At the height of his popularity, Edward Irving decided to complete a preaching tour of Scotland in May of 1828. He timed his visit to occur during the gathering of the ministers of the Church of Scotland for their annual General Assembly in Edinburgh. He decided to give a series of twelve lectures on the Apocalypse. So that his lectures would not conflict with the sessions of the Assembly, he held them at six o’clock in the morning. Although he had engaged one of the largest churches in the city, it was immediately overcrowded. He moved to the largest church in Edinburgh, with the same difficulty. Two ministers almost came to blows when one accused the other of bribing an usher to let him in through a back door.
Less than ten years before, he had been the assistant to Thomas Chalmers, the most celebrated minister of Scotland at the time. Even Chalmers failed to gain entrance the first time he went to hear Irving. He was eventually able to hear Irving and said: “I have no hesitation in saying it is quite woeful.” Nevertheless, Irving continued to speak to packed audiences throughout his twelve lectures. Everywhere he went in Scotland, he drew large, excited crowds.
About thirty-five miles northwest of Glasgow, in the Gare Loch district, Irving met a ministerial probationer named A.J. Scott. Like Irving, he believed that the charismata (the miraculous spiritual gifts of the Apostles) had been withdrawn from the Church because of a lack of faith and coldness of heart. Where Irving believed these gifts would be restored in the soon-coming Millennium, Scott held that they were still available. Irving was so impressed with Scott, that he asked him to be his assistant in London. Irving would later write:
… as we went out and in together, he used often to signify to me his conviction that the spiritual gifts ought still to be exercised in the Church; that we are at liberty, and indeed are bound to pray for them.
Scott would later return to the Gare Loch area and preach to some of the Godly people there. Among them was a woman named Mary Campbell. Scott was not able to convince her of his belief that there was a distinction between regeneration and the baptism of the Holy Ghost. So as he left, he charged her to read through the Acts of the Apostles with that distinction in mind, “to beware of how she rashly rejected what he believed to be the truth of God.” In a letter to her minister a few weeks later, Mary Campbell described her new relationship with the Holy Spirit.
She expected to receive two of the Apostolic gifts—tongues and prophecy. In her thinking, these gifts were tied to the calling of foreign missionary work. She believed the educational system for ministers was of the Devil. “If God has promised to furnish His servants with every necessary qualification for their great work, what have they to do but step into the field, depending upon Him for all?” She believed “no language study was necessary” for her to be a missionary, because all the requirements would be met supernaturally. A group of individuals had gathered around her who began to pray for her healing from “consumption” and to receive the gift of tongues. Arnold Dallimore, in his biography on Edward Irving, quoted her minister as saying:
On a Sunday evening in the month of March , Mary, in the presence of a few friends, began to utter sounds to them incomprehensible, and believed by her to be a tongue such a of old might have been spoken on the day of Pentecost, or among the Christians of Corinth.
Mary was certain she was speaking the language of a people group she had been reading about, the Pelew Islanders of the South Pacific. Mary also began to exhibit another “gift,” that of automatic handwriting. Dallimore said she would pass into a trance-like state and fill pages of paper with script. “The characters she used were not those of the English nor any other known language.” So they were believed to be miraculous; the writings were attributed to a foreign language.
News of her ‘gift of tongues’ spread rapidly and others in the Gare Loch area began to report receiving gifts of tongues, prophecy and even healing. After receiving a letter from one James McDonald, commanding her to arise from her sickbed, Mary Campbell herself was ‘healed.’ Unfortunately, Mary’s brother Samuel, wasn’t so fortunate. Rising from his sickbed below the room where Mary and her friends met to sing and pray, he entered their room and asked them to be quiet. But the dying man was told by some of Mary’s companions, “Get behind me, Satan!” He returned to his sickbed and died a few days later.
The news of Gare Loch events led to a party of Londoners traveling to visit the area and see for themselves what was happening. This was about five months after Mary Campbell’s initial experience. The group visited the Campbells and the McDonalds, where they heard people speaking in tongues. After three weeks, they returned to London to report their findings. J.B. Cardale, a lawyer who was part of the group said: “The persons, while uttering the unknown sounds, as also while speaking in the Spirit in their own language, have every appearance of being under supernatural direction.”
Several people in London opened their homes to prayer meetings that earnestly sought for the outpouring of the Spirit. These meetings continued throughout the autumn and winter of 1830-1831. Then in April, Mrs. Cardale ‘spoke in tongues.’ A few days later, a young woman who attended Irving’s church, both spoke and sang in tongues. The work continued through the summer, and by the beginning of September, a number of people in Irving’s church were claiming to be able to ‘speak in tongues’.
Mary Campbell had also moved to London and began attending Irving’s church. Along with five others, including Mrs. Cardale and her husband’s sister, an inner circle of ‘the gifted ones’ formed abound Irving. But Irving himself never claimed or received a charismatic gift of any kind. It was suggested by Dallimore that he sought an experience that was so clearly miraculous “that it would constantly affirm his faith and strengthen his conviction that the whole activity was of God.”
