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A Tender Lion: The Life, Ministry, And Message Of J. C. Ryle

By Bennett Rogers
June 2020 | Review by Matthew Cox
  • Publisher: Reformation Heritage Books
  • ISBN: 978-1-60178-648-7
  • Pages: 400
  • Price: £24.99
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Book Review

This substantial hardback purports to be the first intellectual biography of J. C. Ryle. While it traces a rough chronology of his life, it is primarily a study of the thought, writings, and ministerial activities of ‘the most popular and the most neglected evangelical Anglican of the Victorian era’ (p.xi). A noteworthy highlight is an evaluation of Ryle’s popular and distinctive preaching. Rogers shows that his style was rooted in the classical rhetoric which he had learned at Eton and Oxford, but made simpler and more memorable. An insightful analysis of three sermons preached by J. C. Ryle, C. H. Spurgeon, and J. H. Newman demonstrates Ryle’s use of shorter sentences, more frequent divisions, and interspersed applications.

The same analytical method is employed in measuring the success of Ryle’s tenure as Bishop of Liverpool. Using census data and other statistics, Rogers shows that Ryle oversaw a reasonable increase in the number of ministers and places of worship in the city during a period of rapid population growth.

But it was for his involvement in religious controversies that Ryle was best known during his lifetime. He spoke out against ritualistic Anglo-Catholicism, rationalistic liberalism, and Keswick-style spirituality, all of which were spreading through the Church of England in the late nineteenth century. His conference speeches and popular writings on these subjects made him the undisputed leader of Anglican Evangelicalism in his day.

Rogers succeeds beyond other biographers in conveying the extent of Ryle’s involvement in, and commitment to, the institutions and machinery of Anglicanism. And this is undoubtedly problematic for nonconformists.

The bishop’s ultra-loyalty to the state church led him to bitterly oppose proposals to disestablish it, object to equal rights for Dissenters, and accept the anti-evangelical judgements of ecclesiastical courts. Determined to maintain the unity of his denomination, he was forced to recognise the place of ‘other schools’ within it — even those who taught the false doctrines which he opposed so vehemently. Rogers is uncritical, but one must question the wisdom of Ryle’s position when the very church he was seeking to reform and defend ‘was being deprotestantized and de-evangelicalized right before his very eyes’ (p.309).

Readers unfamiliar with Ryle’s life will want to start with Iain H. Murray’s Prepared to Stand Alone (Banner of Truth). But for those who wish to dig deeper, A Tender Lion is a thoughtful, thorough, and well-researched work, shedding valuable light on the religious and intellectual terrain in which the great man laboured.

Matthew Cox

Bethersden, Kent

JC Ryle

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