Meet the Man Who Changed the World


His name was John Joseph Hughes, and he may have been one of the most important men in American history, if not the entire world.

DaggerJohn.jpgAn Irish immigrant gardener eventually ordained to the Catholic priesthood, “Dagger John,” as he was called due to the habit of punctuating his signature with a dagger-like cross and behaving with a similarly aggressive flair, became the first archbishop of the archdiocese of New York. He served between 1842 and 1864, a time of explosive Irish-Catholic growth in America.

According to a reporter covering him during his tenure as the city’s Catholic shepherd, he was “more a Roman gladiator than a devout follower of the meek founder of Christianity.”

A Protestant convert who emigrated from Ireland at age twenty, Hughes had his initial application for the priesthood rejected. Church leaders deemed him uneducated and ignorant, charges that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

In fact, he was brilliant and resourceful, traits that would come in handy throughout his long and productive ministry. Hughes made his mark as an eloquent orator speaking persuasively against religious bigotry. At the time, prejudice against newly arriving immigrants, especially the Irish, was rampant.

In 1838, at the age of forty, Bishop Hughes was transferred to New York, where he was appointed to the role of coadjutor bishop. His assignment couldn’t have been more fraught with difficulty. Writing in the City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute, a New York-based think tank, William Stern described the debauchery and cultural chaos found throughout the city, especially in those areas populated by recent immigrants hailing from Ireland:

New York’s Irish truly formed an underclass; every variety of social pathology flourished luxuriantly among them. Family life had disintegrated …

sweeneysshambles.jpgThe immigrants crowded into neighborhoods like Sweeney’s Shambles in the city’s fourth ward and Five Points in the sixth ward (called the “bloody sixth” for its violence”) … Besides rampant alcoholism, addiction to opium and laudanum was epidemic in these neighborhoods in the 1840s and 1850s. Many Irish immigrants communicated in their own profanity-filled street slang called “flash talk”: a multi-day drinking spree was “going on a bender,” “cracking a can” was robbing a house. Literate English practically disappeared from ordinary conversation.

An estimated 50,000 Irish prostitutes, known in flash talk as “nymphs of the pave,” worked the city in 1850, and Five Points alone had as many as seventeen brothels. Illegitimacy reached stratospheric heights—and tens of thousands of abandoned Irish kids roamed, or prowled, the city’s streets. Violent Irish gangs, with names like the Forty Thieves, the B’boys, the Roach Guards, and the Chichesters, brought havoc to their neighborhoods. The gangs fought one another and the nativists—but primarily they robbed houses and small businesses, and trafficked in stolen property. Over half the people arrested in New York in the 1840s and 1850s were Irish, so that police vans were dubbed “paddy wagons” and episodes of mob violence in the streets were called “donnybrooks,” after a town in Ireland.

Death was everywhere. In 1854 one out of every 17 people in the sixth ward died. In Sweeney’s Shambles the rate was one out of five in a 22-month period. The death rate among Irish families in New York in the 1850s was 21 percent, while among non-Irish it was 3 percent. Life expectancy for New York’s Irish averaged under 40 years. Tuberculosis, which Bishop Hughes called the “natural death of the Irish immigrants,” was the leading cause of death, along with drink and violence.

This was the horrendous scene into which the new bishop waded.  One can only imagine what went through his head.

Where to begin?

For starters, he decided to build from scratch a Catholic school system, believing that the future of the city would be found in the character and intellect of its children. “In our age the question of education,” he said, “is the question of the church.” He wanted the schools to stand out from their secular counterparts. In addition to a strict but standard curriculum based on the classical education model, the schools emphasized morality, virtue, and, naturally, Catholic theology. Parents were obligated to participate in the care and upkeep of the schools. Hughes would eventually expand his pioneering efforts to the college level, founding Fordham University, as well as Manhattan, Manhattanville, and Mount St. Vincent Colleges.

