[The following is the substance of a lecture given at the Old Meeting House, Norwich, as one in a series of talks entitled ‘Light From Old Paths’. I am grateful to Dr John Clements for the invitation.]
J.C. Ryle (1816-1900)
‘For my part, I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years; but the more distant future shall vindicate me.’
Those words were spoken, not by the subject of my talk tonight, J.C. Ryle, but by his illustrious contemporary, the Baptist preacher C.H. Spurgeon.
But Spurgeon’s words apply with uncanny accuracy to Ryle. Neglected, if not totally forgotten, for fifty years after his death in 1900, the first signs of a renaissance of interest in Ryle were noted by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1952 – ‘One of the most encouraging and hopeful signs I have observed for many a long day in evangelical circles has been a renewed and increasing interest in the writings of Bishop J.C.Ryle. In his day he was famous, outstanding and beloved as a champion and exponent of the evangelical and reformed faith. For some reason or other, however, his name and his works are not familiar to modern evangelicals. His books are, I believe, all out of print in this country and very difficult to obtain second-hand.’ (Preface to a re-issue of Old Paths)
That renewed interest has continued and grown until the present time. There are now 7 or 8 biographies. We have access to invaluable knowledge about his life, character, and achievements, some of which has lain hidden for more than a century. Above, we have his written works, almost all of which are back in print, as well as being available in electronic formats.
Who was J.C. Ryle? How do we account for this resurgence of interest in him? And why do I warmly commend him to you as an outstanding Christian leader and teacher?
Background and upbringing
John Charles Ryle was born on 10 May 1816 at Park House, in Macclesfield. When he was 19 the family moved just outside Macclesfield to Henbury Hall, set in 1,000 acres of parkland. As the elder son, Ryle was heir to this impressive estate and to a considerable fortune.
His grandfather had been a prosperous landowner, silk manufacturer, banker, and benefactor. He was a faithful Christian and a dedicated Methodist (Russell). He knew John Wesley, the famous Methodist evangelist, and is mentioned several times in Wesley’s journal.
Ryle’s father was a mill owner, banker, and an MP. He had inherited the grandfather’s fortune, but not his evangelical faith. As a respectable member of society, he took his family to church, but Christianity entered little into everyday life or conversation.
Though the young Ryle had heard rumours about Evangelicals, he said later that he was brought up to regard them as “well meaning, extravagant, fanatical enthusiasts, who carried things a great deal too far in religion.” (Toon & Smout, 24)
John Charles was educated privately at first, then at Eton, and then went up to Christchurch College, Oxford. There he excelled at sport – especially rowing and cricket – and earned a first-class degree in classics.
It was during his third year at Oxford – the year of Queen Victoria’s accession – that various circumstances led Ryle to think about his soul for the first time.
His sister and a cousin both experienced evangelical conversion (to the horror of the rest of the family). During a period of illness he found himself – for the first time in 14 years – opening his Bible and praying.
Then one Sunday afternoon during the summer of 1837 Ryle happened to go to a service in one of the parish churches. Just one thing struck him – the way the second lesson was read…The passage was from the second chapter of Ephesians, and when the eighth verse was reached, the reader laid emphasis on it with a short pause between each clause: “By grace are ye saved – through faith – and that not of yourselves – it is the gift of God.”’
That marked the turning point. By the beginning of the following year, he was settled in his new-found Christian faith.
We can picture him as a young man of 21 years: tall (nearly 6 feet 4), well-built, with a strong voice, a clear head, great energy and drive, and firm convictions. Most important, he was a decided, forthright, and courageous evangelical Christian, and would remain so until his death over sixty years later.
Riches to rags
Returning home from Oxford to Macclesfield, Ryle began working in his father’s bank. His future was mapped out: he would inherit the family estate and fortune, become an industrialist and a banker, and follow his father into Parliament.
But then disaster struck. In June 1841 his Father’s bank collapsed, and the Ryle fortunes disappeared overnight. ‘We got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us, as usual, and went to bed that night completely and utterly ruined.’
