December 12, 2017

Prepared to Stand Alone

J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone
Iain H. Murray, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016. 259 pgs.

Reviewed by Don Johnson

Noted biographer Iain Murray brings us another outstanding piece of work in J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone. His book is very readable and presents an objective (but warm) account of the life of John Charles Ryle, 1816-1900, late bishop of Liverpool. It may seem strange for Baptists to have an interest in the life of an Anglican bishop, but Bishop Ryle is not one who should be unfamiliar to us. His prolific pen produced many works that are profitable to us to this day, even though we have theological and ecclesiastical differences at important points. The work most familiar to most readers might be his volume, Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties and Roots. Besides this there are many more, well worth reading.

Ryle’s career spanned the years 1842 to 1899, taking him from country parishes to the bishop’s throne as the first bishop of Liverpool. In all his positions of ministry, his churches grew under his preaching. In his ministry in Liverpool he became a mentor to many younger clergymen, strongly bolstering the “evangelical” party in the Church of England, a party that would act to hold back (for a time) the advances of rationalism and modernism.

The details of Ryle’s life are somewhat sparse. He wrote a brief autobiography for his children, but seems to have had little interest in leaving much behind other than his writings. Indeed, Murray notes in the introduction, “Ryle appears to have discouraged the use of any of his personal archives, so that little of a personal nature to help a biographer has survived apart from the autobiography which he did not intend for publication. It was the message of his books, rather than a biography, that he wanted to see passed on to the future.” (xiii) There have been other biographies on which Murray relied as well as new research in recent years that inform about some of the missing chapters of Ryle’s life.

If one had known J. C. Ryle in his youth, one would not have suspected him of ever entering the ministry. It seems that he himself never expected it! His grandfather, a wealthy silk miller, had been converted to Christ in the Methodist revivals. From what is known of him, his testimony seems sincere and genuine. His wealth enabled his son, also John Ryle, to pursue business, but his religion was much more form than substance. Murray comments, “Evangelical experience is not hereditary, and what John Ryle Sr. was strong enough to withstand, his son was not.” (20)

J. C. Ryle was educated at Eton and later at Oxford. He excelled in his studies and as a sportsman, especially loving the cricket pitch. “He was like his father, a worldly gentleman.” (20) He says of his occupations as a young man that “Between dancing … playing at billiards, and reading Byron’s works, my recollection is, that I wasted a great deal of time.” (17) A change was to come about in his life when an evangelical preacher came into a new church in his district. His sister, Susan, and a close friend and relative, Henry Arkwright, “embraced what they heard.” (21) Their testimony began to awaken a new way of thinking in his mind, though not an immediate change in his life. During an illness in the summer of 1837, he began to read his Bible and pray. By Christmas of that year he had embarked on an entirely new way of life as a believer in Jesus Christ, just as he was preparing to leave Oxford and set out on his career.

Though taking first class honors at Oxford, he had no interest in a teaching position. His course was set, he thought, on a career in business and politics, but circumstances would overtake him. He took a position with his father’s bank, apparently with the view of learning the business from the ground up. It was not to be. His father lacked business acumen, unwisely trusted unscrupulous underlings with the result that his business suddenly collapsed along with J. C. Ryle’s hopes for the future.

In the uncertain years that followed, he was offered a post as a curate in the small parish of Fawley. As it was the only means available to earn an income, he accepted it with much trepidation. He “would be accused by a later critic of wanting to enter ‘the priests’ offices’ to ‘eat a piece of bread’” (56), but as it turns out the appointment was the Lord’s doing, hedging him in such that no other opportunity remained open to him. He took his duties seriously and soon filled the little church he preached in. His practices were unusual — he was bold enough to personally disburse countless tracts throughout his parish and make regular visits in the homes of his parishioners. He learned preaching on the job, as it were. His aim was to meet the spiritual needs of his agricultural congregation. “He found it one thing to fill the time, quite another to make his hearers understand his meaning and to hold their attention. He came to believe that it was easier to preach to Oxford or Cambridge, or before Parliament, than to an agricultural congregation on a fine hot summer’s afternoon in the month of August.” (60)

I will leave the details of his biography to Murray, but must say that the story of any man’s conversion is of tremendous interest to me. The Lord uses many means to bring men to Himself and brings uniquely gifted men into the harness of the ministry, each filling their places according to the Lord’s plan rather than their own. Ryle moved from the small country parish to a larger one where he felt he had sufficient income to support a family. His first wife lived barely two years past their wedding, dying after giving birth to their only daughter. He remarried a couple of years later, but his second wife also passed away, this time after ten years. A year or so later he moved to another parish, taking shortly thereafter his third wife, Henrietta (to whom we are indebted for photographs of their family and home). Henrietta survived into his old age, but predeceased him by eleven years.