By September of 1831, division over speaking in tongues had occurred in Irving’s church. The traditional, more Presbyterian members denounced the exercise of tongues during Sunday worship as a disgrace to the House of God. The supporters of tongues said that criticism was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The dispute continued for several months. Finally the Trustees demanded that Irving forbid the use of tongues in the church services. Certain that forbidding tongues at any time would be silencing the Holy Spirit, Irving refused. As a consequence, many of the traditional members left the Church.
This led to the Trustees bringing charges against Irving before the London Presbytery to the effect that “he had allowed the services of the Church to be disturbed.” He was ordered to stand trial before them on April 26th of 1832. On the morning of his trial one of his inner circle of gifted ones, Robert Baxter, came to see Irving. Baxter proceeded to tell Irving he had come to the conviction that the manifestations were merely a grand illusion. Baxter had been the strongest advocate of the manifestations. The decision of the Presbytery was that Irving was unfit to remain a minister of the National Church of Scotland and he was removed from his position as a minister in the denomination.
Several other core members experienced a loss of faith in the manifestations of the gifts. Miss Hall, one of the six original ‘gifted ones’, said she had given up all belief in the manifestations. She even admitted that she sometimes rehearsed the utterances she intended to speak at the church. A.J. Scott could see nothing supernatural in the tongues and healing practices of Irving’s church. So he withdrew himself from fellowship with Irving.
Mary Campbell and her husband traveled to Europe with her husband, intending to become missionaries. “But they were immediately forced to recognize her gift of tongues did not enable her to speak any of the languages they came upon.” They returned to England and Mary gave up the missionary idea completely. Within a few years, she has also largely dropped her belief in the charismatic gifts.
Irving and those members of his church who supported him organized an independent church. In their new church, all authority lay in the hands of gifted ones called Apostles and Prophets. Irving was subject to them and their leadership. He functioned as little more than a servant to them. Lacking any of the gifts, he was subject to their declarations and commands. “He preached only when the Prophets wished him to do so and they exerted their control over what he said.” He gave up writing. He became a recluse and seldom ventured from home.
In September of 1834 a church Prophet declared it was the command of God for Irving to leave London and travel to Glasgow, for “God had a great work for him to do there.” By now Irving’s health was seriously failing, but he went anyway, believing the Prophet spoke for God. He hoped that God would not only heal his consumption, but also grant him the whole array of charismatic gifts, resulting in a powerful and lasting ministry. Irving believed that prayer and faith alone should be employed to deliver him from sickness.
He once said, “No Christian ought ever to be overcome by sickness.” The Lord would either maintain believers in perfect health, or grant them healing in case of sickness. All you needed was sufficient faith. If a healing didn’t take place, it was because your faith was lacking. When there was a cholera epidemic in Britain, Irving called for nation-wide prayer and fasting as the only means of deliverance. He believed the cholera epidemic was sent by God as a judgment for sin.
When he arrived in Scotland, a minister’s wife said Irving bore all the marks of age and weakness from consumption. He was only able to preach on two Sundays, sitting in a chair, “with little strength and very feeble voice.” After being in Glasgow only three weeks, he was so weak he had to remain in bed.
Ultimately realizing he would not be healed, his last spoken words were: “if I die, I die unto the Lord, Amen.” Fittingly, Irving died on a Sunday. His life-long friend, the Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle, said Irving was the sun in his firmament.
But for Irving I had never known what the communion of man with man means. He was the freest, brotherliest, bravest human soul mine ever came in contact with: I call him, on the whole, the best man I have ever . . . found in this world, or hope to find.
Tragically, Irving stubbornly clung to his mistaken understanding of Scripture with regard to the second coming of Christ (see “No One Knows”) and the charismata. His enthusiastic endorsement of these wrong interpretations seems to have contributed to both his meteoric rise to popularity and his rapid fall from favor. They also seemed to play a part in his early death, as he felt compelled to obey the spoken word of the “Prophet” to travel to Scotland despite being so ill with tuberculosis (consumption).
Irving’s mistaken belief with regard to spiritual gifts was that those who had received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, confirmed by their speaking in tongues, were of a higher spiritual level. His biographer Arnold Dallimore noted where this brought him into subjection to the Prophets. Since they spoke in tongues, they were in a superior spiritual position to him. So he submitted to their control. “The Irving we have seen in the last two years of his life, a recluse, robbed of his liberty and with little ambition to write or be active, was the results of his acceptance of the Prophets and their gifts.”
Carlyle wasn’t alone in his assessment of Irving as a person. Robert Murray M’Cheyne wrote the following of Irving when he heard of his death: “I look back on him with awe, as on the saints and martyrs of old. A holy man, in spite of all his delusions and errors. He is now with his God and Saviour, whom he wronged so much, yet, I am persuaded, loved so sincerely.”
The above discussion was largely taken from: The Life of Edward Irving: The Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement, by Arnold Dallimore.