From his earliest years John Charles Ryle seemed destined for great things. Born in Macclesfield in 1816, the son of a wealthy banker, he later excelled at Eton College and at Oxford University, where he gained a first class degree.
His mind was set on a career in politics, but God had greater plans for him. In 1837, the Holy Spirit came upon him in saving power as he was listening in church to the reading of Ephesians 2:8-9.
The words arrested him and, enabled by the Spirit’s gift of faith, he responded immediately to God’s mercy. Later, he testified that he had been ‘on the high road to hell’, but God, in his sovereign grace, had rescued and redirected him heavenwards.
His primary Christian convictions, clearly Evangelical and Protestant, were soon formed and began to mould his life. Some four years later, however, both they and his faith were sorely tried.
In June 1841 his father became bankrupt. Ryle was devastated. ‘We got up one summer’s morning’, he wrote, ‘with all the world before us as usual, and went to bed that same night completely and entirely ruined’.
Reflecting later upon this painful experience, he wrote: ‘If I had not been ruined, I should never had been a clergyman, never have preached a sermon, or written a tract or book’. The Lord used this unhappy event to turn his thoughts away from politics to the work of the gospel and, almost immediately, to ordination in December 1841.
Marriage and loss
He began his ministry in the parish of Fawley, in Hampshire. He had never learned to preach, but here, by a process of trial and error, he taught himself to compose sermons noted for their simplicity, clarity and directness.
After two years in Fawley and a shorter time in Winchester, Ryle ministered for two longer periods in the Suffolk parishes of Helmingham and Stradbroke. His ministry was greatly blessed and his reputation, as a preacher and a pastor, grew.
It was while he was in Suffolk that Ryle met with further trials. His first wife gave birth to a daughter in 1845 but died a year later. Married again in 1850, his second wife bore him another daughter and three sons. Her death ten years later and other family bereavements over this period caused him deep distress.
The next year, however, in Henrietta Clowes, God graciously provided a suitable wife for him and an understanding mother for his children. It was a happy twenty-eight-year marriage, so happy that Henrietta’s death brought an enduring sense of loss to her husband.
Ten years later in 1899 he recorded: ‘Life has never been the same thing, or the world the same place, since my wife died’. Through such providential gains and losses, however, God enriched the pastoral ministry of his servant.
Love of souls
He had been Vicar of Stradbroke for nineteen years when he was invited to become the first bishop of Liverpool. Ryle loved the people of Stradbroke and he found it hard to think of leaving them; but his response to this invitation was almost immediate.
As he later put it: ‘I thought it was a clear, plain call of duty’. Evangelicals rejoiced at the news but liberals and ritualists were less happy. His consecration took place on 11 June 1880. Thus, to Liverpool he went for twenty years, until the Lord took him to heaven.
The new bishop, it seemed, had thoughts of raising ministers’ stipends, establishing a pension fund for them, and building churches, all worthy objectives. But he soon made plain his priorities. He believed that the church’s chief work was to preach the gospel.
In 1881, therefore, he argued that the first need was not for buildings, but for men with God’s grace and the love of souls in their hearts. He was not against erecting a cathedral sometime, but made it plain that his prime concern was to ‘provide for preaching the gospel to souls now entirely neglected, whom no cathedral would touch’.
Ryle constantly strove to secure well-trained preachers for his diocese. He himself was a powerful preacher in widespread demand. In his book The Upper Room, his paper on ‘Simplicity in Preaching’ lays down principles from which all preachers today may gain much benefit.
Ryle appeared to be in his element when he was proclaiming the gospel. Such ministry made its impact, wherever he went. After hearing him preach on one occasion in 1885, his close clergy friend, Richard Hobson, remarked that the gospel was proclaimed ‘with a freshness and power that sent us on our way rejoicing’.
Ryle’s influence, however, was not confined to his preaching. He read widely and possessed a large library of his own, which he donated to his diocese (sadly, it was destroyed in an air raid on Liverpool during the Second World War).
From his reading flowed his writing, which proved to be widely influential in his own day, and increasingly so after his death. He wrote between two and three hundred tracts, which were translated into other languages and widely read to the eternal benefit of countless people.
Many of his books are still being reprinted today. Over the years, his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels have helped Christians, young and old, to come to a greater understanding of their Saviour’s person and work. His Five English Reformers and Five Christian Leaders of the 18th Century still humble and stir their readers to pray for more men like them today.
Other books by Ryle include Knots Untied containing what he called ‘plain statements on disputed points in religion from the standpoint of an Evangelical churchman’. His opening statement on Evangelical religion made it clear that one of its leading features is the absolute supremacy it assigned to Holy Scripture ‘as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, the only judge of controversy’.
As always, this view of Scripture guided him in writing Practical Religion and Holiness, two books on the Christian life. The latter, possibly his most influential book, was written partly to offset the teaching of the so-called Higher Life movement, which originated in North America and led to the beginning of the Keswick Convention in 1875. Ryle was unhappy about this teaching and expounded his view of biblical holiness in his book’s first three chapters, which are still worthy of careful study.
Power of doctrine
Another contributory factor in Ryle’s influence was the power of his doctrine, which was staunchly Bible-based. He believed that such glorious doctrine should not be timidly announced but openly and fearlessly proclaimed. ‘It is doctrine’, he declared, ‘which gives power to every successful mission, whether at home or abroad. It is doctrine … clear, ringing doctrine which, like the rams’ horns at Jericho, casts down the opposition of the devil and sin’.
Probably, however, the chief reason for Ryle’s massive influence was that, in addition to his striking appearance and many personal gifts, he was (as Marcus Loane his biographer put it) ‘a born leader of men and a humble servant of God’. His leadership was God-given for a crucial time when liberalism and ritualism were threatening to engulf the church.
But Ryle knew that something more than leadership was required to overcome this threat. At his 1897 diocesan conference, he urged his hearers that the great need of the day was for ‘an outpouring of the Holy Spirit … more of the Real Presence of the Holy Ghost’, adding ‘for this let us pray and besiege the throne of grace continually’.
Passion for God’s glory
In 1900 the time came for him to address his farewell letter to the people of his diocese. ‘I shall never forget you’, he wrote; ‘I had ventured to hope that I might be allowed to end my days near the Mersey and to die in harness. But God’s thoughts are not as our thoughts, and he has gradually taught me by failing health that the huge population of this diocese requires a younger and stronger bishop … In a little time we shall all meet again; many I hope on the King’s right hand and few on the left. Till that time comes … I remain your affectionate bishop and lasting friend’.
On 10 June 1900, at the age of 84, he fell asleep in Jesus. His body was subsequently laid to rest, alongside his wife’s, in the graveyard of All Saints’ Church, Childwall. His successor, Dr F. J. Chavasse, described him as ‘a man of granite with the heart of a child’.
Richard Hobson, who knew him well, remembered him as ‘bold as a lion … yet tender, even to those who could not see anything good in him or in his work as a bishop’.
How then should we remember Bishop Ryle on this hundredth anniversary of his death? As a gifted preacher, writer, pastor and leader? Yes indeed, all these and more. He was manifestly a humble Christian with compassion for the lost, zeal for the building up of the church of Christ, and a passion for the glory of God. Truly, in sum, he was a gentle, spiritual giant. O for more like him!