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 Issues | Church History | John Charles Ryle

Biography of J.C.Ryle
Chapter 6 by M Guthrie Clark
A Man of Granite With the Heart of a Child

<<Chapter 5

At a luncheon in Liverpool Town Hall on 3 1st May, 1900, after the Enthronement, Bishop Chavasse paid a generous tribute to his predecessor. He spoke of Dr. Ryle as “that man of granite with the heart of a child, the man whose name is better known throughout that part of Christendom where the English language is spoken than that of any other except Charles Spurgeon”. The words of Chavasse which head this chapter give us a remarkable summary of Ryle's character and it is upon this subject I now want to write, in bringing these memoirs to a close: “A man of granite with the heart of a child.”

Ryle was a man of magnificent presence. The photographs we have of him enable us to see that, but every man is much greater than his photograph. He was a man of 6ft. 3 1/2 inches in height and straight as an arrow. There is no doubt that his beard added to his striking and commanding appearance. What a figure he must have presented as Captain in the Cheshire Yeomanry, only excelled by his bearing as a Bishop! Grave, dignified, reserved, are words which we find used to describe him. He attributed his good health to regular constitutionals on the landing stage at Liverpool.

The word “home” meant a tremendous lot to Ryle, though he had many sorrows there through bereavement. He lost his second wife in 1860 and was left with five children, all under fourteen. The late Headmaster of Malvern who visited Stradbroke gives this interesting recollection.

“Mr. Ryle, with his gigantic figure and stentorian voice, was perhaps rather formidable to a youthful visitor, but he was very kind and hearty and I soon felt at home. The boys, each in his way, were delightful companions. The atmosphere of the house was like that of my own home, devotional daily Bible readings, somewhat lengthy family prayers, and a good deal of religious talk. But all was quite wholesome and unpretentious and I don't think any of us were bored, much less inclined to cavil at the regime, at any rate at the time.”

His house was the happy place it became because he was so careful in the choice of a partner. In his fragment of autobiography, Ryle tells us about his ideal for a perfect wife and I cannot refrain from quoting. “The great thing I always desired to find was a woman who was a real Christian, who was a real lady, and who was not a fool. Whether I was successful or not, others must judge better than I can, but I can call God to witness that these were the points I kept steadily in view.”

He was a man of tremendous courage. This comes out most conspicuously in his early disappointment as well as in every sphere of activity in his ministry. He faced the loss of his fortune of £15,000 a year and of all his prospects in a worldly way, with astonishing fortitude and patience. Writing in 1873, he said he did not think there was a single day in thirty-two years but what he had remembered the bitter experience of having to leave Henbury. But he did not break under the blow and came to see that it was all for the best.

One cannot fail to admire his steadfastness. He tells us himself of the few vital principles of Christianity which gripped him at the time of his conversion, which he never forsook. The paragraph is so impressive that it must be given in full.

“The extreme sinfulness of sin, and my own personal sinfulness, hopelessness and spiritual need. The entire suitableness of our Lord Jesus Christ by His Sacrifice, substitution and intercession, to be the Saviour of the sinner's soul. The overwhelming value of the soul, as compared to anything else. The absolute necessity of anybody who would be saved being born again, or converted by the Holy Ghost. The indispensable necessity of holiness in life, being the only evidence of a true Christian. The absolute need for coming out from the world and being separate from the vain customs, recreations and standard of what's right, as well as from its sins. The supremacy of the Bible as the only rule of what is true in faith, or right in practice, and the need of regularly reading and studying it. The absolute necessity of daily private prayer and communion with God, if anyone intends to lead the life of a true Christian. The enormous value of what are called Protestant principles, as compared to Romanism. The unspeakable excellence and beauty of the doctrine of the Second Advent of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The unutterable folly of supposing that Baptism is Regeneration, or formal going to Church Christianity, or taking the Sacrament a means of wiping away sin, or clergymen to know more of the Bible than other people, or to be mediators between God and man by virtue of their office.”

Ryle never changed his coat. He never became a Mr. Facing-Bothways, as I once heard a diocesan Bishop say it was necessary to do on the Bench!

His humour is another side of Ryle's character which one notices. Again and again he uses the weapon of playful satire with overwhelming effect. With a half-concealed sorrow he describes his neighbours in East Anglia, for the most part, as “Nimrods, Ramrods or Fishing rods”, i.e. fond of hunting, shooting or angling. We see this redeeming feature coming out again when he moved to Liverpool and thought of turning the stables into a Library to house his books!

What an earnest, downright man he was! What a thrill it must have been to hear him speak! His forcefulness was terrific and is conveyed on every page of his books. Ryle was remembered at Stradbroke fifty years after he left. He made a mark in the Parish by his unceasing energy, his fearless sincerity, his impassioned fervour and the direct and pointed nature of his utterances. The style is the man. “Believe, Believe, Believe!” he says. “Work, work, work!”

