Page images
PDF
EPUB

.

[ocr errors]

was miraculously akin to all wonders and splendours;' and he hailed the manifestations in the west of Scotland as merely the natural answer to his aspirations and prayers.

In a short while manifestations of a similar character appeared among his own flock; at first privately, at certain meetings they held in the early morning, about the time of the sitting

of the General Assembly which deposed Messrs. Campbell and M-Lean. He was greatly excited by the prospect of this assembly; and shortly after its close be wrote to his friend Mr. Story, strongly denouncing its proceedings. In the same letter he added, • You keep too much aloof from the good work of the Spirit • which is proceeding beside you. Two of my flock have • received the gift of tongues, and prophecy. Draw not "back, brother, but go forward — the kingdom of heaven is only to be won by the brave. Keep your conscience un• fettered by your understanding.' The attitude of rational doubt, of calm inquiry, was unknown to him. He had gradually intensified by over-indulgence the mystical, and what we may call the thaumaturgic side of his mind, originally too strong, till he was prepared to see miracles any day. The prophetic utterances from the Gairloch, therefore, were no astonishment to him. They were not objects for a moment of curiosity, but from the first of faith. He evidently expected their appearance in his own congregation ; and when they did make their appearance he could not refuse to acknowledge them. He hesitated, indeed, to recognise them in the public Service for a while, but only for a while. He had gone too far to pause; he saw his own dilemma, and urged it before the Presbytery afterwards, with a puzzling bluntness of logic:

а · For look you at the condition in which I was placed,' he says. I had sat at the head of the Church, praying that these gifts might be poured out on the Church. I believed in the Lord's faithfulness, that I was praying the prayer of faith, and that He had poured out the gifts on the Church, in answer to our prayers. Was I to disbelieve that which in faith I had been praying for, and which we had all been praying for?'

It would not serve any good purpose to enter into an examination of the pretended gift of tongues, whether as manifested in the west of Scotland or in London. That there was nothing miraculous in it, it is needless for us to say ; that it was from beginning to end a gross delusion - in some cases a shallow imposture — we feel bound to say. Mary Campbell herself was probably half enthusiast, half impostor. Her character comes out in a very ambiguous light in Mr. Story's memoir. A Mr. Baxter, of Doncaster, who had been among

the earliest and most prominent of the speakers with tongues connected with Irving's congregation, and who appears to have been a thoroughly earnest, but weak-minded man, ere long recanted, and wrote a · Narrative of Facts' explanatory of his delusions. Little, however, is to be made of it, or indeed of anything that one has read or can learn of the subject. THere is not a thread of reason, of sense, or of utility – in a word, of moral meaning, throughout the whole business.

Save as a picture of human weakness, we honestly confess that it has little interest for us even of a psychological kind. And that a mind so rich and grand as Irving's should have sunk so low as to have been befooled by such pretended prophecies would really have been unintelligible, had we not been able to trace the steps by which he passed from one degree of excitement to another. The faith, or rather the credulity and presumption together, which can profess to expound with confidence the destinies of the world from the unintelligible symbols of the Apocalypse, appear to us capable of any absurdity. If they stop short of the extravagances of Irving, it is not any consistency or remnants of reason that save them.

The disorders introduced by the prophets' into the once staid congregation at Regent Square did not, of course, long pass without notice.

The London newspapers once more opened their fire upon the preacher whom they had not spared in the heyday of his fame. The Presbytery looked on with amazement; but as Irving had withdrawn himself from formal connexion with them, did not know very well what to do. The blow at length came from the quarter that perhaps he least expected, and whence it fell most cruelly. The members of his kirk session had hitherto stood by him with a hearty unanimity in all his difficulties.

Only a year before they had subscribed along with him a declaration in which they repudiated with abhorrence any doctrine that would

charge with sin, original or actual, our blessed Lord and Saviour • Jesus ;' and when the London Presbytery had condemned him, they withdrew with him from their jurisdiction, and appealed to the general Church of Scotland. They were his best friends, to whom his heart clung, and who cordially loved and admired him in turn. It was from this body of men that there now came to Irving first remonstrance, then appeals, and finally threats. Under all he was alike immoveable. Pliable as a child in the hands of his prophets, open to impression to all who came to him with an offer of truth, when once he has yielded to the impression, he remains unassailable by any argument or reason, with that strange mixture of facility and yet of obstinacy, of

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

docile faith and yet of blind wilfulness, that characterises him. 'He is so thoroughly convinced in his own mind, that it is • impossible to make an impression upon him,' writes his sisterin-law.

Unable to move him, the kirk session and trustees of the church are driven to take such legal steps as seem fit to them. Sir E. Sugden's opinion is taken as to what they should do. He advises them to make complaint to the Presbytery of London, whose jurisdiction they had shortly before wilfully set aside. It was rather a humbling necessity; but they had no alternative but to leave matters alone or proceed as they were directed. Irving sent them a letter of solemn adjuration, protesting that the work against which they were proceeding was the work of God — verily the mighty work of God, the most sacred work of the Holy Ghost - which to blaspheme is to • blaspheme the Holy Ghost;' but feelings of deep opposition had by this time been engendered, and they made a formal complaint to the Presbytery, setting forth in detail the disorders which he had introduced into the Church service.

