Edward Irving was a controversial and often conflicted preacher. His important legacy is the recognition of the continuance of New Testament spiritual gifts, including speaking in tongues. The Catholic Apostolic Church, the denomination founded by Irving in 1833, was the culmination of his theological evolution, transitioning from an ordained Calvinist in the Church of Scotland, to the pastor of a large group of England’s social and ruling elite to the leader of working-class revivalism.
The fervent preacher was educated at Scotland’s Edinburgh University and pursued post-graduate studies in preparation for entry into the ministry, learning French and Italian and reading extensively 16th and 17th Century theology, which he mimicked in his early pulpit ministry. His clerical success in Scotland was limited, and he accepted an invitation in 1822 to become pastor of the 15-member Caledonian Chapel in Hatton Garden, London. The sermons that had been perceived as pretentious by parishioners in Scotland were now viewed as powerfully engaging to London audiences, and the chapel began to fill on Sundays with hundreds of spectators. Irving attained a certain amount of fame and was introduced to London society through a growing network of enthusiasts. In 1823, George Canning, foreign secretary, observed in a speech before the House of Commons that the most eloquent preaching he had ever heard was at Irving’s Caledonian Chapel. Irving’s services were also patronized by the wealthy Mrs Basil Montagu, and Irving received invitations to Samuel Taylor Coledridge’s Highgate residence (Brown). Early in his pulpit career, Irving believed that true national revival was going to be affected through his influence with this circle of prominent people.
In the mid-1820s, Irving developed an interest in prophecy and postulated about the pre-millennial sequence of final events, including the destruction of the Church, the rise of Jews in Palestine, the return of Christ, and the establishment of the 1,000 year reign of Christ and the saints. In time, he developed a dismal hopelessness about the prospects of Christianity in Britain, and his sermons and writings were filled with castigations against the lethargic Church and dire warnings of impending judgment and tribulation, hearkening back to the zealous sermonizing of the early Puritans. Titles like A Discourse on the Evil Character of These Our Times Proving to be the “Perilous Times” of the “Last Days”  and Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed of God  epitomize Irving’s apocalyptic slant.
In 1830, Irving began hearing reports of strange spiritual manifestations at the church of a friend in Rhu, Scotland. John Macleod Campbell’s congregation was experiencing outbreaks of fervent worship, prayer, and phenomena like quaking and speaking in tongues. Initially, Irving was skeptical, but he became persuaded that this may be a further sign of the end times. On 30 October 1831, a parishioner burst forth speaking in tongues at Irving’s London church. Though Irving silenced the expression, many in the congregation were disturbed. By November, Irving had fully accepted and allowed the free manifestation of speaking in tongues and interpretations in his church. The decision to accept the charismatic gifts of the New Testament distanced Irving from more intellectual and prominent parishioners, who began to leave the church en masse (Brown).
Later that year, Irving published a treatise on the subject of the baptism of the Holy Ghost, identifying tongues as a sign of spiritual baptism and a mechanism of prophecy. The work is clear, and systematically sets forth a new theological position on the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Irving, antecedent to Charles Parham’s Apostolic Faith Movement by a full fourscore years, posits that speaking in tongues is evidential of the infilling of the Spirit:
These remarks are of the utmost importance, not only as confirming and entirely establishing the doctrine as to what the baptism of the Holy Ghost is not, but also for an end of charity, which, though I have kept it out of view, lest it should warp the reader’s judgment, I have had fully in my mind-namely, for preventing the church from falling into despair upon the discovery that she possesseth not the baptism with the Holy Ghost, whose standing sign, if we err not, is the speaking with tongues (Irving 28).
He identifies a falling away from Apostolic truths after the first three centuries and writes of recent ecclesiastical history: ” . . . we have no signs of the Holy Ghost’s baptism, nor tokens of an indwelling Father, to produce” (Irving 28). He prophetically challenges the Church to accept the work of the Holy Spirit and fears for the future of those who reject His manifestation:
My heart is exceeding heavy while I indite [sic] these things; for I feel assured that the time is near when the church in these lands shall be brought to this perilous test. We shall ere long have lifted up amongst us the full manifestation of the Holy Ghost, which is already present in the speaking with tongues; and when to this are added the other manifestations (and the time, I believe, is not distant), then things are come to a crisis with the church; and she must either decide for the Holy Ghost or against him, for her own salvation or her own perdition for ever and ever. It is the sense of this near and unknown crisis which chiefly moveth me to put forth these views of the baptism of the Holy Ghost; that, by the grace and mercy of God, I may do my part to prevent the overhanging ruin, and lead many, if not all, away from the brink of perdition unto the green pastures and still waters of peace and truth and love. (Irving 109)
Irving’s theology placed him outside of the Calvinist tradition of the Church of Scotland, and he was indicted on charges of heresy on 13 March 1833. He returned to London and formed the Catholic Apostolic Church. The new church’s nomenclature demonstrates Irving’s commitment to recovering universal, New Testament faith. While the influence of Irving and his group ultimately proved to be limited, they were unquestionably theological forerunners of the early Pentecostal movement. As contemporary Apostolics, we can integrate Irving’s legacy into a history of the Holy Ghost’s workings throughout history, and we must admire Edward Irving for his theological commitment to groundbreaking truth, an allegiance which cost him the fellowship of revered clergy and affluent society. He counted the cost and is recorded in history as a man of conviction and passion equal to the task of non-conformity and spiritual rediscovery.
Irving, Edward. The Day of Pentecost, or the Baptism of the Holy Ghost. London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1831.