Everything, apart from a few personal possessions, had to be sold. Of the day he finally left Henbury Hall Ryle wrote: ‘Nothing I think touched me that morning so much as the face of my old Lyme mastiff ‘Caesar’, who was excessively fond of me. I remember he looked at me as if he did not understand it, and could not see why he might not go with me too. Poor dog, for a whole month afterwards he made his way into the house every morning as soon as the doors were opened, and went up to my room; there he lay at the door from morning till night, and nothing would induce him to stir.’ (Autobiography)
Years later, he would tell his children: ‘I have not the least doubt it was all for the best. If my father’s affairs had prospered, and I had never been ruined, my life would have been a very different one. I should probably have gone into Parliament very soon, and it is impossible to say what the effect of this might have been upon my soul. I should have formed different connexions, and moved in an entirely different circle. I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached a sermon, written a tract, or a book. Perhaps I might not have been as useful and might have made shipwreck in spiritual things. So I do not mean to say at all, that I wish it to have been different to what it was. All I mean to say is, that I was deeply wounded by my reverses, suffered deeply under them, and I do not think I have ever recovered in body or mind from the effect of them.’ (Autobiography)
Needing to earn a living, Ryle wondered what he could do. He considered returning to Oxford and pursuing an academic career. But he hated the idea of being a personal tutor. Then ‘there was an opening as private secretary to an up-and-coming politician called Gladstone but Ryle declined on the grounds that he “felt no confidence in him.”’ (Toon & Smout, 32). With all other doors closed to him, he decided to become a clergyman. His parents were dismayed, but couldn’t suggest anything else. So he left Cheshire and took up the post of assistant curate at Exbury in the New Forest, Hampshire.
Reluctant clergyman he may have been at first, but he threw himself into Christian ministry with passion and energy.
His priorities were always preaching and pastoral visiting.
As a preacher, he adopted at first what he later called ‘an excessively florid’ style. But he soon learned that in order to be listened to and understood by ordinary working folk he must ‘crucify’ his style. So he developed a way of speaking that was simple, direct, personal, and practical.
It was a style that served Ryle well throughout his life. Years later, after he had become Bishop of Liverpool, ‘an old lady went out of her way to hear him preach. After the service she told a friend that she had been very disappointed, ‘I never heard a Bishop,’ she said, ‘I thought I’d hear something great. He’s nowt. He’s no Bishop. I could understand every word.’ When the Bishop heard this he said it was the greatest compliment that had ever been paid to his preaching. (Russell)
Second only to preaching came pastoral visiting. Of his time in Exbury, one individual wrote of ‘the way he went in and out of the cottage homes. During his two years there he acquired…an entire pastoral knowledge of every man, woman, and child, under his charge.’ (Murray, p141)
Long afterwards, Ryle told of ‘a humble country clergyman [who] was asked whether he studied the fathers [meaning the Early Church Fathers] to which the worthy man replied that he had little opportunity of studying the fathers as they were generally in the fields when he called. But he studied the mothers more because he found them at home and could talk to them. Wittingly or unwittingly,’ Ryle concluded, ‘the good man hit the nail right on the head. We must talk to our people when we are out of church if we would understand how to preach to them when they are in church.’ (Simplicity in Preaching, in The Upper Room))
From Exbury Ryle went to Winchester, and then, in May 1844, moved to Helmingham in Suffolk. Thus began a ministry of 37 years in East Anglia.
While at Helmingham Ryle began to print out his own sermons and distribute them to those who had not been in church to hear them for themselves.
But it was a tragic incident that led to a wider writing ministry. At the beginning of May 1845 Cookes’ Royal Circus came to Great Yarmouth. On Friday evening, 2nd May, Nelson the clown was to sail down the River Bure in a wash tub pulled by four geese. Thousands gathered to witness the spectacle. As the tub approached, a crowd rushed onto the suspension bridge. Steel cables snapped, the bridge collapsed, and 600 people were thrown into the water. 79 lives were lost, half of whom were children under the age of 12.
In the wake of the tragedy an anonymous tract was circulated. In it, the author asked his reader, ‘Where would your soul be now if you had been among those who drowned?’
