Jebb, John (1775–1833), theologian and Church of Ireland bishop of Limerick, was born 27 September 1775 in Drogheda, second son of John Jebb (1719–96), town alderman and merchant, and his second wife, Alicia (née Forster; d. 1782). On the sudden failure of his father's business in 1777 (due primarily to nervous breakdown) the infant was bundled off to the care of his widowed paternal aunt, Mary McCormick, and her sister in Rostrevor, Co. Down, where he remained until 1782. Taught his letters and brought up in affectionate piety by both sisters, he was a playful if strikingly prim and tidy child. Moving in 1782 to his parent's new home in Leixlip, Co. Dublin, he was looked after by his troubled father until September 1786, when he commenced boarding at a poorly managed classical school in Celbridge, where he was bullied. In December 1788, over a year after his brother and effective guardian, Richard Jebb (qv), came into the inheritance of his paternal uncle, he was switched to the more congenial environment of the endowed diocesan school in Londonderry (1788–90). Over two years he started to put right his faulty education (despite later scholarly attainments, he never quite shed a sense of incapacity in Latin and Greek), in time to matriculate into TCD in July 1791. In spite of his brother's fears for his future impoverishment (and attempts to place him in the army) he worked in his dreamy way towards a career in the Church of Ireland. Awarded medals for verse and prose composition (1793, 1794), he graduated in spring 1796. As a resident scholar he studied divinity for the next five years, winning prizes for theological exposition and graduating MA (1801). In 1797–8 he was active in the TCD student corps of yeomanry.
Alexander Knox (qv), whom he had first met while in Londonderry, chanced again to meet him in Dublin and promised help getting a curacy. Ordained deacon without title on 24 February 1799 by Dr Matthew Young (qv), bishop of Clonfert, Jebb was reassured that a vacancy was due to come his way under Charles Brodrick (qv), bishop of Kilmore 1796–1801. Handed the curacy of Swanlinbar, Co. Cavan, in July 1799, he moved directly to this then ‘fashionable resort’ (Forster, Correspondence, 1), for the next four years, preaching to the ‘decent, regular and attentive’ (ibid., 4) congregation, playing cards, dancing at the occasional ball, and reading. Winter calls to distant sick or dying parishioners were sometimes gruelling, however, and his health suffered. Though Brodrick was translated to the archbishopric of Cashel (1801–22), he yet became a considerate patron and friend to Jebb. In the meantime, the increasing flow of correspondence between Knox and Jebb matured an intimate intellectual companionship, and under Knox's influence Jebb became more ascetic in habits. In April 1802 he gave his first major public sermon in Dublin. In January 1804 Brodrick was provided him with an undemanding curacy in Magorban parish, near Cashel, Co. Tipperary, held until he was appointed rector (July 1805) of the nearby parish of Kiltinan, a non-cure worth £250 a year. Made cathedral preacher and diocesan examiner for holy orders in 1805, he had ample leisure to contemplate issues of scripture and theology that emerged in discussion with Knox. Gripped by a stray comment from Knox, he was drawn during the winter of 1807–8 to weigh up the prevalence and meaning of parallelism in biblical narrative, coming to the understanding that biblical discourse was constructed less by logical progression than by the persuasive power of ‘cognate or gradational’ statement (Forster, Life, 76). It took over ten years to bring his thesis to publication. Operating from a safe, pre-Darwinian, theological haven, he probably did not grasp the full implications of such an insight, but it ultimately helped contribute to a new defence of scriptural truth in the face of scientific analysis, freeing the theologian from attempts to prove the significance of revelation by the literal rationality of the text.