The most significant achievement of Ryle’s ministry, from its early days to a continuing impact today, is his writing. He wrote many tracts in his lifetime. These tracts were as short as a page or two to some running to forty-five pages long. In his writing, he had in view a much broader influence than the ministry of his own local church. His first purpose was pastoral and evangelical, but he had his eye on engaging controversy as well. During his day, a group known as the Anglo-Catholic party (high church party) was actively agitating for closer ties to Rome and imitation of Roman rites and beliefs. Of his writing on these matters, he wrote in 1858:

“These are not times in which men ought to get into their little parishes, and say they care not what goes on outside that ditch, or that wall, or that lane, which is the boundary of their parish. We must have public feelings, and do our duty, and take our part against the common foes by which the Church of England is in danger of being assailed. … We must not suppose that anything will do except fighting, — not fighting with carnal weapons, but with the sword of the Spirit.” (89)

A touching account retells the story of translating one of his tracts on justification into Spanish.

“A copy [of Are You Free?] was given to a Dominican friar, Manuel Aguas, in Mexico. When he received the tract in the place where he had been sent to erase Protestant witness, ‘The scales fell from his eyes while reading it, and, like St Paul, though sent to persecute, he began to build up the Church.’ A Mexican Reformed Church was to grow to 7,000 adherents, and another of its leaders, Bishop Riley, was to speak of how he was ‘much indebted’ to Ryle’s tract Are You Forgiven?” (90)

Ryle left the parish of Stadbroke for the bishopric of Liverpool at the age of sixty-three. The account of his obtaining the appointment is remarkably interesting in itself, but you’ll have to get Murray for that. He would spend another twenty years preaching and teaching and producing helpful Christian literature. At the point this transition takes place, Murray gives us an extended chapter summarizing Ryle’s philosophy of ministry and his teaching. The reading of this chapter is extremely rewarding. A few highlights follow:

“In the first place, the gospel itself was ever the most important part of whatever he spoke or wrote, and the gospel meant the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (133)

“In the second place, there is much to be learned from Ryle’s teaching with respect to keeping a right proportion in the presentation of the truth. It is no small thing both to state biblical truth and to keep it in a right relationship with other collateral truths. One doctrine magnified out of proportion to other truths will limit the usefulness of any ministry. Similarly, a secondary truth constantly delivered as though it was a main truth will produce unbalanced Christians. Truth needs to be stated with the right degree of emphasis in relation to other biblical teaching.” (135)

On this point, it is pertinent to note that over-emphasis on a truth can lead to making an idol of that truth. The Pharisees made an idol of the Sabbath, they have had many imitators in our day.

Ryle on Pantheism: “It is not Atheism I fear so much in the present times as Pantheism. It is not the system which says nothing is true, so much as the system which says everything is true. It is the system which is so liberal, that it dares not say anything that is false. It is the system which is so charitable, that it will allow everything to be true. It is the system which is so scrupulous about the feelings of others that we are never to say they are wrong … What is it but a bowing down before a great idol speciously called liberality? What is it all but a sacrificing of truth upon the altar of a caricature of charity? Beware of it if you believe the Bible.” (140-141)

Before we close this review, one final comment on the life of Ryle should be noted. Murray reserves an appendix to the life for a discussion of Ryle’s son, Herbert Ryle who served later as Bishop of Winchester and then as Dean of Westminster Abbey. Herbert was everything J. C. was not. He was thoroughly modernistic in his outlook. Two other sons, Murray notes, professed no faith in Christ at all. We acknowledge that parents are not responsible for every decision their children make, but it is curious that a man like J. C. Ryle, thoroughly orthodox and seemingly having a warm relationship with his children, was unable to communicate a living faith to his sons. He who had many “Ryle’s men” to follow him had not his own sons in that number. It is exceedingly tragic, and a caution to us all.

There is much more that we could say about the profitability of this book, but our review has gone on long enough. I would highly recommend the book and any of Ryle’s writings you can get your hands on. I say that knowing that you will disagree with his Anglicanism and perhaps some of his other points of theology as well. No less a man than Charles Spurgeon is cited by Murray as finding much profit in Ryle’s work in a comment on Ryle’s book, Practical Religion:

“Little more needs to be said of this volume than that it sustains the author’s well-earned reputation for evangelical simplicity and power. Mr. Ryle is looked upon as a typical representative of evangelical churchmanship, but in reality he ascends far higher. While with all her faults he loves the Church of England still, he loves the souls of men much more, and most of all the gospel of their salvation. This, too is a gospel to be loved, the gentleness of which has made him great, and the experience of which has led him to the earnest desire that it may do for others what it has done for him. … Men’s ideas of the wrath to come may be judged by the earnestness with which they exhort others to fly from it.” (154)

Reviewed by Don Johnson. Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

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