It struck a chord with many. When it was discovered that the tract had been written by the vicar of Helmingham, Ryle was urged to write more. He found a willing publisher in Ipswich, and thus began a steady stream of tract-writing. It is estimated that he wrote between 200 and 300. 12 million were circulated in his own lifetime, in 12 different languages.
Spurgeon, writing in 1860:- ‘In the midst of the fair at Zurich, where the people were selling all manner of things…there stood a humble-looking man with his stall, upon which there were Bibles, Testaments, and Mr Ryle’s tracts. It is always a great comfort to me to see my sermons, in French and other languages, sold at the same shops as the writings of that excellent man of God. There is the simple gospel in his tracts, and they are to my knowledge singularly owned of God.’ (The Full Harvest, 26)
Ryle married three times. His first wife, Matilda, died, aged just 24, soon after giving birth to a daughter.
His second wife, Jessie, became ill within six months of marriage, and was scarcely well up until the time of her death, 10 years later. She bore three sons (including Herbert Edward) and a daughter, and an unnamed child who was born prematurely, and died within a few hours.
Ryle’s third and last marriage was in 1861, to Henrietta. She was a gifted photographer and musician (she would become organist at Stradbroke Church during their time there). And – mercifully – she enjoyed robust health. She was a devoted and supportive wife to Ryle and a loving step-mother to his five children.
It was also in 1861 that Ryle moved with his family to Stradbroke, 15 miles north of Helmingham. There he would enjoy 20 fruitful years. He set about restoring the Church, building a new school, and continuing his ministry of preaching, pastoral visitation, and writing. He was in increasing demand as a preacher and speaker. With the coming of the railway he could catch the train at Diss or Stowmarket and easily reach Norwich, Cambridge, and London. With his wider ministry of speaking and writing, he became the acknowledged leader of the evangelicals in the Church of England.
First Bishop of Liverpool
By 1880 Ryle had reached the age of 64, and might have been thinking about slowing down. But he was summoned to London for a meeting with Disraeli. Would he become the first Bishop of Liverpool? He reminded the Prime Minister that he was no longer a young man. Disraeli took a good look at him, and replied, “I think, sir, you have a pretty good constitution and I think you will have a few years yet.” In fact, he had almost 20 years left.
In Liverpool he oversaw the building of new churches, and conducted many ordinations. He supported and encouraged numerous missionary agencies and charitable societies. He gave strong and active support to a Mrs Birt who organised a Sheltering Home for children. At his instigation Miss Ellice Hopkins set up a Midnight Mission to prostitutes in Lime Street, Liverpool. Between 50 and 60 women were ‘reclaimed’ in just four months. He was convinced that lay people should be more involved in every aspect of the church’s life. So he appointed Scripture Readers and ‘Bible women’ who would take the gospel into homes and mission halls. He became known as ‘the working man’s bishop’: when he came to address men employed in the coalyards, “they cheered him lustily on both arrival and departure” (Murray). His preferred place of worship was St Nathaniel’s, a congregation that Rev Richard Hobson had started up with just four people in a cellar some years previously. During his first visit there, Ryle took note of those who came forward to receive the sacrament from him. He could see from their hands that two-thirds of them were working people, and in that he rejoiced.
While refusing to compromise on his evangelical principles, he also worked tirelessly for unity among all loyal churchmen. ‘People will stand almost anything without taking offence,’ he said, ‘if they are convinced you love them.’
But he did not shrink from controversy, and was an implacable opponent of rationalism and ritualism.
In connection with the first of these, it is worth noting that there were two ‘Bishop Ryles’ – father and son. John Charles Ryle, was regarded by many even in his own day to be conservative, narrow-minded, and old-fashioned, a relic of the past. Herbert Edward Ryle was the progressive, broad-minded modernist, the voice of the future. Which of the two has stood the test of time? (I must add that, despite their differences, the loving bond between them never failed).
