James Ussher was one of the first students at the newly established Trinity College, Dublin. He quickly went on to become the university’s most highly regarded graduate in the seventeenth century. An early appointment as Professor of Theological Controversies largely set the tone for the rest of his life, which was dedicated to winning the denominational argument with Catholicism by making reference to history. As a product of Trinity, he was a Ramist, and his encyclopedic approach to writing reflected this approach. Ussher would gather sources together in order to frame an argument, and his knowledge of ancient literature and languages was justly admired.
Ussher is perhaps most well-known for his Annales veteris testamenti (1654) which contained a dating of creation at 4004 BC that proved resilient up until the modern era and in some cases beyond. If Ussher’s reputation suffers from this, then it is to be regretted because there is much historical work in Annales that is groundbreaking in its attention to primary sources and sedulous in its attention to detail.
KeywordsSeventeenth Century Trinity College Compromise Solution Tract Reduction Church Leader
James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland, and scholar was born in Dublin. The Usshers were a prominent Anglo-Irish family, Protestant, and well placed; his father was one of the clerks of the chancery and his uncle preceded him as Archbishop of Armagh.
Ussher entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1594 as one of its first scholars. Trinity was, from the outset, a decidedly Calvinist institution, and Ussher’s theological formation left a stamp on not only his future writings but his approach to ecclesiastical administration. Ussher was ordained in 1601 and awarded his Doctorate of Divinity in 1612. At this stage, he had already been appointed as Professor of Theological Controversies. This role meant that Ussher’s initial focus was on anti-Catholicism and his lines of attack were primarily theological and historical. Already the country’s most prominent Protestant theologian, he was largely responsible for drawing up the Church of Ireland’s Articles of Faith in 1615.
In 1621, Ussher was made Bishop of Meath and he resigned his professorship. If Ussher was a rather reluctant Church leader, he was even more indisposed to a political life. However, he did manage to continue his scholarly activities, and in 1622, he published A Discourse of the religion anciently professed by the Irish and British which sought to establish that the Celtic Church’s practices were congruent with those of the Reformed Churches. Ussher’s fortunes continued to rise and he was elevated to the See of Armagh in 1625. In spite of his promotion, Ussher continued to write, and his 1631 book on the nine-century monk Gottschalk, who advocated a theology of double-predestination, was a thinly veiled attack on the Arminianism that was establishing a hold on the English Church (Ford 2007). In 1632, he produced Sylloge veterum epistolarum Hibernicarum, an outstanding work of antiquarian scholarship which brought together sources relating to the medieval Irish Church. The educational ethos of Trinity had been Ramist; this left an impression on Ussher’s methodology which often involved him gathering his encyclopedic knowledge and collating it into well-organized categories in order to establish his points. His 1639 Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates is a history of Christianity from its arrival in Britain to the seventh century. Although inclined to be over accepting of certain legendary accounts, the work has a good deal of historical merit. Once again, Ussher’s great achievement is editorial as he managed to marshal an impressive variety of material.
Though well established as a Calvinist churchman, Ussher was also an ardent Royalist. This put him in a rather paradoxical situation in the 1630s as the two sides in the emerging civil wars can be roughly divided into Calvinist Parliamentarians and Arminian Royalists. Something of Ussher represented both sides and his tract Reduction of Episcopacy set out a compromise solution. When it emerged that few in England had much appetite for compromise, Ussher threw his lot in with the King’s cause; in 1640, he left Ireland for England, never to return (Cunningham 2007). In England, Ussher was made Bishop of Carlisle and he continued his role as mediator between the warring factions.
During the Interregnum, Ussher was one of the few bishops allowed to continue their lives largely unmolested. When he died in 1656, it is testimony to his standing among his political enemies that Oliver Cromwell paid for a state funeral (Cunningham 2007).
Ussher’s contemporary notoriety, for the most part, rests on his dating of Creation in Annales veteris testamenti (1654). The date 23 October 4004 BC remained as a footnote to the Genesis account in Bibles for many centuries. That this notoriety is now almost exclusively negative is hardly surprising, but it is also a pity. The birthday of the world aside, Annales represents a considerable academic achievement demanding the ability to manage an impressive array of sources as well as a grasp of several ancient languages. It is worth noting that he is largely accurate in the dating of other significant events.
- Ussher, James. 1847–1864. The whole works, ed. C.R. Elrington and J.H. Todd, 17 vols. Dublin.Google Scholar
- Cunningham, J.P. 2007. James Ussher and John Bramhall: The theology and politics of two Irish ecclesiastics of the seventeenth Century. Aldershot.Google Scholar
- Ford, A. 2007. James Ussher: Theology, history and politics in early-modern Ireland and England. Oxford.Google Scholar
- Snoddy, R. 2014. The Soteriology of James Ussher. Oxford.Google Scholar