17
Mar
2017

James Ussher: Another Irishman You Should Know

James Ussher (1581–1656) was one of the most influential Reformed theologians of the seventeenth century. He adroitly contended throughout his life against Roman Catholicism on various platforms, whether writing, preaching or debating. And even though he turned down an invitation to the Westminster Assembly for political reasons, he might well be considered the man who stands behind the Westminster Confession of Faith.

A Brief History

Ussher was born on January 4, 1580, in Dublin, Ireland to a distinguished family. His last name testified to this, as one relative was usher to King John. At the age of ten he was converted upon reading Romans 12:1, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” (KJV). He would eventually succeed his uncle, Henry Ussher, as Archbishop of Armagh.

From early on he had a special interest in history and chronology and would soon be known as the scholar who composed a biblical chronology and dated the creation at 4004 BC. This interest of his is especially evident in his work The Annals of the World.

His formal education began at the age of thirteen when he was admitted to Trinity College in Dublin. He would remain there for his entire academic career. In 1607, he received his Bachelor of Divinity and was appointed Professor of Divinity at the university where he lectured for the next 14 years. In 1613, he was made Doctor of Divinity. In 1621, he was called to the bishopric of Meath and by 1625 he was made Archbishop of Armagh, primate of the Irish church.

In 1601 he had taken up an eighteen-year study of the church fathers in order to commence his battle with the claims of the Roman Catholic Church, a battle that he would wage throughout his whole life.

Ussher contra Rome

Ussher’s family included both Protestants and Roman Catholics. His grandfather was Roman Catholic and his uncle would eventually turn to Rome as well. Later, when he was on a trip to England, his own mother became a communicant of Rome. Ussher made it a regular habit of visiting England, traveling there one summer out of every three for study and to grow his library, which some have numbered around ten thousand volumes! When he returned to Ireland, however, he tried to convince his mother to return to the Protestant fold, but she resisted. Ussher would go on to dedicate much of his life to the refutation of Rome’s dogma.

Interestingly, the Act of Uniformity required Roman Catholics to attend the worship services that Ussher led and preached at every Sunday.

Anxious to make his sermons interesting as well as persuasive, he arranged the main points of each discourse in the form of questions and answers which were repeated before the entire congregation each time by a few volunteers. Although his chief purpose in preaching was to persuade his audience to forsake their tradition, he also strengthened many Protestants by his mastery of content and sound logic.

In 1613, he penned De Christianarum Ecclesiarum Successione et Statu, which “answered Rome’s query on the state of Protestantism before Luther.” In this work, he demonstrates that Christ has always had a visible church untainted by Rome’s corruptions. His most monumental piece would come in 1631, Historia de Gotteschalci, in which he sharply points out the difference between the Roman tradition and the Protestant tradition in early Ireland. He engages such topics of issue as Scripture, purgatory, grace, justification, sacraments, the mass, and the Pope’s authority. His theological acuity in this work has led some to say that it never received even a plausible answer from Rome. In 1660, his work Historia Dogmatica Controversiae … de Scriptures et Sacris Vernaculis was posthumously published. In this book he showed that the celebration of public worship in an unknown tongue (say, Latin, as the Roman Catholic church practiced at the time) was unknown from the early church up to the 7th century. He also makes the case that from early on the people of God were always exhorted to read Scripture for themselves.

On top of writing, he was also a prolific speaker and debater. At the age of nineteen, he was chosen to debate with a Jesuit on the points of contention between Rome and Protestantism. The debate was organized with weekly engagements, but after the second round the Jesuit threw in the towel. Ussher, wanting to continue the debate, sent a letter in the spirit of David before Goliath:

[Although you contemptuously call me a mere boy], I would fain have you know, that I neither came then [to the debates] nor now do come unto you in any confidence of any learning that is in me, (… I thank God I am what I am) but I come in the Name of the Lord of Hosts … for the further manifestation whereof, I do again earnestly request you, that (setting aside all vain comparisons of Persons) we may go plainly forward, in examining the matters that rest in controversie between us.

Another debate ensued in November, 1625 in central England. At the time, Lord Mordant, a devout Catholic, and Lady Mordant, a zealous Protestant, arranged for a theological debate between Ussher and Beaumont, a Jesuit. The debate took up four points: transubstantiation, invocation of the saints, images and the visibility of the Church. After the completion of three days of debate, Beaumont conceded defeat and Lord Mordant was converted to Protestantism.

Ussher and the Westminster Assembly

The influence of James Ussher on the Westminster Assembly can be seen from two sources: the Irish Articles (1615) and his Body of Divinity (1645).

With a growing dissatisfaction with the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Irish Articles were written in 1615 and would become the doctrinal basis of the Church of Ireland for some time. These articles are strongly Calvinistic and contain a high view of Scripture. Whether or not Ussher was the principle author of them (I tend to think he was), he certainly had a strong influence on them. The Articles forged some new paths as a confessional document. “They provided the most extensive discussion of God’s decree out of any Protestant confession of faith published to that point, they were the first to set out the basics of covenant theology and they have the distinction of being the first to claim that the Pope was the Antichrist.”[2] Richard Muller comments that the Articles evidence the beginning of scholastic Protestantism. He goes on,

The date of the Articles, 1615, is significant in this regard: it follows the early orthodox systematic development and states the results of a ground gained by the dogmaticians. The actual content is little different from that of the Second Helvetic and the Belgic Confessions, but it is set forth in a clearer, more propositional fashion with more emphasis given to the issues of the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture in things necessary to salvation (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 86).