The issue of the investigation before the Presbytery could not be doubtful. The disorders complained of were unquestionably contraventions of the order of Presbyterian service, for which the church had been built and set apart. It is needless to urge on the other hand the question upon which Mrs. Oliphant has enlarged. Is there anything in the constitution of the • Church which forbids the exercise of the prophetic gift, sup‘posing it to be real ?' Who was to determine the reality of such a gift? What rational inquiry could there be into a pretension which in its very character divorced itself from all reason? Neither Irving nor his followers gave or could give any evidence of the reality of the assumed gift. His own reiterated ipse dixit, in his speech before the Presbytery, that he had asked, and the Lord had given, is all he urges or can urge; and surely it was his part to show, or to try to show, by some tangible evidence, the reality, rather than the Presbytery's part to investigate it. Irving deserves every sympathy under the charge of heresy for which he was finally condemned and expelled the Church by the Presbytery of Annan which ordained him ; but we cannot blame the Presbytery of London in their dealing with the disorders which he had openly permitted and sanctioned in Regent Square Church.

The charge of heresy was, if not actually unfounded, yet in many respects ignorantly urged and incompetently disposed of. It would be a very liberal or else a very narrow judgment that would conclude the Presbytery of Annan the fitting arbiters of

[ocr errors]

a question of so much complexity and delicacy as Irving's views on the Incarnation. But the question before the Presbytery of London was, after all, a practical one, which they were as competent to settle as any other body of men. The disorders in

. the Church service were abundantly proved; they were admitted on all hands. It was equally plain that they had imparted to the service a new character; it was no longer the Presbyterian service, or the forms of worship and mode of discipline

of the Established Church of Scotland,' for which, according to the trust-deed, the Church had been expressly instituted. A. plea of special divine right to set aside the old and institute new usages of worship, is one which no church court could entertain, and which if it did it could never competently dispose of.

This conclusion shut the Regent Square Church against Irving and his prophetic followers, and virtually severed him from the Church of Scotland. He was not deposed, indeed, by the Presbytery of Annan till the spring of the following year, March 1833. But with his departure from Regent Square Church his career as a Presbyterian minister was over. Not only so, but his public career may be said to be ended. Henceforth the nominal head of a new sect, he is dead alike to the world and the Church which he had disturbed.

We shall not follow him into the comparative obscurity of the two remaining years of his life. So far as we can understand them from Mrs. Oliphant's description—and she is, perhaps purposely, not very clear in her statements as to the relations in which he stood to the 'apostles and prophets'Henry Drummond and others — upon whom, as its pillars, he built his new Catholic and Apostolic Church. They were sorrowful and somewhat darkened years. To a nature like Irving's, the wrench from the Church of his fathers, wildly as he may have denounced her coldness and her shallow theology was a blow that went to his heart. This Church was still to him that of his early love, which he had lauded in his first successful years as the most perfect Church on earth; and amidst all the raptures of his new faith he could not easily forget it. There were evidently also personal causes for disappointment. The apostles and prophets that had gathered around him actually raised their voice against him, and for a time withheld their sanction from his preaching. We confess to a feeling which we would rather not clothe in words, as we think of the last and dark indignity to which his great, if erring, spirit was subjected. It was an unhappy fate in his case certainly, for the greater to serve the lesser.

In the autumn of 1834 he set out on a mission to Scot

[ocr errors]

6

[ocr errors]

land, commissioned as a 'prophet' to do a great work there for his Church. He had not been deemed worthy of the higher office of apostle;' and amongst the worthies who had assumed this office in London his presence appears to have been somewhat of an embarrassment. It is sufficiently intelligible, therefore, that the voice of prophecy’ should call him to Scotland. He travelled northwards through Herefordshire and Wales; and from point to point on his journey sends letters to his wife so touched with a gentle sadness, and so beautiful in the tender picturesque glimpses they give of the scenery through which he passes, that there are few can read them without emotion. How his mind seems to expand and gain its early freshness in contact with nature! More than ever we feel what a ruin the dank unhealthiness of millenarian superstition has made of this

man.

He was unwell almost from the beginning of his journey; but he braved his illness and fatigues with a mingled manfulness and credulity pathetic to contemplate till he reached Liverpool, where his wife joined him, and they proceeded to Glasgow. Here he rallied for a brief space; but all noted the change in his appearance — his gigantic frame' bearing all the marks of « age and weakness;' and his tremendous voice no longer firm,

but faltering. The word of the Lord' had come to him that he would recover, and his wife had never a doubt of it;' but he sank in a rapid consumption, and died on the 8th of December, with the words on his lips, 'If I die, I die unto the Lord. Amen.'

a

Our estimate of Irving has been sufficiently indicated. At least we have nothing more definite to add. It is impossible, we think, to read his works, or at least such of them as any longer possess a literary interest, without recognising his remarkable powers of mind. It is impossible to read Mrs. Oliphant's volumes without something of love and admiration for the man. It has been to us equally impossible not to recognise his great defects both of character and intellect, - defects which wrecked the latter, and only left the former untouched because its native purity was more than proof against the deteriorating weakness which so deeply mingled in it. We cannot acknowledge in him the hero, pursuing his path through inevitable conflict and radiance of tragic glory which she has painted him; but neither can we allow him to be the fanatic or charlatan that others have supposed him to be. He is not without heroic mould; yet the mould is flawed and distorted at different points. He would have been greater, if not so grand. If his spirit had been less theatric, he might have risen to genuine sublimity.

« PreviousContinue »