The Charismatic Movement of 1830

(John Roxborogh, Charismatic Tea, General Assembly, Wellington, 4 November 1980, revised 2003).

 A striking omission in Walter Hollenweger’s monumental work, The Pentecostals was his failure to mention Edward Irving, the origins of the Catholic Apostolic Church, or indeed anything at all concerning the movement, which began in the West of Scotland when one Mary Campbell spoke in tongues late in March 1830. It is an omission still shared by the many who trace the modern movement only to events in America around the beginning of last century, and ignore the influence of what occurred in Britain seventy years earlier.

 This is of special concern to those within the Reformed theological tradition who became associated with the Charismatic Movement in the late 20th century. While the importance of North American Pentecostalism must be acknowledged, the theological framework provided by people such as A J Scott, John McLeod Campbell and Edward Irving, who based their theology within a Reformed tradition also needs to be explored. The Catholic Apostolic Church, which developed their teaching and practice, also needs to be examined for its significance for the modern Charismatic Movement.

 About the same time as Mary Campbell received the gift of tongues, two brothers, James and George MacDonald also had an experience which they described as “being endowed with the power of the Holy Ghost. “ Through James, their sister Margaret and Mary Campbell also experienced healing.

 These events arose out of expectations created by the preaching of John McLeod Campbell of Row and the ideas of a young Church of Scotland licentiate, A J Scott. News of what had happened created considerable interest some sympathetic, some sceptical. Among the more open minded was Thomas Chalmers who wrote from Edinburgh seeking more information. McLeod Campbell replied on 28 April 1830:

The first fact in date is the gift of tongues. Mary Campbell, before her restoration to health, twice or three times (I am not sure which) at intervals of some days - spoke with what appeared to those around her “other tongues”... Mary does not understand the languages which she speaks. When praying in them she feels much nearness to God and sensible communion with him - but not distinct intelligent association of ideas with the several words. She described to me the first reception of the gift as if something were just poured into her and made to pass through her lips without volition.”

Two other individuals, two brothers, McDonalds, shipbuilders or carpenters in Port Glasgow have also received the same gift. They speak freely and ... nothing could be more striking than the contrast of the animated and apparently eloquent manner of their utterance and gesture as contrasted with the soberness and awkwardness I may say of their natural manner. ...The gift of interpretation seems to have been also to some extent given to one of these brothers. ... Whether these things are what they seem to be and whether such things may - yea ought to be in the church are distinct questions.”

 Campbell, like a number of others including Edward Irving had come to be convinced by the arguments of A J Scott that the gifts of the Spirit recorded in the New Testament had not been withdrawn from the Church because they were unnecessary outside the Apostolic era, but through lack of faith in the right of God’s gift they had been “unsought and unenjoyed.”

 Shortly after hearing from Campbell, Chalmers travelled to London and took the news to Irving who had earlier been his assistant in Glasgow. Expectation among people around Irving was heightened among a number who had been praying for the restoration of the gifts of the Spirit. On April 30 1831, a Mrs Cardale spoke in tongues at a prayer meeting in her London home. In November a Miss Hall rushed out of the service at the Scotch National Church, Regent Square where Irving was minister and was heard speaking in tongues in a loud voice in the vestry.

 The Morning Herald a few days later reported that the next day a large crowd gathered “in consequence of the strange scene” which had taken place on the Sunday, but “no tongue more remarkable than that of the Reverend Mr Irving himself was heard.” Irving sought to give an explanation or tongues in the early church and made it clear “that no person with whose spiritual qualifications he was not well acquainted would be allowed to display the gift of tongues before the congregation.”

 In the weeks following reporters were present when people spoke in tongues in the service, but found the “manifestations of the Spirit” a severe strain on their shorthand and one confessed to having made “sad work of the orthography.”

 Whatever suggestions might now be produced from the devotional records of people like Wesley, and Samuel Rutherford that experiences comparable to these were not after all so unprecedented since the time of the apostolic church, healing, prophecy and tongues were now becoming part of the life of a leading London congregation. The questions asked by Campbell “whether these things are what they seem to be and whether “such things may - yea ought to be in the church” became a public issue. It is difficult to underestimate the difficulties that all involved were faced with.

 For centuries it had been common both to defend miracles and miraculous gifts of the Spirit in the early church and to deny them outside the apostolic era. Scriptures dealing with tongues were taken to refer to known human languages and were expounded to highlight the value of ministers learning Hebrew and Greek as well as the folly of conducting services in Latin. The teaching of George Hill at the University of St Andrews was representative:

“You read of the word of wisdom - i.e., a clear comprehensive view of the Christian scheme – the word of knowledge, probably the faculty of tracing the connexion between the Jewish and the Christian dispensation - prophecy, either the applying of the prophecies in the Old Testament, or the foretelling future events healing... the gift of discerning spirits i.e., perceiving the true character of men ... so as to be able to detect impostors.”

