OTD – DT – 21 March 1656 – Death of James Ussher – the man who calculated the date of the creation of the universe.


‘Big Bang’ – what Big Bang?



In case you ever wondered about the date on which the universe was created it was, apparently, 23 October 4004 BC. That may seem a trifle recent to many of us – given that the dinosaurs are reliably reported to have ruled the earth millions of years ago, but it was the carefully deduced calculation of the 17th century Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher.

Ussher was born in 1581 into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family. He was one of the first students of Trinity College Dublin. It was established in 1591, he became a student there in 1594 at the tender age of thirteen. His callow youth would today result in him being rejected by the computer in the CAO application process but going to college in your early teens was not that unusual in the 16th century. He left his mark at Trinity in that one of the college libraries is named after him.  He also occupied the post of Professor of Theological Controversies there. That would be an extremely interesting position for a committed creationist today.

He became primate of all Ireland in 1625 and occupied the position until his death in 1656 – so he served during interesting times. However, he left Ireland in 1640 for what turned out to be the last time. The rebellion of 1641 saw him lose his home and income at the hands of Catholic rebels.

Even before losing much of his personal wealth he wasn’t a great fan of Roman Catholicism and was not in favour of allowing Catholics to exercise their religion freely. He once wrote that … ‘The religion of the papists is superstitious and idolatrous; their faith and doctrine erroneous and heretical’ So not much ecumenical wriggle room there. It may come as a surprise, therefore, to learn that Ussher’s own mother was a Catholic.

During the English Civil war he was forced to choose sides. He chose the wrong one. Although something of a Puritan himself he opted to remain loyal to King Charles. Only the protection of influential friends allowed him to remain unscathed in London after the victory of the Parliamentarians. From the roof of the Countess of Peterborough’s house he watched the execution of the King, but is reported to have fainted before the axe fell.

It was in 1650, in The Annals of Old Testament, that he published the result of his calculations as to the date of the creation of the world, a feat also attempted by the way, by Isaac Newton. His rationale was that Christ had actually been born in 4 BC and that the world had been created precisely 4000 years earlier with God starting at sunset on 22 October and finishing the job the following day. As Solomon’s temple had been built 1000 years before the birth of Christ and as it had been constructed 3000 years after the act of creation that meant 4004 was the year of Genesis. He also claimed that Adam had been created at the same time. His theory is still popular with many who don’t hold with the theory of evolution or the science of carbon-dating. Clarence Darrow raised Ussher’s calculations in his cross-examination of William Jennings Bryan at the famous Scopes trial, the so-called ‘Monkey trial’ in 1925 where a teacher was on trial for teaching the theory of evolution to his students.

Despite his support for the King in the Civil War Ussher, possibly because of his latent Puritanism, was held in such high esteem that he was buried in Westminster Cathedral, with the approval of Oliver Cromwell.

James Ussher, bishop, theologian and philosopher died three hundred and fifty-nine years ago, on this day.