Saturday, 17 June 2017

J. C. Ryle - A man of influence

This morning I had the chance to speak at my church's men's breakfast. The brief was to talk on someone who has influenced me. The month before the person they looked at was John Newton, so I thought I would also look at an old school guy.

I felt a bit unprepared, as I was asked to give this talk less than two weeks before, but I received some good feedback. I get the impression that guys over 65-ish had heard of Ryle, grew up hearing his stuff and most had a copy of Holiness on a shelf somewhere. I might be late on the take up, or maybe with trends I am ahead of the game. Anyway, I have liked Ryle since I discovered him in 2008. Below is more of less the talk that I gave to around 45 men from my church.

Lots of people have influenced me in my Christian life but I thought for today, instead of talking about someone you may not know and someone who you might not have access to, I would talk about someone who you could look up and discover for yourself. 

So I could give you lots of dates, names, places and events in Ryle’s life, but I wasn’t really impacted by his personal life except for maybe when he became the first Bishop of Liverpool in England. I’ll touch on that more of that at the end. Instead I more want to talk about Ryle’s writings and his heart and ideas that he puts forward for the Christian life.

My introduction to Ryle

In 2008 I discovered Ryle. That year I was asked to preach on the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18[1]. That parable is about how this widow gets justice because she kept pestering a judge to hear her case. The point is that God is better than this unjust judge. Luke says that Jesus told this story so that we will always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1).

While researching this passage, I found a talk by J.C. Ryle on prayer. After hearing this talk, I was kinda cut to heart and really challenged to pray more. So I looked up this Ryle guy and it turns out he died in 1900. What I had heard was some random read out a track Ryle had written sometime around the 1870’s on prayer[2].


Even though this message was like 140 years old, I found Ryle to still be relevant today. Archbishop McGee in 1868 called him “the frank and manly Mr Ryle”[3]. His successor called him a man of granite with the heart of a child[4]. Someone else said that Ryle was “the most rugged and conservative of all Anglican Evangelical personalities”[5].

I think these quotes capture something of what I like about Ryle. He was blunt, if he thought the Bible said something then he believed it and said it, no matter the fallout. He was a well-educated, but easy to read. Sometimes it takes a smart man to say something simple and clear. After Ryle became the first Bishop of Liverpool a story goes that an older lady went to church to hear him speak. Afterwards she said “I never heard a Bishop. I thought I’d hear something great. . . He's no Bishop. I could understand every word.” Ryle took it as a compliment[6].

Here is part of his introduction from track on prayer:

“I ask whether you prayer, because prayer is absolutely needful to a person’s salvation. I say, absolutely needful, and I say so advisedly. I am not speaking now of infants or idiots. I am not setting the state of the heathen. I know where little is given, there little will be required. I speak especially of those who call themselves Christians, in a land like our own. And of such I say, no man or woman can expect to be saved who does not pray.”
Who today speaks like that? Ryle also was very good at using striking imagery to drive his point home, again from the same paper on prayer:

“It is a miserable thing to be a backslider. Of all unhappy things that can befall a person, I suppose it is the worst. A stranded ship, a broken-winged eagle, a garden overrun with weeds, a harp without strings, a church in ruins, all these are sad sights, but a backslider is a sadder still.”
Do you like that? He has heaps of these lists of imagery in his writings.

Later when Hannah and I stopped going to night church, I then started a habit of reading a sermon from one of Ryle’s books on Sunday evenings. Hannah would call this my “Ryle Time”.


Ryle was known for his tracks, or short papers. He would convert some of his sermons in to print form, and these were distributed widely. It is estimated that perhaps 12 million copies of his various tracks were printed over his life time[7].

In all Ryle’s tracks, he would specifically aim to address three types of people: non-believers, the confident believer and those weak in the faith or who are about to come to Christ. I think this shows Ryle’s heart for the lost and for the building up of believers. This really is the main strength or influence Ryle has today. He is on about forcefully applying Biblical truth to believers and non-believers. In short, he was an Evangelical.

Expository thoughts on the Gospels

Not only did he write tracks to educate his people he also had written some kind of commentary/devotions on all four gospels. Ryle’s aim was to have something accessible for the average person to use for themselves or for family devotions. He looks at a short section from the gospels maybe 12 verses long and then would draw out 3 or 4 implications from the text. As he wrote more of these his footnotes became more extensive and by the time he got to John’s Gospel his footnotes did kind of turn into a more technical commentary. Before we had children Hannah and I went through either Matthew or Mark together.

Ryle saw it an important task of the church to equip the laity. He lamented once that it seems the laity had taken their seats on the right train, and are told only to sit quietly while the clerical engine drives them to heaven[8]. In his first parish, at Helmingham, the population was only 287, and Ryle tried to visit everyone, every week. He would distribute reading material to one family and then pass that on to the next family when they were finished with that.