 The purpose of these gifts was “to rouse the attention of the world to a new religion”, and because they were related to special occasions, they were “gradually withdrawn as the occasions ceased,” so that by the fourth century “only some vestiges of such gifts remained.” 

“There is no promise in Scripture of any future age like that which ushered Christianity and if stated teachers were required even in that first age ... it should seem that they will be more necessary in all succeeding ages, when his extraordinary gifts are withdrawn, and when, notwithstanding the pretensions of the early Quakers, or of the multifarious sects of modern times founded on the principles of fanaticism, Christians have no warrant from scripture to expect any other than that continued influence of the Spirit by he ‘helpeth our infirmities.’” 

If this teaching was to be challenged, whoever did so would be faced with a charge of fanatacism, no matter how they behaved. Hill wrote out of a dread of enthusiasm common to his era and moderate churchmanship, but it was not without reason that he and many others instinctively saw claims to have the Holy Spirit in a very negative light. 

By 1830 Edward Irving had already become a controversial figure. In 1822 he had taken fashionable London by storm. Although interest faded with the passage of time and his growing millenarianism, a large attentive congregation attended his ministry at the Scotch National Church Regent Square. Kirk Session and Congregation had stood by him when the Presbytery of London sought to suspend him for his teaching on the humanity of Christ that Jesus had sinful flesh. Now their services were disturbed by bizarre and unprecedented interruptions and a crowd of less than sympathetic sightseers. It is hardly to be wondered at that a stable pattern of worship was not arrived at overnight. 

The problems Irving faced were considerable. Given that he believed these gifts were given by God, how much right did he have to control their use? If it was the Holy Spirit in his sovereignty who had bestowed prophecy and tongues and interpretation on women who was he to prevent their exercise? It would have been surprising if some things had not gone wrong, and Irving moved much more cautiously than he has usually been given credit for.

“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. “

The questions asked by John McLeod Campbell following the experiences of Mary Campbell and James and George MacDonald, “Whether these things are what they seem to be and whether such things may - yea ought – to be in the church,” became even more relevant when prophecy, healing and tongues became matters of general debate. In April 1832 Edward Irving was put on trial by the Presbytery of London.

 Irving had moved cautiously, but it was asking a lot of his congregation to accept these developments without dissension. Not all were convinced of the validity of the claims made; some of the behaviour of those most directly involved was questionable, and even some who were basically sympathetic did not find the results of the movement easy to live with. Thomas Chalmers had been Irving’s senior minister ten years earlier and kept up cordial relations despite doubts about Irving’s judgement. He had brought Irving news of Mary Campbell and throughout his life remained open-minded on the gifts of the Spirit. However, in October 1831, his wife Grace wrote to a friend about an old family servant who had got involved. “It has brought her from being a serious pious woman into a state of temporary insanity . . . this cannot be from the Lord.”

 The Scottish Evangelical periodical, The Edinburgh Christian Instructor, was not alone in being quite convinced that not only the behaviour of individuals, but the very notion that the gifts of the Spirit might still be in operation, was indeed far from being “from the Lord.” Some reviewers felt that Irving’s writings were so ludicrous that it was merely necessary to quote them to demonstrate his folly. A major change in the thinking of the Christian public would have been necessary to accept Irving’s teaching. His writing on the subject may have been well thought out and relatively free from the overblown rhetoric that marked some of his other discourses, but he made little headway.

 In the Church of Scotland both Evangelical and Moderate condemned him out of hand. His claim to have rediscovered spiritual gifts was seen as just another one of a series of pretentious heresies particularly his absurd and certainly incautious, language about Jesus having “sinful flesh”.  For Irving however, his Christology and his teaching about the Holy Spirit went together. Jesus had faced real temptation in his humanity just as we do. The potential for sin was just as real as in any other person, but by the continued influence of the Holy Spirit, sinlessness was maintained. That same pattern of God’s grace operated for the Christian.

 Irving consistently maintained that he never taught what his critics continually accused him of, namely that Jesus did commit sin. However to many what he appeared to say spoke more convincingly than what he denied. Although more recent theologians may see the essential orthodoxy of his teaching about the humanity of Jesus, in 1831 the heat from this dispute was sufficient to guarantee a suspiciousness of mind certain to reject any other novel theological suggestions Irving might make.

 The Session of his church at Regent Square was by late 1831 in an unenviable position. Their great affection, “almost amounting to idolatry”, for Irving personally, was not sufficient to override their judgement that he nevertheless could not remain minister of their church.

 The crunch came early in 1832 with a letter in which Irving sought to formalize the exercise of spiritual gifts in the normal worship of the church. The General Assembly, which normally would have acted in such a case concerning a minister of the Church of Scotland, was powerless to do so “because London was out side its boundaries. The London Presbytery could act, but when they had sought to discipline Irving over his Christology the church had withdrawn from their jurisdiction. In the event the church decided to return to the fold of presbytery and accept its earlier judgement so that it could obtain a decision in its new dilemma.

