James Ussher (sometimes spelled Usher) (4 January 1581–21 March 1656) was Anglican Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland between 1625–1656. He was a prolific scholar, who most famously published a chronology that purported to time and date creation to the night preceding 23 October 4004 BC, according to the Julian calendar, which in the Gregorian calendar would be 21 September 4004 BC.
Ussher was a gifted polyglot, entering Dublin Free School and then the newly-founded (1591) Trinity College, Dublin on 9 January 1594, at the age of thirteen (not an unusual age at the time). He had received his Bachelor of Arts degree by 1598, and was a fellow and MA by 1600 (though Bernard claims he did not gain his MA till 1601). In May of 1602, he was ordained in the Trinity College Chapel as a deacon in the Protestant, established, Church of Ireland (and possibly priest on the same day) by his uncle Henry Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
Ussher went on to become Chancellor of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin in 1605 and Prebend of Finglas. He became Professor of Theological Controversies at Trinity College and a Bachelor of Divinity in 1607, Doctor of Divinity in 1612, and then Vice-Chancellor in 1615 and vice-provost in 1616. In 1613, he married Phoebe, daughter of a previous Vice-Provost, Luke Challoner, and published his first work. In 1615, he was closely involved with the drawing up of the first confession of faith of the Church of Ireland.
After his consecration in 1626, Ussher found himself in turbulent political times. Tension was rising between England and Spain, and to secure Ireland Charles I offered Irish Catholics a series of concessions, including religious toleration, known as the Graces, in exchange for money for the upkeep of the army. Ussher was a convinced Calvinist and viewed with dismay the possibility that people he regarded as anti-Christian papists might achieve any sort of power. He called a secret meeting of the Irish bishops in his house in November of 1626, the result being the "Judgement of the Arch-Bishops and Bishops of Ireland". This begins:
The religion of the papists is superstitious and idolatrous; their faith and doctrine erroneous and heretical; their church in respect of both, apostatical; to give them therefore a toleration, or to consent that they may freely exercise their religion, and profess their faith and doctrine, is a grievous sin.
The Judgement was not published until it was read out at the end of a series of sermons against the Graces given at Dublin in April 1627. In the end, the Graces were not confirmed by the Irish parliament.
During a four-year interregnum between Lord Deputies from 1629 on, there was an increase in efforts to impose religious conformity on Ireland. In 1633, Ussher wrote to the new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, in an effort to gain support for the imposition of recusancy fines on Irish Catholics. Thomas Wentworth, who arrived as the new Lord Deputy in Ireland in 1633, deflected the pressure for conformity by stating that firstly, the Church of Ireland itself would have to be properly resourced, and he set about its re-endowment. He also settled the long-running primacy dispute between the sees of Armagh and Dublin in Armagh's favour.
Ussher soon found himself at odds with the rise of Arminianism and Wentworth and Laud's desire for conformity between the Church of England and the more Calvinistic Church of Ireland. Ussher resisted this pressure at a convocation in 1634, ensuring that the English Articles of Religion were adopted as well as the Irish articles, not instead of them, and that the Irish canons had to be redrafted based on the English ones rather than replaced by them. Theologically, he was a Calvinist although on the matter of the atonement he was (somewhat privately) a hypothetical universalist. His most significant influence in this regard was John Davenant, later an English delegate to the Synod of Dort, who managed to significantly soften that Synod's teaching regarding limited atonement.
In 1634, Ussher lost a battle to block the appointment of an Arminian as provost of Trinity College; by 1635, it was apparent that Ussher had lost de facto control of the church to John Bramhall, Bishop of Derry, in everyday matters, and to Laud in matters of policy.
The traditional view of Ussher is of a slightly-unworldly scholar, who was, at best, a mediocre politician and administrator. In reality he was an effective bishop and archbishop, and politically important; however, he was reactive and sought conciliation rather than confrontation. The story that he successfully opposed attempts to reintroduce the Irish language for use in church services by William Bedell, the Bishop of Kilmore, has been refuted .
Ussher certainly preferred to be a scholar when he could be. He engaged in extensive disputations with Roman Catholic theologians, and even as a student he challenged a Jesuit relative, Henry Fitzsimon (Ussher's mother was Catholic), to dispute publicly the identification of the Pope with the Antichrist. However, Ussher also wrote extensively on theology and ecclesiastical history, and these subjects gradually displaced his anti-Catholic work. As well as by his learning, he was also distinguished by his charity and good temper.
Ussher left Dublin for his episcopal residence at Drogheda, where he concentrated on his archdiocese and his research. In 1631, he published a Discourse on the Religion Anciently Professed by the Irish, a ground-breaking study of the early Irish church, which sought to demonstrate how it differed from Rome and was, instead, much closer to the later Protestant church. In 1639, he published the most substantial history of Christianity in Britain to that date, Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates. This account of the early Celtic church in Britain and Ireland was respected into the Twentieth Century.
During the Civil War, Ussher committed himself to the King and remained loyal, turning down an invitation to join the Westminster Assembly in 1643. He moved to Oxford, Bristol, Cardiff, and then to St Donat's. In June of 1646, he returned to London under the protection of his friend, the Countess of Peterborough, in whose houses he stayed from then on. He became a preacher at Lincoln's Inn early in 1647, and despite his royalist loyalties was protected by his friends in Parliament. He watched the execution of Charles I from the roof of the Countess of Peterborough's London house but fainted before the axe fell.
Ussher's work is sometimes associated with Young Earth Creationism, which holds that the universe was created several millennia ago. But while calculating the date of the Creation is today in some circles considered a controversial activity, in Ussher's time such a calculation was still regarded as an important task, one previously attempted by many Post-Reformation scholars, such as Joseph Justus Scaliger and physicist Isaac Newton.
Ussher's chronology represented a considerable feat of literary scholarship: it demanded great depth of learning in what was then known of ancient history, including the rise of the Persians, Greeks and Romans, as well as expertise in biblical languages and an intimate knowledge of the Bible itself. Ussher's account of historical events for which he had multiple sources other than the Bible is usually in close agreement with modern accounts - for example, he placed the death of Alexander in 323 BC and that of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.
But Ussher's last extra-biblical coordinate was the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, and beyond this point had to rely on other considerations. Faced with inconsistent texts of the Torah, each with a different number of years between Flood and Creation, Ussher chose the Masoretic version. Partly his reasons were sound scholarly ones - the Masoretic text claims an unbroken history of careful transcription stretching back centuries - but his choice was confirmed for him because it placed Creation exactly four thousand years before 4 BC, the generally accepted date for the birth of Christ; moreover, he calculated, Solomon’s temple was completed in the year 3000 from creation, so that there were exactly 1000 years from the temple to Christ, who was the fulfilment of the Temple.