Protestant Profiles #23: J.C. Ryle

J.C. Ryle (1815-1900)


Born: Macclesfield, Cheshire, England
Role: Bishop of Liverpool; church revitaliser; pastor; preacher; tract-writer; author
Emphases: sola Scriptura; total depravity; justification by faith; Jesus as sole mediator; regeneration; holiness
Protested against: high church ritualism and sacramentalism; Catholic idolatry; “higher life” spirituality; modernism; episcopal robes

John Charles Ryle came from a line of Methodists on his mother’s side, but it seems that by the time he was born his parents were adherents of the Church of England – a factor that would shape the course of his later ministry. He was a top cricketer at Eton, one of England’s most prestigious public schools in his youth, which gave him one of his earliest leadership opportunities as team captain.

An evangelical conversion in his early twenties paved the way for Ryle to enter the Anglican ministry (instead of his intended career path of politics) a few years later in 1841. His early pastoral charges in Hampshire and Winchester saw growth in the congregations through Ryle’s ministry.

A move to Helmingham in Suffolk saw Ryle care for the same parish for more than 16 years. Here, he began to produce gospel tracts and distribute printed copies of evangelistic sermons to the local population – to great and widespread effect. Much of what has been republished in recent times as “books” by Ryle are compilations of his sermons and gospel tracts.

Ryle’s second, lengthy ministry-stint in one place was in Stradbroke (also in Suffolk), where he ministered for nearly two decades. He had a very successful ministry while in this parish and became increasingly known around the whole country for his strong advocacy of evangelical Christianity at a time when it was very much a minority position within the Church of England. This was partly as a result of his writing ministry.

John Piper notes, in his biographical account of Ryle’s life and ministry:

The main books were all published during his time at Stradbroke: Knots Untied (1874), his most popular work during his lifetime; Old Paths (1877); Holiness (1877, enlarged 1879), the book he is most famous for today; Practical Religion (1878) which he said should be read in conjunction with Holiness.

Ryle’s final 20 years would see him rise to even greater prominence, as the first Bishop of Liverpool. He did not find the churches under his jurisdiction in a thriving state, but worked hard to see a turnaround over many years. Another biographer, P.J. Cadle writes:

Between 1880 and 1890 twenty-seven churches and forty-eight mission halls were completed; the number of incumbents (i.e. senior ministers) rose by twenty-two and that of curates (i.e. assistant ministers) by sixty-six; the number of confirmations rose from 4500 in 1880 to 8300 in 1890.

Ryle used his profile to continue promoting Reformed, evangelical doctrine throughout England at a time when modernistic-liberalism, Anglo-Catholicism and tepid latitudinarianism were rife in the Church. He promoted the legacy of English reformers and martyrs and was explicitly sympathetic to the Puritans who had been ejected from the Church for their evangelical convictions two centuries before. He was an example and inspiration to many other ministers to persevere in faithfulness to the gospel in a hostile climate.

J.I. Packer said of Ryle (cited by Piper):

His brains, energy, vision, drive, independence, clear head, kind heart, fair-mind, salty speech, good sense, impatience with stupidity, firmness of principle, and freedom from inhibitions would have made him a leader in any field.

God raised up such a man for a time in which a leader and minister of this calibre was sorely needed. Ryle was easily the greatest evangelical Anglican figure of his century and his lucid prose and ability to convey the ancient truths of Christianity in a clear manner have ensured that his works continue to benefit believers who read them today.

Ryle sums up his lifelong commitment to evangelical principles in the preface to his classic work Practical Religion:

I am fully aware that Evangelical churchmanship is not popular and acceptable in this day. It is despised by many, and has “no form or comeliness” in their eyes. To avow attachment to Evangelical views, in some quarters, is to provoke a sneer, and bring on yourself the reproach of being an “unlearned and ignorant man”. But none of these things move me. I am not ashamed of my opinions. After forty years of Bible-reading and praying, meditation and theological study, I find myself clinging more tightly then ever to “Evangelical” religion, and more than ever satisfied with it. It wears well: it stands the fire. I know no system of religion which is better. In the faith of it I have lived for the third of a century, and in the faith of it I hope to die.

You can read Ryle’s classic work on Holiness for yourself here or John Piper’s account of his life and ministry here.

Other sources

P.J. Cadle, “RYLE, John Charles” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals

“J.C. Ryle”

M. Guthrie Clark, “Great Churchmen: J.C. Ryle” 


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