No One Knows

© Bram Janssens |

© Bram Janssens |

On December 7, 1834, at the age of 42, Edward Irving died of consumption—tuberculosis. He was laid to rest in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral and most of the ministers of Glasgow were at his funeral. Reportedly, a group of young women dressed in white kept vigil around his tomb, “expecting to see him arise from the dead.” They believed he had not been healed of his illness in order that God would do a mightier work—that of raising Irving from the dead. Succinctly reported by his biographer, Arnold Dallimore, “With the passing of some days they were forced to recognize that their hope was in vain.”

Edward Irving served as a Presbyterian minister in London from 1822 until the time of his death in 1834. During his last five years of ministry, his doctrinal position was almost the same as that of modern Pentecostals and Charismatics. He believed that God was restoring the apostolic gifts, especially those of tongues, healing and prophecy. Ministering over sixty years before Azusa Street, and almost one hundred and thirty years before the modern Charismatic movement, Irving has only recently begun to receive recognition as a forerunner of the modern Charismatic Movement.

Irving was born in Annan Scotland, on August 4th, 1792. By the age of twelve, he had decided to be a minister. At the age of thirteen, he left Annan with his fifteen year-old brother John to attend the University of Edinburgh. At seventeen, he completed the Masters of Arts degree. For the next six years he taught school fulltime to support himself while he continued as a part time divinity student. When he did not immediately receive a call to a church, Irving continued teaching for four more years. In 1819, at the age of twenty-seven, he received a call as the assistant to the most celebrated minister in Scotland at the time: Doctor Thomas Chalmers of St. Johns Church, Glasgow.

Their relationship was an easy one for either of them. Chalmers was frequently concerned that Irving would do or say something too extreme or erratic—and thus cause problems. Irving disliked being merely an assistant; he chafed at standing in Chalmers shadow. Eventually Irving was considered for a call to a large congregation in Jamaica, and a prestigious church in New York. But before these possibilities could bear fruit, he was asked to preach as a supply minister at the Caledonian Chapel in London. Irving was so well received, that he was called to be the Chapel’s new minister in 1822. He quickly accepted.

Within six months of coming to London, success and popularity overcame Irving. Every Sunday, three times the seating capacity (500) of the Chapel sought entrance. Long before the service began, the building was filled—every seat was taken, even the aisles were packed. Outside the streets became impassable with carriages and a crowd of would-be hearers vainly attempted to get in. People from all walks of life flocked to hear Irving: laborers as well as titled gentlemen. Lawyers, physicians, actors, artists, and diplomats were drawn in large numbers to his ministry.

By the end of his first year in London, he was always newsworthy in the eyes of the press. Some praised him, some belittled him, but no one ignored him. Public opinion about him was also mixed. Some people felt he was a charlatan, while others saw him as an example of the nineteenth century’s version of our cultures fifteen minutes of fame: only briefly famous, and soon to be forgotten. Yet many others regarded him as a mighty man of God; the greatest orator of the age.

One of those who was drawn to Irving was the celebrated English critic, poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  He said: “I hold that Irving possesses more of the spirit and purpose of the first Reformers, that he has more of the Head, and Heart, the Life, the unction and the general power of martin Luther, than any man now alive.” Irving was quite flattered by Coleridge’s words and became close to him. A friend, who accompanied Irving on one of his visits to Coleridge, said he sat at Coleridge’s feet and “drinks in the inspiration of every syllable.”

Dalimore said Irving formed his belief that humankind was moving quickly towards a period of terrible judgment and suffering from listening to Coleridge. Nevertheless, he thought there was still the possibility of spiritual transcendence over this time through the direct work of the Holy Spirit. This was the ‘deeper truth’ and ‘higher style of Christianity’ that Irving had been seeking. These beliefs were firmly entrenched in him by the time Irving was asked to address the London Missionary Society in 1824.

As the guest speaker, he was expected to extol the past accomplishments of the Society, highlight its recent ones, and then point out areas of particular need. The aim was to arouse his listeners to a greater devotion to the Society and to liberally support it work. But Irving said the exact opposite. He described the apostles as constantly followed by miracles and as independent of all earthly assistance. He said the Church had drifted from the purity and practices of that day. As a result, it now relied upon human devices and earthly organizations.