Then there was the challenge of ritualism. Soon after his arrival in Liverpool, Ryle read a newspaper report of a service held at St Margaret’s, Toxteth. It described a ceremony that looked more a Roman Catholic mass than an Anglican service of Holy Communion. Ryle asked the incumbent, James Bell Cox to pay him a visit. Cox would not back down. Ryle was reluctant to deal with the matter through the church courts, and so the matter lay unresolved for several years. Several years later, a layman, James Hakes, instituted a formal prosecution of Cox. Ryle had the authority to halt the prosecution, but, convinced that Cox’s practice was illegal, declined to do so. After further personal appeals to Cox failed, there was a trial at which Cox was admonished. Then, when he refused to act on the court’s warning, he was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for contumacy and contempt. He was sent to comfortable accommodation in Walton prison, soon released on a technicality, and went back to resume his labours at St Margaret’s exactly as before. Of course, putting a honest man in prison is the surest way of making a martyr of him. And inevitably, in the eyes of some, Ryle was seen as the villain of the piece.
As he approached his 85th birthday Ryle was failing both in body and mind. He retired to Lowestoft, living at 58 Kirkley Cliff Road. He called his new home ‘Helmingham House’ – a throwback to when he first came to Suffolk. But only a few weeks of life remained. He died on Sunday, June 10, 1900.
A few days after Ryle’s death his great friend Richard Hobson spoke at a memorial service: “A great man has just now fallen in Israel in the decease of the dear Bishop. Yes, he was great through the abounding grace of God. He was great in stature; great in mental power; great in spirituality; great as a preacher and expositor of God’s most Holy Word; great in hospitality; great in winning souls to God; great as a writer of Gospel tracts; great as an author of works which will live long; great as a Bishop of the Reformed Evangelical Protestant Church of England of which he was a noble defender; great as first Bishop of Liverpool.”
Those are the words of a friend. What about his old adversary, James Bell Cox? He spoke of ‘Dr Ryle’s largeheartedness to those who differed from him in theological matters. In this respect to know him was to esteem him, and … to love him also. Under his rugged exterior beat one of the warmest hearts I ever met…It seemed to me he could never do enough for me nor ask me to do enough for him. He was straight and fair all through, I miss him tremendously.’
Extracts from Ryle’s Writings
Most of Ryle’s writings were originally published either in the form of tracts (which had begun life as sermons) or as articles in Christian periodicals. It was especially during his time at Stradbroke that he collected and arranged many of these and republished them in book form. There are volumes of biblical exposition, Christian doctrine, practical Christianity, Anglican faith and practice, and biographical sketches of English Reformers, Puritans, and Evangelical Leaders.
‘I am not ashamed of what are commonly called “Evangelical principles.” Fiercely and bitterly as those principles are assailed on all sides,—loudly and scornfully as some proclaim that they have done their work and are useless in this day,—I see no evidence whatever that they are defective or decayed, and I see no reason for giving them up… If those who hold Evangelical views were only more faithful to their own principles, and more bold, and uncompromising, and decided, both in their preaching and their lives, they would soon find…that they hold the only lever which can shake the world.’ (Old Paths)
What are the principles of evangelical Christianity?-
- the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the only rule of faith and practice;
- the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption;
- the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the nature of the salvation which he has wrought out for man;
- the high place which it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man… inward repentance, inward faith, inward hope, inward hatred of sin, and inward love to God’s law;
- the importance which it attaches to the outward and visible work of the Holy Ghost in the life of man … The true grace of God is a thing that will always make itself manifest in the conduct, behaviour, tastes, ways, choices and habits of him who has it. (Knots Untied)
‘My chief desire in all my writings, is to exalt the Lord Jesus Christ and make Him beautiful and glorious in the eyes of people; and to promote the increase of repentance, faith, and holiness upon earth.’ (The Gospel of Luke)
The cross of Christ
