J.C. Ryle: A 19th-century Evangelical
By William P. Farley
(This is the second in a series of articles on great 19th-century Christian leaders.)
A friend and his wife were on a long journey. While she drove, he retrieved a book from his briefcase entitled Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century. The author’s short, pithy sentences, compelling logic, and penetrating insight into the spiritual power that worked through Wesley, Whitefield, and Romaine affected him deeply. He closed the book in tears, longing to see that same power in today’s church. The book’s author was 19th-century saint, John Charles Ryle.
Time has a way of winnowing the important from the superficial; the permanent from the transitory. Most books published in 2006 will be out of print in 10 years. However, many authors — such as Arthur W. Pink and C.S. Lewis, who were relatively unknown in their generations — have become increasingly influential with the passing of time.
Ryle was a 19th-century Anglican pastor. He was born in 1816. When he died in 1900, he was relatively unknown outside the Anglican Church in Britain. But since Ryle’s death, his books have slowly grown in popularity. Writing a tribute to Ryle in 2002, J.I. Packer noted that Ryle’s books had sold more than 12 million copies and had been translated into at least a dozen languages; the numbers continue to climb.1 Many pastors have probably read Ryle’s most popular works — Holiness, Five English Reformers, or Great Leaders of the Eighteenth Century. “A hundred years later,” wrote his biographer, “we can see that there were few more influential evangelicals in the Victorian era than Bishop Ryle.”2
Ryle was a contemporary of Charles H. Spurgeon, Dwight L. Moody, George Mueller, and Hudson Taylor. When Ryle was 15, Charles Darwin graduated from Cambridge. His was the age of Dickens, the American Civil War, and a British Empire on which the sun never set.
Who was Ryle, and what can pastors learn from his life?
Childhood And Conversion
In 1816, Ryle was born in Macclesfield, England, into an immensely wealthy and socially elite family. His grandfather earned a fortune, and then bequeathed it to Ryle’s father. John Charles was the oldest son and grew up lacking no comfort. The oldest son of a wealthy English family was expected to seek a career in Parliament, and this was Ryle’s ambition.
Ryle attended Eton and then entered Oxford in 1834. He was an excellent student, earning scholarships and competing favorably with his academic peers. He developed into a tall, broad shouldered, handsome man, and excelled at rowing and cricket. Of his manliness others would later write, “His virile personality dominated two generations of Evangelicals, and set an ineradicable mark upon a third.”3
At 21, he suffered a protracted lung infection. During his confinement, he began to read the Bible, something that, according to his own admission, he had not done for 14 years.
One Sunday during his convalescence he entered an Oxford church just as Ephesians 2:8 was being read: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” He came under great conviction, was converted, and “from that moment to the last recorded syllable of this life,” notes his biographer, “no doubt ever lingered in John’s mind that the Word of God was living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword.”4
After graduation, Ryle lived with his parents and prepared for Parliament. One morning he awoke to the sudden and unexpected news that his father was ruined. In June 1841, his father’s bank, unable to pay its debts, went into receivership. Overnight, the Ryle family lost their magnificent estate with its attendant wealth. This event scarred Ryle for the rest of his life. He later wrote, “We got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us as usual, and went to bed that same night completely and entirely ruined. The immediate consequences were bitter and painful in the extreme, and humiliating to the utmost degree.”5
Raised in opulence, Ryle never expected he would need to earn his living like a commoner. Now, for the first time, young Ryle needed a job. His Oxford education and conversion pointed him toward the ministry. At 25, he became a clergyman in the Church of England. God uses evil for good.
Ryle’s bishop sent him to Exbury. Then, at age 27, he was transferred to the parish church at Winchester. A few months later, he was moved to Helmingham where he remained until his mid 40s. Helmingham was a small, quiet parish. At Helmingham, Ryle had time to read. He providentially discovered writings from great Christian leaders of past centuries that profoundly influenced his later preaching and writing.
His favorites were 18th-century men, such as Wesley and Rowland; men of 17th-century Puritan stock, such as Charnock and John Bunyan; and 16th-century Reformers — Knox, Cranmer, Calvin, and Luther. “His evangelical sermons,” notes one writer, “based on a personal study of Reformation and Puritan ‘saints,’ remained the heart of his ministry.”6
Marriage And Family
In addition to Ryle’s financial woes, he also suffered through the poor health of his first two wives. At age 29, he married Matilda Plumptre. After a few years, she died leaving him a baby daughter to care for. Then, death took his mother, older brother, and younger sister. He felt like Job undergoing God’s trials.
At age 33, he married longtime friend, Jessie Walker, and once again, joy and happiness filled his rural cottage. After 6 months of marriage, Jessie developed a lingering sickness from which she never recovered. Ryle nursed her for 10 years while managing their growing family (Jessie gave birth to four children). In addition to this stress, he managed his pastoral responsibilities.
