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Their young pupil was remarkable for his diligence, and manifested a great desire for knowledge; and he soon gained the esteem of his instructors by his profiency in Latin, rhetoric, and poetry. In after-life he frequently acknowledged himself to be deeply indebted to their attention and ability in conducting his education, and would mention it amongst the providences of God towards him, that persons who had been led to Dublin by such fortuitous circumstances should have been made the instruments of so much good to him.
At this period of his life he was a great lover of poetry, but he told Dr. Parr that he soon restrained that taste, from an idea that to indulge it would interrupt his more serious and important studies.
History is generally pleasing to the youthful mind, and seems to have been particularly interesting to young Usher. He thirsted for a knowledge of the occurrences of past times, and the pleasure which he experienced in the perusal of a work by Sleidan, made him resolve to enter upon "the study and search of antiquity, and all sorts of learning;" and he prosecuted his enquiries with spirit, and with far greater success than might have been expected, for Dr. Parr states that there was a great "scarcity of good books and learned men" in Ireland at that time.
In the year 1593, Trinity college was finished and opened for the reception of students, and at the beginning of the roll was placed the name of James Usher, who had then attained the age of thirteen. Here he had the advantage of continuing his studies under the guidance of Mr. Hamilton, who was appointed to the first fellowship in the college.
Still pursuing his studies with renewed application and pleasure, he devoted himself to the acquisition of classical and scientific knowledge; and at the age of sixteen had made such progress in ecclesiastical history, antiquity, and chronology, that he completed the first draught of that great work, The Annals of the Old and New Testament, which afterwards spread his fame throughout Europe.
The subjects which principally occupied his thoughts at this period seemed to show that he had made choice of the sacred profession of a minister of Jesus Christ rather than of the law, which his father had wished him to pursue; and on the death of that parent, in August 1598, being left to decide for himself, he determined without hesitation to prepare himself for the work of the ministry.
The same event enables us to make mention of a striking proof of his disinterestedness and brotherly affection. A considerable estate descended to him by the death of his father; but the greater part of it he gave up to his brother and sisters, reserving for himself only so much as might maintain him at college, and place at his command a small annual sum for the purchase of books.
Surrounded as he was by popery, having relations who adhered to that faith, and meeting frequently with books which advocated the Romish religion, his attention was naturally turned towards that subject. A book entitled The Fortress of Faith, written by a Romanist named Stapleton, was much circulated at that time, and came into the hands of our young student, while he was an under-graduate of the university. Something awakened in his mind a suspicion that the author had not fairly stated, or honestly quoted, the opinions of the Fathers; and this suspicion led him to resolve to scrutinize the matter for his own satisfaction, and, with this view, if God should spare his life, to " read the Fathers all over, and trust none but his own eyes in the search of them." This stupendous undertaking he was spared to accomplish. Commencing at twenty years of age with the Fathers of the first century, he read a certain portion every day in chronological order, till at the end of eighteen years he had completed this laborious task.
Writing to his uncle, he gave the following account of the studies in which he was now engaged. "The principal part of my study is at this time employed in perusing the writings of the Fathers, and observing out of them the doctrine of the ancient church; wherein I find it very necessary that the reader should be thoroughly informed touching his authors, what time they lived, and what works are truly, what falsely, attributed to them; either of which being mistaken must of force bring great confusion in this kind of study."
But, before this, he had reflected and read much upon the subject, and had even disputed with some of the most distinguished of the popish priests. Before the age of twenty, the protestants singled him out as their representative against a learned jesuit, named Fitzsymonds, who had sent out a challenge defying "the greatest champion and best learned, to dispute with him about the points in controversy between the Roman and Reformed churches."
That so young a man should have been fixed upon to defend the sacred cause of truth, against errors supported by subtilty and ingenuity, is a strong proof of the high estimation in which his talents and acquirements were held.
It was agreed that the disputants should meet once a week in a room in Dublin castle, which should be open to the public; and the jesuit entered into the contest without any apprehension of defeat. It appears, however, that after one or two conferences, he retired from the field; and, not liking to own himself vanquished, gave out that he did not choose to waste his time in disputing with a boy. This came to young Usher's ears, and he wrote a letter to Fitzsymonds, in which, after making a reference to the battle between David and the Philistine, he proceeds, "I would fain have you know, that I neither came then, nor now do come unto you, in any confidence of any learning that is in me, in which respect, notwithstanding, I thank God I am what I am; but I came in the name of the Lord of Hosts, whose companies you have reproached, being certainly persuaded that even out of the mouths of babes and sucklings he is able to show forth his own praises." And then, after proposing that the discussion should proceed as at first intended, he concludes his letter by " praying the Lord that both this and all other enterprises that we take in hand may be so ordered as may most make for the advancement of his own glory and the kingdom of his Son Jesus Christ."
The discussion does not appear to have been renewed; but that the jesuit had not a mean opinion of his opponent's talents may be inferred from an admission which he afterwards made in one of his works. "There came to me once," he says, "a youth of about eighteen years of age, of a ripe wit, when scarce, as you would think, gone through his course. of philosophy, or got out of his childhood, yet ready to dispute on the most abstruse points of divinity." And at a later period he confessed that Mr. Usher was a profound scholar, and pronounced him "the most learned person out of the catholic church."*
* Acatholicorum doctissimus.
In due course Usher took the degree of bachelor of arts ; and, in the year 1600, he proceeded to that of master of arts, being then twenty years old. In the same year he was appointed catechist-reader in the college, the duties of which office he discharged with manifest advantage to his pupils and credit to himself.
Thus far, then, we have followed him in the prosecution of his studies, and have seen reason to believe that he was endued with more than the ordinary talents of his contemporaries, and that hitherto he had not gone into the field of enquiry without gathering such fruits as he could turn to good account. But we may know more than this. There is evidence that he felt the importance of religion being in the heart as well as the head.
He had been much impressed by some of the books which were put into his hands, and was careful from his youth up to sanctify the Lord's day. From the age of fourteen he had received the holy communion, and it was his custom to devote the preceding afternoon to the exercises of prayer, reflection, and self-examination.
At this early period of his life, he was collecting from various sources, and arranging in their proper order, those papers which were afterwards published under the title of A Body of Divinity, and through which there breathes an exalted reverence for the eternal Jehovah, a settled belief in the great evangelical doctrines of the atonement and grace, and a fervent spirit of devotion.
Dr. Bernard informs us that, "by reason of the scarcity of preachers," even in Dublin, "three young men of the college" were appointed to preach in Christ Church cathedral before the State; and that amongst these was Mr. Usher, who was desired to treat of some of the popish errors. But he soon after desisted, from a conviction of the impropriety of thus ministering in public, without