William Irvine (Scottish evangelist)

William Irvine (1863-1947) was a Scottish Presbyterian evangelist. Irvine was born in Kilsyth, located in North Lanarkshire, Scotland, the third of eleven children of a miner. He was educated at Kilsyth Academy and worked as a quarry master before spending two years at John Anderson's Bible Training Institute, Glasgow (1893-1895). The town of Kilsyth claims Irvine as a "famous son".

Irvine the evangelist

Irvine joined the Faith Mission in Scotland in 1895 and went across to Ireland around May 1896. Various recent sources have sought to associate the movement described in Christian Conventions with a single founder, that being Irvine. And Irvine himself later claimed to be founder of the movement which would be an obvious heresy in the eyes of his fellow workers. In fact, almost simultaneously a number of men and women left the Methodist and other churches to preach independently in the 1890s in Ireland: Edward Cooney (as early as 1884) joined by John West and Tom Betty; Mr. and Mrs. Robert Todd with Tom Turner, John Hardie, Emma Gill, Annie Holland and Sarah Sullivan; John Long with Tom Turner, Tom McNaught, Dick Norman and Alex Given. Long and Morrison preached with Irvine and did not defer to him as a leader. After revivals involving some or all of these men in 1897, George Walker began in the ministry then, as did John West and others. As late as 1899 William Irvine was still a member of the Faith Mission. [Jaenen, C. J., The Apostles' Doctrine and Fellowship: A documentary history of the early church and restorationist movements (Ottawa: Legas Publishing, 2003), IX, 14, The Contemporary [Irish] Restoration Movement] (520-524).

In Ireland, Irvine and his early adherents held "tent-missions" and converts were sent abroad to England, America, Australia and New Zealand. Those who sold everything to become homeless itinerant missionaries were called "workers", others with families and homes were "friends" or "saints"; thus a two-tiered system evolved. Elders responsible for each home-church were drawn from the "saints". The group grew rapidly, and held conventions lasting several weeks at a time. In the early years of the 20th century, Irvine travelled widely to Australia and America, attending conventions and preaching.

The group was fairly progressive regarding the role of women in the church, with women workers first commissioned to preach in 1901. A controversial teaching, presumably originating with Irvine, was that of the "Living Witness Doctrine" (first recorded mention in a convention sermon by Joseph Kerr in 1903). This was derived from a statement by a contemporary of Charles Darwin that "only something that is living can reproduce life". It was concluded that only through the preaching of a 2x2 preacher (a "living witness") could one be saved. As a consequence of this doctrine, there was a significant exodus from the church at this time.

Irvine's literal views of eschatological prophecy and belief that the world was about to end following the First World War brought about the first division in the fledgling denomination. The greater majority of church members remained in the continuing branch of the church as originally set up. Irvine and a small group of loyal followers left and became known as the "Message People", "The Witnesses", or "Irvinites". Irvine went on to declare himself a prophet and continued to urge his followers to prepare for the end of the world.

Unlike the similar-in-many-respects Brethren, the 2x2s do not have a history of significant schisms. The only other major division occurred in 1928 when the worker Edward Cooney (well-known for preaching at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park) was excommunicated for rejecting the group's organization and the "Living Witness Doctrine". Cooney believed strongly in an itinerant ministry rather than the ministry coming under the authority of overseers of fixed fields. Cooney also left with a handful of loyal supporters (who became known as "Cooneyites").

Irvine was in America for much of the war years, and while spending time with Pentecostal people in Los Angeles he received the gift of tongues and of interpreting tongues. He returned to his own folk of Kilsyth around September 1919, and travelled to Palestine in November that year.

Irvine died in Jerusalem in March 1947 aged 84. The first branch of the church he founded continues today as an evangelical home-church fellowship; membership worldwide is estimated at perhaps half a million, and includes followers on every continent. It is believed that there is still a handful of "Cooneyites" (mainly in Ireland and Mildura) and "Message People", but that neither of these small off-shoots is experiencing any growth.

Oral records we have today of William Irvine include that he was tall and handsome, a powerful preacher and a charismatic character. He is also described as being very judgemental and strong in condemnation of others. He and his early followers are said to have taken pride in being "common men", wearing trademark baggy suits.

Irvine's church legacy

At the time of the schism in 1918, Irvine believed that all those who died in "The Testimony" prior to 3 August 1914 were saved, but that only those who left "The Testimony" after that date and followed his new 'revelations' could be saved. Ironically, both the workers and Irvine firmly believed they had God's only true message on earth at that time, so now there were "two" "only right way" methods on earth, one of which Irvine founded.

Irvine's 'Alpha Gospel'

Irvine met John Long, a Methodist colporteur, in March 1897 in Kilrush, S. Ireland. At this time, Irvine had a big reputation as a Faith Mission evangelist "remarkable for saying, 'Praise the Lord,' no matter what happened". John Long (personal diary) describes Irvine as "In either secular or religious matters, he was a born leader of men; he was a holy man, and practical. In personal dealing, he was preeminently the best conversationalist I ever met, and skilful in soul winning. He had a marvellous insight into the deep things of God's word, and like his Master, was an apt teacher of all who received the truth with pleasure. He always set forth the cross, and was a swift witness against all pride, vainglory and hypocrisy; he was severe on Christians, but merciful to sinners. In prayer, praise, and preaching he excelled in joy, liberty, and power. He was very much opposed and misunderstood by religious people; nevertheless, the common people liked him and heard him gladly." This was the early Irvine with his Faith Mission background.

