Edward Irving, Thomas Carlyle, and the making of the ‘Victorian Prophet’
Reinhard, Randall Gene
The concept of the ’Victorian prophet’ has been used by scholars to refer to such figures as Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin as they secularised the office of the Old Testament prophet for industrialising Britain in the nineteenth century. This thesis seeks to historically contextualise this phenomenon by examining the career and influence of Edward Irving (1792-1834), a minister in the Church of Scotland who self-consciously embodied the role of prophet to the British nation. In this capacity, he interpreted disasters such as the economic crisis of 1825-26 as divine retribution for the sins of all classes, including the idolatry of wealth; he publicly warned of the terrible judgments which would follow the dismantling of Britain’s Protestant constitution through the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts and Catholic emancipation; and he appealed directly to the rulers of the land through his sermons and numerous publications. Some of the factors which allowed him to do this were: his understanding of the traditions and legacy of the Church of Scotland combined with his conspicuous position as a popular Scottish preacher in London; his (essentially Romantic) reverence for the ideal, the transcendent, and the supernatural; and his pre-millenarian eschatology. The controversies in his later career, leading to his ultimate expulsion from the Church on a charge of heresy in 1833, contributed to his sense of persecution. Irving’s influence extended beyond just the ‘religious world’ as his publications were frequently reviewed in the magazines, and events in his life were often discussed in the major newspapers. From early on, the periodical press picked up on his prophetic denunciations, though this particular aspect of his style was almost universally criticised. When some of the works of social criticism by Robert Southey, John Sterling, and John Stuart Mill were published in the late 1820s and early ’30s, they did so with some level of awareness of Irving’s career, but none more so than Carlyle, who sought to reinterpret the significance of Irving’s ‘failure’ as a prophet. For Carlyle, it was not possible to return to the outdated forms of the past, and he consequently presented himself as a secular prophet for a new age, though his criticism of British society shared many similarities with Irving’s. In addition to religious developments such as the establishment of the Catholic Apostolic Church, I argue ultimately that the complex legacy of Edward Irving includes, through the mediation of Carlyle, the creation of the ‘Victorian prophet’.