Edward Irving : biography
This half-success in a subordinate sphere was, however, so far from coinciding with his aspirations that he had again, in the winter of 1821, begun to turn his attention towards missionary labour in the East, when the possibility of fulfilling the dream of his life was suddenly revealed to him by an invitation from the Caledonian Church, Hatton Garden, London, to make trial and proof of his gifts before the remnant of the congregation that held together.
Over that charge, he was ordained in July 1822. Some years previously, he had expressed his conviction that one of the chief needs of the age was to make inroad after the alien, to bring in the votaries of fashion, of literature, of sentiment, of policy and of rank, who are content in their several idolatries to do without piety to God and love to Him whom He hath sent; and, with an abruptness which must have produced on him at first an effect almost astounding, he now had the satisfaction of beholding these various votaries thronging to hear from his lips the words of wisdom which would deliver them from their several idolatries and remodel their lives according to the fashion of apostolic times.
This sudden leap into popularity seems to have been occasioned in connection with a veiled allusion to Irving’s striking eloquence made in the House of Commons by Calming, who had been induced to attend his church from admiration of an expression in one of his prayers, quoted to him by Sir James Mackintosh. His commanding stature, the symmetry of his form, the dark and melancholy beauty of his countenance, rather rendered piquant than impaired by an obliquity of vision, produced an imposing impression even before his deep and powerful voice had given utterance to its melodious thunders; and harsh and superficial half-truths enunciated with surpassing ease and grace of gesture, and not only with an air of absolute conviction but also with the authority of a prophetic messenger, in tones whose magical fascination was inspired by an earnestness beyond all imitation of art, acquired a plausibility and importance which, at least while the orator spoke, made his audience entirely forgetful of their preconceived objections against them. The subject-matter of his orations, and his peculiar treatment of his themes, no doubt also, at least at first, constituted a considerable part of his attractive influence. He had specially prepared himself, as he thought, for teaching imaginative men, and political men, and legal men, and scientific men who bear the world in hand; and he did not attempt to win their attention to abstract and worn-out theological arguments, but discussed the opinions, the poetry, the politics, the manners and customs of the time, and this not with philosophical comprehensiveness, not in terms of warm eulogy or measured blame, but of severe satire varied by fierce denunciation, and with a specific minuteness which was concerned primarily with individuals.
A fire of criticism from pamphlets, newspapers and reviews opened on his volume of Orations, published in 1823; but the excitement produced was merely superficial and essentially evanescent. Though cherishing a strong antipathy to the received ecclesiastical formulas, Irving’s great aim was to revive the antique style of thought and sentiment which had hardened into these formulas, and by this means to supplant the new influences, the accidental and temporary moral shortcomings of which he detected with instinctive certainty, but whose profound and real tendencies were utterly beyond the reach of his conjecture.
Being thus radically at variance with the main current of the thought of his time, the failure of the commission he had undertaken was sooner or later inevitable; and shortly after the opening of his new church in Regent Square in 1827, he found that fashion had taken its departure, and the church, though always well filled, was no longer crowded. By this desertion his self-esteem, one of his strongest passions, though curiously united with singular sincerity and humility, was doubtless hurt to the quick; but the wound inflicted was of a deeper and deadlier kind, for it confirmed him finally in his despair of the world’s gradual amelioration, and established his tendency towards supernaturalism.