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His Sermons Roused a Sleeping Church

J.C. Ryle (1816–1900)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

When John Charles Ryle first entered the pulpit in the Church of England, the preaching of his day was “dry, heavy, stiff, dull, cold, tame . . . and destitute of warmth, vivacity, direct appeal, or fire” (J.C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool, 103).

Ryle made every effort to break the mold, even as a dignified bishop of Liverpool. His simple clarity was renowned. One older lady came to the church hoping to hear the bishop, but afterward said to a friend, “I thought I’d hear something great. . . . He’s no bishop. I could understand every word” (J.C. Ryle: That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, 253). Ryle took it as a great compliment.

Alongside simplicity and clarity, Ryle’s preaching carried what J.I. Packer calls an “electric force of utterance” — a force that recovered the biblical emphasis on not just teaching the word, but heralding it (Faithfulness and Holiness, 11).

Thorough, Entire Change

Ryle was born on May 10, 1816, near Macclesfield, in the county of Cheshire, England. His parents were nominal members of the Church of England with no interest in vital religion. They would never embrace Ryle’s evangelical faith, which he came to when he was 21 years old.

Until the age of 21, Ryle says, “I had no true religion at all. . . . I certainly never said my prayers, or read a word of my Bible, from the time I was 7 to the time I was 21. . . . My father’s house was respectable and well conducted but there really was not a bit of [true] religion in it” (J.C. Ryle: A Self-Portrait, a Partial Autobiography, 35). But things were about to change dramatically.

Near the end of 1837, three factors conspired to work what Ryle called “a thorough and entire change” (A Self-Portrait, 35): a severe illness, the arrival of a gospel preacher in his hometown, and the influence of evangelical books. He tells us the truths that the Holy Spirit pressed on his soul in those days:

Nothing . . . appeared to me so clear and distinct, as my own sinfulness, Christ’s preciousness, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again, the enormous folly of the whole doctrine of baptismal regeneration. All these things, I repeat, seemed to flash upon me like a sunbeam in the winter of 1837 and have stuck in my mind from that time down to this. (A Self-Portrait, 42–43)

Pushed into the Ministry

For the next three and a half years, he worked mainly in the bank that his father owned. Then disaster struck in June 1841, when he was 25 years old. His father lost everything in bankruptcy. Ryle describes this event as so traumatic that “if I had not been a Christian at that time, I do not know if I should not have committed suicide” (A Self-Portrait, 54).

Now what would he do? He had no idea. The rector of the parish of Fawley, Rev. Gibson, knew of Ryle’s conversion and leadership gifts, and asked him to be the curate of Exbury. It was a strange way to enter the ministry in which he would become the foremost evangelical spokesman of the Church of England in his day.

I never had any particular desire to become a clergyman, and those who fancied that my self will and natural tastes were gratified by it were totally and entirely mistaken. I became a clergyman because I felt shut up to do it, and saw no other course of life open to me. (A Self-Portrait, 59)

He prepared two written sermons each Sunday, spoke extemporaneously on Wednesday and Thursday, and visited sixty families each week. The church was soon filled on Sunday. But he resigned in two years (November 1843) for health reasons. “The district thoroughly disagreed with me. . . . Constant headache, indigestion, and disturbances of the heart then began and have been the plagues, and have disturbed me ever since that time” (A Self-Portrait, 64).

Years of Singular Trials

After a five-month curacy at Winchester, he accepted a call to be the Rector at Helmingham, about eighty-five miles northeast of London, where he began on Easter 1844. He was now 28 and still unmarried. Not until now had his income been sufficient to support a wife — which was one of the reasons he accepted this call after only five months at Winchester. But in Helmingham he stayed seventeen years.

In October 1844, his first year there, he married Matilda Plumbpre. She was 22, and he was 28. A child, Georgina, was born in May 1846, and Matilda died June 1847. Ryle was married again, in February 1849, to Jessie Walker, but their ten years together “were years of singular trials” (A Self-Portrait, 79). Jessie was never well.

On five occasions, she had to be confined in London for two months each, and one side effect was that Ryle preached in at least sixty different churches in London and became very popular for his power in the pulpit, to which he responded, “I always felt that popularity, as it was called, was a very worthless thing and a very bad thing for man’s soul” (A Self-Portrait, 80).

