As at the beginning in Britain: Michael Harper, Edward Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church.

(Originally published in Theological Renewal, 11, February 1979, 17-23.)

 John Roxborogh

 Edward Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church have always had their friends and their detractors. In this, little has changed since the early 1830s when charismatic gifts appeared in Irving’s church in London, and the Catholic Apostolic Church came into existence, not only accepting these gifts, but ordering their ministry on their understanding of the New Testament pattern to the extent of appointing apostles. Among those critical was one of the leaders of the 1970s charismatic renewal in Britain. In Let my people grow[1] Michael Harper painted a very negative picture of the parallel development which took place nearly 150 years earlier. This article takes up some of Michael Harper’s accusations, and is also concerned to examine the question of the way history is used to decide theological questions. 

The story of the MacDonald brothers of Greenock, Mary Campbell of Helensburgh, and the exercise of the gift of tongues in Irving’s church in London has been told often enough.[2] However, while the outline of events is well-known, it is more difficult to know what significance to attach to the charges of disorder and fanaticism levelled at Irving’s London congregation and at the Catholic Apostolic Church. Were these growing pains in a unique and confused situation, or confirmation of opinion that there was nothing here to be taken seriously? 


The task is not made easier by the one-sidedness of the accounts, both positive and negative. Those who wish to discredit the movement note the stories of chaotic services and odd behaviour; those more sympathetic point to the value of Irving’s theological writings, the uncertain injustice of his dismissal from the Church of Scotland, and the positive influence on the wider church of some of the ideals which the Catholic Apostolic Church embodied. A sympathetic though not uncritical account, is by Rowland A Davenport, Albury Apostles, 1970. A careful examination of the charges used to remove Irving from the Church of Scotland which also draws attention to the importance of Irving’s theology is provided by Gordon Strachan’s, The Pentecostal theology of Edward Irving. 1973. Strachan’s work makes it possible to improve the level of debate, though he might be accused of failing to explain why Irving generated the sort of reaction he did. Irving’s personality was a factor in people’s evaluation of what was going on, whatever else needs to be said. In the case of Michael Harper, Let my people grow, there seems to be little understanding shown for either Irving or the Catholic Apostolic Church. 


Not that in this Harper had taken up a new position. Twelve years earlier, in 1965 he had referred to ‘the movement associated with Edward Irving’ as having ‘unfortunate accompaniments’ and lamented that ‘the wildest fanaticism spoiled what could have been a movement of rich blessing to the churches.’[3]   


In some ways an explanation is not difficult. Harper was addressing a contemporary concern in the charismatic movement of the 1970s. In Let my people grow he wished to demonstrate that ‘We are not to look for apostles today, except in the limited sense of people who may be sent to perform specific tasks in different areas of the Christian church.’[4]  Concerned about groups wishing to restore the office of apostle and probably also worried about some preoccupations with prophecy, Harper not unreasonably saw in the history of the Catholic Apostolic Church a case study which embodied both these issues and which could serve as a useful negative example. The difficulty was that although both were associated with views similar to those Harper wished to warn people about, in other respects neither Irving nor the Catholic Apostolic Church quite fitted the picture Harper wished to depict. Trying to convey distaste for people’s theology by cataloguing other failures is always a dubious procedure, but in this case it was also one that caused offence to people living who had been brought up in the Church those people had founded. 


His section on the Catholic Apostolic Church began with the comment that there ‘have been a few who have seen this nineteenth-century movement as a precursor of the twentieth century Pentecostal movement’.[5]  It appears that he wished to convey the impression that he was not one of the few - but why not? It is true that some of the lines of development in the wider Pentecostal story are independent, but once one knows something about Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church it is difficult to see how it cannot be regarded as an important element in the history.  


Also, from this same paragraph, it is not really correct to say that the Catholic Apostolic Church ‘died’ in 1901 with the passing of the last remaining apostle.[6]  It was at least 60 years later before congregations had ceased to meet. In the 1980s many who had been members of the church were still alive.[7] 


Edward Irving is of peripheral relevance to the question of apostles which concerned him, yet Harper devoted half of his treatment of the Catholic Apostolic Church to Irving and what happened in Irving’s church before the Church came into existence. The comments are almost entirely unfavourable, as if this would somehow support Harper’s views about the Catholic Apostolic Church and apostles. 