But the bishop was considered to be most effective and influential when engaging New Yorkers both from the pulpit and on the street with straightforward spiritual perspective. He regularly preached on the need for personal transformation, encouraging the faithful to assume individual responsibility for their actions and realize the benefits of living disciplined and biblically grounded lives. He made the Scriptures real and relevant. The simple principles of right and wrong were stressed, which, though obvious in hindsight, seemed to have been forgotten or, at the least, regularly ignored. By all accounts, Hughes preached a simple and positive message of faith, hope, and love. By helping New Yorkers see their lives from an eternal rather than a temporal perspective, they were motivated to immediate action. His success was stunning:

Alcoholism and drug addiction withered away. By the 1880s an estimated 60 percent of Irish women, and almost a third of the men, totally abstained from alcohol. Many Irish sections in the city became known for their peacefulness, order, and cleanliness—a far cry from the filth, violence, and disease of the Five Points and Sweeney’s Shambles of mid-century. Gone, too, was the notorious Irish promiscuity of those years; New York’s Irish became known by the latter part of the nineteenth century as a churched people, often chided by the press for their “puritanical” attitudes. Irish prostitutes virtually disappeared in the city, as did the army of Irish youths wandering the streets without adult supervision. Irish family life, formerly so frayed and chaotic, became strong and nourishing. Irish children entered the priesthood or the convent, the professions, politics, professional sports, show business, and commerce. In 1890 some 30 percent of New York City’s teachers were Irish women, and the Irish literacy rate exceeded 90 percent. In 1871 reformer “Honest” John Kelly became the leader of Tammany Hall, and with the election in 1880 of shipping magnate William Grace as mayor, the Irish assumed control of city politics.

The city had been transformed, not by fiat or fire and brimstone, but through the deliberate and disciplined efforts of a man whose main goal was to change a culture by reforming hearts and minds in and through the name of Jesus Christ. He didn’t simply preach at them; he talked with them, like a father to a son. And the effects of this direct and gracious approach are still being felt today. Experts have suggested that had Bishop Hughes failed in his attempt to reform the Catholic Irish culture in New York, the future of American immigration and thus, America itself, would have been drastically altered.

It may seem reasonable to discount this example of cultural transformation as something from another era. But to dismiss it so quickly would be a grave mistake. Those committed to redeeming the current culture can find practical application and inspiration in the work of Bishop John Hughes. Although a man of significant title, he possessed no extraordinary authority or talent. He could talk and teach with power and persuasion—but many had previously attempted to impact the culture in that manner, only to fail. What made Hughes different was that instead of trying to merely change behavior, he worked tirelessly to reach a person’s heart and thus their motivational center. He was able to craft arguments and share information in a way that moved people from apathy to action. And most importantly, as he did this, he was able to effect permanent change.

Sign up for my weekly e-newsletter

Leave a Comment

Alma F. More than 1 year ago

Thanks for ensuring that in the spirit of Christ all good deeds do not go without honor. I enjoy and pray  for ALL my christian brothers and sisters regardless if they are not Cathoilc christians.  The great adversary loves to divide and conquer!

Libby More than 1 year ago

what good advice....."start small" ....thank you!

MirandaFOTF More than 1 year ago

Hello, friends! We want to take a moment to point out that while Focus on the Family is a distinctly evangelical organization with historical Protestant understandings and commitments, we're also happy to acknowledge on occasion the wonderful contributions of our Catholic friends. Please know that it was not Jim's intent to start a Catholic v. Protestant debate, and any further comments of this nature will not be posted. Thanks for your understanding.

lucas m. More than 1 year ago

I'm not sure we should be giving him so much attention when you do research you see where he campaigned to have the King James Bible removed from schools.

It seems like he was more an advocate for the doctrine of Catholics which is not what Jesus taught.  I would go so far to say that Dr. James Dobson would disagree with you.

