBW TO THOMAS CARLYLE; 24 July 1825; DOI 10.1215/lt-18250724-JBW-TC-01
  45. Margaret T. Oliphant The Life of Edward Irving, Minister of the National Church, London: Hurst and Blackett, Publishers. 1862. Vol. I. Pg. 140
  46. TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 22 October 1823; DOI 10.1215/lt-18231022-TC-JBW-01
  47. TC TO JANE BAILLIE WELSH; 20 December 1824; DOI 10.1215/lt-18241220-TC-JBW-01
  48. TC TO DAVID HOPE; 23 March 1822; DOI 10.1215/lt-18220323-TC-DH-01
  49. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 2 September 1823; DOI 10.1215/lt-18230902-TC-JAC-01
  50. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 30 November 1824; DOI 10.1215/lt-18241130-TC-JAC-01
  51. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 22 January 1825; DOI 10.1215/lt-18250122-TC-JAC-01
  52. TC TO JAMES JOHNSTON; 26 October 1825; DOI 10.1215/lt-18251026-TC-JJ-01
  53. JBW TO THOMAS CARLYLE; 31 August 1826: DOI 10.1215/lt-18260831-JBW-TC-01. The text here says his daughter was in a bad way, not death. On her death, see Margaret T. Oliphant The Life of Edward Irving, Minister of the National Church, London: Hurst and Blackett, Publishers. 1862. Vol. I. Pg. 415
  54. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 13 November 1831; DOI 10.1215/lt-18311113-TC-JAC-01 see also: “Irving still rages along here, regarded as a quack by the great body of the public, as a madman by a smaller class: indeed the majority have nearly done thinking of him, you seldom hear his name mentioned.” TC TO JEAN CARLYLE; 25 December 1831; DOI 10.1215/lt-18311225-TC-JCA-01
  55. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 21 October 1831; DOI 10.1215/lt-18311021-TC-JAC-01
  56. TC TO MARGARET A. CARLYLE; 10 November 1831; DOI 10.1215/lt-18311110-TC-MAC-01
  57. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 21 October 1831; DOI 10.1215/lt-18311021-TC-JAC-01
  58. TC TO MARGARET A. CARLYLE; 20 October 1831; DOI 10.1215/lt-18311020-TC-MAC-01
  59. TC TO JOHN A. CARLYLE; 16 February 1832; DOI 10.1215/lt-18320216-TC-JAC-01
  61. Edward Irving. For Missionaries After the Apostolical School, A Series of Orations : in Four Parts (Part 1). London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co. 1825. Pg. 9
  62. See Irving’s notes about A. J. Scott, though only mentioned as his assistant and missionary, in Facts Connected with Recent Manifestations of Spiritual Gifts.
  63. Thomas Erskine. Letters of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen. William Hanna, ed. Edinburgh: David Douglas. 1884. Pg. 151
  64. See the Wikipedia entry: Alexander John Scott. Irving in his Facts Connected with Recent Manifestations of Spiritual Gifts. mentions it was withdrawal over some unnamed articles about the Confessions of Faith.
  65. Edward Irving. Rev. Edward Irving, A. M. Before the Presbytery of Annan. London: W. Harding. 1833. An unspecified newspaper clipping at the last page.
  66. David Brown as found at Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
  67. David Brown. Personal Reminiscences of Edward Irving. As found in, The Expositor. VI. Third Edition. London: Hodder and Stoughton. 1887. Pg. 257ff
  69. “Shakspeare” is the spelling used in the original document. The quote is from: William Hazlitt. The Spirit of the Age; or Contemporary Portraits. Vol. II. Paris: A. And W. Galignani. 1825. Pg. 3
  70. IBID Hazlitt. Pg. 6
  71. William Hazlitt. The Spirit of the Age; or Contemporary Portraits. Vol. II. Paris: A. And W. Galignani. 1825. Pg. 18
  72. Oliver Yorke at Home: A Conversation with Walter Savage Landor. Fraser’s Magazine. IV August to January 1832. Pg. 1831
  73. Margaret T. Oliphant The Life of Edward Irving, Minister of the National Church, London: Hurst and Blackett, Publishers. 1862. Vol. II. Pg. 403ff
  75. C. Gordon Strachan. The Pentecostal Theology of Edward Irving. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. 1973. Pg. 17
  76. C. Gordon Strachan. The Pentecostal Theology of Edward Irving. London: Darton, Longman & Todd. 1973. Pg. 20

1 thought on “The Mind and World of Edward Irving”

  1. Thank you for the time and effort that you put into your writings. Your devotion and passion is not lost on me. Peace & health blessings!

    Sincerely, Michael


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