Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sterne, John (1660-1745)
STERNE or STEARNE, JOHN (1660–1745), bishop of Clogher, only son of Dr. John Sterne or Stearne (1624–1669) [q. v.], by his wife Dorothy, daughter of Charles Ryves (d. 1700), examiner in the chancery of Ireland, was born in Dublin in 1660. He was educated at the cathedral school under ‘Mr. Ryder,’ and entered Trinity College, Dublin, on 2 April 1674, his tutor being Philip Barbour. He graduated B.A. 11 Feb. 1677, M.A. 12 July 1681, and D.D. in July 1705. Having been ordained deacon in October 1682 by Anthony Dopping, bishop of Meath, he served for a time as domestic chaplain to that prelate. About 1688 he was made vicar of Trim; in October 1692 he was instituted to the rectory of Clonmacduffe, and in June 1703 to that of Killary, both in the diocese of Meath. On 11 Sept. 1702 he was installed chancellor in St. Patrick's Cathedral. Upon the death of his mother's kinsman, Dean Jerome Ryves, Sterne was elected dean of St. Patrick's, Dublin, by the chapter, largely, it was said, owing to the exertions of Jonathan Swift, then prebendary of Dunlavin. Sterne retained with the deanery the curacy of St. Nicholas Without, which Swift afterwards maintained he had promised to make over to him as a guerdon for his support. In July 1707 Sterne was instrumental in the election of Swift to represent the chapter in convocation. Soon afterwards he joined a small social club to which belonged Swift, Stella, and their common friends, the Walls and the Stoytes, who met on Saturdays for cards and other diversions. Sterne had ample means, and was liberal to the verge of profusion in his private expenditure. Swift fully appreciated his house, his library, and his dinners, with which he often compared unfavourably the dinners of his titled friends in London during 1711. Swift's letters during this period are full of allusions to Dean Sterne; he followed with interest the building operations at the deanery, tendered advice as to the laying out of the garden, and exhorted the dean to set an example to the Irish bishops by opposing the repeal of the Test.
As Sterne was assisted in his elevation to the deanery, so likewise he owed his promotion to the episcopate to Swift. On 28 Oct. 1712 the latter wrote to Stella that if he were asked who would make a good bishop, he would name Sterne before anybody. When the vacancy of Dromore occurred, before he had any idea of the deanery for himself, Swift accordingly named the dean to Bolingbroke and Ormonde, and he says ‘I did it heartily.’ Ormonde raised difficulties; but when the tory leaders, despairing of surmounting Anne's objection to elevating Swift to the bench, determined to provide for him at St. Patrick's, Ormonde had to give way, though he declared that he would have done it for ‘no man else’ than Swift. Swift was held to have achieved a great diplomatic triumph, for, in spite of the hospitalities of which the deanery was the centre, Sterne had a host of enemies among the protestant clergy in Ireland. He was consecrated bishop of Dromore on 10 May 1713, and in March 1717, upon the removal of St. George Ashe [q. v.] to Derry, he was translated to Clogher. There, as at Dublin and Dromore, he kept up hospitalities which Jonathan Smedley [q. v.] described as the redeeming feature of a forlorn district, while of the bishop himself he rhymed:
He has a purse to keep a table
And eke a soul as hospitable
(Gulliveriana, 1728, p. 111). In 1721 Sterne was appointed vice-chancellor of Dublin University, to which in 1726 he presented a sum of 1,000l. for the purpose of erecting a university printing-house (cf. Burdy, Life of Skelton, 1792). In 1732 Sterne put his name upon the back of two bills—one for subdividing large preferments, the other for enforcing residence. Nothing came of the bills, but Sterne's action elicited a terrible letter from Swift to his old friend, dated July 1733. To the startling candour of this epistle the bishop answered, after a very long interval, with a suavity and a tact which give the reader a high opinion of him as a courtier. Sterne died at Clogher, unmarried, on 6 June 1745. No one enjoyed more of the confidence of Archbishop William King [q. v.], who about 1728 (that is, a year before his death) wrote to Sterne: ‘It would be a comfort to me, if I were dying, to think that you would be my successor, because I am persuaded that you would prosecute right methods for the good of the church.’
By his will, dated 13 May 1741, Sterne munificently endowed a large number of local charities, especially Steevens's Hospital [see Steevens, Richard] and the Blue Coat Hospital, Dublin. He also left 600l. to Dean Swift's hospital for lunatics. He rebuilt the episcopal mansions at Dromore and Clogher, as well as St. Patrick's deanery, and he bequeathed 1,000l. to build a granite spire to St. Patrick's Cathedral, in addition to 1,500l. or 2,000l., at the discretion of his executors, towards finishing the cathedral of Clogher. He left 50l. per annum in exhibitions to Trinity College, Dublin, poor scholars of the diocese of Clogher to have the preference. The rarer books in his library he gave to Archbishop Marsh's library in Dublin. The remainder of his books (many of them purchased at John Dunton's auction in Dublin) were packed in oaken chests, and distributed by lot among the poor curates of the diocese. His manuscripts, of which he had a most valuable collection, he bequeathed to Trinity College, Dublin; among them are the well-known depositions of the sufferers in the rebellion of 1641.
Sterne's only work of importance was his admirable ‘Tractatus de Visitatione Infirmorum’ (Dublin, 1697, 12mo; London, 1700, several editions). This was translated in 1840 as ‘The Curate's Manual’ (London, 8vo). The ‘Tractatus’ was reprinted in the ‘Clergyman's Instructor’ of 1807 and 1813; but in the 1843 edition it was replaced by Bishop Wilson's ‘Parochialia’ (cf. Darling, Cyclop. Bibl. p. 2827).
A portrait of the bishop by the Dublin artist, Thomas Carlton, is in the provost's house at Trinity College, and a replica is at Clogher. A mezzotint engraving was executed by Beard (Evans, Cat. of Engraved Portraits, No. 9940).
[Cotton's Fasti Eccles. Hibern. iii. 80–1; Taylor's Univ. of Dublin, p. 380; Stubbs's Hist. of Dublin University, pp. 178, 180; Monck Mason's Hist. of St. Patrick's; Mant's Church of Ireland, ii. 245, 315, 545, 587; Ware's Irish Bishops, ed. Harris, p. 191; Ware's Irish Writers, ii. 263; Wills's Irish Nation; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. iv. 170; Dunton's Life and Errors, p. 517; Burdy's Life of Skelton, 1792; Noble's Contin. of Granger, iii. 94; Craik's Life of Swift, p. 149; Swift's Journal to Stella, ed. Ryland, passim.]