From wikipediaHe also campaigned actively on behalf of Irish immigrants, and attempted to secure state support for religious schools. He protested against the United States Government for using the King James Bible in public schools, claiming that it was an attack on Catholic constitutional rights of double taxation, because Catholics would need to pay taxes for public school and also pay for the private school to send their children, to avoid the Protestant translation of the Bible. When he failed to secure state support, he founded an independent Catholic school system which was taken into the Catholic Church's core at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, 1884, which mandated that all Parishes have a parochial school and that all Catholic children be sent to those schools.

Arline More than 1 year ago

Bishop Hughes is just one of many outstanding people in the Catholic Church, several of whom have been declared saints, who have changed the world by fearlessly following and teaching the Gospel. The country would not be in this kind of condition, if there were more clerics like him.

Felicia More than 1 year ago

Love this inspiring story!! Praise the Lord for what he did and what one person can do

Lisa More than 1 year ago

Wonderful, inspiring story!  We desperately need that kind of transformation to happen today.  The only thing, (is if done in a similiar way with starting christian private schools), how could a free christian school education operate today & be tuition free for low-wage earners (or those with many kids)?  Are there any ideas on how that can happen these days, especially with all the technology & education requirements today?  If that could happen, that would be great!  There would be more school choice!

Dennis More than 1 year ago

What a wonderful inspirational story.  The example of this man is one for all of us to follow. Catholics and all Christian denominations need to speak up, reach out and lead our fellow Americans to or back to Christ.  Secondly, we must encourage education (technical, vocational, and professional) and work ethic.  God Bless!!!

Richard D. G. More than 1 year ago

A beautiful story about the power of " One" person with God's Blessing upon him. Bishop Hughes realized that change comes by reaching the heart of a person and then peace follows as the person follows the example of Jesus. Bishop Hughes also realized the importance of reaching the young, impressionable minds of children to show these children " The Way" so he started a Catholic School system. A fantastic, evangelistic tool of Jesus, teach the children while they are young and tuition was FREE !!!!!! The question that I pose now is , Why is tuition now $5000 for a child to attend a Catholic School and learn the ways of Jesus compared to a free public school where Jesus , the greatest example of love ever, is now banned from public schools ???? So where does that leave the souls of our beloved children forced into public schools !!!!  Perhaps it's time for our government and the "powers to be" who establish tuition rates for Catholic/ Christian schools to remove the " MILLSTONE" before it's too late !!!! Recreate the " Fields Of Dreams" for our beloved children, " If you make tuition free or at least affordable, THEY WILL COME" !!!!!

Jeff More than 1 year ago

Very interesting to hear of this man that God used to bring reform to NYC, and dear to my heart due to my Irish roots.  However, I would question the "gospel" that was preached through a Catholic bishop.  As a former Catholic myself, I know firsthand that the Catholic gospel is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Salvation is by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone, period.  Good works are the natural fruit that pour out from authentic salvation, not the means of salvation as Catholicism teaches.  There is nothing good in us that makes us turn to God, only God's calling on our lives, that calls us out of darkness (Romans 3:9-23, Ephesians 2:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6); our responsibility is to answer that call, yet we can't even take the credit for that- repentance itself is a gift from God (2 Timothy 2:25).  I realize this has been a battle between Catholics and Protestants for centuries, but if we get the Gospel wrong, and don't truly know Christ- we will forever be apart from Him (Matthew 7:21-23).  In light of John Joseph Hughs' great accomplishments, don't just consider your outward "works", but consider your eternal walk with the Lord- He alone deserves all the glory for your salvation, not a man-made denomination.  God is the one that changes the heart, and conforms us to be more like Christ (Romans 8:29). With loving concern-Jeff

Dave More than 1 year ago

Good for you Sarah. A young follower of Jesus Christ with right perspective on being led in paths of righteousness. Stepping out in faith means exactly that, 'you don't know or understand...". So, take along, with joy in your heart, Ephesians 6: 10-20 and let the Spirit of Christ shine through. 

