TODAY is the 225th anniversary of the birth of a Scotsman who once was one of the most famous, or infamous, men in the UK.

For the Reverend Edward Irving, a minister of the Church of Scotland, predicted in 1825 that the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would take place in the 1860s. Irving didn't live to find out his prophecy went awry, as he died in 1834.


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Absolutely not. Indeed, by the standards of some sects and so-called religions of our own times, Irving was positively saintly.

He did, however, have an uncomfortable obsession with a major part of Christian theology, namely eschatology and the apocalypse.


Born in Annan on August 4, 1872, Irving was the son of a property-owning tanner, Gavin Irving, and Mary, née Lowther whose family were also comfortably off. He was taught to read by local schoolteacher Peggy Paine, the aunt of Common Sense and Rights of Man philosopher Thomas Paine, before being sent to Annan Academy and then to Edinburgh University where his genius for mathematics was recognised on his arrival at the age of 13.

Four years later he graduated, and a year later at the age of just 18 he was appointed as master of a new academy at Haddington in East Lothian.

He got the job on the recommendation of his university tutor Sir John Leslie, one of Scotland’s greatest mathematicians and physicists.

In 1812, he took up a better paid teaching job in Kirkcaldy and started studying divinity part time at his old university, with the intention of becoming a minister. He also studied languages, science and literature.

Irving was assisted into the ministry by none other than the great practical theologian Thomas Chalmers, later the first moderator of the Free Church of Scotland, who took him on as his assistant in Glasgow.


Yes, but that did not always help him. At Haddington, one of his pupils was Jane Welsh, who later married Thomas Carlyle. Indeed, it was Irving who introduced them in 1821, and he must have done so through gritted teeth because he had fallen in love with Jane Welsh, despite having been engaged since 1812 to Isabella Martin, who then became his wife in 1823.

The first Thomas Carlyle is not to be confused with the other Thomas Carlyle, the lawyer and philosopher, who came on the scene later as we will learn.

Other friends of Irving at various stages in his life included the author Charles Lamb and poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


With Chalmers’ support, Irving began as a missionary to the poor in Glasgow’s slums, before he was called to the Caledonian Church in Hatton Garden in London where he was ordained minister in July 1822.

His impact was immediate. Such was the power of his oratory from the pulpit that Presbyterians and many people from other denominations flocked to hear his remarkable preaching.

His congregation grew so much that a new church had to be built in Regent Square, and by then Irving was a published author, his Orations having been published in 1823. He received some negative criticism, to which he replied: “I am too familiar with the endurance of Christians, from Christ downwards, to be tamed by paper warfare, or intimidated by the terrors of a goose quill.”

Theologically, however, Irving was heading down a path that would bring him into conflict with the Church of Scotland, not to mention many prominent figures in British society.

For Irving had become convinced that the Second Coming of Christ – in other words, the end of the world – was just around the corner, and he began to write and preach about the end of days. In 1825 he predicted that it would all take place in 1864, or 1868 according to some reports, and he followed this up with a series of extraordinary sermons in Edinburgh in 1828, all of an apocalyptic nature.

That same year he wrote his Doctrine of the Incarnation Opened which appeared to denigrate the human side of Christ’s nature – a great sin in the eyes of many Christians. By 1829, Irving was the central figure in the "school of prophets" which published the Morning Watch, or Quarterly Journal of Prophecy.


He couldn’t help it. He was caught up in a religious frenzy partly inspired by his own preaching which affected many people at the time, not least when he started to make claims about people “speaking in tongues”.

In any case, the Kirk had suffered enough of his wild fancies and he was deposed from his charge in London and eventually put through the Kirk’s equivalent of a trial for heresy – the charge was that he preached “the sinfulness of Christ’s humanity” - back in Scotland in 1833.

By then a group of his followers, who included the "other" Thomas Carlyle had founded the Catholic Apostolic Church. They became known as Irvingites.


Eventually. Irving contracted tuberculosis, then known as consumption, and while visiting Glasgow in late 1834 he died in the house of a stranger who had taken pity on the sick man. He was just 42, and left a widow and three young children.

He was buried in the crypt of Glasgow Cathedral, a singular honour for a very singular man.