James Ussher was born in Dublin in 1581 into a respected Anglo-Irish family. He entered the newly-founded Trinity College, Dublin at the age of thirteen. Already a gifted polyglot, he received his Bachelor of Arts degree by 1598 and received his Master of Arts and a Fellowship by 1600. He was ordained to the diaconate (and possibly to the presbyterate on the same day) in 1602 by his uncle Henry Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland. In 1606 he was appointed chancellor of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and prebend of Finglas, and became the first professor of theology at Trinity College and a Bachelor of Divinity in 1607, subsequently receiving his doctorate in divinity in 1612. He later served Trinity College as vice-chancellor and as provost. In 1621 he was appointed Bishop of Meath by King James the First, becoming a national figure in Ireland as a member of the Privy Council, and he was nominated Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in 1625.
Ussher was an historian and scholar of vast learning and erudition and was acquainted with most of the English writers and divines of his day. The breadth of his learning made him an authority on subjects as diverse as the early history of the Irish Church (which he sought to demonstrate as differing from the Roman Catholic Church and being closer to the reformed Church of Ireland) and the epistles of Saint Ignatius of Antioch. His researches on the latter uncovered two manuscripts in libraries in England (and a third that he traced to the Medicean library in Florence) on the basis of which he demonstrated the authenticity of seven genuine letters, thereby producing the strongest extant evidence of the existence of episcopacy in the early Church at a time when the authenticity of the Ignatian epistles, and the existence of the episcopate in the early Church, was under attack by presbyterian churchmen and divines in England and Scotland.
Although a Calvinist in theology, Ussher was at least conciliatory with William Laud, the High Church archbishop of Canterbury who strenuously resisted Calvinist Puritans in the Church of England, supporting Laud’s appointment as Chancellor of Trinity College in 1633. However, he resisted Laud’s pressure to bring the Church of Ireland into conformity with the Church of England, and at a convocation in 1634 ensured that the English Articles of Religion were adopted in addition to the more Calvinistic Irish Articles, not instead of them, and that the Irish canons were redrafted on the basis of English canons, rather than being replaced by them.
In 1640, in the midst of the turbulence of the growing conflict between King Charles the First and Parliament, Ussher left Ireland for what would be the last time. His home and income were destroyed in the Irish uprising of 1641, and Parliament voted him an annual pension. During the governmental conflict that became the English Civil Wars and the religious conflict between the supporters of episcopacy and its presbyterian detractors, he endeavored to bring about a reconciliation between the episcopalians and the presbyterians in the Church of England. Eventually the irresolution of the conflict and open warfare led him to choose between his Puritan allies in Parliament and his instinctive loyalty to the monarchy.
With the establishment of a presbyterian government in the Church and the defeat of the royalist cause, Ussher retired to his scholarly studies. In 1647 he produced a treatise on the origin of the Creeds. His most famous work, the Annales veteris testamenti, a prima mundi origine deducti (Annals of the Old Testament, deduced from the first origins of the world) was published in 1650, and its second volume, Annalium pars postierior, in 1654. In this work he calculated the date of Creation and produced a chronology of the world from that date, October 23, 4004 BC to the present-day. While his chronology fell into disrepute (mostly through twentieth century association with “young earth” creationism), this work represented a considerable feat of scholarship, requiring great depth and breadth of learning in what was then known of ancient history, including the rise of the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans, as well as expertise in the Bible, biblical languages, astronomy, and ancient calendars and chronology. His account of extrabiblical historical events, such as the dates of the deaths of Alexander the Great and of Julius Caesar, is usually in close agreement with modern accounts.
More the conciliator than the controversialist, Ussher sought to achieve in his Reduction of the Episcopacy unto the Form of Synodical Government (1641) a common ground or via media between presbyterians and episcopalians, whereby presbyters would be involved in a synodical government of the church and the central role of the episcopacy would be preserved. While it was rejected in its day both by the High Church episcopalians and the Puritan presbyterians, Ussher’s rationale, grounded in the theology of the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer and in the Scriptures, turned out to contain the essence of the form of church government that has evolved in most provinces of the Anglican Communion.
Ussher died on March 21, 1656. So great was his reputation for scholarship, tolerance, and sincerity that on his death he was given a state funeral and burial in the chapel of Saint Paul in Westminster Abbey by Oliver Cromwell, despite his earlier support for the royalist cause and his writings in support of episcopacy. His funeral is thought to have been the only time that the burial office of the Book of Common Prayer was read in the Abbey during the Commonwealth period. His gravestone, placed in 1904 by the Provost of Trinity College, bears a Latin inscription, the English translation of which reads:
“In pious memory of JAMES USSHER who was born in Dublin in 1581, entered among the first students of Trinity College, promoted to the archiepiscopal see of Armagh, primate of all Ireland, the hundredth heir of St Patrick the apostle of Ireland, historian, critic, theologian, most learned among the holy, most holy among the learned, exiled from his own in this city of Westminster, he fell asleep in Christ in 1656. He was expelled from his sacred see and country by those same seditions which went on to grant him burial in this church among the most honoured….”
prepared from various sources
O God, by your Holy Spirit you give to some the word of wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant James Ussher, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Archbishop James Ussher is not included in any Anglican calendar with which I am familiar. I propose his inclusion in a common Anglican sanctorale because of his scholarship, his work for reconciliation between factions of Christians in the Church of the day, and his support for synodical government under the authority and leadership of bishops.