[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 21, November 17, 1832]
James Usher, designated by Dr. Johnson as the great luminary of the Irish Church, was born in the parish of St. Nicholas, Dublin, on the 4th of January, 1580. The family name was originally Nevil, but an ancestor who came into this kingdom with King John, in the quality of Usher of the Chamber, followed the common custom of the times, in exchanging the English name for that of the office with which he was invested. His father, Arnold Usher, was one of the Six Clerks in Chancery, and was, says Ware, "a person in good esteem for his integrity and prudence." By his mother, he was connected with the Stanihursts; and to his uncle, Richard, equally celebrated as an historian, philosopher, and poet, he was much indebted for the extensive knowledge he possessed of the antiquities and history of his country. The principles of that religion, to which he was so soon to dedicate the powers of his mind, were early inculcated by his aunts, who although blind from their cradle, were yet from the retentiveness of their memory enabled to repeat with accuracy the chief portions of the Bible. At eight years of age he was sent to a grammar school in Dublin, then kept by two Scotchmen, James Fullerton and James Hamilton, who ostensibly fulfilling the duties of teachers, were in reality engaged in maintaining a correspondence to secure the peaceable succession of James, on the death of Elizabeth. The attention of the master was early repaid by the proficiency of the pupil; and in 1593, the year in which the College of Dublin was finished, he was one of the first students who were admitted, and placed again under the care of Hamilton, then advanced to the dignity of "Senior Fellow." At this period he conceived the somewhat chimerical idea of making himself master of the histories of all nations; a study which he pursued with all the energy of an active and determined mind; and at from fourteen to sixteen he compiled a series of Synoptical Historical Tables, little differing from his Annals, which have since been published. The powers of his mind were not, however, limited to this sphere, but were extended equally to the study of philosophy and language; and after enriching himself with the literature of Greece and Rome, be applied himself to the tortuous mysteries of polemical divinity.
The result of this may be readily conceived; he who is prepared to argue, seeks with avidity for the opportunity of display; and in 1599, in his 19th year, we accordingly find him challenging and entering the lists of Theological disputation with the learned Jesuit Fitzsimons, then a prisoner in Dublin Castle. The fame that he acquired by this, and the consideration due to his extraordinary acquirements, speedily obtained him the attention of his countrymen, and the patronage of the Crown. He was ordained a deacon and priest, though under canonical age, through a special dispensation, by his uncle, Henry Usher, Archbishop of Armagh. To this were added the appointments of afternoon lecturer at Christ-Church; proctor, and catechetical lecturer of the University; offices in which he displayed his extensive erudition, the aptness of his mind in canvassing the various controversial points between the Catholics and Protestants, and a steady determination in opposing the toleration which was then solicited by the former. It was at this period he preached his celebrated sermon from Ezekiel iv. 6. "And thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty years: I have appointed thee each day for a year;" and the rebellion of 1641 having occurred about this time, the text was hailed and reverenced by the spirit of party as a prophecy, and there was even a treatise published, "de Predictionibus Usserii." By the liberality of the Officers of the English army, who contributed £1800 to augment the library of the University, he was, together with Dr. Challoner, commissioned to proceed to England to purchase works, chiefly relative to English history and antiquities. A similarity of objects and literary tastes, speedily gained him the acquaintance of Sir Thomas Bodley, Camden, Cotton, and Allen; the former of whom gratefully acknowledges his obligations to Usher, "who in various learning and judgment" he observes, "far exceeds his years." In 1607 he took his degree of Bachelor of Divinity, and by Archbishop Loftus he was immediately promoted to the Chancellorship of St. Patricks'.
His time was now exclusively devoted to the duties of religion, and the pursuits of literature; he could not consider himself as absolved before God from the exercise of his functions, in the place from whence he received his maintenance; he made it the sphere of his charity and hospitality; he lectured weekly on the customary controversial points, and particularly against the doctrine of Bellarmine, nor did he indulge in the slightest relaxation, excepting during his residence in England, at his triennial visit to Oxford, Cambridge, and London. At the commencement of 1610, he was elected Provost of Trinity College, but which no entreaty could induce him to accept; and in 1613, on his return to England, he published an elaborate and learned work, entitled, "De Ecclesiarum Christianarum successione et statu," &c. dedicated and highly acceptable to King James. Of its merits, Casau-bon, Sculter, and Martin, held favourable opinions; and, although it engaged him in controversy with Stanihurst, yet even he adds his own testimony to the learning and abilities he displayed. Soon after his marriage with Phoebe, daughter of Dr. Luke Challoner, he was engaged at the genera! convocation of the clergy, in drawing up the Articles of the Irish Church, in which the doctrines of predestination and reprobation were asserted in the strongest terms. This subjected him to considerable misrepresentation, nor was it till he had obtained a personal conference with the king, that his unfavorable opinions were removed.
