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Victorian Anglican Evangelicalism: The Radical Legacy of Edward Irving

  • RALPH BROWN (a1)

This article considers the radical contribution of Edward Irving to mid-Victorian Anglican Evangelicalism, in an analysis of nineteenth-century Anglican Evangelical theology and spirituality, political and social thought and missionary activity. While historians of doctrine have acknowledged the influence of aspects of Irving's thought upon liberal Anglicans like F. D. Maurice, they have paid scant attention to Irving's influence upon the theology of Evangelical churchmen. Irving's legacy was, in fact, an important and positive force for theological change. This article also challenges the conventional historical view that Evangelical churchmen produced only negative polemical works in response to the innovatory approaches of Oxford Movement and ‘Broad Church’ theologians. It considers, in particular, the work of the leading Anglican Evangelical theologian Thomas Rawson Birks, which was shaped by the legacy of Irving and has many significant parallels with that of Maurice.

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1 Bright, Michael H., ‘English literary romanticism and the Oxford Movement’, Journal of the History of Ideas xl (1979), 385404; Stephen Prickett, Romanticism and religion: the tradition of Coleridge and Wordsworth in the Victorian Church, Cambridge 1976.

2 David W. Bebbington, Evangelicalism in modern Britain: a history from the 1730s to the 1980s, London 1989, 80. On Edward Irving see also Sheridan Gilley, ‘Edward Irving: prophet of the millennium’, in J. Garnett and C. Matthew (eds), Revival and religion since 1700, London, 1993, 95–110, and David N. Hempton, ‘Evangelicals and eschatology’, this Journal xxxi (1980), 179–94.

3 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 75–104, and ‘The advent hope in British Evangelicalism since 1800’, Scottish Journal of Religious Studies ix (1988), 103–10.

4 Eric M. Culbertson, ‘Evangelical theology, 1857–1900’, unpubl. PhD diss. London 1991; David N. Hempton, ‘Bickersteth, bishop of Ripon: the episcopate of a mid-Victorian Evangelical’, in Gerald Parsons (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain, IV: Interpretations, Manchester 1988, 41–60.

5 Prickett, Romanticism and religion, 253.

7 See John R. Wolffe, The Protestant crusade in Great Britain, 1829–60, Oxford 1991, and Bebbington, Evangelicalism, for further discussions of this crisis.

8 Michael Wheeler, Heaven, hell, and the Victorians, Cambridge 1994, 82ff.

9 George Kitson-Clark, ‘The Romantic element, 1830–1850’, in J. H. Plumb (ed.), Studies in social history: a tribute to G. M. Trevelyan, London–New York 1955, 231.

10 John Kent, The unacceptable face, London 1987, 86.

11 Trygve R. Tholfsen, Working-class radicalism in mid-Victorian England, London 1963, 61.

12 Frederick D. Maurice, The kingdom of Christ, London 1838, repr. 1959, 159ff.

13 Richard E. Brantley, Locke, Wesley and the method of English Romanticism, Gainesville 1984, 26.

14 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 50–74.

15 William R. Ward, Faith and faction, London 1993, 17.

16 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 81. Mark Pattison observed that eighteenth-century Evangelical preachers ‘certainly insisted on “the heart” being touched, and that the Spirit only had the power savingly to affect the heart; but they acted as though this were done by an appeal to the reason’: ‘Tendencies of religious thought in England, 1688–1750’, in Essays and Reviews, London 1860, 326.

17 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 104.

18 Shea, F. X., ‘Religion and the Romantic movement’, Studies in Romanticism ix (1970), 285–96 at p. 288.

19 John H. Newman, Apologia pro vita sua (1864), London 1964 edn, 94.

20 Leroy E. Froom, The prophetic faith of our fathers: the historical development of prophetic interpretation, Washington, 1948–54, iii. 266–8.

21 George Croly, The Apocalypse of St John, or prophecy of the rise, progress and fall of the Church of Rome; the inquisition; the revolution of France; the universal war and the final triumph of Christianity, London 1827, 40.