Ryle was a “bonny fighter”, as was said of another. His sportsmanship as a controversialist was recognized by all. He hit very hard but he was always fair. Fearlessly, relentlessly, firmly he expressed his convictions; but with that Christian chivalry which always distinguished him, he never made a personal attack. “Meddle with no man's person, but spare no man's sin,” was a favourite proverb with him.

After he became Bishop he was amazingly generous. His domestic expenses were not too great and he had a large income. One who knew Ryle intimately said that there was scarcely a movement in any Parish of which he knew to which he had not subscribed £25, occasionally £50. He was always a splendid giver to his son; Bishop H. E. Ryle tells how he gave his time to his children, teaching them games, natural history, astronomy,” insisting on our never being idle.”

Ryle was a born leader. Physically, mentally and spiritually God equipped him to lead men. He confesses that he was of a “somewhat combative” disposition, but we can see how that was a divine endowment for the task for which God was preparing him. His transparent sincerity gave strength and character to his leadership, which was admired by his friends and feared by his foes. He was trained in a hard school which left a stamp upon him that made him in many ways unique.

The wisdom of his leadership can be seen in his choice of Dr. Handley Mode, the Principal of Ridley Hall, as one of his examining Chaplains, and we find that grand man going to Liverpool annually for this important work.

His tenderness, the heart of a child, as Bishop Chavasse called it, is revealed in his grief over some of the candidates who presented themselves to him for Ordination. He had to reject three men for “utter ignorance and inefficiency” and two deacons for “sad unsoundness in doctrine. Such things trouble me greatly”. There we see the heart of a child. His love for Christians outside his own Church may also be noted in this connexion. He loved Keswick, the Presbyterians of Scotland, and Free Churchmen in his own diocese. He was Catholic in the best sense and his attitude in these things was a remarkable exposition of the saying of Rupertus Meldenius - in necessariis unitas, in non necessariis libertas, in omnibus caritas.

His popularity was very great, due no doubt to his love for souls. “People will stand almost anything without taking offence, if they are convinced you love them.” His being remembered at Stradbroke, as I have said, indicates that besides being popular, his ministry was most fruitful.

On June 16th 1900, the Church in Liverpool where the funeral was held was crowded with clergy and gentry. His son describes the scene in a letter. “The graveyard was crowded with poor people, who had come in carts and vans and buses to pay the last honours to the old man-who certainly had won their hearts.” Ryle often mourned that his Evangelical contemporaries fell behind their predecessors of the 18th-century, and he gives expression to his feelings in a memorable passage at the end of Christian Leaders.

“They fall short in doctrine. They are neither so full, nor so distinct, nor so bold, nor so uncompromising. They are afraid of strong statements. They are too ready to fence, to guard and qualify all their teaching, as if Christ's Gospel were a little baby, and could not be trusted to walk alone. They fall short as preachers. They have neither the fervour, nor fire, nor illustration, nor thought, nor directness, nor holy boldness, nor grand simplicity of language which characterized the last century. Above all, they fall short in life. They are not men of one thing, separate from the world, unmistakable men of God, ministers of Christ everywhere, indifferent to man's opinion, regardless who is offended, if they only preach truth, always about their Father's business, as Grimshaw and Fletcher used to be. They do not make the world feel there is a prophet among them, and carry about with them their Master's presence, as Moses when he came down from the Mount.”

Facing this indictment fairly and squarely, we have to confess that as Evangelicals we are not worthy to be compared with our forefathers, Whitefield, Romaine and the others in the 18th century. But Ryle is an exception. In John Charles Ryle, we find their equal and in some ways their superior.

Give us men,
Strong and stalwart ones :
Men whom purest honour fires ;
Men who trample self beneath them,
Only let their country wreath them
As her worthy sons,
Worthy of their sires ;
Men who never shame their mothers,
Men who never fail their brothers,
True, however false are others,
Give us men, I say again,
Give us men.


As I read over once again my little labour of love, I have one deep regret and that is that my task is so poorly done. So great a man deserves better treatment than I have been able to give him. But I ask my readers to believe that my preparation for this brief biography has been neither simple nor straightforward. I have not been privileged to enter into anyone else's labours in any real sense. The details I have gleaned have been collected and collated from more than twenty sources. What I should like to ask is that those who read this booklet and find much of what they wished to see, not there, should send me these facts and memories and hints and I will see if something more fitting and worthy may be produced in the future.


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Related Links
BulletIntroduction to Ryle

BulletGuthrie Biography Chapter 1
BulletChapter 2
BulletChapter 3
BulletChapter 4
BulletChapter 5
BulletChapter 6


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