James Ussher and the Reduction of Episcopacy

James Ussher

James Ussher was born to Arland and Margaret Ussher in Dublin on 4 January 1581, the fifth of their ten children. This prominent Anglo-Irish family embodied in miniature the religious divisions of late sixteenth-century Ireland. His uncle, Henry Ussher, was the Protestant Archbishop of Armagh from 1595 until his death in 1613. On the maternal side, his uncle Richard Stanihurst was an advocate on the continent for the Irish Catholic cause, and his cousin Henry Fitzsimon was a Jesuit controversialist active in the Irish mission. According to his first biographer, Nicholas Bernard, Ussher’s mother was “seduced by some of the Popish Priests to the Roman Religion” whilst Ussher was in England, and she never returned to the Protestant faith, a cause of much anguish for her son.[1]

As a young man Ussher was a promising scholar. He entered Trinity College, Dublin in 1593, one year after it opened. He obtained his B.A. by 1599, his M.A. by 1601, and was awarded the degrees B.D. in 1607 and D.D. in 1613. He was a fellow of the college from 1600, and was appointed Professor of Theological Controversies in 1607, and Vice-Chancellor in 1615. Ussher was ordained in 1602, and after three years’ preaching and catechising from various pulpits in the city, he became Chancellor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. This office carried with it the prebend of Finglas, where Ussher preached in the church every Lord’s day. Despite rumors about his puritan inclinations, Ussher impressed King James VI and I, who elevated him to the see of Meath in 1621. He was nominated Archbishop of Armagh in the last days of James’s reign in 1625, an office which he held until his death in 1656.

As a regular visitor to England, initially to buy books for the fledgling college and later for scholarly pursuits, Ussher built up a network of friends and acquaintances that included great scholars such as William Camden and Sir Henry Savile, and puritan clergy such as John Preston and Richard Sibbes.[2] This extensive network meant that when he returned to England in 1640 after a long absence he had friends on both sides of the deepening political divide between king and parliament. His principled royalism meant that when forced to choose he had to side with the king even though he had so much in common with the theologians and preachers who aligned themselves with parliament. In April 1642 Ussher was nominated by the Commons to represent Oxford University at the synod which would become the Westminster Assembly but he could not attend a gathering proscribed by the king.[3] Prior to this parting of the ways he had attempted to act as a mediator, especially on the difficult question of the government of the church, as discussed below.

Ussher fled from Oxford in 1645 as the parliamentarian armies advanced. After sojourning in Wales he returned to London in 1647 and was appointed Lecturer at Lincoln’s Inn. Approval for this appointment was only passed by a narrow majority in the House of Commons,[4] so whilst some held him in high regard, to others he was still suspect on account of his royalist and episcopalian inclinations. He preached regularly until 1654 when his health began to fail, and from then only occasionally. In these final years in London he continued to work on his biblical and historical chronology, including the famous Annales which calculated the date of creation as Sunday 23 October 4004 BC.[5]

James Ussher died on 21 March 1656 at the home of the Countess of Peterborough at Reigate. His friends intended a private burial at Reigate but Oliver Cromwell insisted on a state funeral at Westminster Abbey, and the ceremony followed the liturgy of the banned Book of Common Prayer.[6]


The Reduction of Episcopacy

One of Ussher’s major contributions to seventeenth-century debates about church government was The Reduction of Episcopacy which was probably composed in early 1641, but not appearing in print until after his death in 1656. This was an attempt to implement his vision of primitive episcopacy in the Church of England and was proposed as a mediating position between presbyterian and more conservative episcopalian polities. It opens in a manner familiar to readers of The Original of Bishops and Metropolitans, conceding a plurality of elders equal in status but observing that one was singled out as pre-eminent. In the course of time it would become the custom to call this presiding elder by the name of “bishop.” The Reduction explains how bishop and presbyters could work together in such a way that they produced the harmony of which Ignatius wrote and reflected the practice of the earliest centuries of the Church.

Bishops were to preside over but operate with their clergy in a more consensual fashion than the prelatical manner which had become the norm. They were not to hear or judge any cause without the presbyters and any sentence pronounced would be void in their absence. Ussher admits that “this kind of presbyterial government hath been long disused,” but, he continues:

how easily this ancient form of government by the united suffrages of the clergy might be revived again, and with what little show of alteration the synodical conventions of the pastors of every parish might be accorded with the presidency of the bishops of each diocese and province, the indifferent reader may quickly perceive by the perusal of the ensuing propositions.

