J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone, Iain H. Murray. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016.
Summary: The biography of this nineteenth century evangelical Anglican, from his early student days, his conversion, the decision to enter ministry, and his growing national reputation and his different assignments, including his last years as the first Bishop of Liverpool.
Earlier this year, a reading group of which I am a part chose J. C. Ryle’s Holiness (reviewed here) for our book discussions. Having read English writers of this era like John Henry Newman, I was bracing myself for highly convoluted sentences from which I would ferret meaning. Instead, I encountered a writer who was plain-spoken and a man of gracious, but uncompromising conviction. So when I came across notice of this new biography of Ryle, I acquired a copy, wanting to learn more of this man.
Ryle grew up the affluent son of a banker. He was tall, a gifted player of cricket, and seemed bound for a successful career, possibly in politics. During an illness in his last year at Oxford, he began to read his Bible and came to a personal faith in Christ, having previously been influenced by the conversion of his sister and a close relative.
A second turning point came when his father’s banking interest collapsed and he found himself without the means to pursue the political career for which he seemed destined. Instead, he sought ordination in the Church of England, serving first at Exbury and then St. Thomas’s Winchester. This was followed by a pastorate in Helmingham, during which he married twice, losing both wives, leaving him with five children. He wrote of this time, “There are anxieties in such cases which no one knows but he who has gone through them; anxieties which can crush the strongest spirit.”
Yet during these years Murray describes the pattern of a ministry that was constant in pastoral care visiting people in their homes, saturated with study, of the scriptures and the best of the Puritans, marked by compelling preaching, and further propagated through the publishing of tracts and collections of sermons. It was a time when Newman, Pusey, Keble, Froude, and others were publishing Tracts for the Times and leading a movement toward Anglo-Catholicism emphasizing sacraments, ritual, and ties with Rome, that Ryle and others thought contrary both to the Thirty-Nine Articles and to an evangelical faith rooted in the scriptures and the saving work of Christ.
A move to Stradbroke in 1861 brought with it a third marriage that would last until Henrietta’s death in 1889 and an increasingly national reputation as a voice for the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church. There were further publications, including his commentary on the Gospel of John. In 1872 he became Canon of Norwich and in 1880, at age 64, he became the first Bishop of Liverpool. He remained in this post until shortly before his death in 1900, establishing 44 new churches and mission halls, and becoming beloved among the working people, if not among a Church of England growing increasingly sacramental and tolerant of theological heterodoxy that moved away from evangelical conviction.
He was not able to stem the tide despite his efforts, even with his own son Herbert, who became a leader in the “broad” church. They differed but always remained charitable toward each other. One telling observation made however is that J.C. Ryle’s work continues to be re-printed and read, Herbert’s has not.
This makes me wonder about the subtitle, “prepared to stand alone.” It appears that this may often have been the case for Ryle, especially later in life. Are there times when it may seem that many, even those most dear will desert “the faith once delivered?” Perhaps this is why some find the writing of Ryle of such comfort in a time where parts of the church are given over to political captivity and others to a latitudinarianism that considers matters of doctrine of little value. Ryle brings together in his life and preaching both clarity of conviction and charity toward those with whom he ministered as he sought to proclaim that transforming power of new life in Christ.
Murray’s new biography explores the “long obedience” of this evangelical leader who never left the Church of England. He also includes two appendices, one with quotes from Ryle, and the other a brief profile of Herbert Ryle, his son. I’ll close with one of those quotes, on the “new birth,” a terminology that has undeservedly fallen into disrepute:
“The change which our Lord he declares needful to salvation is evidently no slight or superficial one. It is not merely reformation, or amendment, or moral change, or outward alteration of life. It is a thorough change of heart, will, and character. It is a resurrection. It is a new creation. It is a passing from death to life. It is the implanting in our dead hearts of a new principle from above. It is the calling into existence of a new creature, with a new nature, new habits of life, new tastes, new desires, new appetites, new judgments, new opinions, new hopes, and new fears. All this and nothing less than this is implied, when our Lord declares we all need a ‘new birth’…. Heaven may be reached without money, or rank, or learning. But it is clear as daylight, if words have any meaning, that no one can enter heaven without a ‘new birth.’ “
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.