His father was a wealthy master-cutler. He was educated at Sedgley Park School, St Mary's College, Oscott, and Ushaw College, where he became a priest in 1834. He was resident priest at Doncaster for five years, but his health having given way he travelled during eight years through Europe and the East.
After his return home, 1847, he spent some time at Islington, London, working for the welfare of street children. He became a professed member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer at St. Trond, Belgium, 1851, and afterwards gave missions in England and Ireland; but from 1851 until his death he devoted himself wholly to giving missions to children.
He was the founder of children's missions and "the children's Mass", and by his writings systematized a philosophy of religious training. These missions lasted sometimes three weeks, and were given not only to school-children, but to working boys and girls. His maxim was that "nothing so disgusted children as monotony", and therefore he had the prayers at Mass and the Rosary sung to simple airs, and his sermons seldom lasted more than twenty minutes. Preaching quietly but with great dramatic power from a platform, he held their attention. He was a story-teller, seldom moving to laughter but often to tears.
He spent his spare time writing books for children in simple language. His chief works are The Sunday-School Teacher and God and His creatures, which has been published in French.
He wrote a scathing answer to an attack on his works by the Saturday Review. His writings were assailed as "infamous publications" by the rationalist historian William Edward Hartpole Lecky in his History of European Morals, chiefly on account of the somewhat lurid eschatology of the children's books.More than four millions of his booklets were sold.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "John Furniss". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton.