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 Issues | Church History | John Charles Ryle

Biography of J.C.Ryle
Chapter 3 by M Guthrie Clark
The Pen of a Ready Writer

<<Chapter 2

In a letter written by John Ruskin to a friend appears a remarkable and unsolicited tribute to Ryle's literary work. “If you ever come across any writings by one named Ryle, be sure to get them.” The strength and clarity and pointedness of the plain Anglo-Saxon which Ryle used impressed Ruskin as it has many others. His name has often been bracketed with two other masters of style, John Bright, the Quaker, and C. H. Spurgeon, the Baptist preacher; surely no higher praise could he given.

It is interesting to record that John Bright's speeches were studied again and again and read repeatedly by Ryle in his early years and occasionally in his writings he makes reference to Bright as one of the greatest English orators. Dr. Griffith Thomas reports that when Ryle was at Exbury he determined to model his style on the great Canon Henry Melville of St. Paul's, but he soon found that his country parishioners did not appreciate the round periods and florid language of their new Minister; accordingly, to use Ryle's own words, he decided “to crucify his style”. The result was immediate and lasting; immediate in spiritual fruit in his work and lasting in the sense that Ryle is still recommended as one of the finest models for young clergymen. In a splendid paper entitled “Simplicity in Preaching”, Ryle, in exhorting others in this direction, gives a full-length portrait of himself.

His first tract, strictly so named, had a tragic origin. On May 9th, 1845, a terrible accident had taken place at Great Yarmouth. A large crowd of people had flocked to the newly constructed Suspension Bridge, attracted by a notice that Nelson, the clown from a circus, would ride in a tub drawn by four geese. Suddenly, without warning, one of the rods snapped, then another. Next the chain on one side gave way, the bridge fell “like the leaf of a table let down”, and a mass of people was seen struggling in the water, the number of deaths reaching a hundred.

The event caused great consternation throughout the Eastern counties. Ryle grasped the opportunity and an anonymous tract by him was published by a London firm, who were represented at Ipswich. As a result, a scheme was broached of an Evangelical Magazine to be edited by him. This, however, he was prevented from undertaking owing to pressure of work and his state of health (“I have not health and strength for it at present . . . entire inability for much continual mental exertion” - letter of Nov. 23rd 1846). At the same time he suggested a series of “Ipswich Tracts” – “if his brethren in the Ministry would contribute their aid”. Though the actual title was not adopted, and Ryle was the sole author, the result was a long series of Tracts followed by such works as Expository thoughts on the Gospels.

Though the tract mentioned above was his first public production, his pen had not been idle. Early in 1844, on February 14th, he was instituted to the Rectory of Helmingham, and he had then had printed (tradition has it with his own hands) for private circulation copies of his first sermon, which was published in 1854 in the third series of “Home Tracts” under the title of “I have Something to say to Thee.”

Mention cannot be made of his first tract without drawing attention to Ryle's gift for titles. Here are some of them. “Are you Forgiven?”; “Have you a Priest?”; “Is Thy Heart Right?”; “Repent or Perish”; “Wheat or Chaff “.

In one Dictionary of Biography, Ryle is spoken of as a “tract writer of prolific and vast popularity.” The testimony is seen to be true when we look into the circulation of his tracts. Here are a few specimens. “Are you Holy?” (75,000 copies). “Living or Dead?” (110,000). “Do you Pray?” (130,000).

His reputation in this direction was established by the time he was chosen to be Bishop of Liverpool. The Times commented upon his promotion by saying he had carved out a " niche for himself as a pamphleteer. As the weapon dropped from the hands of the Oxford School of Tractarians, Canon Ryle picked it up and tempered it to new and very different uses of his own."

If “translatability” is a reliable canon of literary distinction, Ryle has no need to be ashamed. His booklets have appeared in French, German, Dutch, Italian, Russian, Hindustani, Chinese and many other languages. One of his tracts called “True Liberty”, in Spanish, fell into the hands of a Dominican Friar in Mexico, who had been sent to stamp out a Protestant movement among Roman Catholics, and the reading of it led to his conversion; so that, like St. Paul, he began to preach the message he was sent to destroy.

Early in his Ministry, Ryle began to write his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels for Family and Private use. His volumes on the Synoptics are very similar in character, but his larger work on St. John is different. He tells us that his expository notes on the Fourth Gospel form much more of a complete commentary. His idea was to meet the “abounding vagueness and indirectness on doctrinal subjects.” As a devotional commentary, I have heard this Exposition ranked very high; I myself have found him specially good on Chapters 3, 6 and 17.