22 Ernest R. Sandeen, The roots of fundamentalism: British and American millenarianism, 1800–1930, Chicago 1970, 20.

23 Thomas R. Birks, ‘Preface’, to The atonement and the judgement: a reply to Dr. Candlish's inaugural lecture; with a brief statement of facts in connection with the Evangelical Alliance, London 1870; ‘In memoriam: Thomas Rawson Birks’, Record, 27 July 1883.

24 Edward Irving, Babylon and infidelity foredoomed of God: a discourse on the prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse which relate to these latter times, and until the second advent, 2nd edn, Glasgow 1828, 424.

25 Ibid. 425.

26 Ibid. 427–8.

27 Ibid. 512. Similarly, George Croly also identified the French Revolution with the opening of the fourth seal in the Book of Revelation: The Apocalypse of St John, 415–46.

28 Irving, Babylon, 537. Irving and his circle adopted the historicist interpretation of unfulfilled prophecy. This was based upon a literal reading of the imagery of the books of Revelation and Daniel, texts that were regarded as narratives describing actual past and future events. Historicist scholars sought to reveal the AntiChrist of prophecy (usually identified with the papacy) and demonstrate their conviction of its predestined final destruction, which would mark the onset of Christ's kingdom at his second advent, the event that was to be the climax of the mystery of divine providence.

29 Ibid. 172–251.

30 Ibid. 324–5.

31 Ibid. 361–75.

32 Gilley, ‘Edward Irving’, 106; Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 83.

33 Christopher Burdon, The Apocalypse in England: Revelation unravelling, 1700–1834, Basingstoke 1997, 31–66, and C. D. A. Leighton, ‘Antichrist's revolution: some Anglican apocalypticists in the age of the French wars’, Journal of Religious History xxiv (2000), 125–42.

34 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 84.

35 Edward P. Thompson, The making of the English working class, London 1963, 389.

36 Ibid. 382–9.

37 Thomas R. Birks, Memoir of the Rev. Edward Bickersteth, 3rd edn, London 1852, 65.

38 Edward Bickersteth, The divine warning to the Church at this time, of our present enemies, dangers and duties, and as to our future prospects: a sermon, London 1842, 10–11.

39 John R. Wolffe, ‘“Praise to the holiest in the height”: hymns and church music’, in John R. Wolffe (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain,V: Culture and empire, Manchester 1997, 67–83.

40 L. Upton, ‘“Our mother country”: the integration of religious and national identity in the thought of Edward Irving (1792–1834)’, in R. Pope (ed.), Religion and national identity: Wales and Scotland, c. 1700–2000, Cardiff 2001, 246–54.

41 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 275.

42 Wolffe, Protestant crusade, 30.

43 William Paley, A view of the evidences of Christianity: new edition, with introduction, notes and supplement, by T. R. Birks, London 1848.

44 Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 63–5.

45 A small number of Evangelical clergymen seceded from the Church of England to Irving's newly founded Catholic Apostolic Church: Grayson Carter, Anglican Evangelicals: Protestant secessions from the via media, c. 1800–1850, Oxford 1991, 191. For the Catholic Apostolic Church see also Markku Ruotsila, ‘The Catholic Apostolic Church in British politics’, this Journal lvi (2005), 75–91.

46 Birks, Edward Bickersteth, ii. 44; R. D. Turnbull, ‘The place of the seventh earl of Shaftesbury within the Evangelical tradition, with particular reference to his understanding of the relationship of evangelistic mission to social reform’, unpubl. PhD diss. Durham 1996, 79. Sandeen dates the first phase of the millenarian revival from the French Revolution to Irving's fall from grace in the early 1830s, with the second phase beginning in the 1840s: Roots of fundamentalism, 3–41. Literature on the Jewish question, closely associated with adventist expectations, also reached its peak in the early 1840s: M. Vreté, ‘The restoration of the Jews in English Protestant thought, 1790–1840’, Middle Eastern Studies viii (1972), 42.

