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Rev. Edward Irving’s delirious congregation produced prophets of the Second Coming

Posted in Bible, Historical articles, History, Oddities, Religion, Sinners on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

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This edited article about religious fanaticism originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Edward Irving, picture, image, illustration

Rev Edward Irving the charismatic Presbyterian preacher

The gaunt preacher with the mane of black hair leant out from his pulpit and blessed the vast congregation which stared up at him in admiration. He had been preaching for three hours and, as he stepped back, he mopped at the sweat that streamed from his brow. The silence that followed was broken by a piercing shriek: “The Lord is in the midst of you!” It came from a figure writhing in a corner of the chapel. Nervous ladies scurried for the doors. The writhing ceased and the figure revealed itself as a respectable-looking young man. He advanced into the middle of the aisle and addressed them: “Why will ye flee from the Voice of God?” he demanded. “Ye cannot flee from it on the Day of Judgment.” Up in the pulpit Edward Irving, no longer the subject of attention, groaned inaudibly. Mr Taplin was prophesying again and had upstaged him for the third week in succession.

It was 1832 and religious fervour was sweeping the country. It had been sparked off by the French Revolution which had seemed to bring to an end the world as most people knew it. No sooner had the spectre of the guillotine ceased to haunt the middle-classes than Bonaparte threatened death and destruction. The relief brought by his defeat at Waterloo had lasted barely 20 years before agitation for the emancipation of Roman Catholics and for the Reform Bill seemed to presage fresh changes in the world order. To crown it all, in 1831 an epidemic of cholera had brought death to many homes. Some fearful climax to these terrors must be imminent. And a number of prophets suddenly appeared to reveal just what the climax was to be.

Many of them were associated with the Irvingites, followers of Edward Irving, a Scottish Presbyterian minister at Regent Square Chapel in London. He was a brilliant orator and regularly drew congregations of over a thousand. The tense atmosphere created by his marathon sermons seems to have encouraged members of his audience, like Mr Taplin, to “prophesy” – to babble incoherently in strange tongues, or to utter mysterious warnings. When Irving and others examined their utterances, striking similarities appeared. Their words corresponded with the writings of several mystics which had been published in Britain and the Continent. Together they indicated that the world in its present form was drawing to a close and that the Second Coming of Christ was at hand.

The most explicit prophecy was that of Robert Baxter. It coincided in many details with the forecasts of a Spanish Jew, who wrote under the name of Ben Ezra. The Second Coming, they declared, was to take place in 1,260 days commencing from July 14, 1832. This had been foretold in the Book of Revelations and in other early sources and was in some obscure way associated with the substitution in France of the Napoleonic Code of Law for that of the Roman Emperor Justinian. If the connection was not immediately apparent to the majority of Mr Irving’s congregation, the essential message of a Second Coming was nevertheless exhilarating and his most devout adherents discovered that it had a special significance for them.

They believed that the Irvingite sect, the Catholic Apostolic Church, as it came to be called, was meant to supply the heralds for the Millenium. The world had to be prepared, the message proclaimed, and they were the chosen instruments. It was a heavy responsibility and they discussed it incessantly at long, prayerful meetings in a country house in Albany Park, Surrey.

There they decided that Twelve Apostles should be appointed to travel throughout the world, expounding the prophecy and that their journey should begin on the date at which the Second Coming was due, July 14, 1836.

The next step was to choose the Twelve from amongst themselves and this they proceeded to do, naming two MPs, two former Anglican clergymen, a former Presbyterian minister, two solicitors, one doctor and four business men. A more respectable group, in their top hats and frock-coats, could not have been found. Yet it was their firm resolve to do in a few months what no other religious sect had achieved in many centuries. To make a sinful world repent.

They began by spending almost two years at Albany Park in deep meditation and study. As the day appointed for the beginning of their mission grew closer, they looked for some sign of divine approval of their task, or better still, some practical assistance such as the gift of tongues. But none came. On July 14, therefore, the Twelve Apostles donned their top hats, buttoned their frock-coats and went off into the world to proclaim the Millenium.

They had divided the world into 12 areas, “tribes” as they called them, and had each chosen the tribe of their preference. Frank Sitwell, for example, took a tribe formed from the nations of Spain and Portugal and went off by the first available boat to Lisbon.

Unfortunately, Spain and Portugal had problems of their own as well as a long-established religion. Sitwell found that public speeches made no impact on the people or their priests so he decided on a different approach. He travelled across the country staying at modest inns, engaging the customers in conversation and trying to persuade them of the imminence of the Second Coming. The Spaniards and Portuguese are polite people and listened courteously to what he had to say. Then they finished their drinks, pleaded urgent engagements elsewhere and made their escape. When he returned to Albany after six months, Sitwell had to confess that he had made little progress.

Nor had his fellow-Apostles. They had handed in letters to the Pope, the King of France and the Emperor of Austria but only in America had they made a substantial number of converts. They were not helped by the fact that notwithstanding Robert Baxter’s prophecy and the writings of Ben Ezra, the 1,260 days were long past and there was still no sign of the Second Coming.

The Apostles’ mission had been a miserable failure, and their adherents gradually fell away. There was no Edward Irving, no prophet Taplin, to retain their interest. Only in 1848, when revolution swept Europe, did enthusiasm for the sect revive; but when the uprisings had been suppressed, it waned once more. One by one, the Apostles hung up their hats and died. The power of prophecy passed to other, more radical exponents, some of whom did not wear hats at all.

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