During these years, Ryle began receiving speaking engagements. Because of his love for Jessie he often traveled 30 miles in an open carriage in the dead of winter rather than spend a night away from her. In Ryle’s 43rd year, Jessie died. For a second time he was widowed, with five children for which to care.
At age 45, he was transferred to the parish at Stradbroke. There he met Henrietta Clowes and married a third time. Unlike his previous wives, Henrietta enjoyed good health. This marriage proved long and fruitful. She was a good musician, practical, and a Christian who had deep faith.
Despite his troubles, Ryle’s reputation as a preacher and writer continued to grow. His writing ministry began with tracts and expanded to books and commentaries. He wrote his first pamphlet in response to the death of 100 villagers when a local suspension bridge collapsed. God gifted Ryle with the ability to write clearly, simply, and logically. Many have tried to copy his style, but none have mastered it.
“Before his death,” notes Otis Fuller, “Bishop Ryle was to write 300 messages in pamphlet form. Their printings would pass the 12-million mark and be read in a dozen different languages.”7 Feeling a deep responsibility to his father’s creditors, Ryle used the royalties to retire his father’s debts.
Ryle was at his best when writing church history. He wrote passionately, as if he were a witness. One admirer said Ryle wrote history as an “enthusiastic admirer”8 of the men he sketched. This was especially true when describing the lives of martyrs or leaders of great revivals.9
Bishop Of Liverpool
In 1880 when Ryle was 64, the prime minister unexpectedly appointed him bishop of Liverpool. The appointment surprised many. Ryle was past his prime, and the government nominated few Evangelicals for these positions. Ryle labored in Liverpool diligently for 20 years, doing much good for the cause of the gospel. Describing his bishopric, G.C.B. Davies wrote, “A commanding presence and fearless advocacy of his principles were combined with a kind and understanding attitude in his personal relationships.”10 After Ryle’s death in 1900, his successor described him as “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” These words summarize Ryle’s character and ministry well.
Lessons From Ryle
Today’s pastor can learn several lessons from Ryle. First, Ryle’s life reminds pastors to attend to their family duties. Although he had a warm, close relationship with his three sons, each eventually abandoned his father’s faith. In his old age, this was a source of great grief to Ryle.
Second, Ryle’s life reminds Christians that sometimes it is necessary to swim against the tide. Ryle was a passionate Evangelical at a time when Evangelical theology was not popular in the Anglican church. During his lifetime, Ryle contended with John Henry Newman’s Tractarian Movement, and the growing infiltration of liberal German theology. He did so with unflinching loyalty to the first principles of Scripture — justification by faith alone, substitutionary atonement, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the importance of preaching.
Third, Ryle modeled Christ’s attitude toward his opponents. (He had many.) He coupled strong theological convictions with love and respect for his opponents. He took his motto from an old Puritan saying: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” Ryle sought to model these principles. Some of his fiercest opponents attended his funeral. In spite of their differences, they spoke of the great love they felt from Ryle.
Fourth, Ryle did not treat church history as trivial. Rather, he steeped himself in it and learned from God’s work in past generations. The results were a rich, vibrant faith, doctrinal precision, tolerance for opponents, and a great expectation and longing for the spiritual power experienced by past generations. Ryle knew the holy dissatisfaction those who study God’s work in history often feel.
Fifth, pastors can learn from Ryle how to serve in old age. Retirement was not on Ryle’s agenda. He actively served God to the end, praying to “die in the harness.” God heard his prayers. His best and most fruitful years of ministry took place after 64.
Sixth, Ryle’s life demonstrates the importance of persevering through trial. He endured his family’s financial collapse, the death of three wives, and the constant criticism of theological foes. In spite of these, he applied himself to God’s disciplines and through his trials grew in the “peaceful fruit of righteousness.” In Ryle, the old Puritan saying took on flesh: “He that suffers conquers.”
History is His story.
1. J.I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle: An Appreciation (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2002), 23.
2. Eric Russell, That Man of Granite With the Heart of a Child: A New Biography of J.C. Ryle (Fearn Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2001), 202.
3. David Fuller, ed., Valiant for the Truth: A Treasury of Evangelical Writings (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961), 360.
4. Ibid., 360.
5. Quoted in Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness, 23.
6. Donald M. Lewis, ed., Dictionary of Evangelical Biography 1730–1860,vol. 2, (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004), 967.
7. Fuller, Valiant for the Truth, 360.
8. John Charles Ryle, Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century (Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1978), iv.
9. See Ryle’s books, Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Centuryand Five English Reformers,for examples of his style.
10. J.D. Douglas and Earle E. Cairns, eds., The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 868.