Catholic bishop, educator. England was born in Cork, Ireland, on September 23, 1786, the eldest son of Thomas England, a successful tobacco merchant, and Honora Lordan. He received a good education in Cork’s Protestant schools. After initially preparing for a legal career, England decided to study for the priesthood and was ordained in 1808. In Cork he served in various parishes and headed the diocesan schools and seminary. He edited a patriotic secular newspaper and was prominent in the movement for Catholic emancipation and opposition to the British government’s attempt to veto bishops’ appointments.
In 1820 Pope Pius VII appointed England the first bishop of the Diocese of Charleston, encompassing the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. At England’s arrival in Charleston, the diocese had three priests and five thousand Catholics. The Catholic community was disorganized and had experienced years of dissension and schism. England addressed these problems with tact and energy, earning the nickname “Steam Bishop.” He traveled repeatedly to all corners of his huge diocese, set up parishes, recruited priests, and established a boys’ academy in Charleston and a seminary to train new priests. In 1829 he founded the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy. England was one of the first Irish American bishops and became an important leader of the Irish community nationwide. England’s modern views on education and free expression and his experience of British persecution of Irish Catholics led him to embrace American democracy and influenced his vision of a free church in a free society. He was the first important American Catholic theoretician of freedom of religion and separation of church and state. In 1822 England founded the first regularly published American Catholic newspaper, the United States Catholic Miscellany.
In 1826 England became the first Catholic priest to address Congress. There, he asserted that Catholicism and the Constitution were compatible: “I would not allow to the Pope or to any bishop of our church, outside the Union, the smallest interference with the humblest vote at our most insignificant balloting box.” To reconcile traditional Catholicism with American democracy, England established a diocesan constitution. Under these new regulations, parishes elected lay vestries to take care of the church’s financial and physical needs. Lay delegates and clergy met in annual conventions to deliberate and pass resolutions for the bishop’s approval. This system was successful in promoting Catholic unity and support for the church, but subsequent bishops ignored England’s example.
England abhorred slavery but stated that his church permitted retention in servitude of descendants of those originally enslaved. He hoped that American slavery would not continue, but he saw no quick end to it. He worked to improve the condition of blacks. In 1835 he established a Charleston academy for free colored youths, but threats of white mob violence forced its closure.
Affable and sophisticated, England was well received in South Carolina society. He was active in the Charleston Library Society and the Literary and Philosophical Society, serving as a curator of the latter’s natural history museum. His health declined during 1841, and he died in Charleston on April 11, 1842. He was buried in the crypt of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Charleston.
Carey, Patrick. An Immigrant Bishop: John England’s Adaptation of Irish Catholicism to American Republicanism. Yonkers, N.Y.: U.S. Catholic Historical Society, 1982.
Guilday, Peter. The Life and Times of John England. 2 vols. 1927. Reprint, New York: Arno, 1969.
Kearns, Daniel F. “Bishop John England and the Possibilities of Catholic Republicanism.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 102 (January 2001): 47–75.
Messmer, Sebastian G., ed. The Works of Right Reverend John England, First Bishop of Charleston. 7 vols. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clarke, 1908.
Saunders, R. Frank, and George Rogers. “Bishop John England of Charleston: Catholic Spokesman and Southern Intellectual, 1820– 1842.” Journal of the Early Republic 13 (fall 1993): 301–22.