The three main areas Ryle’s work resolve around were holiness, Anglican doctrine and evangelism.


So, after discovering Ryle, I started to read a few of the tracts that he produced. Later that year I got married. On our honeymoon I had my birthday and Hannah gave me Holiness by Ryle. That’s love right?

Holiness is like the main book Ryle is famous for. Kevin DeYoung who himself has written a book on personal holiness has said to read Ryle’s book first before you think about reading his[9]. When J. I. Packer was asked about the most influential books in his life, first he listed Calvin’s Institutes and then Holiness by Ryle[10].

So yeah this was a good book. It is a good kick up the pants for people who say they are Christians but a bit lax on what they believe and how they behave. Ryle is convinced that your life will set the patterns for death. He talks of many people on their old age on their death bed who are too stubborn to repent from the habits they formed in their life. Ryle looks you in the eyes and tells you to pull your socks up and to enter the fight against sin.

He doesn’t sugar coat the Christian life. There is a whole chapter on counting the cost of following Jesus. Ryle says some people come to some sort of light faith by just feeling sorry for themselves, but leave when they realise there is a cross to be carried. At the end of this chapter he asks the “light” believer sternly:
"What does your Christianity cost you?" Very likely it costs you nothing. Very probably it neither costs you trouble, nor time, nor thought, nor care, nor pains, nor reading, nor praying, nor self–denial, nor conflict, nor working, nor labor of any kind. Now mark what I say. Such a religion as this will never save your soul. It will never give you peace while you live, nor hope while you die. It will not support you in the day of affliction, nor cheer you in the hour of death. A religion which costs nothing is worth nothing. Awake before it is too late. Awake and repent. Awake and be converted. Awake and believe. Awake and pray. Rest not until you can give a satisfactory answer to my question: "What does it cost?"
Ryle also produced another book on personal holiness called Practical Religion. In this book it has the chapter on prayer that I first listened to, as well as other themes like bible reading, zeal and self-examination. Before I touch on being an Anglican and evangelism, may I encourage you in this year of prayer to find Ryle’s track on prayer online and read it and you tell me if it wasn’t convicting. Just Google Ryle and “A call to prayer”. You will find it. Most of Ryle’s stuff can be found online for free. Let that be a take way from this, if nothing else.


While Holiness is Ryle most known book now, Knots Untied was Ryle’s most popular book while he was alive. This is because it dealt with some contentious issues of the day. I couldn’t actually find this book in print, but for my birthday Hannah found some place that would print it for me. Again, if that is not love, what is?

In Knots Untied I can’t say I agree with him on everything, but it is good to read from someone who has thought through an issue and clearly sate what they believe. In this book, he touches on the infant baptism, the lord’s supper, the use of the Sabbath, the 39 Articles and other Anglican points of doctrine.

Ryle thought it would be good practice for any Anglican member to read the 39 Articles at least once a year. He said this because he saw that the 39 Articles and not the Prayer Book as the church’s standards for doctrine[11].

Ryle was an Anglican and he praised the system when it went well, but was also blunt when he thought the systems got in the way of evangelism or was frivolous. When he became bishop, he turned down the symbolic staff one would receive. He said: “No staff for me, if you send me a staff I shall lock it up in a cupboard and never see it again. A Bishop wants a Bible and no staff”[12].

In 1879 Ryle wrote a paper on the state of Evangelicals within the Church of England[13]. In it he saw three main movements, the “High Churchman” or what we might call the Angelo-Catholics, the “Broad Churchman” of what we might call Liberals and then the Evangelicals. Ryle says that of these groups, it is the Evangelicals that are in the minority when it comes to the clergy, but when it comes to the middle-class or the layman, Ryle was quite positive and optimistic. He said that it is the Evangelical churches that have the most numbers, clubs and resources. He concludes his paper musing about the unknown future with these words:
“But come what may, I trust the Evangelical cause will always have a representative body in the Church of England, and a faithful remnant who can stand fire, and stand alone. If gaps are made in our ranks, I hope the cry will always be, as it was in the squares at Waterloo, “Close up, men, close up; let none give way.” It was a grand saying of Lord Clyde on a memorable occasion, when someone talked of a battalion of the Guards retiring, "Sir, it would better that every man in Her Majesty's Guards should die where he stands, than that Her Majesty's Guards should turn their backs to the enemy." So say I this day to my Evangelical brethren, we have no cause for discouragement, despondency, or despair. Things are in a better condition in 1879 than they were in 1829. Then let us stand firm and fight on.”
The year after he wrote that, he became the first Bishop of Liverpool at the age of 64.

