Inspite of Delusions

© Bruce Rolff | 123rf.com

© Bruce Rolff | 123rf.com

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 Like Irving, he believed that the charismata (the miraculous spiritual gifts of the Apostles) had been withdrawn from the Church because of a lack of faith and coldness of heart.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 [1830], 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.


No One Knows

© Bram Janssens | 123rf.com

© Bram Janssens | 123rf.com

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.