James Ussher (1581–1656), bishop of Meath (1621–1625) and archbishop of Armagh (1625–1656), was born on 4 January 1581 in Dublin, the fifth child of Arland Ussher and his wife, Margaret (née Stanyhurst). He was educated at the newly founded Trinity College, which he entered in 1594 as one of its first students. Ussher's early career was as an academic at Trinity, where he was appointed Professor of Theological Controversies in 1607 and published his first book in 1613 on the succession of the true Christian church. His scholarly efforts and his regular trips to England brought him to the notice of King James, who made him bishop of Meath in 1621 and archbishop of Armagh in 1625. As a bishop, Ussher tried to combine the role of scholar and ecclesiastical politician. A firm Calvinist, he published works of anti-Catholic controversial theology and also a highly influential account—A Discourse of the Religion Anciently Professed by the Irish and British—of the historical origins of the Church of Ireland, which by tracing its descent back to the Celtic church, provided Irish Protestants with a crucial sense of their Irish roots.
As a politician, Ussher became a member of the Irish Privy Council and leader of the Church of Ireland. Strongly antipapal, he used his influence in 1626 and 1627 to oppose the granting of toleration to Irish Catholics. But the arrival of Lord Deputy Wentworth in 1633 greatly diminished Ussher's role, as Archbishop Laud of Canterbury and his ally in Ireland, Bishop Bramhall of Derry, sought to reshape the Church of Ireland by driving out Calvinists and Presbyterians and bringing it into closer alignment with the Church of England. Ussher retreated to his study, working on his great historical investigation of the origins of Christianity in Britain and Ireland, published in 1639 as Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates. In 1640 Ussher went to England where, following the outbreak of the Irish rising in 1641, he was to remain. As a highly respected scholar with an international reputation, Ussher was courted by both king and Parliament in 1641 and 1642. Despite his firm Calvinism and deep hostility to Catholicism, Ussher remained loyal to the king. After the defeat and execution of Charles, Ussher returned to London, where he concentrated on patristic and biblical scholarship, publishing in the 1650s his account of biblical chronology which dated the creation of the world to 23 October 4004 b.c.e. He married Phoebe Challoner in 1613 and had one daughter, Elizabeth.
Ford, Alan. "James Ussher and the Creation of an Irish Protestant Identity." In British Consciousness and Identity, edited by B. I. Bradshaw and Peter Roberts. 1998.
Knox, R. B. James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh. 1967.
Irish Protestant divine, now best known for his once widely held Biblical chronology; b. Dublin, Jan. 4, 1581; d. Reigate, England, March 20, 1656. After graduating from the newly founded University of Dublin in 1600, Ussher (also spelled Usher) became a fellow of Trinity College of this university and was ordained an Anglican clergyman (1601). Full of zeal for the Reformation, he engaged in an intense study of the Scriptures and the Fathers to defend the cause of Protestantism. He became in turn professor of theology at Trinity College (1607), bishop of Meath (1620), and archbishop of Armagh (1624). He was always bitterly opposed to Catholicism, and in 1626 he succeeded in preventing Falkland, Viceroy of Ireland, from granting Irish Catholics some relief from the stringent Penal Laws. In 1629 he disapproved of Bp. William Bedell's proposal to revive the Irish language in religious worship. He helped draft the canons of the Church of Ireland (1634), and he defeated the attempt to make the Irish Church conform doctrinally in all points with the Church of England. While he was in England on scholarly research, the Great Rebellion of 1641, in which he lost his house and property in Armagh, broke out. He therefore remained in England, mostly in London, for the rest of his life, devoting his time to preaching and writing. By order of Cromwell he was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Among his many published writings (last complete edition, 17 v., Dublin 1847–64), the most influential was his Annales Veteris et Novi Testamenti (2 v., Dublin 1650–54), in which he propounded a Biblical chronology that was soon inserted in the marginal notes of the Authorized Version of the Bible and found its way later even into some editions of the Douay Bible. Using only the Biblical data for the early period of Biblical history, Ussher put the creation of the world at 4004 b.c. Although it was shown in the 19th century to be enormously wrong, Ussher's chronology continued to be printed in some editions of the Bible even in the 20th century.
Bibliography: j. a. carr, The Life and Times of James Ussher (London 1895). w. b. wright, The Ussher Memoirs (London 1889), a. gordon, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 20:64–72.
Revd Dr William M. Marshall