47 James Grant, a critic of premillennialism and Evangelical editor of the Morning Observer, commented that ‘The clerical members of this society are, in the great majority of cases, men of eminence in the religious world; while the laymen are, in every instance, men of acknowledged piety and a high social position’: The end of all things; or, The coming and kingdom of Christ, London 1866, 114–15.

48 ‘Preface’, ibid.

49 Elizabeth Jay, The religion of the heart: Anglican Evangelicalism and the nineteenth-century novel, Oxford 1979, 270.

50 M. W. Carpenter and George P. Landow, ‘Ambiguous revelations: the Apocalypse and Victorian literature’, in Constantinos A. Pattrides and Joseph A. Wittreich (eds), The Apocalypse in English Renaissance thought and literature, Manchester 1984, 303–5.

51 Waller, John O., ‘Christ's second coming: Christina Rossetti and the premillennialist William Dodsworth’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library lxxiii (1969), 465. Dodsworth had been an associate of Irving's circle. He had attended the first Albury conference (1826) as a guest of Henry Drummond and contributed to the Morning Watch, a premillennialist paper supporting Irving: Waller, ‘Christ's second coming’, 468. He subsequently came to be influenced by the Oxford Movement, remaining a premillennialist but no longer holding to the historicist interpretation of Revelation: ibid. 480–1.

52 R. M. Kachur, ‘Envisioning equality, asserting authority: women's devotional writings on the Apocalypse, 1845–1900’, in Julie Menyk (ed.), Women's theology in nineteenth-century Britain: transfiguring the faith of their fathers, New York–London 1998, 10–11.

53 Tonna edited the Christian Lady's Magazine from 1836. Among her successors in the editorial role was Elizabeth Birks, wife of T. R. Birks and daughter of Edward Bickersteth: ‘In memoriam: Thomas Rawson Birks’, Record, 27 July 1883.

54 John Kent, Holding the fort: studies in Victorian revivalism, London 1978, 137.

55 A. J. Boyd Hilton, The age of atonement: the influence of Evangelicalism on social and economic thought, 1785–1865, Oxford 1988, 10–15. ‘Recordite’ was a term originally coined by Conybeare for what he had interpreted as an exaggerated form of Evangelicalism and has been adapted by Hilton as a label for Evangelical adventists.

56 Irving condemned, for example, those Evangelicals who believed that the conversion of the world to the Gospel by missionary effort would precede the second advent. He advocated ‘pity of the assurance with which they undertake the work, and the practical blindness which they manifest towards the prophecies of God’: Babylon, 318.

57 Ibid. 131.

58 Thomas Chalmers to Edward Bickersteth, 17 Feb. 1836, quoted in Birks, Edward Bickersteth, ii. 92.

59 Christian Observer (Dec. 1831), 774.

60 Scotland, N. A. D., ‘J. B. Sumner, 1780–1862: Claphamite Evangelical pastor and prelate’, Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester lxxiv (1992), 5773; Desmond Bowen, ‘Alexander R. C. Dallas, the warrior saint’, in Paul T. Phillips (ed.), The view from the pulpit, Toronto 1978, 17–45.

61 Sumner, quoted in Scotland, ‘J. B. Sumner’, 63–4.

62 Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), ‘The mischief of state aid’, The Nineteenth Century xiv (1883), 935.

63 Ibid. 938.

64 Donald M. Lewis, Lighten their darkness: the Evangelical mission to working-class London, 1828–1860, London–New York 1986, 152.

