James Ussher and Protestant Historical Consciousness

Hugh Trevor-Roper’s essay on Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656):”(See “James Ussher, Archbishop of Armaugh,” in Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans: Seventeenth Century Essays [The University of Chicago Press, 1988], pp. 120-165)”: sheds some light on a question I’ve been concerned with for some time now: What factors in early Protestantism contributed to the rise of a pessimistic view of the history of the Church prior to the Reformation–that is, viewing that history as a long, dark decline into apostasy?If there is one thing that today Ussher is widely known for, it was his very confident dating of the original Creation at 4004 B.C. (Sunday, October 23, to be exact).:”(See this excerpt from his The Annals of the World)”: Little is usually said about the broader field of work which led him to such a precise interest in chronology, but it is that broader field of work that bears great relevance to the pessimistic Protestant view of Church history. Allow me to summarize some themes of Roper’s essay.

Ussher was born just seven years before the Spanish Armada incident (1588), after which time England felt less threatened by Spanish Catholicism without than by the growing Puritanism within. Ussher’s native Ireland, however, was awash in religious controversy, and Protestantism there was by no means secure. Much of Ussher’s education took place at Trinity College (founded 1591), which was predominately “Puritan” in outlook and Ramist in philosophical theology. Ramism was named for the French Huguenot Pierre de la Ramee, who was killed during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. The school of thought exhibited great contempt for literature and philosophy (particularly for Aristotle) and placed such an excessive emphasis on logic and analysis that it is even today known for its penchant to divide issues up into neat, tight binary dichotomies.:”(See Alastair’s post on Peter Ramus for more information.)”: Further relevant to the shaping of Ussher’s mind was the conversion to Catholicism of his uncle and two of his first cousins. Anti-catholicism, a rabid hatred of the pestis pontificia (papal pestilence) would be a major characteristic of Ussher’s work throughout his life, and he was apparently rather paranoid about the dastardly influence of “Jesuits” in impeding scholarly progress.:”(Once, after being robbed of some valuable papers by a highwayman, Ussher complained that the thief was obviously a Jesuit in disguise, deliberately out to suppress the ancient witnesses to Protestantism [Roper, pp. 154-155]. Such paranoia was, to be sure, a commonplace of that era, but it is particularly disturbing to find it in a man so influential upon Protestant historical views as Ussher.)”:

Ussher was deeply influenced by the 1556 work De Quattuor Summis Imperiis, by the German Protestant Johann Baptist Philippi (a.k.a., Sleidan).:”(A short biographical sketch of Sleidan, along with an excerpt from his works, may be found here.)”: This work, which would be widely used by Protestants as a sort of “universal history” all the way up to the 18th century, firmly established in the Protestant mind a chiliastic (Millennium-centered) interpretation of history. Focusing on the progression of four monarchies in Daniel 2, whose reigns are finally brought to an end by the “fifth monarchy” of Christ, this view was, naturally, obsessed with the fourth kingdom, identified as Rome. Sleidan’s views, though formulated in Germany during the tumultuous period leading up to the Council of Trent, were brought to England by John Bale, John Jewel, and–more significantly–John Foxe (of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs fame).:”(Note that “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs” is an extremely abbreviated version of Foxe’s famous work, Acts and Monuments, which really is an impressive work of historical scholarship. See my Report on John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments.)”:

The basic view runs like this. Christ’s earthly ministry inaugurated the fifth monarchy, or, the Millennium. For the first thousand years of the Church, as Revelation 20 foretold, Satan was bound. Around 600 A.D., the time of Mohammed and Gregory the Great, the Antichrist was born and began his evil work. During the eleventh century (the time of Pope Gregory VII) he succeeded and released Satan from the pit to deceive the nations again. This deception, of course, took the form of the dominance of the “papist” system of “idolatry” and “superstition.” The papacy had, by usurping the power of the good Christian Emperor Constantine, managed to overthrow true religion in almost all of Christendom. The oppressed Saints awaited a new Constantine to deliver them, but in the meantime, the True Religion was maintained by a progression of persecuted, marginalized witnesses: Berengar of Tours, the Waldensians, the Poor of Lyon, the Albigensians, Wycliffe, and Huss.