He implied that missionary societies were both unnecessary and the result of apostasy. They should go to foreign lands without human support, trusting that God would sustain them. Returning to this apostolic practice would usher in the return of apostolic power. His statements created a furor. Opponents said they always believed he was unbalanced and his address to the London Missionary Society proved they were right. But Irving went even further—he published the address and dedicated it to Coleridge, saying:

You have been more profitable to my faith in orthodox doctrine, to my spiritual understanding of the Word of God, and to my right conception of the Christian church, than any or all the men with whom I have entertained friendship. . . . Your many conversations concerning the revelations of the Christians faith have been so profitable to me . . . and your high intelligence and great learning have at all times so kindly stooped to my ignorance and inexperience, that . . . with the gratitude of a disciple to a wise and generous teacher, . . . I do presume to offer you the first fruits of my mind since it received new impulse towards truth, and a new insight into its depths from listening to your discourse.

In his book, Counterfeit Miracles, B.B. Warfield commented how the religious atmosphere of the early nineteenth century was very unsettled and filled with a restless desire for change. “In particular, premillenarian extravagances were rife, and men were heatedly looking for the early coming of the Lord.” Dallimore agreed, saying that the national upheavals at the end of the previous century had confirmed that conviction for the students of prophecy. The events were, of course, the American and French Revolutions. The rise of the military dictatorship of Napoleon was the icing on the premillennial prophetic cake. Many Christians at the time were convinced he would prove to be the Antichrist of the book of Revelations.

Two additional influences on Irving were to come into his life in 1824, Hatley Frere and Henry Drummond. Frere’s thoughts were a continuation of Coleridge’s, believing that the world was about to enter a period of great suffering. However, where Coleridge based his on a human assessment of the political and moral state of the world, Frere based his on an interpretation of the biblical books of Daniel and Revelation. Frere believed that by 1824, almost all the biblical prophecies contained in those two books had been fulfilled, “and that the coming of Christ could not be more than a few years away.” Irving would eventually tell Frere, “I had no rest in my spirit until I waited upon you and offered myself as your pupil, to be instructed in prophecy according to your ideas.”

Henry Drummond was a major figure in the European missionary work of The Continental Society. Despite the reaction to Irving’s address before the London Missionary Society, Drummond invited him to speak at the Continental Society’s 1825 rally. Irving said their missionary work had no hope of success. He described a cataclysmic judgment, which he said was about to fall, especially on the target of their missionary work, southern Europe. Again, people were highly upset. Some even walked out while he was speaking. As he did before, Irving published his address, titling it: Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed.  Babylon was the term he used for all of Christendom.

Moved by Irving’s emphasis on prophecy, Drummond announced that a conference on prophecy would be held at his country estate south of London in November of 1826. The views espoused at the conference were essentially those of Frere. But the zeal with which these ideas were discussed led the men in attendance to return to their homes proclaiming that the end times had come. Irving now devoted his ministry almost entirely to the interpretation of prophecy. The second coming of Jesus Christ was not far off. Dallimore commented:

He was equally sure that before that time arrived, God would grant the special ‘outpouring of the Holy Spirit’, and indeed, that at any moment he might witness the beginning of that outpouring—the ‘signs and wonders’ of ‘the latter rain.”

Irving’s ministry was about to take another radical shift in emphasis (See “In Spite of Delusions”), but the first phase was dominated by his interest in prophecy as well as the influence of Samuel Coleridge and Hatley Frere. He was in many ways at the right place and the right time with his message on the soon-coming Christ, except that he was wrong. Like many who are captivated by the lure of prophetic interpretation, what seems so clear to them is not the way it actually turns out to be… as it was true of Harold Camping.

While in seminary, I heard Harold Camping speak about his conjecture that Christ would return in September of 1994. As the theologian John Walvoord predicted, when the date came and went, he had another theory. Camping then predicted Christ would return on May 21, 2011. After the predicted return, Camping said the saved would be taken up into heaven and then there would follow five months of fire, brimstone and plagues. October 21, 2011 would then be the final destruction of the world. Camping largely avoided press interviews after his failed prophecy on May 21st. Then he had a stroke in June of 2011.

In a letter to the listeners of his Family Radio show, he acknowledged he was wrong about the May 21st date. “Events within the last year have proven that no man can be fully trusted. Even the most sincere and zealous of us can be mistaken.” However he said the “incorrect and sinful” prediction that Christ would return on May 21st and that true believers would be raptured, still allowed God to get the attention of a great many people. Sounds like he was still trying the get a positive out of his stubborn pursuit of an erroneous interpretation of Scripture.

Harold Camping died on December 15, 2013. Maybe he and Irving are comparing notes to see where they went wrong. Or perhaps they realize a better approach would have been to remember the truth of Matthew 24:36, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.”

The above discussion was largely taken from: The Life of Edward Irving: The Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement, by Arnold Dallimore.

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