Thus we learn that Mary Campbell after moving to London ‘on occasions . . . interrupted Irving’s sermons with her gift of tongues’ and when Irving permitted the gifts of the Spirit to be exercised in worship services they were ‘manifested in a disorderly fashion, mostly by women, who were not averse to interrupting sermons in voices that were not their own.’[8] Harper wrote that ‘The possibility that the movement in its initial stages had satanic aspects needs to be taken seriously, not only because of the way in which the gifts were manifested in the services, but also because of information we have about Mary Campbell, who testified amongst other things to automatic letter writing.’[9] 


It is true that Mary Campbell claimed to write as well as speak in tongues, and some of her behaviour was not above criticism, but it is hardly fruitful to pursue unsubstantiated allegations of demonic influences at this distance. This seems to be mentioned simply to build the negativity of association without looking at the evidence. Harper did not need this to support his views on apostles.  


In any case it was not simply because of disorder in some services that Irving was dismissed, but because of the technically correct charge that contrary to the trust deed of the church he permitted unqualified people to participate in the services. To talk of disorder and interruptions without mention of whether this was typical or something temporary is not fair. At Irving’s trial and dismissal by the London Presbytery[10] he was supported by the majority of the congregation who then left with him to form a new church. In evidence, not accepted because it was too late, they submitted: ‘That although, at first, there were unseemly disturbances in the church, arising not from the people of the flock, but from strangers, it soon, by the divine blessing passed away, and the worship of God has, for many months past, continued to proceed with the utmost regularity and order.’[11] 


The petitioners claimed to speak ‘for ninety-five percent of the congregation in their expressed opposition to the action of the trustees’[12] who had brought Irving to trial before the Presbytery. The major problem was not people learning how to exercise spiritual gifts in a service of worship, but crowds in the galleries who came to mock. As the congregation under Irving’s leadership broke new ground, what ought to be surprising is not that there were examples of services not going according to plan, but the way in which Irving strove to integrate the exercise of spiritual gifts into a regular pattern of worship.[13] 


Harper accuses Irving of being ‘increasingly anti-intellectual and naive about gifts.[14] There is some fair comment in this, but it does not account for the theological contribution Irving made to working through the issues. He and others who had come to believe that the gifts of the Spirit were to be expected in the life of the church had moved cautiously. The gifts were sought because of a theological position arrived at over a period of time. This was not an experience in search of a theology, though the experience certainly led them to test their theology. When there was news of speaking in tongues in the West of Scotland their response was hesitant. When the gifts came to London, they were at first kept within the confines of prayer meetings and only with reluctance Irving permitted their exercise in worship providing a specific point in the service for this.[15]  It took time to formalize a pattern that safeguarded against the abuses to which any form of open worship is liable, but in the traditions of the Catholic Apostolic Church this integration of the formal and the open reached a high degree of sophistication. 


Before leaving Irving, Harper commented that ‘he was undoubtedly guilty of heresy concerning his teaching about Christ’s humanity, although it would not cause the slightest ripple in the permissive theological climate of today’.[16] This is debatable. It may have been a common view, but at the time Harper was writing Irving’s theology was better appreciated. It had long been recognized that he was accused of saying what he never did concerning Jesus’ potential sinfulness. Flaws in critics don’t make the subject of their criticism right, but it is fair to note that H R Mackintosh observed many years ago that ‘no reader of the history of the case will deny that more than one argument on which his ecclesiastical condemnation rested was gravely docetic in its implications.’[17] If Irving’s Christology may be now acceptable, it is not because of a permissive theological climate, but because it is seen as a fair statement of the humanity and divinity of Christ. In relation to the charismatic movement itself, Irving’s writings are of significance not least because they indicate a way in which the acceptance of charismatic gifts can be seen to be a legitimate part of a Reformed theological tradition.[18] Irving ought never be held to be the last word, nor anyone else, but dismissing his work in the way that Harper has done is writing off a basis of theological credibility which the modern charismatic movement, should not lightly cast aside. 


