Archbishop Usher and time

In a modern age of advanced scientific knowledge it is easy, if facile to mock the efforts of previous scholars to date the age of the earth and the Creation. The most serious, complete, widely-accepted and longest-enduring of the latter efforts was ascribed to an early Protestant Archbishop of Armagh, James Usher.


One must recall that in Usher’s time (the 17th century) in Western Europe, Church and State were far from separate and in these islands especially, the ‘religious wars’ raged unabated. A little of Usher’s early career may help to illustrate the point.

After his consecration as Bishop in 1626 he found himself in turbulent political times. England and Spain were at loggerheads and to secure Ireland Charles I offered a series of concessions, including religious toleration, known as the Graces, in exchange for money for the upkeep of his army. Usher led a campaign against this and the Graces were not finally endorsed by the (Protestant) Irish Parliament. Indeed in 1633 Usher wrote to Archbishop Laud of Canterbury in an effort to gain support for the imposition of recusancy fines on Irish Catholics.

Later in his career Usher concentrated on research in theology and the early Church and began his study of the chronology of the Bible. He calculated the date of the Creation to have been nightfall preceding Sunday 23 October 4004 BC.

Laughable as the whole concept appears now it was seen as a very serious and important task in his day. The Holy Bible was seen as the only infallible source of early history of mankind. His work required a great depth of knowledge of ancient history including the rise of the Persians, Greek and Romans, and a facility with Biblical languages. He had multiple sources other than the Bible and his account is in close agreement with known historical milestones such as the deaths of Alexander (323 BC) and Julius Caesar (44 BC).

So august was Usher’s reputation as a scholar that the dates were often written into the margins of personal Bibles until they acquired the legitimacy of the printed Word itself. According to Usher’s chronology the Lost Tribes left Israel in 721 BC. One line of research has all native Americans descended from these Tribes. Presumably then they began walking to the Americas soon after. This would have the Israelites arriving there about 500 BC. In this chronology the America were settled for barely two thousand years when Columbus landed.

In truth advanced societies existed in the Americas at least a thousand years earlier.

Whilst we know all of this now to be untenable (Earth was NOT created for man alone: it is 4.6 billion years old and the Universe a further 9 billion years) it is worthy of note that the earliest known civilisations across the globe date from fairly close to Usher’s Creation date. In Mesoamerica, by way of example (an undiscovered part of the world which then harboured up to 25 million souls, a substantial fraction of Earth’s total population) the Maya’s excellent calendar begins from mid-August 3114 BC. Western societies were then too emerging in the Fertile Crescent area of the Middle East, as were Eastern civilisations in China.


The youngest school child today would summarize it all with one simple question for Archbishop Usher:

‘What about the dinosaurs?’

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