Three points may be noted about this group of his writings.
(i) He writes with urgency. He tells us that he kept saying to himself, “I am addressing a mixed company and I have but a short time.”
(ii) He addresses the conscience. Many are the burrs which he hurls at us - and they stick!
(ill) He prepared his work to be read aloud. They are specially good when used in this way. I strongly recommend them for use in this direction.

I cannot do better than quote the judgement of Spurgeon in his inimitable Commenting and Commentaries: “We prize these volumes. They are diffuse, but not more so than family reading requires. Mr. Ryle has evidently studied all previous writers on the Gospels and has given forth an individual utterance of considerable value.”

In this realm there are smaller and larger works. One cannot refer to all, but mention must be made of some. Light from Old Times and Christian Leaders of the Last Century, are two big volumes which are thrilling to read. Among the shorter papers, I propose to draw attention to What We Owe to the Reformation and Lessons from English Church History.

Christian Leaders is a sympathetic and enthusiastic series of sketches of the leaders of the Evangelical Revival in the eighteenth century. Whitefield, Wesley, Grimshaw, Romaine, Berridge and the others are brought before us in turn with a delight and an understanding which are contagious. I know nothing like Chapters 1 and 2 for a tonic to drive away depression in dark times. It is no wonder that Canon Christopher of St. Aldate’s, Oxford, took this book on holiday with him annually for thirty years. A re-reading of this book to-day will put iron into our blood and heart into our work. “Without money, without patronage, without bishops, without the press, without Exeter Hall, they effected a spiritual revolution.”

Light from Old Times is similar in scope, but deals chiefly with Reformation worthies like Hooper, Latimer, Ridley and Bradford.

In The Lessons of English Church History, printed separately and included in Principles for Churchmen, Ryle reviews the 600 years from 1300 up to the present. He writes of five periods which may be summarized thus: The Darkness of Romanism, 1300-1500 ; The Blessing of the Reformation, I500-1600 ; The Disaster of the Apostacy, 1600-1730 ; The Evangelical Revival 1730-1830; Ritualism, 1830 onwards. It is a most valuable and comprehensive leaflet.

What We Owe to the Reformation is perhaps the most powerful and forthright thing Ryle ever wrote. It is unanswerable. The facts he marshalls are overwhelmingly shattering to any who wish, as some do tend, to belittle the Reformation. In the last part of the treatise, there arc four pieces of practical advice. There Ryle indulges in one of his favourite weapons - cumulative evidence. “What has made Italy what she was until recently? Popery. What has made the South American states what they are? Popery. What has made Spain and Portugal what they are? Popery. What has made Ireland what she is? Popery. What has made our own beloved England powerful and prosperous? I answer in one word - Protestantism.”

Theological and Devotional.
All Ryle’s works are devotional in character and are calculated to draw out one's love for Christ. Whatever tract of country he is traversing, Christ is always near at hand and we find our hearts, with his, burning within us.

Knots Untied is usually regarded as his magnum opus, and a perusal of it once again convinces the reader that this claim is justified. The Nineteen Papers which the book contains deal sympathetically with matters of dispute among English Churchmen. He writes unashamedly from the Evangelical standpoint. His aim is to show that the reasonings and arguments are not all on one side. He gives expression only to the opinions which he can find in the Scripture, in the 39 Articles and in the Prayer Book, fairly interpreted. Anyone who reads the book with an open mind cannot fail to be impressed by his careful treatment of the theme in hand and convinced by the weight of his numerous points. He presents an overwhelming case. Nothing is hidden, everything is faced. He writes as a lawyer, piling up point after point until reaching a climax and conclusion, the only word for which is devastating. A study of this book just now will put fresh punch into all our ministerial work.

Ryle's work as a devotional writer is distinctive. He does not specialize in bringing hidden treasure from the Word but he writes with a robust healthiness, with a complete absence of mawkishness, which is at once refreshing and stimulating. He never fails to exalt Christ; that, obviously, is his main purpose.

Let me close this section with a paragraph from his Exposition of St. John. “The love of Christ for sinners is the very essence of the Gospel. That He should love us at all and care for our souls, and that He should love us before we love Him, or even know anything about Him, that He should love us so much as to come into the world to save us-all this is wonderful indeed. It is a kind of love to which there is nothing like among men. But the love of Christ to saints is no less wonderful, in its way, than His love to sinners, though far less considered. That He should bear with all their countless infirmities from conversion until death, that He should never be tired of their endless inconsistency and petty provocations, that He should go on forgiving and forgetting incessantly - all this is marvellous indeed! His love is a love which passeth knowledge.”


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