So satisfactory and pleasing was the interview to the monarch, that in 1620, he was promoted to the Bishopric of Meath, and, several years after, to the Archbishopric of Armagh. Riches, authority, and station did not, however, induce idleness, or beget indifference; he employed much time in the origin of the predestinarian controversy, on which he published the first Latin book ever printed in Ireland - "Gotesehalchi et Predestinatione Controversia," which was followed, in the succeeding year, by the "Veter-um Epistolarum Hibernicarum Sylloge," a collection of letters to and from Irish bishops and monks, from 592 to 1180, concerning the affairs of the Irish church. He likewise entered into controversy with Malone and Rookwood; with the former, in consequence of his challenge, and with the latter, in compliance with the request of Lady Peterborough.
The correspondence, which he maintained in almost every country, was of considerable importance to the advancement of learning; and this was maintained at a period not only of political but the highest religious excitement. He assisted Dr. Walton in his splendid Polyglot, obtained considerable advantages for the university by his connection with Laud, reformed his own diocese and the disorders of the ecclesiastical courts. In 1639 was produced his "Brittannicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates," a work which has been of considerable service to Stillingfleet and Lloyd in their several learned works.
In the rebellion of 1641, Usher was plundered of his property, and nothing escaped the fury of the times but his library and furniture, the former was immediately conveyed to England, and, although he was presented with the Bishopric of Carlisle in commendam, yet the encampment of the Scotch and English armies reduced the revenues, and the parliament evaded the payment of the pension which had been granted on their seizure of the lands belonging to the English bishops. It is said that he refused, at this period, the invitation of Cardinal Richelieu, to reside in France with a considerable pension, and that likewise he declined the Professorship of Leyden, offered to him by the States of Leyden. But it was not in the power of misfortune to affect the mind of Usher; philosophy had taught him to endure, and religion the duty of enduring, with the equable feeling of a Christian, the dispensations of God. He had valued riches only as the means of acquiring knowledge, and extending charity; and he estimated power only as it enabled him to do good. He was now immersed in the afflicting period of the civil war: Charles and his court had retreated to Oxford, whither Usher proceeded, living in Dr. Prideaux's house, that he might more readily pursue his studies in the library of Exeter college. During the years 1643 and 1644, he successively published "A Geographical and Historical Disquisition touching lesser Asia," and "The epistles of St. Ignatius," independent of his replies to queries respecting the lawfulness of levying war against the King. From Oxford he proceeded to Bristol, in attendance on the Prince of Wales; and from thence to St. Donates, the seat of Lady Stradling, where he was afflicted by a sudden and severe illness. On his recovery, he returned to London, on the invitation of the Countess of Peterborough, in whose house he resided for nearly eight years, during which time he officiated as preacher to Lincolns Inn, where the Society had provided rooms for his library, which having escaped the rapacity of the Parliament, was now removed from Chester.
In 1647, he published the "Diatriba de Romanae Ecclesiae Symbolo Apostolico Vetere," which was dedicated to Gerard Vossius. This was followed in 1648, by his learned dissertation on the solar year; and having warmly engaged in the controversy with the parliamentary commissioners respecting the government of the church, he retired from all active duty, on the ascendancy of the independent party, and the subsequent death of the king. In 1650, and 1654, he compiled his Annals of the Old Testament; and in 1658, his last work, De Graeca Septuaginta, to which he added a dissertation concerning Canain, and a letter to the learned Lewis Chappel.
But however vigorous and unimpaired were the powers of his mind, his bodily faculties were now withering beneath the afflictions of age, his eye-sight was extremely decayed, and he felt that every hour was the successive monitor of approaching death. He had been accustomed every year to note in his almanack the year of his age, so in this, 1665, he wrote, "Now aged seventy-five years, my days are full - Resignation." On the 20th of March, he was seized with a severe attack of sciatica, his strength and spirits rapidiy decayed; and after a few hours of intense prayer and pious thanksgivings, he resigned his spirit with the meek pleasure of a sincere Christian, who overcomes the bitterness of death by the recollection of his well spent life. Cromwell claimed the honor of burying him at his own expense, which he did, with great pomp, in Westminster Abbey, near the grave of Sir John Fullerton, his former master. Such was Usher, uniting uncommon learning with great acuteness; elevation of station with the sincerest humility; he at once instructed the clergy and society by his example and his precepts; his life will be ever considered as a model of moderation in power, and submission in misfortune, of the most extensive charity towards man, and the humblest piety towards God. The limits of our journal have prevented our indulging in detail: such of our readers who may wish to extend their knowledge of his life, will he much gratified by perusing the Biographies of Dr. Bernard, Dr. Smith, and Dr. Richard Parr.