Monday, December 05, 2005

The Rev. Edward Irving

Editor’s note
The familiar instance of the Rev. Mr. Spurgeon may help to convey a notion of the more extended popularity and more durable influence of the Rev. Edward Irving, the founder of a sect which is still in full vigour. His successful career as a London preacher commenced in 1822, and lasted till 1832, when he was displaced by the Presbytery for preaching doctrines which they reasonably enough deemed heterodox.

In July 1823, Lord Eldon writes to Lady M. Bankes: ' All the world here is running on Sundays to the Caledonian Chapel in Hatton Garden, where they hear a Presbyterian orator from Scotland, preaching, as some ladies term it, charming matter, though downright nonsense. To the shame of the King's ministers be it said, many of them have gone to this schism-shop with itching ears. Lauderdale told me that when Lady ——— is there the preacher never speaks of a heavenly mansion, but a heavenly Pavilion. For other ears, mansion is sufficient. This is a sample.' *

The reviewer of an excellent ' Life of Irving,' by Mrs. Oliphant, states that the little church of Hatton Garden was not only crowded, but filled, with the very audience after which he had longed, ' with imaginative men, and political men, and legal men, and scientific men, who bear the world in hand. The Duke of York (continues the reviewer) had been already interested in him at his first outset; "Wilkes soon found out and appreciated his powers; Brougham is reported as one of his early auditors, and to have taken Mackintosh, who repeated to Canning an expression which he had heard Irving use in prayers, of a bereaved family being thrown on the fatherhood of God—an expression that so struck the statesman that he, too, was drawn to hear him, and to allude to his marvellous eloquence in the House of Commons.' **

It was about this time that Miss "Wynn heard him, and her description of his oratory gives a much better impression of it than could be collected from his printed Orations, in which the imagery is chastened and the extravagance toned down. He was a very tall man, with impressive features, and he wore his hair long and parted in the middle, in obvious imitation of the pictures of Christ. Like Balfour of Burley, he ' skellied fearfully with one eye,' if not with both, but lost no favour on that account. When Wilkes's obliquity of vision was objected to him, an enthusiastic partisan vowed that he did not squint more than a gentleman ought to squint; and the' angels' of the Irvingite creed seemed to think that a certain obliquity of vision was becoming in a saint. He died in 1834, in his thirty-ninth year.

The contradictory opinions of the press gave rise to an amusing squib, entitled, ' The Trial of the Rev. Edward Irving;' in which the different editors and critics appeared as witnesses.

June 29th, 1823.—I am just returned from hearing, for the first time, the celebrated Scotch preacher Irving, and highly as my expectations were raised, they are more than satisfied. At first, I own I was very much disappointed: his first extempore prayer, I did not at all like ; his reading of the 19th chapter of John (for he never gave to any of the Apostles the title of Saint) would have been very fine if its effect had not been frequently spoilt by extraordinary Scotch accents. He spoke of the high-sup, of being crucified, scorged, &c. &c.

For twenty minutes, he went on talking of the enemies of our faith as if we had been living in the ages of persecution and of martyrdom, of himself as if he were our only teacher and guide, and of the good fight as though it were real instead of being metaphorical. Indeed, his action might always have led one to suspect that he considered it a pugilistic contest. I thought all this part vulgarly enthusiastic, self-sufficient, dogmatical. Disappointment is not a word strong enough to describe my feelings, which nearly amounted to disgust.

Then he told us that the intention of the following discourse would be to show from the page of history what man had been through all ages, in all countries, without the light of revealed religion. My brother whispered me, 'We have been twenty-three minutes at it, and now the sermon is to begin.' I felt exactly with him, and yet after this expression, I can" fairly and truly say that the hour which followed appeared to me very short, though my attention was on the full stretch during the whole time.

Irving began with comparing the infancy of nations to the infancy of individuals; told us that was generally supposed to be the season of their greatest innocence: took as examples the early ages of Persia, Greece and Rome. He reprobated the false arguments of those who, in speaking of heathens', adduce such men as Solon, Socrates, &c., as general examples; as well might we, said he, take the heaven-inspired Milton as the test of the republicans of his day ; the noble-minded Falkland as a specimen of the cavalier soldiers ; Fenelon as one of the Court of Louis XIV.; D'Alembert as one of the wicked pernicious cotry (as he called it) whose aim was the subversion of all order civil and religious , or Carnot as the model of that hellish crew of republicans -who destroyed all religion and deluged their country with blood.