66 Hilton, Age of atonement, 44–5.

67 Geoffrey B. A. M. Finlayson, The seventh earl of Shaftesbury, 1801–1885, London 1981, 239–40.

68 Hilton, Age of atonement, 213.

69 Thomas R. Birks, Protestant truth the basis of national prosperity, London 1848, 24.

70 Edward R. Norman, Anti-Catholicism in Victorian England, London 1968, 19.

71 Thomas R. Birks to W. E. Gladstone, 22 Feb. 1848, BL, ms Add. 44,367, fos 85–92.

72 Edward R. Norman, Church and society in England, 1770–1970, Oxford 1976, 95.

73 Nonconformist pressure groups, also coming to prominence from the 1830s, regarded the separation of Church and State not in terms of the creation of a godless polity and society, but as freeing Churches and society from the secularising influence of the state: Timothy Larson, Contested Christianity: the political and social contexts of Victorian theology, Waco 2004, 145–56.

74 Birks to Gladstone, 11 Mar. 1848, ms Add. 44,367, fos 103–4.

75 Thomas R. Birks, The Christian state: or, The first principles of national religion, London 1847, 138.

76 Edward Bickersteth, The national fast of 1847, London 1847, 5–7. In 1845 the government had increased the annual grant to the Catholic seminary at Maynooth in Ireland which provoked an upsurge in anti-Roman Catholic feeling and organised political campaigns by Protestant societies.

77 Samuel Waldegrave, The cattle plague: a warning to Britain from the king of nations, London 1866.

78 Sandeen, Roots of fundamentalism, 3–4.

79 Ralph S. Brown, ‘Evangelicalism, cultural influences and theological change; considered with special reference to the thought of Thomas Rawson Birks (1810–1883)’, unpubl. PhD diss. Open University 1996, 87–102.

80 Hempton, ‘Evangelicals and eschatology’, 180–1.

81 David Brown, Christ's second coming: will it be pre-millennial?, 2nd edn, Edinburgh 1849, 6–7.

82 Evelyn R. Garratt, Life and personal recollections of Samual Garratt, London 1908, 178.

83 Ibid. 30–65.

84 Finlayson, Shaftesbury, 153–71; Turnbull, ‘Shaftesbury’, 210.

85 Henry Venn, ‘Character of Rev. Edward Bickersteth, Sec. C.M.S., 1815–1830’, in William Knight, Memoir of the Rev. Henry Venn, London 1880, 166.

86 John R. Wolffe, ‘The Evangelical Alliance in the 1840s: an attempt to institutionalise Christian unity’, in W. J. Sheils and Diana Wood (eds), Voluntary religion (Studies in Church History xxiii, 1986), 333–46.

87 Many prominent Anglican adventists were unwilling to compromise their prime duty to the Anglican Church and thus felt unable to join the Alliance: Brown, ‘Evangelicalism’, 93–8.

88 Indeed, it was believed that one of the signs announcing the end time was the preaching of the Gospel to all nations. J. W. Brooks, for instance, affirmed that ‘from the same period from which we date the outbreak of Anti-christian principles, viz., the French Revolution, may be likewise dated the commencement of those gigantic religious efforts which are now witnessed in the earth’ and ‘It is, as it were, God proclaiming to us with a loud voice – that judgement is at hand – especially judgement on the Harlot Church, which is Babylon’: ‘The signs of the second advent, in the state of the world at large’, in Edward Bickersteth (ed.), The second coming, the judgement, and the kingdom of Christ, London 1843, 185.

89 Edward Bickersteth, ‘Address to Christian ladies’, in CMS Jubilee papers, London 1848, 20–1.

90 Thomas R. Birks, ‘The first resurrection’, in Bickersteth, Second coming, 257–8.

91 Anderson, O., ‘Women preachers in mid-Victorian Britain: some reflections on feminism, popular religion and social change’, Historical Journal xii (1969), 479–80.

92 Ibid. 480.

93 Helen Mathers, ‘The evangelical spirituality of a Victorian feminist: Josephine Butler, 1828–1906’, this Journal lii (2001), 305.

94 J. Murray, ‘Gender attitudes and the contribution of women to Evangelicalism and ministry in the nineteenth century’, in John R. Wolffe (ed.), Evangelical faith and public zeal: Evangelicals and society in Britain, 1780–1990, London 1995, 104.

