USHER, JAMES (or USSHER, JAMES) (1581-1656), Anglican divine and archbishop, was born in the parish of St Nicholas, Dublin, on the 4th of January 1581. He was descended from the house of Nevill, one of whose scions, accompanying John Plantagenet to Ireland in the capacity of usher in 1185, adopted his official title as a surname. James Usher was sent to a school in Dublin opened by two political agents of James VI. of Scotland, who adopted this manner of averting the suspicions of Elizabeth's government from their real object, which was to secure a party for James in Ireland in the event of the queen's death. In 1594 Usher matriculated at the newly founded university of Dublin, whose charter had just been obtained by his uncle, Henry Usher, archbishop of Armagh. He proved a diligent student, devoting much attention to controversial theology, graduated as M.A. in 1600 and became a fellow of Trinity College. On the death of his father in 1598 he resigned the family estate to his younger brother, reserving only a small rent-charge upon it for his own maintenance, and prepared to take orders. When he was but nineteen he accepted a challenge put forth by Henry Fitzsimons, a learned Jesuit, then a prisoner in Dublin, inviting discussion of Bellarmine's arguments in defence of Roman Catholicism, and acquitted himself with much distinction. In 1600 he was appointed proctor of his college and catechetical lecturer in the university, though still a layman, and was ordained deacon and priest on the same day, in 1601, while still under the canonical age, by his uncle the primate. In 1607 he became regius professor of divinity and also chancellor of St Patrick's cathedral, Dublin. He was a frequent visitor to England, and made the acquaintance of contemporary scholars like Camden, Selden, Sir Thomas Bodley and Sir Robert Cotton. In 1613 he published his first printed work, though not his first literary composition Gravissimae Quaestionis de Christianarum Ecclesiarum, in Occidentis praesertim partibus, ab Aposlolicis temporibus ad nostram usque aetatem, continua successione et slalu, Historica Explicatio, wherein he took up the history of the Western Church from the point where Jewel had left off in his Apology for iKe Church of England, and carried it on from the 6th till past the middle of the 13th century, but never completed it. In 1615 he took part in an attempt of the Irish clergy to impose a Calvinistic confession, embodying the Lambeth Articles of 1595, upon the Irish Church, and was delated to King James in consequence. But on his next visit to England in 1619 he brought with him an attestation to his orthodoxy and high professional standing, signed by the lord deputy and the members of the privy council, which, together with his own demeanour in a private conference with the king, so influenced the latter that he nominated Usher to the vacant see of Meath, of which he was consecrated bishop in 1621. In 1622 he published a controversial Discourse of the Religion anciently Professed by the Irish and British, designed to show that they were in agreement with the Church of England and opposed to the Church of Rome on the points in debate between those churches. In 1623 he was made a privy councillor for Ireland, and in the same year was summoned to England by the king that he might more readily carry on a work he had already begun upon the antiquity of the British churches. While he was detained on this business the archbishop of Armagh died in January 1625, and the king at once nominated Usher to the vacant primacy; but severe illness and other causes impeded his return to Ireland until August 1626.
For many years Usher was actively employed both in the government of his diocese and in the publication of several learned works, amongst which may be specified Emmanuel (a treatise upon the Incarnation), published in 1638, and Britannicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates, in 1639. In 1629 he discountenanced Bishop William Bedell's proposal to revive the Irish language in the service. In 1634 he took part in the convocation which drafted the code of canons that formed the basis of Irish ecclesiastical law till the disestablishment of the Irish Church in 1869, and defeated the attempt of John Bramhall, then bishop of Derry and later his own successor in Armagh, to conform the Irish Church exactly to the doctrinal standards of the English. He put the matter on the ground of preserving the independence of the Irish Church, but the real motive at work was to maintain the Calvinistic element introduced in 1615. In 1640 he paid another visit to England on one of his usual scholarly errands, meaning to return when it was accomplished. But the rebellion of 1641 broke out while he was still at Oxford, and he never saw his native country again. He published a collection of tracts at Oxford in that year, including a defence of episcopacy and the doctrine of non-resistance. All Usher's property in Ireland was lost to him through the rebellion, except his books and some plate and furniture, but he was assigned the temporalities of the vacant see of Carlisle for his support. In 1643 he was offered a seat in the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, but declined it publicly in terms which drew upon him the anger of the House of Commons, and an order for the confiscation of his library was averted only by the interposition of Selden. He quitted Oxford in 1645 and went into Wales, where he remained till 1646, when he returned to London, and was in 1647 elected preacher to the Society of Lincoln's Inn, an office which he continued to hold until near his death. During his residence in Wales a hyper-Calvinistic work entitled A Body of Divinity; or the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion, was published under his name by John Downham; and, although he repudiated the authorship in a letter to the editor, stating that the manuscript from which it was printed was merely a commonplace-book into which he had transcribed the opinions of Cartwright and other English divines, often disapproving of them and finding them dissonant from his own judgment, yet it has been persistently cited ever since as Usher's genuine work, and as lending his authority to positions which he had long abandoned, if he ever maintained them. In 1648 he had a conference with Charles I. in the Isle of Wight, assisting him in the abortive negotiations with parliament on the question of episcopacy. About this time Richelieu offered him a pension. In 1650-54 he published the work which was long accounted his most important production, the Annales Veteris el Noiii Testamenti, in which he propounded a now disproved scheme of Biblical chronology, whose dates were inserted by some unknown authority in the margin of reference editions of the Authorized Version. In 1655 Usher published his last work, De Graeca LXX Interpretum Versione Syntagma. He died on the 20th of March 1656, in Lady Peterborough's house at Reigate, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. He was long remembered, not only for his great learning but for his modesty and kindly disposition. His daughter sold his library to the state, and in 1661 it was placed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, of which it still forms a part.
Usher's works are very numerous, and were first collected by C. R. Elrington and J. H. Todd, Dublin (1847-64, in 17 vols.). See Life by Carr (1895); W. B. Wright, The Ussher Memoirs (1889).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)