Ussher then proceeds to describe a tiered structure, rising from the pastor administering discipline at the parish level, up through deanery, diocesan and national synods. The pastor or rector exercises a ministry of word, sacrament, and discipline in the parish. The right to administer discipline should be restored to the pastor who, with church wardens and sidesmen, will meet weekly to admonish those who “live scandalously.” If they do not repent and mend their ways they can be barred from the Lord’s Supper and presented at the next monthly synod. Suffragan bishops preside over these monthly synods which bring together all the pastors from an area equivalent to a rural deanery. The synod can pronounce the sentence of excommunication on unrepentant offenders and hold the parish ministers to account for their doctrine and conduct. Appeal may be made from this synod to a diocesan synod, meeting once or twice a year and chaired by “the bishop, or superintendent (call him whether you will)” or a deputed suffragan serving as “moderator.” More difficult matters could be referred to two provincial synods, Canterbury in the south and York in the north, which would comprise the bishops, suffragans, and elected clergy from every diocese, with an archbishop presiding. These should meet every third year, and if parliament is sitting they could join as one national synod.

The Reduction did not fare well as the parties polarized on this issue. The Scots were firmly opposed to any form of episcopacy and Parliament would become increasingly reliant on their support and unable to pursue such a compromise settlement. The King also signalled that a scheme such as Ussher’s would not be acceptable. Speaking at Whitehall on 25 January 1641, Charles stated his intention to reduce “all Matters of Religion and Government to what they were in the purest Times of Queen Elizabeth’s Days.” He warned against petitions that would pull down episcopacy and proposals that would have bishops “no better than Cyphers.”[7] In October he would again affirm that “I am constant for the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England as it was established by Queene Elis. and my father.”[8] In all likelihood it was the King’s disapproval of such reforms that prevented Ussher from distributing the manuscript of the Reduction more widely. For example, from March 1641 Ussher was called to consult a House of Lords committee on religion and there is no evidence that he submitted his scheme to the committee, whilst reform proposals from Sir Edward Dering, MP for Kent, and John Williams, Bishop of Lincoln, were debated in Parliament and the focus of much interest.

It seems that Ussher continued to harbour hopes that the Reduction would provide a way forward through the debates over polity. As late as May 1641 he was discussing the details of his plan with the Dutch ambassador.[9] It seems that the King did give further consideration to Ussher’s ideas and reduced episcopacy is reflected in the royal response to parliamentarian clergy during the negotiations at Newport on the Isle of Wight in September to November 1648, a response that was drafted before Ussher’s arrival at Newport.[10] Alan Ford notes the irony: “royal stubbournness and political ineptitude meant that, when Ussher’s proposal had the best opportunity for widespread acceptance, in 1641, Charles rejected it, and when it had little hope of success, in 1648, he endorsed it.” In 1640 the King had missed the opportunity to occupy the middle ground so carefully prepared by Ussher.[11]


The Bishop as Pastor

Ussher presents a consistent picture of a bishop working with the presbyters to govern the flock, a man pre-eminent among the elders. In private conversation Ussher explicitly affirmed his conviction that their difference is one of degree not of order.[12] The presbyters could therefore work with the bishop in the exercise of powers which Laudians considered to be limited to the episcopal office. The Laudian elevation of the episcopal office also placed the Church of England at greater distance from the continental Reformed churches. Ussher’s levelling made it easier to regard their ordination and sacraments as valid in the absence of an episcopate.[13] They were “true members of the Church universal,” albeit “very much defective.”[14]

The modern-day Church of England with a total of nearly one hundred diocesans and suffragans is closer to Ussher’s vision than the Church of England of early 1641, but still falls a long way short, and at a time of falling attendance there is talk of merging dioceses. There have, however, been calls for devolution and the transformation of deaneries into small dioceses of twenty-five to thirty-five parishes to make the episcopal role more manageable and more pastoral. With appropriate support the bishop would remain fully functional in parish ministry himself. Citing Ussher in support, Michael Keulemans insists that this could be seen “as nothing more revolutionary than a return to something like the original function of the episcopate in the city dioceses scattered across the Roman Empire of the 4th century.”[15] Others have found Ussher’s writings to be helpful today. Wallace Benn, former Bishop of Lewes, found in Ussher’s defence of episcopacy an antidote to the functional congregationalism so often encountered amongst evangelicals in the Church of England. Ussher’s writings encouraged a broader ecclesiological view of a “Reformed Catholicism,” an appreciation of episcopal government and motivation to work for its reform.[16] The scholarly discussion of these issues has, of course, moved on, but Ussher’s writings on episcopacy remain stimulating and useful.[17]