Irving died in 1834 when the Catholic Apostolic Church was still evolving. Their uniqueness lay in many things, not just the appointment of twelve apostles as leaders. It is true these were a distinctive feature, but it is unfair to say that apostles were the ‘obsession of the movement’.[19] Rightly or wrongly, over a period of time and in consequence of a number of prophecies, this is what people believed they were called to do. Apostles were not intended as some species of sympathetic magic that would precipitate the second coming. It was only after they came to believe in the imminence of the return of Christ that they came also to believe that they were called to restore a form of apostolate. 


Harper asserts that ‘only two conclusions can possible be reached about the Catholic Apostolic Church, that it was either naive or pretentious’.[20]  Such a choice is invidious, but his opting for ‘self-deceived perhaps, but not naive’ is little more generous. A matter of fact statement that they were wrong about apostles and that this indicates that people who experience the Holy Spirit do make mistakes would be a helpful way of owning the movement and its fallibility, as well as a lesson for the present. This would be both truer to the history and more useful. If it is at all true that the Catholic Apostolic Church ‘contained many of the worst features of a charismatic movement’[21] it might also be added that it contained many of the best. Credit needs to be given for the positive influence of the Catholic Apostolic liturgy on worship in the Church of Scotland, to cite but one positive outworking of their vision.[22] 


The accusation that the Catholic Apostolic Church was sectarian has some plausibility; but again this does scant justice to its ideals. They consistently, and not just ‘often’[23] claimed that they were a movement within the churches and numbers who were involved retained their membership in other denominations. Their choice of name described for them the church in general, not just themselves. They were not exclusive[24] and certainly not exclusively upper class. Despite some wealthy supporters, the apostles were not ‘all members of the landed gentry, rich, self-sufficient and socially “upper class”’.[25] One apostle was of the landed gentry, one a wealthy banker, several had been ministers in the Church of Scotland or the Church of England.[26] Their churches were not ‘always in the wealthy parts of the country to match the social standing of the leadership’[27]; they were strong in the industrial Midlands[28] and working class members were probably as well represented among them as in many other churches. It was because they saw themselves as a church within the Church that they worked within the traditional churches and sent their evangelists to them rather than as missionaries to the heathen. Yet they did not neglect general evangelism at home. In 1835 their congregation in Edinburgh was about 400 strong and increasing by about 40 per year. Two-thirds were of the ‘poor and working classes’ and £250 pa was given to the poor. The minister and deacon, together with eight evangelists preached ‘throughout the city and neighbourhood and occasionally in more distant places’.[29] 


To say of the Catholic Apostolic Church that ‘their most baneful legacy . . . is in the area of eschatology’[30] appears to depreciate the place of eschatology generally as well as to ignore the fact that the Catholic Apostolic interest in prophecy and its interpretation was part of a much wider movement[31] which among other things had earlier helped produce the modern era of missions.[32]  Their part in this movement, taken as a whole, was rather more creditable than making mistakes about the end of the world and having the embarrassing courage of such convictions to state them. One may not share the degree of interest in these questions they showed, or the principles of biblical interpretation which they employed; but do not many err also by ignoring this area of Christian belief altogether, and does not the Catholic Apostolic Church have something to teach us in the way its forebears methodically searched the scriptures and sought to reach a common mind on the issue as they did in their annual conferences at Albury from 1826 to 1830? Harper was not justified in insinuating that the ‘dominant eschatology of the famous “Bible Belt” of America’[33] is a legacy that can be laid at their door. They certainly shared the interest in the second coming which can be found in the early Brethren, but even there links are tenuous and the relationship is probably only parallel.[34] 


All churches and movements have made and do make mistakes, have contained and do contain people who have acted in ways that compromise what they profess to stand for. Human failure always provides convenient ammunition for those who wish to discredit sets of beliefs without going to the trouble of examining the issues and truth of the accusations. Odd behaviour may properly make one circumspect in evaluating the teaching of a group or individual, but at the end of the day it does not determine its value.  


All movements suffer from the cataloguing of horror stories as a method of theological debate. It is an abuse Christians ought to renounce. It is a temptation because it takes time to find out what really happened and as soon as one enters the complexities of human motivation the illustrations we wanted to support our point of view can often melt away. What is lost by our short cuts is not only the truth about the past, but also the ability to learn truth about ourselves. We are also prone to errors of judgement, whatever spiritual experiences we may have had. However we are the more likely to learn wisdom by seeing what we have in common with those who took risks, made judgements and sometimes got it wrong, than by distancing ourselves from people portrayed as worse than they really were in an effort to convince us of the foolishness of their ideas. Identification with other groups and movements is a route towards the growth of our own spiritual discernment and learning, but exercises in indignation and prejudice are a substitute for thought which tell us little more than somebody thinks somebody else was not only wrong but also bad. The lack of sympathy in Harper’s accounts is sad reading. 