Then came a splendid burst of eloquence on the vices of the ancients. He appealed to their vases, especially to those intended for the sacred purpose of containing the ashes of the dead; to the sculpture, still adorning the doors of their temples, as records of such vice as is not known the most depraved of modern times. He asserted that if it were possible that social virtue, that self-government, could be attained without the aid of Christianity, Greece, which had discovered perfection in almost every branch of art, and had gone so far in science, would not
have remained without these attainments.

From them he proceeded to the Eastern nations, of whose vices he gave a still more disgusting picture, and especially those of the mild Hindoo, as false sentiment and philosophy have termed them: their language does not even possess words to express many of the virtues most revered among us, chastity, temperance, and honesty.***

Having stigmatised most of the heathen nations of ancient and modern times with the vices uniformly found to degrade all savages, he proceeded 10 speak of those who have been considered as the brightest examples; and first of the Stoics. In the difficult task of self-government, they seem to have made much progress but in steeling the heart against some temptations of passion, &c., they also steeled it against every kindly affection, made its very feeling centre in self. If, he said, stoicism may be said to have enjoyed what he termed the manhood of the soul, it had none of the woman-hood, none of the feelings that adorn, comfort, or endear human nature. He proceeded to draw a beautiful parallel between the state of the Stoic, and that of Adam before it had pleased the Almighty to bestow on him a helpmate. He asserted that, in argument, in reasoning, the modern philosophers were very superior to the ancient, and added, that many very commonplace writers were in this respect, very far superior to the most celebrated ancients, even to Cicero himself.****

This superiority, which by-the bye I am a little inclined to doubt, he ascribed entirely to the influence of Christianity, and spoke of its effect, even on those who deny its truths and exert their talents to write against it. How, he said, can a man who has sucked with his mother's milk the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments, whose mind has been nurtured with the sublime poem of Milton, with the Pilgrim's Progress, nay, even with the Plays of Shakespeare— how can this man. be said to be free from the effects which Christianity produces on the mind ?

He told us he conceived the spirit of religion to be even yet quite in its infancy; he trusted that we might see it make the greatest progress. If the rulers of the state would be governed by the plain rule of Christian duty, instead of the rules of worldly policy and expediency— if the more graceful part of the creation who govern the manners of this great city, would add the Christian graces to their other graces, would consider themselves as the spouses of Christ—if the critics who govern its literature would attend as much to the rules of Christianity as to those of human learning — what might not be the effects ?

It was quite impossible to look at Lord Liverpool and Lord Jersey, placed immediately opposite to the preacher, and not fancy that the first and second of these appeals were addressed to them. As to the third, if Mr. Brougham and Sir James Mackintosh were not in the church, the preacher was likely to have prepared for them, as they have been there very frequently of late.

After having written so much about this oration (sermon***** I cannot call it), it is quite unnecessary to say that I admired it extremely, at least in parts. I am conscious that there were great faults, even in the latter part, in which were also transcendent beauties. Want of simplicity is the greatest; even all Irving's energy could not give earnestness to such invariably figurative language. With this was occasionally mixed vulgarity bordering on coarseness in the images, excess of action, and occasional repetitions. Still there is extraordinary power, power which makes roe feel I never knew what eloquence was till I had heard Irving, and at the same time leaves me with the most eager desire to hear him again on Sunday, in spite of all the impediments of crowd, heat, distance, and hour.

His reading the lesson was very fine, but what delighted me most was the solemn, simple, energetic manner in which he gave the blessing. The prayers did not please me: he prayed for our own ancient simple painstaking Church; then for the Established ****** Church, that her dignitaries may be dignified, and may be enabled to take due care of the widely-extended districts committed to their charge. The plain psalm-singing, in which the whole congregation joined, particularly delighted me; parts of the version seem to me very fine; but what I like most is the custom of reading the whole psalm first from the pulpit; it gives real devotion to a part of the service which, in our Liturgy, is generally the unintelligible squalling of a parcel of charity children, screaming that which nine-tenths of the congregation cannot follow, and of the other tenth a considerable part are disgusted by the absurdity of the version.

Editor’s notes
* ' Twiss's .Life of Eldon, vol. ii. p. 483.
** Edinb. Rev. for Oct. 1862, p. 441.
**** This is a mistake. There are Hindoo words for each of these
virtues, and chastity has been deified. The Hindoo name for the
Goddess of Chastity is Arundadi.
***** The moderns, in this respect, have been compared by an ad- mirer of the ancients to a dwarf standing on a giant's shoulders, and thus seeing farther than the giant.
******* Note by Miss Wynn.—It is singular that I should chance to use the very word by -which Irving himself called these compositions, -when they -were published soon after (in 1823).


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