 On 26 April Irving’s trial before the presbytery began. In late evidence a petition submitted that “although at first, there were unseemly disturbances in the Church, arising not from the people of the flock but from strangers, ... the worship of God has, for many months past, continued to proceed with the utmost regularity and order.” Even if this had been admitted it could have hardly altered the view that Irving, whatever the merits of his case, was in breach of the terms of his appointment and the trust deed of the church in that he “permitted and publicly encouraged the exercise of certain supposed supernatural gifts by persons neither ministers nor licentiates of the Church of Scotland.”

 On the 2nd of May the Presbytery determined that Irving was unfit to remain the minister of the National Scotch Church. The Times the next day was not alone in celebrating that “the blasphemous absurdities” had been “brought to an effectual conclusion.”

 It was not, of course, the end. On 13 March 1833 Irving voluntarily appeared before his home presbytery of Annan. They deposed him from the ministry as they had been instructed to do by the 1832 General Assembly. His dismissal coincided with the coming into being of the Catholic Apostolic Church into which he was ordained angel or pastor in April 1833. It comprised many who had shared his millennial interests from the mid 1820s and a large number of those who had left the Regent Square congregation with him. However his health began to fail and on 7 December 1834 he died in Glasgow, visited frequently by John McLeod Campbell.

 It is often said, incorrectly, that the Catholic Apostolic Church was founded by Irving, though certainly it came to embody many of his teachings, millennial as well as relating to spiritual gifts. However his leadership role in the new church was minimal. The term Catholic Apostolic was used because they believed this was a true description of the church at large, not just of themselves. Rightly or wrongly they revived the office of apostle, but because of their expectation of the return of Christ they precluded the possibility that those in office could be replaced.

 Given this understanding it was almost inevitable that the church would die out, yet it lasted far longer than might have been imagined and its influence has been immense. Apart from breakaway groups who restored leadership to provide for continuity, and churches such as the Apostolic Church in New Zealand who have been inspired by the faith, ideals and culture of the Catholic Apostolic Church and its origins, as a separate group it has ceased. However in 1947 there were still 35 churches in Britain, by 1965 the number was down to six, and by 1980 although there were no Catholic Apostolic Churches operating as such, many of their buildings still existed and many members were still alive, including a number in New Zealand.

 The church was founded on a noble vision. It took the words Catholic and Apostolic very seriously. They developed an elaborate liturgy that allowed a defined place for the exercise of tongues and and formal methods for recording and testing prophecy. A number of ministers of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland have been members of the Catholic Apostolic Church, including John McLeod of Govan. Harry Whitely, the minister of st Gile’s, Edinburgh, during the 1960s, had been brought up in the church and paid tribute to its influence in his lively assessment of Irving, Blinded Eagle. In a wonderful irony, the liturgy of the Church of Scotland drew on the Catholic Apostolic liturgy (even if it ignored tongues and prophecy) and acknowledgement of the debt can be found in the preface to the 1935 edition of Prayers for the Christian Year.

 There was an atmosphere in Catholic Apostolic worship which we can learn from. One who was brought up in the church wrote “One thing that remains with me above all else is the sense of holiness, reverence, order and oneness of mind in worship and in the use and practice of gifts of the Spirit - prophecy and tongues, discernment and healing.”

 The Catholic Apostolic Church has had a bad press from some such as Michael Harper in Let my people grow; yet whatever the failings of Irving and others, they had done their theological homework and they were concerned to go on controlling their experience by their theology as well as enriching their theology from their experience. Irving brought the experience of the Christian close to the experience of Jesus himself. He had a profoundly Trinitarian understanding of God, and realised that although a high price might in the end have to be paid, the worship of the Christian community could not remain unaffected by the operation of the Spirit.

Perhaps Irving’s greatest failure was that he took himself too seriously, and could not see how he inevitably appeared to others. A sense of humour might have proved a saving grace. It is a difficult thing to change the church, - even if you happen to be right.

 When Irving’s friend, Campbell was deposed by the General Assembly in May 1831 the Chief Clerk of the Assembly was heard to declare “These doctrines of Mr Campbell will remain and flourish long after the Church of Scotland has perished and is forgotten.” A voice was heard to remark, “This spake he not of himself, but being high priest he prophesied.”

 Time will tell.

Originally published as John Roxborogh “The Charismatic Movement of 1830: a reassessment after 150 years,” Paraclete, 18, December 1980, 11-12 and 19, April 1981, 10-11.


Chalmers papers, New College, Edinburgh.

John Roxborogh “As at the beginning in Britain: Michael Harper, Edward Irving and the Catholic Apostolic Church,” Theological Renewal 11, February 1979: 17-23.

Gordon Strachan, The Pentecostal Theology of Edward Irving, DLT, 1973.