Most Protestants of this era accepted this basic scheme of history. During the controversies of the Puritan era, the scheme was adapted in several different directions, including the more radical Puritan idea that the True Religion had been almost entirely extirpated in the fourth century and only “recovered” in its “purity” at the Reformation–or more appropriately, with the Puritans. Ussher came to believe the basic scheme, and in the process also became convinced that Roman Catholic controversialists such as Stapleton could maintain their elaborate successionist views of history only by deliberately falsifying the historical evidence. Therefore, Ussher set himself the task of “fairly” setting out the evidence, a job which would consume his entire lifetime. Roper summarizes Ussher’s attitude toward his research: “[Once it was done], argument, he believed, would cease: the Protestant truth would be obvious to all, and the frivolous and fraudulent hypotheses of popery would simply wither away.”:”(Roper, pg. 133)”:

Ussher’s titanic scholarly labors included relentlessly ferreting out texts from wherever they could be purchased (including the sale of libraries), systematizing ancient chronologies, learning new languages, consulting every branch of the new and developing sciences, and painstakingly analyzing practically everything under the sun to make it fit into the scheme outlined above. His great goal was to assemble a Bibliotheca Theologica “which would demolish the historical foundations of Roman Catholicism.”:”(Ibid., pg. 155.)”: One of his major works, the De Christianarum Ecclesiarum…continua successione (or, On the Continuous Succession of the Christian Churches) was to contain three volumes, but ended with the second one due to other constraints in Ussher’s life. That second part, covering Church history from the eleventh century loosing of Satan to the year 1370, ended with the destruction of the Albigensians, but hopefully remarked about “others [who] turned west and found a refuge in Britain.” This would, of course, refer to Wycliffe and his disciples, who would keep the True Faith alive in Britain, though it was all-but extinguished elsewhere.

It is also from Ussher, apparently, that Protestant hagiography (truncated as it is unfortunately is!) gets its high regard for Gottschalk, the ninth century predestinarian monk who clashed with the purportedly “semi-Pelagian” doctrine of the Church of his day. Ussher, a staunch Calvinist, found himself engaged against Archbishop Laud (1573-1645), whose party was accused by Calvinists of being “Arminian.” In this context, Ussher, following the researches of G.J. Vossius of Leiden which had rediscovered Gottschalk after centuries of neglect, held Gottschalk up as a heroic defender of the ancient, pure Augustinian (and, of course, therefore obviously Calvinist) religion. In 1631, Ussher published his “History of Gottschalk and the controversies of Predestination occasioned by him,” which portrayed the Benedictine monk as a loyal follower of Augustine–and precursor of the Waldensians, Albigensians, Wycliffe, and Calvin.

In all his works, Ussher is clearly a successionist. That is, he is concerned to show a visible preservation of True Religion throughout history, and in such a way that only his own sect (Protestantism) is vindicated as the keeper of the unsullied oracles of God. Like Bishop Jewel and John Foxe in England, Ussher tried valiantly to demonstrate that True Christianity had always been maintained, entirely apart from Rome, in his corner of the British domain (Ireland). Another work, the Brittanicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates (or, Antiquities of the British Churches), issued in 1639, was later praised by the famed deist scholar Gibbon, who claimed that it contained “all that learning can extract from the rubbish of the Dark Ages.”:”(As cited by Roper, pg. 147.)”: In this work, Ussher moved from the primitive Irish Christians (established by the Apostles themselves) to the Anglo-Norman ruling class of which he himself was a part. It was they, and not the Irish per se, who had maintained the True Religion into his own day, he thought. Roper finds this odd, since the Anglo-Norman dominance, dating from the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, was in fact established with the blessing of the papacy, whom Ussher considered to be the very incarnation of evil and Antichrist.:”(Ibid., pg. 148)”:

During the last fifteen years of his life, Ussher became embroiled in controversy with the now ascendant Puritan party in England. In his efforts to defend episcopacy (not as a divine-right institution, but as a legitimate development) he incurred the formidable ire of John Milton, who contemptuously dismissed all appeals to Antiquity such as the learned ones that Ussher and others constructed. Wrote Milton of such appeals, they are “undigested heap and fry of authors which they call Antiquity.” For “Fathers,” too, are inherently suspect: “Whatsoever either Time or the heedless hand of blind Chance has drawn down to this present, in her huge drag-net, whether fish or seaweed, shells or shrubs, unpickt, unchosen, those are the Fathers.”:”(As cited by Roper, pg. 150)”:

Ussher’s historical views seem to have fallen out of favor rapidly during the period of the civil war (1642-1651), victims of the new “Arminian” dominance in the Church of England. “These were not views,” writes Roper, “that were held or could be held, by intelligent Anglicans in the mid-seventeenth century.” Indeed, Ussher’s views were left out in the cold like “decomposing remains to be the sustenance, for another century, of reactionary Puritans.”:”(Ibid., pg. 153)”: Or again, “As a coherent intellectual system, it was maintained chiefly by a wasting generation. In a moment of crisis it could be re-inflated by the vulgar fear of popery, but it had lost its own dynamism.”:”(Ibid., pg. 165.)”:

An interesting survey of a key player in the degraded form of historiography that has, for too long, dominated our Protestant consciousness.

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