Not surprisingly, the predominantly Roman Catholic Church in S. Ireland opposed these zealous Protestant evangelists, and severe tensions followed their preaching endeavours. During July 1897, Irvine was described as "repining over the spiritual laxity of the churches; and was spending much time in prayer for a revival". It was in August 1897 that Irvine and Long believed the revival began, with Irvine and John Long together holding the first mission independent of Faith Mission, in Nenagh, County Tipperary, Ireland. Upwards of 30 who attended "got converted" and most later gave up all they had and became workers.

Initially the Protestant churches were supportive of Irvine and his revival crusade, but this soon changed. A bane of Irvine's experience was the rich/poor divide in the church - he particularly abhorred the way in which the church treated the rich much better than the poor, reserved them better seats in church, etc. For the next 3 years, Irvine accepted Faith Mission funds, hospitality and facilities while he worked out his own method. He wanted to get back to biblical basics and taught that all ministers must follow Jesus' instructions to the apostles in Matthew 10; leaving their homes, families, property and responsibilities and going out to preach two-by-two. He copied the majority of the Faith Mission methods and traditions; used their terminology and dress code; duplicated their portable meeting halls and living quarters (batches); black stockings, hats and court-shoes for women; and conventions. He believed he had restored "God's only true way," hence "The Truth".

Irvine's 'Omega Gospel'

Irvine believed that the dispensation of grace had come to an end in August 1914, and that he had been chosen by God to bring a last message of Jesus Christ to the world before the final judgement. He also was under the delusion that he was to be one of the two witnesses of Revelation ch.11, who would have special powers to prophesy and perform miracles, and would be killed in Jerusalem and raised up after 3½ days and taken up to heaven in a cloud. He prophesied that there would be a great famine, and encouraged his followers to sell their homes and farms and invest their money in food and other provisions that would enable them to survive this impending calamity. He referred to his earlier teachings as his "Alpha Gospel", and his later beliefs as his "Omega Gospel". It is unclear exactly when Irvine formulated his "Omega" beliefs during the period of the First World War, and there is some suggestion that Irvine didn't begin preaching his "Omega" revelation until late in 1918. Leading up to this time he was also under a cloud of moral indiscretions.

All this led to a division in the church over the period 1914-18. Certainly the other leading workers did not accept Irvine's new revelations and while most felt certain that in the beginning Irvine had received a genuine revelation from God, they did not accept his "Omega Message". These leading workers refused to submit to Irvine's leadership any longer (1914), and they refused to give him opportunity to speak at conventions and began to turn his followers against him. There were many excommunications of Irvine’s followers during this time.

Eventually Irvine and the other leading workers parted ways (1918), and the group split for the first time. The majority of the "friends" followed the leading workers, yet some believed Irvine's new 'revelations' and followed his "Omega Gospel" teachings. Those who remained in the original branch of the church criticised Irvine for his pride, and believed that he had become mentally unbalanced and was making unfounded and embarrassing prophecies.

Irvine moved to Palestine in November 1919. He was supported financially by those who had embraced his "Omega Gospel". There is much surviving correspondence between Irvine and these followers from this era. These loyal followers took no official name (as with followers of Irvine’s first "Alpha Gospel" message), but were known as the "Message People" or "The Witnesses". At the start of the 21st Century, there were still members of this group who believed that they alone knew the true meaning of the scriptures, as written in Irvine's letters to them.

Irvine's death in Jerusalem

Irvine died in Jerusalem in March 1947 at age 84 from throat cancer. Rather than being taken up to heaven in a cloud, as he prophesied, he is [http://home.earthlink.net/%7Etruth333/BRG4-4-2WmIDeath.html#BURIAL buried in Zion Cemetery,] Jerusalem without a tombstone. It is unclear how followers of Irvine's "Omega Message" rationalised the facts of his death with his prophesies, and were still able to hold to their beliefs in Irvine's "Omega Gospel" message.

Irvine's death wasn't so much of a problem in the first (2x2) branch of the church, which had rejected his later "Omega Gospel" revelations. They had also, after the split of 1914-18, sought to diminish the role of the now-embarrassing William Irvine's involvement in the church group. Following Irvine's excommunication, leading workers agreed to "bury the past" and move forward.

ee also

* Christian Conventions (pejoratively known as the 2x2 church)
*Freemasonry Freemasonry of which William Irvine was a member.
* Edward Cooney


Further reading

* Jessie Penn-Lewis (2004) "War on the Saints". CLC Publications. ISBN 0-87508-698-5
* Kevin N. Daniel (1994) "Reinventing the Truth". Research and Information Services, Inc. ISBN 978-0-9639419-0-9
* Doug and Helen Parker (1982) "The Secret Sect". Parker. ISBN 0-9593398-0-9
* Kathleen Lewis "The Church Without a Name" ISBN 0-9746565-4-2

External links

* [http://www.paperclip.org.uk/kilsythweb/religion/kilsyth_scotland_william_irvine.htm William Irvine of Kilsyth]
* [http://www.geo.ed.ac.uk/scotgaz/people/famousfirst1358.html Kilsyth's famous son]
* [http://www.icc.ac.uk/vision.php?page=6 Bible Training Institute, Glasgow]
* [http://www.tellingthetruth.info/photogallery/Places/103CPhotoGal.html Faith Mission letter re Irvine]
* [http://www.faithmission.org/ Faith Mission]
* [http://www.tellingthetruth.info/founder_book/00wmibook.php Book: "The Life and Ministry of William Irvine"]
* [http://www.workersect.org/2x205a.html Brief Timeline includes Irvine's early ministry]

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