Of course it is a failure it is easy to exhibit in the very act of drawing attention to the fact. While history does need to be used to bring up both the failures and the achievements from the past so that we can learn from both, Michael Harper was not particularly worse than many others in the way he used a distorted pictures of people and movements to make points which could have been better made on other grounds. Michael Harper, like Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church, is someone we need to identify with in his concern to know what God wanted and convince people about it. All are models of adventures in faith we can learn from even if some of their judgements along the way did not always get it right. In a later edition of Let my people grow, the offending passages that originally caused this article to be written, were removed.

 John Roxborogh, August, 2003. 

[1] London, 1977.

[2] For example: Rowland A Davenport. Albury Apostles, United Writers, Great Britain, 1970. Gordon Strachan, The Pentecostal theology of Edward Irving, London, 1973. Gordon Strachan, ‘Theological and cultural origins of the nineteenth century Pentecostal movement’, Theological Renewal, I, 1975. pp17-28. H C Whitley, Blinded Eagle. London. 1955.

[3] As at the beginning, London, 1965.

[4] Let my people grow. p234.

[5] Ibid p193.

[6] Ibid pI94.

[7] There were thirty-five churches still in operation in 1947. By 1965 this had reduced to six. R K Jones, ‘The Catholic Apostolic Church: a study in diffused commitment’, in Michael Hill (et al). A sociological yearbook of religion in Britain. 5. London. 1972, p157.

[8] Let my people grow, p194.

[9] Ibid.

[10] The trial of the Rev Edward Irving before the London Presbytery, London, 1832. There are extracts in Strachan, Pentecostal Theology, pp151-185.

[11] Strachan, Pentecostal theology. p17.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Irving’s testimony was: ‘When I saw that it was my duty to take this ordinance into the church, I then considered with myself what was the way to do it . . . so as to cause the least anxiety, the least disturbance . . .. I did it feeling my way in a matter where I had no guidance; and I did it according to the best records of ecclesiastical antiquity for I was at great pains to consult the best records in this matter.’ Ibid. p38.

[14] Let my people grow. p195.

[15] Gordon Strachan, ‘Pentecostal worship in the Church of Scotland, part 2’, Liturgical Review. November 1973, pp34-6. Trial. p3f.

[16] Let my people grow, p195.

[17] H R Mackintosh, The doctrine of the person of Jesus Christ. Edinburgh. 1912, p276.

[18] Church of Scotland General Assembly, May 1974, Report of the panel on doctrine. “The charismatic movement within the Church of Scotland.”

[19] Let my people grow. p196.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] W D Maxwell, A history of worship in the Church of Scotland, London, 1955, p175. Prayers for the Christian year. General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, London. 1935, An interesting example can be seen in the ministry of John Macleod of Govan Parish, Glasgow. A L Drummond and J Bulloch, The Church in Late Victorian Scotland 1874-1900, Edinburgh, 1978, pp205-214.

[23] Let my people grow, pl96.

[24] R K Jones. ibid., p149.

[25] Let my people grow, p197.

[26] R A Davenport, ibid., pp110-113.

[27] Let my people grow, p197.

[28] R K Jones, ibid., pp154-157.

[29] First report of the Commissioners of Religious Instruction, Scotland, 18th April 1837, Appendix. pp58-61.

[30] Let my people grow. p197.

[31] For a survey and critique see Iain H Murray, The Puritan Hope. A study in revival and the interpretation of prophecy. Edinburgh, 1971.

[32] J A De Jong, As the waters cover the sea. Millennial expectations in the rise of Anglo-American missions 1640-1810. Kampen, 1970. 34.

[33] Let my people grow. p197.

[34] Timothy C F Stunt, ‘Irvingite Pentecostalism and the early Brethren’, Journal of the Christian Brethren Research Fellowship. 10, December 1965, pp40-48.