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Edward Irving, from Walter C. Smith's “Edward Irving”in the 1884 Good Words

Edward Irving (1792-1834), an early friend of Thomas Carlyle, who wrote an article on him for Fraser's Magazine after his death, began as a charismatic Presybyterian minister who moved from Scotland to London, there became an enormously popular preacher, and lost his reputation — and eventually was excommunicated — after he and his followers embraced speaking in tongues and an obsession with a rapidly approaching apocalyse. According to Fred Kaplan, Carlyle's recent biographer, the "outgoing, enthusiastic Irving . . . had an extraordinary capacity for self-dramatization, which he revealed in his preaching, his missionary work with the Glasgow poor, and his heightened rhetoric about his own and his nation's Christian destiny" (77). In 1822 the Caledonian Chapel in London appointed him minister, and his fervent sermons attracted great attention. He soon became a controversial figure, and "though larger than life to his admirers, Irving put Walter Scott 'in mind of the devil disguides as an angel of light'" (147).

His firm conviction that he and his followers had major prophetic powers — surely one of Carlyle's main targets in "Signs of the Times" — turned his popularity into notoriety and eventually resulted in his excommunication:

Soon after the opening of Irving's new church in Regent Square in 1827 his great popularity began to subside. It is thought that this fact, which had been a serious blow to his self-esteem, had only confirmed his belief that the world was not to improve and turned him toward supernaturalism. Aben Ezra's Coming of the Messiah and all that is mystical in Coleridge both nourished and corroborated his long-held beliefs in prophecy and the impending approach of the second coming. His intercourse with Henry Drummond (1786-1860), politician and co-founder of the Irvingite church, strengthened his convictions. Irving was in consequence led to a close study of the prophetical books, especially the Apocalypse, and to sermonizing upon them. In 1830 he had experienced what he unshakably knew to be a confirmation of his own apostolic gifts of prophecy and healing. His excommunication by the London presbytery that same year for publishing his opinions concerning the humanity of Christ, and the ensuing condemnation of those opinions by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland strengthened further his faith in his own powers and led him farther out of sympathy with the Establishment. He then estranged the greater part of his congregation by the irregularities attendant upon the revelation of his gifts and was on complaint of their representatives to the London presbytery declared unfit to remain as minister of the Regent Square church. [Letters, 289]

Carlyle, who had earlier been troubled by the change in his friend, was horrified when he attended one of his services, writing his mother "that suddenly, during regular service and with Irving's encouragement, 'hysterical women, and crackbrained enthusiasts,' were uttering 'confused Stuff, mostly 'Ohs' and 'Ahs' and absurd interjections about 'the Body of Jesus'; they also pretend to 'work miracles,' and have raised more than one weak bedrid woman, and cured people of 'Nerves,' or as they themselves say, 'cast Devils out of them.' Carlyle added that "poor Irving boasted . . . that it made 'his Church the peculiarly blessed of Heaven'" (Kaplan, 173). In 1832 thoese followers remaining from his former congretation created the Holy Catholic Apostolic, or "Irvingite," Church in Newman Street, and the following year the Church of Scotland excommunicated him.

The Irvingite church continued after his death, and according to The Gazatteer for Scotland, in 1994 it claimed to have around 8 million members worldwide.

Related Materials


Kaplan, Fred. Thomas Carlyle: A Biography. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983

The Letters of Thomas Carlyle to His Brother Alexander with Related Family Letters. Ed. Edwin W. Marrs, Jr. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1968.

Last modified 5 October 2005;
thanks to John Stanley Martin of Australia for correcting a egregious spelling error.