95 William Pennefather, quoted in Anderson, ‘Women preachers’, 468.

96 Alison M. Bucknall, ‘Martha's work and Mary's contemplation? The women of the Mildmay Conference and the Keswick Convention, 1856–1900’, in Robert N. Swanson (ed.), Gender and Christian religion, Woodbridge 1998, 408–12.

97 Julie Melnyck, ‘Women's theology and the British periodical press’, in Linda Woodhead (ed.), Reinventing Christianity: nineteenth-century contexts, Aldershot 2001, 191–7.

98 ‘From an old blue-stocking’, Christian Lady's Magazine i (1834), 26.

99 Dzelzainis, Ella, ‘Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, premillenarianism, and the formation of gender ideology in the Ten Hours Campaign’, Victorian Literature and Culture xxxi (2003), 181–91.

100 ‘Preface’ to Christian Lady's Magazine xl (1840), pp. ii–iii.

101 Stephen D. O'Leary, Arguing the Apocalypse: a theory of millennial rhetoric, New York 1994, 6–7, 218–20.

102 Edward B. Elliott, Horae apocalypticae, iv, 5th edn, London 1862, 207.

103 Carpenter and Landow, ‘Ambiguous revelations’, 303. The manuscript of Bickersteth's poem dates the composition of the work to the two years preceding publication: Edward H. Bickersteth, ‘Manuscript with alterations of Yesterday, today, and for ever’, Bodleian Library, Oxford, mss Eng d 3009. The poem went through seventeen editions by 1885. In the years immediately preceding the 2000 millennium, also a period of unsettling political, economic and technological change, the themes and concerns of a series of bestselling American apocalyptic novels similarly dramatised evangelical millennial expectations to reach a wide mainstream audience: Gribben, Crawford, ‘Rapture fictions and the changing Evangelical condition’, Literature and Theology xviii (2004), 8794.

104 Edward H. Bickersteth, Yesterday, to-day and for ever, London 1866, preface.

105 Thomas R. Birks, Victory of divine goodness; including I: Letters to an inquirer on various doctrines of Scripture; II: Notes on Coleridge's Confessions of an inquiring spirit; III: Thoughts on the nature of the atonement and of eternal judgement, London 1867, preface.

106 Idem, Atonement, 11.

107 Geoffrey Rowell, Hell and the Victorians: a study of the nineteenth-century theological controversies concerning eternal punishment and the future life, Oxford 1974, 77.

108 E. H. Plumptre, dean of Wells, commented that Birks's Victory of divine goodness ‘In not a few passages … presents so close a verbal identity with Mr. Maurice's Theological Essays, that in a writer of inferior calibre it would suggest the thought of literary plagiarism’: The spirits in prison and other studies on the life after death, London 1884, 229.

109 Birks, Atonement, 21–2.

110 Idem, The ways of God; or, Thoughts on the difficulties of belief, in connection with providence and redemption, London, 1863, 213–14.

111 Idem, Atonement, 21.

112 Ibid. 22.

113 W. J. Clyde Ervine, ‘Doctrine and diplomacy: some aspects of the life and thought of the Anglican Evangelical clergy, 1797–1837’, unpubl. PhD diss. Cambridge 1979, 35–41.

114 Culbertson, ‘Evangelical theology’, 139.

115 Birks, Atonement, 11.

116 Idem, Victory of divine goodness, 161.

117 Idem, Atonement, 21–2.

118 Idem, Ways of God, 138.

119 Idem, Victory of divine goodness, 179.

120 Ibid. 64.

121 Ibid. 15.

122 Ibid. 45.

123 Ibid. 183.

124 Idem, Atonement, 12.

125 Ibid. 15.

126 W. R. Ward, ‘Evangelical identity, power, and culture in the “great” nineteenth century’, in Donald M. Lewis (ed.), Christianity reborn: the global expansion of Evangelicalism in the twentieth century, Cambridge 2004, 15.

