This article is about the life and ministry of John Charles Ryle

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1987. 3 pages.

John Charles Ryle

The Ryle family have long been rooted in the north-east of Cheshire. Mr. John Ryle, of Macclesfield, grandfather of the Bishop whose life-work we purpose briefly to sketch, was born in 1745; and it was during his boyhood, that the first silk mill was (in 1756) established in the little town. The trade rapidly spread; and he himself founded a business, which by an accumu­lation of profits through a long succession of years placed him in possession of an ample fortune. His son and successor, Mr. John Ryle, besides con­tinuing the silk mill carried on a bank at Macclesfield, and (in partnership with the same gentleman) another bank at Manchester.

On May 10, 1816, John Charles Ryle, his eldest son, was born at Park House, in the outskirts of Macclesfield: in due time he was sent to Eton, and in or about 1833 to Christ Church, Oxford. In 1832 Macclesfield was enfranchised by the Reform Act, Mr. John Ryle being returned as its senior member; and thus the father's Parliamentary career and the son's Uni­versity life began together. The fond hope of both men was that the Ryle name should, for long years to come, be associated with their native town's new dignity, there being everything to encourage the expectation in the father's personal influence and the son's growing ability. In 1835 the father was re-elected; and in 1836 the son gained the Craven Scholarship, a much envied university distinction. In 1837, however, after the dissolution occa­sioned by the new reign (the accession of Queen Victoria), the father did not offer himself to the electors: and this might seem to indicate that the com­mercial difficulties of the period, which were soon to culminate, had begun to make him anxious in his various undertakings.

The son's energies, however, relaxed not; and on February 22, 1838, he took his B.A. degree, with first-class classical honours. Nothing had then occurred in his father's business to discourage the son's hopes of a Parlia­mentary career; and for this, which had so long been the object of his heart, there was a manifest and increasing personal fitness. His intellectual capacity had been proved in the schools; he was of manly physique; both at Eton and Oxford he had been at the head of the boats and the 'eleven'; in his county he was now an active and popular yeomanry officer.

But God had higher work for him. In the early summer of 1841, amid the gathering difficulties of the commercial world, Mr. Ryle's banks both stopped; the silk mill, we rather think, having been previously relinquished. In deep waters John Charles Ryle, now twenty-five, had to reconsider his future. His mind became directed to the Christian ministry; and in the year of the family disasters he was admitted to deacon's orders by the Bishop of Winchester (C. R. Sumner). His first curacy was at Exbury, a chapelry in the parish of Fawley, the rector of which was Mr. Gibson; in that seaside hamlet of the New Forest, far removed from his late great home in Cheshire, Mr. Ryle buried his grief and recommenced life, but heir to a nobler inheritance than the secular one of which he had been disappointed. In the plainest of little chapels within a grove of trees he met his humble flock, tenants of the neighbouring squire; and the way he went in and out of the cottage homes showed how completely his soul had bent itself to his new lot. During the two years of his seclusion there he acquired, it can be stated, an entire pastoral knowledge of every man, woman and child, under his charge.

Late in 1843 the good Bishop appointed him to a living in his gift, St Thomas and St Clement, in the city of Winchester; but before a twelve-  month had passed, in or about August; 1844, Mr. Ryle accepted from Lord Lyndhurst, who was then Lord Chancellor, the living of Helmingham, in Suffolk. Though he had been all his life used to an urban people, he never again would accept a town ministry until his appointment to Salisbury and Liverpool.

On the 29th of October, 1845, he married Matilda Charlotte Louisa, the youngest daughter of Mr. John Pemberton Plumptre, M.P., of Fredville, in Kent. In 1861, on the nomination of Dr Pelham, subsequently Bishop of Norwich, he became Vicar of Stradbroke, a great rural parish in Suffolk, having a large population and a spacious church with a splendid tower. This church he restored, besides building schools. In 1869 he was made Rural Dean; and in 1871, Honorary Canon of Norwich. In 1880 he was advanced to the Deanery of Salisbury; and before he had taken possession was nomi­nated to the newly-founded see of Liverpool as its first bishop. But we must now go back again somewhat.