Liverpool and Evangelism 

Liverpool had rapidly expanded with the industrial revolution. The building of the railways and large docks meant an increase in trading and production as well as a massive gap between the rich and the poor. Church attendance in the area was abysmal with estimates of about 80% of the area being unchurched of any denomination. The local paper once said “look at the problem which way you will, the Man in the street will not, and never will, go to church”[14]

When moving into Liverpool the population could have been as high as 1.1 million[15]. This was a big change from Ryles last rural parish of about 1500 people. Under his command, he inherited 340 clergy. For comparison, the diocese he came from had about 1160 clergy for a population of 660,000[16].

Faced with these challenges Ryle was undaunted. He said that the person in Liverpool would be saved the same way as they were in his old parish, that is by the proclamation of the Gospel.

His basic plan was to set about not building buildings but by building up more who could proclaim the Gospel. He broke up parishes into smaller areas of 3,500 people and deployed a team of three people (with at least one woman on the team) to that area. They were to go door-to-door proclaiming the gospel and to plant a church that could be self-sufficient within five years[17]. This meant he was sending people into some priest’s turf. But Ryle saw that gospel priorities should trump church regulations. He lamented the myriad of church events that were put on. Real church work he said was when the people pursued holiness, neighbourly love and direct personal effort to convert sinners.

You can read some of Ryles evangelistic sermons in Old Paths, where he sets out not to bring something new to his hears, but to impress more on their hearts and minds that of Christ being crucified for their sin.

In the 20 years of being bishop of Liverpool Ryle ordained 535 deacons and 541 priests[18], set up around 44 new churches[19] and 85 “mission rooms”, he failed to build a cathedral (he had lamented that the money could be better spent on churches and mission halls[20]), set up a pension fund for clergy and supported around seven social groups that were aimed to help the poor.

Us now

So I liked Ryle’s simplicity and boldness. Here in the parish of Wanniassa we would do well to learn from Ryle. People are saved in Canberra the same way they are saved anywhere: by the proclamation of the Gospel. Ian, Steve and Phil each have only one mouth and using all their time and energy, and all their zeal will probably still mean they will not reach all the un-churched in our parish.

Today, St Matt’s mission field consists of our parish of 28,700 people, many of whom haven’t heard the Gospel. Our task is still the same, the fight is still on. We are at war with sin and the devil. We should peruse personal holiness, show love to others and “speech” the gospel for, as Ryle would probably say, that is our task as churchmen.

[2] I just found out that 130,000 copies were printed of this track while Ryle was alive from Alan Munden (2005), J. C. Ryle – ‘the Prince of Track-writers’, Churchman 119(1), 7

[3] Eric Russell, J. C. Ryle: That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), p. 9; cited in John Piper, “The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle” — The Value of a Masculine Ministry, (

[4] ibid

[5] Ian Farley, J. C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool, p. 123; cited in Piper

[6] John Piper, “The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle” — The Value of a Masculine Ministry, (

[7] Alan Munden (2005), J. C. Ryle – ‘the Prince of Track-writers’, Churchman 119(1), 7

[8] Ryle, Address to Hull Church Congress 1890; cited in Eric Russell (1999), Bishop J. C. Ryle, Churchman 113(3)

[9] Kevin DeYoung’s One Book Recommendation (

[10] J.I. Packer: Some of His Favorite Books (

[11] He would roll over in his gave if he saw that in the 1968 Lambeth conference they unattached the 39 Articles from the Prayer Book ( Ryle probably wouldn’t be surprised as he boycotted the 1888 Lambeth conference seeing it as a pompous almost catholic ecclesiastical structure with no Biblical warrant.

[12] Liverpool Courier 15 February 1900; cited in Eric Russell (1999), Bishop J. C. Ryle, Churchman 113(3)

[13] J.C. Ryle (1879), Where are We?, reprinted in Churchman 52(2)

[14] Quoted in Ian Farley, J. C. Ryle, p. 95; cited in Andrew Atherstone (2011), J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy, Churchman 125(3)

[15] Atherstone (2011). Russel (1999) says it was half that. Piper says 700,000

[16] Andrew Atherstone (2011), J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy, Churchman 125(3)

[17] Ryle, ‘Liverpool and England’, pp. 76-77; cited in Andrew Atherstone (2011), J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy, Churchman 125(3)

[18] Eric Russell (1999), Bishop J. C. Ryle, Churchman 113(3)

[19] Piper says 42 new churches, Russel (1999) says 24 churches were built – there maybe a difference between church building and church gathering, however I went with Atherston (2011) as I liked his article better

[20] Eric Russell (1999), Bishop J. C. Ryle, Churchman 113(3)


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