127 Birks, Commentary on the Book of Isaiah, 426.

128 Ibid. 429.

129 Ibid.

130 Idem, Victory of divine goodness, 187.

131 Ibid. 171.

132 Culbertson, ‘Evangelical theology’, 256.

133 Robert B. Girdlestone, Dies irae: the final judgement and future prospects of mankind, London 1877, 172ff. Such orthodox views also appear to have remained central to the work and vocation of the missionaries of the CMS amongst the ‘perishing heathen’ well into the 1880s: Hatcher, B. A., ‘Eternal punishment and Christian missions: the response of the Church Missionary Society to Broad Church theology’, Anglican Theological Review lxxii (1990), 5661.

134 Bickersteth, Yesterday, to-day and for ever, bk xi, lines 944–87.

135 Garratt, Life and personal recollections, 79–83.

136 S. Minton, ‘All things are yours’: closing sermons at Eaton chapel, with a fragment of autobiography, London 1874, 38.

137 Brown, ‘Evangelicalism’, 157–84. This misconception still persists today, with Birks's name being included in a pro-universalist website:>.

138 Brown, ‘Evangelicalism’, 38–63, 157–84.

139 Plumptre, Spirits in prison, 231.

140 Best, Geoffrey F. A., ‘Evangelicals and the established Church in the early nineteenth century’, JTS x (1959), 6378.

141 Bernard M. G. Reardon, ‘Religion and the Romantic movement’, Theology lxxvi (1973), 403–17 at pp. 411–12.

142 Thomas R. Birks, Church and State; or, National religion and church establishments, considered with reference to present controversies, London 1869, 51.

143 Brown, ‘Evangelicalism’, 64–102.

144 Andrew N. Porter, ‘Late nineteenth-century Anglican missionary expansion: a consideration of some non-Anglican sources of inspiration’, in Derek Baker (ed.), Religious motivation: biographical and sociological problems for the church historian (Studies in Church History xv, 1978), 349–65 at pp. 357ff.

145 Hilton, Age of atonement, 366.

146 Ian S. Rennie, ‘Fundamentalism and the varieties of north Atlantic Evangelicalism’, in David W. Bebbington, Mark Noll and George A. Rawlyk (eds), Evangelicalism: comparative studies of popular Protestantism in north America, the British Isles and beyond, 1700–1990, New York 1994, 333–47.

147 Ibid. 333.

148 Marsden, George, ‘Fundamentalism as an American phenomenon: a comparison with English Evangelicalism’, Church History lxvi (1977), 215–32 at p. 215.

149 Bebbington, ‘The advent hope’, 109.

150 Idem, Evangelicalism, 89.

151 Thomas R. Birks, First principles of moral science, London 1873, quoted in Hilton, Age of atonement, 366. The Coleridgean idealism of Birks's Analogy of mathematical and moral certainty (Cambridge 1834) is further evidence of the Romantic influence upon Evangelical intellectual life and contrasts with Preyer's dismissal of the Evangelicals at Cambridge as somehow completely isolated from contemporary trends and not ‘intellectually serious’: Robert O. Preyer, ‘The Romantic tide reaches Trinity: notes on the transmission and diffusion of new approaches to traditional studies at 1820–1840’, in James Paradis and Thomas Postlewait (eds), Victorian science and Victorian values: literary perspectives, New Brunswick 1985, 44. In fact, Birks's views influenced William Whewell (1794–1866) whom Preyer identifies as an important disseminator of Romantic ideas both within Trinity College and around the wider scientific and intellectual community: Brown, ‘Evangelicalism’, 105–9.

152 Birks, Thomas R., ‘Future punishment (no. xiii)’, Contemporary Review xxxii (May 1878), 375.

153 Birks to the editor, The Record, 22 Mar. 1880.

154 Robert Bickersteth is a rare example of a premillennialist who supported the Liberal cause: Bebbington, Evangelicalism, 137; Hempton, ‘Bickersteth’.

The author thanks the anonymous reviewer for this Journal and the editors for their comments on an earlier version of this article.

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