Mike More than 1 year ago

Great story!  Clearly illustrates how Christ's love transforms.  A very needed lesson for our times.  Thanks for writing it!

Mari H More than 1 year ago

This is very interesting, but I think the 1857 Fulton Street prayer revival lead by Jeremiah Lanphier may have had an even greater impact on the revival in NYC and then across the country.

Tess More than 1 year ago

"For such a time..."Praise God, Who is the same yesterday, today and forever, raised up this man for his era and the otherwise lost souls to whom he ministered.

Kristine More than 1 year ago

Extremely inspiring. I love a story like that.

Sally More than 1 year ago

Many parallels to the life of Bob Childress, whose story was told in the book, "The Man Who Moved A Mountain."

Robert More than 1 year ago

Quite an unusual bio. of this man John Joseph Huges.  The English unknown knowns and reformers like John Newton and William Wilberforce are outstanding people that most people don't know outside the Christian Community Community, but they are known.  It's hard to believe a man with these gifts of oration and communication of the Gospel would be so obscure to all of us.  The Irish Community, if you can call it that, seems somewhat comparable to a Dicken's Novel like Oliver Twist.  Written in Victorian England, which was very anti-semitic, even Dickens, who wrote about the injustices in England, child labor laws and legislation that was against the poor, didn't escape this. But he was a man of his day, like all of us.

Education starts from the top and trickles downward.  Lincoln said the people in the school house in one generation will be the leaders of the government in the next.  His approach and insight were invaluble to his achievements with God's grace working with him.

Where has this fellow been hiding all these years in American History, and why have we not heard of him.  It's very hard to think of him as ordinary, not only because of the gifts he had but the accomplishments.  Were always kind of thrown into this backwater that these fellows were just ordinary men like me and you, and if you put your mind to it you can do the same.  You can count the Wilberforces,John Newtons, and other obscure Christians such as John Joseph Huges, or George Mueller on one hand. Are these just ordinary men.  God did use ordinary men to do his will throughout the Bible, but it's hard to think of these men as ordinary men.  Wilberforce wanted to change the manors of the English, and he was successful at this, as well as staying close to 50 yrs. in politics to abolish the slave trade.  Can you think of Wilberforce, or Newton or John Joseph Huges as ordinary men.  Perhaps without God they would have been.    It's hard to imagine that this man is so obscure in American History.  In what classroom would you find his name and legacy told?  Thank You! Robert West

sarah More than 1 year ago

search me, o Lord.. please give me the eyes to see and the ears to hear. thanks Jim Daly. i read the September 2012 newsletter, which is still on my kitchen counter because im not quite ready to put it away, with part of chapter 1 of ReFocus. i had to keep reading because what you were talking about resonates strongly with me. im only in my 20s, but i think the Lord is doing something in my heart that i dont exactly understand but i welcome it. getting it ready for a spiritual battle? probably..

DMS More than 1 year ago

I always hear of the great heroes of the faith, but I never knew about John Jospeh Hughes until a few minutes ago. We should all have a little of his heart in our own personal ministry to the world.

CS More than 1 year ago

Beautiful and inspiring.  I love reading about these dedicated servants and sharing with my children.  Thank you!

Dan More than 1 year ago

Wonderful story. Thanks for posting!   He reminds me of a Catholic version of "David Wilkerson"

Marylin More than 1 year ago

Thanks for sharing this story-a story of one person not giving up.An example of Jesus Christ.

anna More than 1 year ago

very inspirational!  Jesus told us we are the salt of the earth.  If we are salt because we are joyful in the workplace and praising through hardship, then everyone around us will become thirsty!

cept4Grace More than 1 year ago

Lord Jesus, here I am.  Empower me, guide me, send me.

Hugh More than 1 year ago

Mary, you stated it in a simple but powerful way. Reminds me of Mother Teresa. Everyone can do something. As you stated, see a  need? go do something and God will use the effort.