Jessie bore four children over the ten years of their marriage: Isabelle, Reginald, Herbert, and Arthur. But then in May 1860, after a long battle with Bright’s disease, she died. During the last five years, Jessie was unable to do much at all, and when she died the entire load of the five children, with the oldest only 13, fell to their father, especially the three little boys. Ryle writes,

As to holidays, rest, and relaxation in the year, I never had any at all; while the whole business of entertaining and amusing the three little boys in evening devolved entirely upon me. In fact the whole state of things was a heavy strain upon me, both in body and mind, and I often wonder how I lived through it. (A Self-Portrait, 81)

“Prince of Tract Writers”

The year after Jessie died, Ryle accepted a call to be the Vicar of Stradbroke about twenty miles north of Helmingham. He had served seventeen years in the tiny village of Helmingham and would now serve Stradbroke for another nineteen years. The year he began at Stradbroke, he was married a third time, October 24, 1861, to Henrietta Legh-Clowes. He was 45, she was 36, and they were married for twenty-eight years, until she died in 1889, eleven years before his own death in 1900.

During the thirty-six years in the rural parishes of Helmingham and Stradbroke, Ryle was becoming a national figure of prominence in the Church of England. He was constantly writing and traveling to speak. “He was Evangelicalism’s best-known and most respected writer and spokesman through the 1870s” (Faithfulness and Holiness, 51).

One of the great ironies of Ryle’s life is that he took a brilliant first class in classics at Oxford, was a constant reader of old and new theology, collected a five-thousand-volume library, and yet, in tiny rural parishes, became “the Prince of tract writers” (That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, 70).

“Tracts” in those days were little booklets that in Ryle’s case had been sermons and that sold for pennies. The fact that Ryle put such a premium on publishing practical tracts on Christian living and church life shows how zealous he was for personal holiness and church reform. In writing and preaching, he was first a pastor, and “as he read,” Packer points out, “alongside the question ‘Is it true?’ the question ‘What effect will this have on ordinary people?’ was always in his mind” (Faithfulness and Holiness, 71).

At the age of 64, after thirty-six years in rural parishes, when most people are ready to retire, he was called to be the first bishop of Liverpool. So he moved from parishes of 300 and 1,300 to a city of over 700,000 with all the urban problems he had never met face-to-face. He served in this post for twenty years, until two months before his death on June 10, 1900, at the age of 84.

Forceful Clarity

What made Ryle such a popular evangelical spokesman and such a powerful preacher — so powerful that we are still reading his sermons over one hundred years later? We have seen that the preaching of his day as “dry, heavy, stiff, dull, cold, tame . . . and destitute of warmth, vivacity, direct appeal, or fire” (J.C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool, 103). His was the precise opposite. Ryle returned true preaching to the pulpit.

Biblical preaching, as opposed to teaching — the Greek word kerussein as opposed to didaskein — involves a kind of emotional engagement signified by the word heralding. There is in preaching a kind of urgency and a kind of forcefulness. A message is being delivered from the King of the universe — with his authority, in his name — and this message deals with matters of infinite importance. The eternal destiny of the hearers hangs on how they respond to the message.

This is preaching. And no matter what a preacher’s personality or preferred tone, this preaching necessarily involves urgency and forcefulness and a penetrating conviction that aims to come with divine thrust into the minds and hearts of the listeners.

Ryle’s preaching is a model for preachers in these ways. Ryle knew that he had to crucify his florid, literary style which marked his early preaching (That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child, 60). The nature of preaching demanded something different. Something simpler, but more forceful and penetrating. What developed was astonishing. Packer refers to his

brisk, spare, punchy style . . . its cultivated forcefulness, its use of the simplest words, its fusillades of short, one-clause sentences . . . its rib-jabbing drumbeat rhetoric, its easy logical flow, its total lack of sentimentality, and its resolve to call a spade a spade. (Faithfulness and Holiness, 19)

Do Not Linger

Consider an extended portion of what Packer means by the “electric force” of “fusillades” and “rib-jabbing, drumbeat rhetoric.” This is from a sermon on Lot’s lingering as he came out of Sodom and how so many Christians linger as they leave sin.

Would you be found ready for Christ at his second appearing — your loins girded — your lamp burning — yourself bold, and prepared to meet him? Then do not linger! . . .

Would you enjoy strong assurance of your own salvation, in the day of sickness, and on the bed of death? — Would you see with the eye of faith heaven opening and Jesus rising to receive you? Then do not linger!

Would you be useful to the world in your day and generation? — Would you draw men from sin to Christ, adorn your doctrine, and make your Master’s cause beautiful and attractive in their eyes? Then do not linger!

Would you help your children and relatives towards heaven, and make them say, “We will go with you”? — and not make them infidels and despisers of all religion? Then do not linger!

Would you have a great crown in the day of Christ’s appearing, and not be the least and smallest star in glory, and not find yourself the last and lowest in the kingdom of God? Then do not linger!

Oh, let not one of us linger! Time does not — death does not — judgment does not — the devil does not — the world does not. Neither let the children of God linger. (Holiness, 193)

Even as he pressed eternal realities on the hearts of his hearers, however, Ryle never forgot that God himself must act to save. On his gravestone, two verses of Scripture capture the two aspects of the Christian life that he heralded most: the fight and the gift. First, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). And then, “By grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).