John Charles Ryle: Pleading for Holiness in the Church

5 min

Many Christians have read with profit and gratefulness the book Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots by J. C. Ryle. In addition to this most famous work of his, J. C. Ryle also wrote expositional commentaries on all four Gospels, a helpful guide for parents titled The Duties of Parents, and other books on practical Godliness, such as The New Birth, Practical Religion, and Thoughts for Young Men. He also tackled important, controversial doctrinal issues of his day in works such as Higher Criticism, Bible Inspiration, and Simplicity in Preaching. Those familiar with Ryle’s works appreciate his direct and personal style, his simple and concise language, and his convicting and heart-piercing applications. But even of those familiar with his writings, very few know anything at all about the man behind the message.

John Charles Ryle was born on May 10, 1816, in Macclesfield, a town in northwestern England. Ryle’s father was a very successful, wealthy banker who served as a member of Parliament. Ryle’s grandfather had been a friend and financial supporter of evangelist John Wesley.

It was thought by all who knew the Ryle family that young John would follow his father’s successful career as a banker, and that he would also serve in Parliament someday. J. C. Ryle attended the prestigious Eton College and went on to the University of Oxford. He was a high-ranking scholar and excelled in all of his studies. He was also a tremendous player of cricket, playing as the skipper of the University team at Oxford. He also rowed for Oxford.

Up to this time in his life, Ryle had only a formal, external connection with religion. His parents were upstanding members of their community and faithful adherents of the Church of England. The Ryle family attended church regularly, but religion was not to them a personal matter of the heart. In their home, the Bible was not an open book. 

Once, during his university days, Ryle was out shooting for sport with one of his friends. The young Ryle did not often use profanity, but he swore on this occasion and was sternly rebuked by his friend’s father, a pious man. The rebuke made a lasting impression upon J. C. Ryle and awakened in him an awareness of living in the presence of God.

A severe illness—an “inflammation of the chest,” perhaps pneumonia or something similar—afflicted Ryle for many weeks. During this sickness, he thought much of God, eternity, sin, and salvation. One of his sisters had been converted to Christ, as well as a cousin. Their conversions had an influence upon his mind and heart, showing him that mere formal religion was not enough, and that a man must be born again in order to enter into the Kingdom of God.

One Sunday afternoon in 1837, J. C. Ryle entered one of the parish churches in Oxford after the service had already begun. Final exams at the university were approaching, and he was downhearted and depressed. Entering the church pew, he heard the reading from the pulpit. The text was Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.” 

In the years afterward, Ryle always remembered the distinct, slow way the reading was articulated, with a careful pause between the important phrases: “For by grace are ye saved . . . through faith . . . and that not of yourselves . . . it is the gift of God.” Under the power of this Scripture text, J. C. Ryle experienced new birth and became a follower of Jesus Christ.

J. C. Ryle wrote of that day: “nothing to this day appeared to me so clear and distinct as my own sinfulness, Christ’s presence, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out of the world, the need of being born again.”

Ryle graduated with honors from the University of Oxford. He had a brilliant career path opened before him. As a new believer, he hoped to do good in Parliament for God’s glory. He became a local civil magistrate in his hometown; from his father, he learned the practical arts of being a successful banker. As the eldest son, he was situated to inherit a substantial fortune and a seat in Parliament that he was expected to fulfill.

All these hopes and expectations were dashed in 1841, when a sudden economic downturn affected all of England. In one day, a banking crisis ruined his father’s carefully built fortune. According to Ryle, “we got up one summer’s morning with all the world before us as usual, and went to bed that night completely and entirely ruined.” The family was forced to declare bankruptcy and sold their family estate to pay creditors. J. C. Ryle remembered the parting with the family mastiff who stayed on at the old estate and looked sadly at the Ryle family as they left their home forever.

Ryle said of that banking crisis, “It pleased God to alter my prospects in life.” He was twenty-five years old at the time. His fortune was gone; his career path was ruined; and the family name was tarnished. Parliament seemed locked forever behind closed doors.

J. C. Ryle gave himself completely and unreservedly over to God’s service. He resolved to enter the ministry and serve God for the rest of his life. He did. Within a year, Ryle was serving as pastor of a church in the village of Exbury. 

In 1845, Ryle married Matilda Charlotte Louisa Plumptre. She gave birth to a healthy daughter, but the new mother fell ill only ten days after the delivery. After a brave struggle for life, Ryle’s wife Matilda died. In 1850, he married again, this time to Jessie Elizabeth Walker. She bore him four children. Then, tragically, she died of a liver disease after they had been married only ten years. For a year, the widower sought to raise his five children alone. In 1861, he married again, this time to Henrietta Clowes. She proved to be a faithful pastor’s wife and loving mother to the Ryle children.

The great theological battles of Ryle’s day were between the Evangelicals in the Church of England and the Ritualists. The Evangelicals insisted that the Gospel must be at the center of all pulpit ministry. They held fast to the inspiration of Scripture, resisted German higher criticism of the texts, and denied baptismal regeneration. Ryle said to his fellow ministers, “If Christ crucified has not His rightful place in your sermons, and sin is not exposed as it should be, and your people are not plainly told what they ought to be and do, your preaching is no use.”

Ryle not only preached Christ, but he also lived in Christ. Holiness was not a book he wrote; it was a way of life. By 1880, his faithful service in various country parishes had earned him such respect that Benjamin Disraeli, British statesman and Prime Minister, nominated him as Bishop of the newly created See (an ecclesiastical jurisdiction) of Liverpool. For the rest of his long life, in this position of leadership in the Church of England, he continued to call the Church of England back to its roots, to holy living, to a Gospel witness, and to fidelity to the Word of God. J. C. Ryle died at the age of 84 on June 10, 1900. His legacy of faithfulness to the Holy God of the Bible continues wherever his books are read and loved.

Sources and Further Reference:

Toon, Peter and Michael Smout. John Charles Ryle: Evangelical Bishop. Swengal, PA: Reiner Publications, 1976.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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