His Helmingham incumbency was the main period of the issue of 'Ryle's Tracts,' the first of these being his opening sermon, originally printed for private distribution only, and taking its title from the text, 'I have somewhat to say unto thee'. The series was, indeed, a remarkable one: not so much for the number of the tracts, although this exceeded 200 — since we can hardly be mistaken in assuming that they were written editions of his sermons — as for their execution and success. They were addressed, not to the illiterate and profligate, but to the respectable, middle-class churchgoers. Short, sharp, and importunate were the titles; and below the titles was matter solid, fresh, and as full of strict reasoning, on a Scriptural basis, as of spiritual appeal; in a style undeclamatory, unconventional, earnest, and pointed. 'Are you Converted?' 'Are you Forgiven?' 'Are you Holy?' 'Are you Free?' 'Do you Pray?' 'How Readest Thou?' Strive!' 'Strike!' 'Watch!' 'Occupy till I Come!' 'Wheat or Chaff?' 'Our Home'. In this fashion his readers were challenged, and cautioned, and stimulated to self-searching and to soul-enquiry.

In 1876 was made out a list of little more than one hundred tracts, with the circulation of each appended; and the sum total exceeded eleven millions and a half; and since then has considerably increased. A selection of them has been made in eight small volumes, under the felicitous title of 'Home Truths'. Compared with other successful tracts, Mr. Ryle's had a strength especially their own, an individuality never to be mistaken. They certainly owed much to their titles. We fully believe that the Bishop's intimates could tell of many a triumph won to the Redeemer's kingdom by these multi­tudinous messengers. Some of the results are known to the public. Bishop Riley, of the 'Mexican Reformed Church', which began in 1865, was much indebted to a Ryle tract, 'Are you Forgiven?' for ability to start in that move­ment; and he has supported his share of it by translating above forty of the tracts into Spanish. One of these, 'True Liberty', gained over to the cause a Mexican Roman Catholic priest of great ability — Manuel Agnas.

The Bishop's longer treatises and volumes are also numerous, occupying mainly the Stradbroke period; though, some are of later date. The Upper Room, a substantial volume, is a collection of papers, covering a period of forty-five years' ministry. Of an earlier work, entitled Knots Untied, it has been stated that at one time seven young men were known to be studying for holy orders, as the result of reading it Of the volumes, perhaps, the most popular has been Christian Leaders of the Last Century, sketching the lives of eleven eminent revivalists, with Whitefield and Wesley at their head; and his enthusiastic admiration of them is shared by most of his readers. We doubt, however, whether a still more valuable work is not the Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, as being more continually and lastingly in the readers' hands.

From the heart of East Anglia Mr. Ryle spoke by his writings to all England, and to excellent purpose. Could he have done more good if the ambition of his early life had been realized? We doubt it; although, like his honoured father-in-law, J. P. Plumptre, Esq., he could have done much in the House of Commons. The Lord has granted unto him vastly more than he had lost; and as year after year has added to his new inheritance of useful­ness, he must have ever found fresh reason to lift up his head with joy and still press forward. In 1880 he entered upon much more than the repre­sentation of Macclesfield.

Of his important diocese the special difficulties we understand are these: Lancashire abounds with native English old Roman Catholic families: Liverpool teems with immigrant Irish ones; and with many Welsh house­holds who 'know not' bishops. The princely merchants of the great city, who could spare their thousands as common men do guineas, are mostly from beyond the Tweed where they have known 'presbyters' only. A bishop, therefore, in working the special organization of which he is in charge, is sorely straitened for means and countenance. Nevertheless, since his appointment, the first Bishop of Liverpool's great exertions have produced remarkable successes, which have found their way into the tables of the Year Book. But there are also spiritual results, beyond the reach of tables; and we know that we are right in adding that never did Bishop more persistently than he, aim at these, in ordinations most particularly.

The Bishop is now over seventy years of age. We earnestly hope that he may yet be long spared to bless the Hand unseen which altered the course of his early life's voyage; and to deepen the mark which his ministry of nearly half-a-century has, by God's grace, unquestionably made on the Christian work of his period.

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