[1] Nicholas Bernard, The Life & Death of the Most Reverend and Learned Father of Our Church Dr. James Usher, Late Arch-Bishop of Armagh, and Primate of All Ireland (London: E.Tyler, 1656), 19–20; Other biographical accounts can be found in Richard Parr, The Life of the Most Reverend Father in God, James Usher, Late Lord Arch-Bishop of Armagh, Primate and Metropolitan of all Ireland (London: Nathanael Ranew, 1686); Charles R. Elrington, “The Life of James Ussher, D.D., Archbishop of Armagh,” in WJU, 1:1–324; R. Buick Knox, James Ussher: Archbishop of Armagh (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1967); Hugh Trevor-Roper, “James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh,” in Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans: Seventeenth Century Essays (London: Secker & Warburg, 1987), 120–65; Alan Ford, James Ussher: Theology, History, and Politics in Early-Modern Ireland and England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007). The correspondence in WJU, vols 15–16 has now been superseded by The Correspondence of James Ussher, 1600–1656, ed. Elizabethanne Boran, 3 vols (Dublin: Irish Manuscripts Commission, 2015). For Ussher’s irenic, moderate Reformed theology, see Richard Snoddy, The Soteriology of James Ussher: The Act and Object of Saving Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[2] On Ussher’s Puritan connections, see Elizabethanne Boran, “An Early Friendship Network of James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh, 1626–1656,” in European Universities in the Age of Reformation and Counter Reformation, ed. Helga Robinson-Hammerstein (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 1998), 116–34.

[3] Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 2, 1640–1643 (London, 1802), 540.

[4] Journal of the House of Commons: Volume 5, 1646–1648 (London, 1802), 393.

[5] See WJU, vols 8–11. Also available in a revised English translation as The Annals of the World: James Ussher’s Classic Survey of World History, ed. Larry Pierce and Marion Pierce (Green Forest: Master Books, 2003).

[6] Parr, Life, 78–79.

[7] Journal of the House of Lords: Volume IV, 1629–42 (London, 1771), 142.

[8] Diary and Correspondence of John Evelyn, ed. William Bray, 4 vols (London, 1859–62), 4:88.

[9] Archives ou Correspondance inédite de la Maison d’Orange-Nassau, Deuxième Série, Tome III, 1625–1642, ed. G. Groen van Prinsterer (Utrecht: Kemink et Fils, 1859), 439–40.

[10] The Kings Majesties Answer to the Paper Delivered in by the Reverend Divines (1648), 13.

[11] Ford, James Ussher, 255.

[12] Van Prinsterer, ed., Archives ou Correspondance inédite de la Maison d’Orange-Nassau … 1625–1642, 43940; See Bernard, Clavi Trabales, 56–57; The Judgement of the Late Arch-Bishop of Armagh and Primate of Ireland, 1. Of the extent of Christs death and satisfaction, &c. 2. Of the Sabbath, and observation of the Lords day. 3. Of the ordination in other reformed churches, ed. Nicholas Bernard (1658), 112.

[13] On the tension between iure divino episcopacy and the political necessity of affirming the validity of the ministry of the Reformed continental churches, see Anthony Milton, Catholic and Reformed: The Roman and Protestant Churches in English Protestant Thought, 1600–1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 465–66, 475–94.

[14] Bernard, ed., The Judgement of the Late Arch-Bishop of Armagh, 112–13.

[15] Michael Keulemans, Bishops: The Changing Nature of the Anglican Episcopate in Mainland Britain (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2012), 257–59.

[16] Wallace Benn, Ussher on Bishops: A Reforming Ecclesiology (London: St. Antholin’s Lectureship Charity, 2002).

[17] See, for example, Alistair C. Stewart, The Original Bishops: Office and Order in the First Christian Communities (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), with its self-conscious nod towards Ussher in the title (p. x); At a more introductory level, see Roger Beckwith, Elders in Every City: The Origin and Role of the Ordained Ministry (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2003).