U is for James Ussher

This is my contribution to Round Fourteen of ABC Wednesday. For the fifth time I am focusing on people – some famous, some infamous and some half-forgotten, but all with a tale to tell.

James UssherThe subject of my ABC Wednesday post this week is James Ussher, polyglot, prolific scholar, man of the church and perhaps the man responsible for what we know today as ‘creationism’.

Ussher was born in 1581 to a well-to-do Anglo-Irish family living in the Pale of Dublin (that’s ‘pale’ as in the phrase ‘beyond the pale‘).

His grandfather, James Stanihurst, had been speaker of the Irish parliament, and his father Arnold Ussher was a clerk in chancery.

Ussher was taught to read by two blind spinster aunts and he proved to be a gifted linguist, studying at the Dublin Free School and then entering the newly founded Trinity College at the age of thirteen.

He was ordained in the Trinity College Chapel as a deacon in the Protestant Church of Ireland in 1602 and then rose through the ecclesiastical ranks as Chancellor of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and Prebend of Finglas.

He became the wonderfully named Professor of Theological Controversies at Trinity College and a Bachelor of Divinity in 1607, and later Doctor of Divinity, then Vice-Chancellor in 1615 and vice-provost in 1616.

James UssherUssher rose to prominence after meeting James I who nominated him Bishop of Neath in 1621 and ultimately Primate of All Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh in 1625.

It was a turbulent time in Ireland. James had offered the Catholic community religious concessions in the form of ‘The Graces’ in exchange for money for the upkeep of the army and the feared Spanish invasion.

Ussher was not best pleased. As an ardent Calvinist he had no wish to give power to people he regarded as anti-Christian papists. He called a secret meeting of the Irish bishops in his house in November 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.

Interesting though his time as Primate was (you can read more here) it is his scholarly conclusions on the chronology of creation that interest me more and for which he is most remembered.

After the turmoil of Ireland and some important scholarly work, Ussher left for England in 1640 and survived the English Civil War, mainly due to having supporters on either side.

Annals of the WorldIn 1650 he published Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world), followed by Annalium pars postierior in 1654. Ussher concluded that the earth had been created at nightfall preceding 23rd October, 4004 BC.

Ussher based his calculations on his study of the Old Testament and the key events described in the Bible which led him to an unadjusted Creation date of about 4000 BC.

He moved the date back four years because of the error in the Anno Domini system – Herod the Great died in 4 BC, therefore Jesus could not have been born after that date.

The exact time, date and season was a matter of some debate at the time, but Ussher based his final conclusion using the Jewish calendar. At 9am on 23rd October, give or take a few minutes.

You can read more about Ussher’s Chronology here. It has had its fair share of criticism and ridicule which is unfair since it was a genuine scholarly effort using the best research methods of the time. However, it remains a tenet of those who believe in Young Earth Creationism.

As for Ussher himself, he died in 1656 aged 75 and was buried in Westminster Abbey after a state funeral, at the insistence of Oliver Cromwell.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

4 comments… Add yours
  • Roger Green 4th June 2014

    His “calendar” is the basis of a lot of fundy nonsense to this day!

  • leslie 4th June 2014

    Interesting biography. He certainly lived in changing times!

    abcw team

  • Sceptical Pudding 4th June 2014

    Ussssher was taught to read by two blind spinster aunts ? That is flabbergasting as I previously believed that in order to help a child to read you would need to be able to see – as words on paper are nothing without sight. I think if we could go back in time we would probably find that these blind aunts merely encouraged Usssssssssher to read and that once his interest in reading was ignited he sought guidance elsewhere. I mean, even David Blunkett was incapable of teaching his three sons to read. That task was chiefly down to his first wife – Ruth.

  • Jesh StG 4th June 2014

    Since we don’t know what really happened around “anno domino” I leave it alone:) Merely came to admire the man’s collar, for that is how William or Orange in the Netherlands, (his nickname a Father of the Fatherland, a hero in his times, is depicted.


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