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.
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.
In 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.