‘Whenever a Church keeps back Christ crucified, or puts anything whatever in that foremost place which Christ crucified should always have, from that moment a Church ceases to be useful. Without Christ crucified in her pulpits, a church is little better than a cumberer of the ground, a dead carcase, a well without water, a barren fig tree, a sleeping watchman, a silent trumpet, a dumb witness, an ambassador without terms of peace, a messenger without tidings, a lighthouse without fire, a stumbling-block to weak believers, a comfort to infidels, a hot-bed for formalism, a joy to the devil, and an offence to God.’ (Old Paths)
‘Just as the first sign of life in an infant when born into the world is the act of breathing, so the first act of men and women when they are born again is praying.’ (Practical Religion)
‘Fear not because your prayer is stammering, your words feeble, and your language poor. Jesus can understand you.’ (Practical Religion)
‘Next to praying there is nothing so important in practical religion as Bible reading. By reading that book we may learn what to believe, what to be, and what to do; how to live with comfort, and how to die in peace.’ (Practical Religion)
“Praise God more every day you live. Praise Him more in private. Praise Him more in public. Praise Him in your own family. Praise Him above all in your own heart. This is the way to be in tune for heaven. The anthem there will be, ‘What hath God wrought!’” (Old Paths)
‘Do nothing that you would not like God to see. Say nothing you would not like God to hear. Write nothing you would not like God to read. Go no place where you would not like God to find you. Read no book of which you would not like God to say, “Show it to Me.” Never spend your time in such a way that you would not like to have God say, “What are you doing?”’ (Thoughts for Young Men)
‘Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself, and by whose side would you sit down? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?’ (Holiness)
‘Temptation to sin will rarely present itself to us in its true colors, saying, “I am your deadly enemy and I want to ruin you for ever in hell.” Oh, no! Sin comes to us, like Judas, with a kiss, and like Joab, with an outstretched hand and flattering words. The forbidden fruit seemed good and desirable to Eve, yet it cast her out of Eden. The walking idly on his palace roof seemed harmless enough to David, yet it ended in adultery and murder. Sin rarely seems sin at its first beginnings. Let us then watch and pray, lest we fall into temptation.’ (Holiness)
The Holy Spirit
‘In the darkening Church scene of which he spoke in 1897, he asked: “Can nothing be done to…restore health to our Zion? In answer, Nothing…but an outpouring of the Holy Spirit…For this let us all pray and besiege the throne of grace continually.”’ (Murray)
I thank God for the life and witness of John Charles Ryle. For his honesty, courage, and clarity; for his love of God and his passion for souls. But especially I give thanks and commend to you his writings, through which ‘he, being dead, yet speaketh.’
Biographies of Ryle
“J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone”, Murray, Iain H., Banner of Truth, (2016)
(The above work is specially recommended as providing a thoughtful analysis of Ryle’s thinkins and achievements, while drawing on the best of the earlier biographies, together with the author’s extensive knowledge of the history of evangelicalism)
“Travel With Bishop J. C. Ryle: Prince of Tract Writers”, Munden, A. DayOne, (2012)
(The above work is specially recommended as offering a fascinating illustrated guide to places and people associated with Ryle and his ministry)
“Great Churchmen: J. C. Ryle“, Guthrie M. Clark. Church Book Room Press (1947)
“Bishop J.C. Ryle’s Autobiography: The Early Years”, Atherstone, A (ed), Banner of Truth (2016)
“That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child: A New Biography of J. C. Ryle”, Russell, E.; Christian Focus Publications Ltd., (2001).
“John Charles Ryle“, Loane, M.; Hodder and Stoughton Ltd., (1983).
“John Charles Ryle: Evangelical Bishop”, Toon, P & Smout M. James Clarke (1976)
“Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle“, Packer, J.; Kingsway Publications, (2002).
“J. C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool”, Farley, Ian D. Paternoster Press (2000).
“J. C. Ryle: The Man, the Minister and the Missionary“, David Holloway.
Writings by Ryle
Expository Thoughts on the Gospels (1856, 1857, 1858-9, 1873)
Christian Leaders of the 18th Century (1869)
Old Paths (1877)
Practical Religion (1878)
Knots Untied (1874)
Holiness (1877, 1879)
Coming Events and Present Duties (1867, 1879)
The Upper Room (1888)
Light From Old Times (1890)
Charges and Addresses (1903)
[Note: a large number of Ryle’s tracts may be found here]