“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7, NIV)
This Tuesday, 10th May, is the 200th anniversary of the birth of J.C. Ryle (1816-1900). Ryle has been a gift of God to generations of Christians, mainly through his writing, but also through his legacy in the Church of England.
Born to privilege, Ryle was endowed with great natural gifts. His name is still inscribed on the honours board of the cricket pavilion at Eton. He left Oxford with a blue and a first. He was tipped as a future member of parliament. But he also left Oxford as a Christian. One Sunday morning, he had been to church and heard Ephesians 2:8 being read: For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. He had to learn the difficult business of living for Christ in a family that had other expectations of him.
His father’s original plan for him was to join him in the family business of banking, which he did for a brief while. But in 1841 his father’s business was bankrupted. Ryle had to think again about what to do, and decided he could best serve Christ as an ordained minister in the Church of England.
His first incumbency was the rectorship of St Thomas, Winchester, where his oratorical style drew crowds. But before long he received a call to Helmingham in Suffolk, a move he needed to make for a better stipend because of the burden posed by his family’s finances. He remained there until 1861, when he moved to nearby Stradbroke. In all, he was 38 years a country parson.
God used those years in Suffolk to make Ryle the man who is such a blessing to us. By his own account, he had to re-invent his own preaching style in order to communicate with his parishioners, mainly farm labourers. It is to this experience that we owe the manly, direct and luminously clear style of his writing. At the same time, his better stipend enabled him to buy commentaries and theological books. If you read the background notes in his Expository Thoughts on the gospels you will see the depth and breadth of reading he was able to do to back up his writing – all hidden behind a clarity that makes you think that he really loves his readers.
The time in Suffolk was also a time of trial for Ryle – he lost his young wife Matilda, leaving him an infant daughter, in 1845. He married again – Jessie – five years later, in 1850, but she died in 1860, leaving him (and now also three sons) to grieve again. On top of this, he was stretched by being constantly in demand as a speaker for the gospel in the church of England. He also had a difficult relationship with the squire – who would make a point of standing up and tapping his watch if Ryle’s sermons were too long!
In 1880 he was plucked out of Suffolk by an invitation to become Dean of Salisbury. But only weeks later, before being able to take up office, he received a summons from Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli to become the first Bishop of Liverpool. Ryle remained bishop until his death in 1900; one of the reasons there are many churches with an evangelical history in Liverpool today is Ryle’s church-planting strategy.
Students of the nineteenth century know that this period of intellectual ferment and political change raised great questions about our source of authority as Christians. Over against those who looked to the authority of “the Church” or the academic trends of the age, Ryle takes his readers to the Bible. A student of church history, he also loves to remind his readers that the Church of England is based on an evangelical foundation, that her formularies are biblical. He loved to encourage by drawing the lessons of the past – most notably in the Reformation (Five English Reformers) and the eighteenth century revival (the book now known as Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century). You will read these to your great profit.
Ryle had a great concern for practical holiness. His book Holiness is a classic. He was described by one of those who worked closely with him as “the kindest, most humble, unselfish and generous of men.”
He is a hero of mine: his portrait hangs above my desk, to keep me in order!
The verse at the top of this blog is inscribed on his gravestone in Liverpool – and rightly so.