Sterling, James (1701–63), writer and clergyman, was the son of James Sterling, gentleman landowner, of Dowrass, King's Co.; nothing is known of his mother. He was taught by a Mr Lloyd in Dublin before entering TCD (1716), where he was awarded a scholarship (1718) and a BA (1720). His first play, ‘The rival generals’, was printed in Dublin and London in 1722 and performed at Smock Alley theatre, Dublin. The play, a tragedy set in the court of a Genoese doge, was not very original and was dramatically weak, but nevertheless it was one of the few new plays penned by an Irish writer prior to 1740. In 1724 he contributed, along with Jonathan Swift (qv) and other Irish writers, to Miscellaneous poems, edited by his friend and fellow poet Matthew Concanen (qv). During the 1720s Sterling and Concanen made a number of extended visits to London, where they hoped to establish themselves in literature. Sterling married (c.1723) the actress Nancy Lyddal, who performed in Dublin and London, and in the late 1720s they lived in Darby Square, off Werburgh St. Mrs Sterling was well known for her role as Polly Peachum in ‘The beggar's opera’ and gave a farewell performance in Dublin in 1732. Just after her death in that year, Sterling decided to take holy orders in the anglican communion (he received his MA from Dublin University in 1733). He became chaplain to the Royal Regiment of Foot, but continued to pursue his literary interests. In 1734 he dedicated the Poetical works of Rev. James Sterling to the commanding officer of the regiment. Included in the volume is the play ‘The loves of Hero and Leander’, originally published in Dublin in 1728. Another play, The parricide (1736), was published separately in London. His poetical output, though mediocre, was very varied and ranged from a funeral poem on the death of William Conolly (qv) to an ‘epilogue spoken by Mrs Sterling on quitting the stage’.
In 1737 he received the royal bounty for going abroad as a missionary and arrived in America as a minister for All Hallows parish, Anne Arundel county, Maryland. He later became rector of St Anne's parish, Annapolis (1739), and finally rector of St Paul's parish, Kent county, Maryland (1740). In addition to his religious duties he also took an active interest in developing and protecting trade and industry in the colonies. In 1752 he published An epistle to the Hon. Arthur Dobbs (Arthur Dobbs (qv), politician and colonial governor), and in a sermon to the governor and assembly of Maryland (1755) he warned of the dangers of French encroachments on American soil. In 1751 he journeyed to England and tried unsuccessfully to obtain an exclusive grant for certain exports on the coast of Labrador. He was instead appointed by the crown to the position of collector for Chester and Patapsco, Kent county, Maryland (1752), despite opposition from both English and American trading interests. He held this position, which carried an annual salary of £80, until his death. Throughout his time in Maryland he contributed poems and articles to the Maryland Gazette and American Magazine.
Sterling did not make his mark in literary circles as he had initially hoped, but some of his surviving poems about the interaction between man and nature (e.g. whaling off Donegal and deforestation in the American wilderness) show that he could write strong descriptive passages. He was highly resourceful and managed to combine religious duties with more worldly activities such as the theatre and colonial trade, despite opposition from his more puritanical clerical colleagues in America. Natural business instincts and high-level contacts in England meant that he was able to gain preferment. While in America he witnessed first-hand the boom in the fur, whale, fish, and mast trade, and was not prepared to let his clerical status prevent him from dabbling in commercial activities. He died in Kent county, Maryland, in November 1763. A long obituary appeared in the Maryland Gazette. He married secondly (1743) Rebecca, widow of the Rev. Arthur Holt, and had one daughter called Rebecca; he married thirdly (1749) Mary Smith.