Philip Schaff further notes that the Irish Articles “are still more important as the connecting link between the Thirty-nine Articles and the Westminster Confession, and as the chief source of the latter. The agreement of the two formularies in the order of subjects, the headings of chapters, and in many single phrases, as well as in spirit and sentiment, is very striking.” A comparative study of the two documents will prove fruitful on many fronts, even at places of divergence. For example, whereas article 2 of the Irish Articles grounds the authority of Scripture on the concept of inspiration (a past action), WCF 1.4 grounds it on its nature as the Word of God (an abiding ontology).

Irish Articles 2: All which we acknowledge to be given by the inspiration of God, and in that regard to be of most certain credit and highest authority. 3. The other Books, commonly called Apocryphal, did not proceed from such inspiration, and therefore are not of sufficient authority to establish any point of doctrine

WCF 1.4: The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

The second source of influence on the Westminster Assembly comes from Ussher’s foundational text, A Body of Divinity. In his introduction to this work, Crawford Gribben recognizes it as “Puritanism’s earliest and most important volume of systematic theology” (xi). This high praise of Ussher’s work is matched by A. A. Hodge’s report that it “had more to do in forming the [Westminster] Catechism and Confession of Faith than any other book in the world; because it is well known that … this book, which he compiled as a young man, was in circulation in this Assembly among the individuals composing it” (Evangelical Theology, 76). If this is true, Gribben observes, “you could easily see how much of suggestion there is in it which was afterward carried into the Catechism–the Larger Catechism especially–of that Assembly” (xiii). A Body of Divinity can rightly be regarded as one of the foundational texts in the construction of Reformed orthodoxy.

“I Am Going Out of the World”

Ussher’s earthly service came to an end on March 21, 1656. Richard Parr preached before Ussher earlier in January of that same year. After the sermon, Ussher remarked,

I am going out of the world, and I now desire, according to your text, “To seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God,” and to be with him in Heaven; . . . [we must mortify] daily our inbred corruptions, renouncing all ungodliness and worldly lusts; and he that is arrived at this habitual frame and holy cause of life is the blessed and happy man, and [will] … receive that inheritance given by God to those that are sanctified.

His final words were spoken to his Savior: “O Lord, forgive me, especially my sins of omission.”

Oliver Cromwell insisted that he be interred at Westminster Abbey and with a public funeral (likely with personal interest in mind). The family capitulated though they could not afford it with Cromwell only paying one-fourth of the expenses. The funeral sermon was delivered by Nicholas Bernard on 1 Samuel 25:1, “And Samuel died and all Israel were gathered together, and lamented him and buried him.” Ussher was buried in the chapel of St. Erasmus in Westminster Abbey.

Rest, a Crown, and an Everlasting Habitation

As we consider the end of the life of a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, it is fitting to conclude with the final question and answer of his Body of Divinity:

How may the consideration of this doctrine, touching the end of the world and the day of Judgment, be useful to the Godly?

First, it should teach us: not to seek for happiness in this world, or set our affections on things below: for this world passeth away, and the things thereof.

Secondly, here is a fountain of Christian comfort, and a ground of Christian patience in all troubles, that there shall be an end, and a Saints hope shall not be cut off. If in this life only we had hope, we were of all men most miserable, 1 Cor. 15. 19. But here is the comfort and patience of the Saints: they wait for another world, and they know it is a just thing with God, to give them rest after their labors, 2 Thess. 1. 9. and a Crown after their combat, 2 Tim. 4. 8. and after their long pilgrimage, an everlasting habitation, 2 Cor. 5. 1. Be patient (saith the Apostle) and settle your hearts for the coming of the Lord draweth near. James 5. 7. when they that have sown in tears shall reap in joy. Psal. 126. 5. James 5. 7. Heb. 10. 36.

Thirdly, from this doctrine, excellent arguments may be drawn to press Christians to a holy life. 2 Pet. 3. 11. Seeing then all these things must be dissolved? what manner of persons ought we to be in all holy conversation, and godliness? And verse 14. Wherefore seeing ye look for such things, give diligence that you may be found of him in peace. We should always live in expectation of the Lord Jesus in the Clouds, with Oil in our Lamps, prepared for his coming. Blessed is that servant whom his master when he cometh shall find so doing: he shall say unto him; Well done good and faithful servant, enter into thy Masters joy. Luke 12. 43. Mat. 25. 21.

For Further Study


[1] Smith, Robert Worthington. “James Ussher: Biblical Chronicler.” Anglican Theological Review 41, no. 2 (April 1959): 84–94.

[2] Clary, Ian Hugh. “The Irish Puritans: James Ussher and the Reformation of the Church.” American Theological Inquiry 3, no. 1 (January 15, 2010): 175–179.

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