Readers of J. C. Ryle’s Expository thoughts on the Gospels and other classics may feel well acquainted already with the author. But while Ryle’s character is clear from his writings, personal anecdotes and experiences are almost entirely absent. Iain Murray has done the church a service by bringing to life the man behind the books.
Ryle left his children an autobiographical record, from his birth in 1816 up to 1860. This is a key source for the earlier part of this biography. The son of a wealthy Cheshire banker, Ryle grew up in a home devoid of living Christianity but was converted at Oxford University.
Ryle was surprisingly reluctant to enter the ministry, concluding that it was the only way forward for him after the collapse of his father’s business in 1841. His experience does not fit easily with a typical evangelical view of a ‘call’ to ministry.
Despite family tragedies and other personal hardships, Ryle experienced great gospel blessing. After a brief curacy in Hampshire, he moved to rural Suffolk, first at Helmingham (1843-1861) and then Stradbroke (1861-1880).
During the Helmingham years, Ryle came to prominence in evangelical circles through the many tracts he wrote. Murray helpfully sets this work in the context of the rise of the Romanising Oxford Movement (known as ‘Tractarians’ because of their use of such pamphlets). This helps explain Ryle’s commitment to campaigning for the Protestant basis of the Church of England.
Presumably, material covering Ryle’s years at Stradbroke is limited, for this section of the book is relatively brief. This is a pity, as it would have been good to know more of Ryle’s regular parish ministry when he was in his prime (he later commented, no doubt over-modestly, that it took him to the age of 50 to learn to preach). Instead, the focus is on his writing ministry, conference sermons and work with various Anglican evangelical societies.
Detail returns for Ryle’s 20 years as the first Bishop of Liverpool (1880-1900). Ryle now faced higher criticism and theological liberalism as well as sacramentalism in his struggle to protect and promote Reformed evangelical religion. Even his own son, H. E. Ryle, later Bishop of Exeter, failed to stand whole-heartedly for the old truths.
As always in Iain Murray’s biographies, there is plenty of evaluation and comment on the events narrated. A sympathetic critique is offered of Ryle’s stance on Anglicanism and the established church. The final chapter is entitled, ‘What does Ryle say for today?’, and identifies principles — perhaps uncomfortable for some evangelicals today — on worship, the place of God’s law, and grace.
This is an engrossing account of one of the giants of the nineteenth century church. If read by those who are strangers to Ryle, it should, hopefully, whet their appetite to pick up one of his books. One minor criticism: on several occasions the same quotations (or very similar expressions) are reused only a couple of pages apart, giving a repetitious feel.