Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by Edmund K. Chambers
James Ussher (15811656)
[James Ussher was born at Dublin on the 4th of January 1581. He was nephew of Henry Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, and of Richard Stanihurst, translator of four books of the Æneid. At the age of thirteen he was admitted as the second on the roll of scholars of the newly-founded Trinity College, Dublin. Subsequently he became Fellow of the same Society. At the death of his father in 1598, he abandoned most of the property that came to him, and devoted himself to study. From 1601 to 1619 he read the fathers daily. He became famous as a theologian and antiquary, and was the friend of Camden, Selden, Cotton, and Evelyn. In 1607 he was made Professor of Divinity at Dublin, in 1620 Bishop of Meath, and in 1625 Archbishop of Armagh. In 1640 he crossed the Channel to live in England, where he died on the 21st of March 1656.
Usshers magnum opus is his Latin Annales Veteris et Novi Testamenti. His principal English works are treatises on The Religion of the Ancient Irish and British; Imperial Laws in Great Britain and Ireland; Corbes, Herenachs, and Termon Lands; Immanuel, or the Mystery of the Incarnation; An Answer to the Challenge of a Jesuit; The Power of the Prince. A complete edition of Usshers writings, with a Life, was published by Professor Elrington and the Rev. J. Todd, in 17 vols. 184164.]
THE FAME of Archbishop Ussher has long been but a nominis umbra, nor shall anything here be said to recall his ghost from the quiet gardens of oblivion. Seventeen volumes of his treatises gather dust upon the shelves; as one takes them down, one remembers the disinterment of some buried hero from his burrow among the hills. The very topics are sufficiently alarmingThe Chronology of the Old Testament; The Primitive Celtic Church; Corbes, Termons, and Herenachs. Such themes repel the ordinary man, and for the specialist the treatment is out of date. There are qualities of style, indeed, whereby the most abstruse disquisitions, like flies in amber, survive. One reads Burton without regard to his faded theories on the physical basis of love. But to style as an end in itself Ussher paid little heed. Controversy was his business; his interest, antiquities. He used his prose in the spirit of the scholar rather than the artist; as the instrument of his labours, not their object. And since all mere scholarship must needs be superseded, Usshers writings have lost their savour; he lingers, if at all, in the popular mind only as the discoverer of two datesthat of 4 B.C. for the birth of Christ; that of 4004 B.C., which figures on the margin of our Bibles for the creation. Nor can there be a better essay in the study of evidence than to consider why the methods which led him to so sound a conclusion in the one case proved so untrustworthy in the other.
Argument means for Ussher the accumulation of authorities; authorities, indeed, weighed with precision, criticised as to their authenticity, but in the last result accepted as authoritative. And with this is connected his renunciation of style; for to style the abundance of quotation must needs be fatal. Fragments pieced together from other mens works, even where translation is freely used, cannot but lack the unity which the impress of a single personality gives. Usshers writing is always a mosaic of quotations. His learning is immense. At an early age, so his biographers tell us, he sat down and read the fathers straight through. Chroniclers, schoolmen, the writers of Greece and Rome, all are at his fingers ends. He has wandered in the byeways of Celtic and Scandinavian lore. And in this he was happy, that by his time the sum-total of things knowable had not so swelled as to be beyond the compass of one intellect; so that he does not appear a mere specialist, but a true scholar, with a wide sweep and an adequate survey of knowledge. Moreover, he has at least one giftan architectonic giftof style; he marshals his authorities with a due regard to balance and proportion, keeping always in mind the clear design of his argument, and the impression he intends it to produce. Another side of Usshers disregard of the purely literary element in composition is apparent in his two or three short dogmatic treatises. In these copious citation would have been out of place; but in its stead he adopts the method of question and answerof catechism, in fact. Where he does write a few pages for himself, his English is at least dignified, if a trifle Ciceronian. It must not be forgotten that more than half his work was composed in Latin, and that the habit of using the dead language naturally affected his mode of expressing himself in the living. Yet now and then he has touches racy with the raciness of a countryman of St. Patrick.
Most of Usshers treatises, where their interest is not purely antiquarian, bear more or less directly upon the controversy with Rome. He generally escapes the vulgarities of polemic. The Catholic Church, indeed, is Babylonish and a dunghill of errors. But of the personal abuse, which tarnishes the gold of Milton, for instance, there is but little. As in life, so in speech, he is humane, and without asperity. One of his tracts, that On the Power of the Prince, belongs to the political side of theology. It is a pronouncement in favour of divine right; and this, together with his friendship with Laud, effectually disposes of his supposed leanings to Calvinism. A number of sermons are included in the complete edition of his works; but as these were published in spite of his expressed injunction, they need hardly be taken into account.