Though Jebb was prone to fits of depression, there is no sign of existential uncertainty in his theology, which lacks the self-doubt or conviction of sin so evident in contemporary dissenting writings. He passed some months in England in summer 1809, recuperating from illness. In June 1810 he was appointed rector of Abington, Co. Limerick, an office again without parochial duties. Though he filled notebooks with jottings on theology, ethics, and ecclesiology, the hardship of depressive torpor halted more extensive work for some years. Annual charity sermons in Limerick and Dublin took some of his attention. In 1812–13 he pressed on with his study of the bible despite a taxing shoulder injury. In December 1813, at the behest of Brodrick, who was in conflict with the chief secretary, Robert Peel (qv), he drafted a critique of plans afoot to make Church of Ireland parish clergy responsible for a primary system of education, without evangelical purpose, for children of every denomination, and presented an alternative plan for rehabilitating the parochial school network. At no time did he have much pastoral experience, except indirectly, with the catholic congregation of Abington. In this sphere his relationship with the local peasantry and their parish priest Fr Michael Costello was a triumph of tact and gentleness. He helped out with petitions and worldly advice, refusing on principle to assume social superiority (taking off his hat if anyone doffed theirs), and won genuine trust from small farmers. He combined impatience at extravagant protestant missionary schemes with respect for the submissive humility of the catholic poor. To his ecumenical vision there was providential resemblance between catholic institutions and some features of methodism. Fr Costello felt that no ‘two clergymen could be on better terms’ than he and Jebb (Tierney, 56).
Jaundiced and pained by gallstones through 1817, Jebb spent three months taking the waters in England late that year with Charles Forster, his curate since 1813. Having set aside his work in manuscript in early 1816, he completed it in three months of activity in 1819, and it was published as Sacred literature (1820). During December 1821 he became a national celebrity when he arranged for a parish meeting in the catholic chapel in Abington, where he and Fr Costello successfully appealed from the altar for calm during the on-going agrarian crisis. Parishioners signed resolutions of good conduct and loyalty, and the parish remained conspicuously unaffected by Rockite disturbances. Though he was chided by Brodrick for speaking in chapel, Jebb's endeavours were praised in parliament. During the famine of early summer 1822 he administered funds from the London committee to repair market roads, build a scutch-mill, and propagate yarn spinning in the parish. Elaborate plans to nurture textiles in the district fell through when he was appointed bishop of Limerick in November 1822. He was consecrated in January 1823.
His first episcopal charge (June 1823) opposed the zealotry of the ‘new reformation’ in Ireland with sympathetic awareness of catholic clergy as ‘valuable co-adjutors’ in religious education and practice (Bowen, 196). Within his first year in office, he pioneered a comprehensive course of studies for diocesan ordinands, leading to thorough oral and written examination. His system inspired the reorganisation of clerical teaching in the church of Ireland under Archbishop Richard Whately (qv) in the early 1830s. Though he had notably benefited from ties of patronage, he set his administration to eradicate favouritism. He proceeded to cultivate warm friendships with his catholic colleagues in Limerick, and frowned on the ultra-protestant campaign to bar non-anglican clergymen from graveyard obsequies. This did not preclude delivery of a tough speech in the house of lords (10 June 1824), rejecting measures for the commutation of tithes and defending the character of the Church of Ireland as a vehicle of moral influence in Irish society, forming an important link between the landed classes and the peasantry. He saw little wrong with clerical sinecures or non-residence, and indeed in his own case the results were worthwhile. His sermons and letters of the later 1820s emphasised, to the discomfort of his low-church fellows, the resources of spiritual wisdom in traditional catholic consensus, embodied in liturgical service. He was disappointed not to receive a translation to the diocese of Cloyne in 1826. His cool response took some of the rancour out of the excitement aroused by reported mass conversions to protestantism in Askeaton, Co. Limerick in early 1827.
After a crippling stroke in April 1827, he travelled to Leamington Spa in August for medical assistance and never returned to Ireland. Opposed to catholics sitting in parliament, he organised a petition of the established diocese of Limerick against the ‘emancipation’ bill in early 1829. Despite such views he was a pacifying influence in the often bitter religious atmosphere of the 1820s in Ireland. With Knox he was an important source for the tractarian movement of the 1830s in England, and his work has lasting literary and intellectual value. Whatever his credentials for sanctity, he undoubtedly held office with grace and goodwill. After recurrent attacks of paralysis and jaundice (borne sweetly) he died 9 December 1833, in Wandsworth, seemingly of a ruptured gall bladder. He never married. He is buried in the ground of St Paul's, Clapham. Some uncollected letters are in the Brodrick papers, NLI, MS 8866.