Interest in JC Ryle continues, with many of his works still being republished and a couple of recent books on his life. Why, then, is there need for this new volume? In the preface, the author explains his purpose: ‘to produce the first intellectual biography of JC Ryle’ (page xiii), an undertaking that he has found easier due to some important new studies on Anglican Evangelicalism.
Does this mean the book is for academics? Not at all. While it certainly is a well-researched and scholarly production, it presents a most readable and illuminating insight into the ministry of this clergyman who became the leader of the evangelical party within the national church of England and Wales during the late Victorian period. By the close of the book, readers will be much better informed than previously as to who Ryle was.
Through Ryle’s life
In seven chapters of varying length, Pastor Rogers takes us through Ryle’s life, analysing in each chapter particular aspects of his thought and work, and concluding with a final assessment of his ministry. The first chapter covers his early life through to his first ministerial appointments. It indicates that the content of all his messages and writings, and the whole character of his ministry as an independent thinker and actor, were shaped by his own lack of spiritual support during most of this period. Chapter Two presents Ryle as a popular preacher in East Anglia and compares his sermons with those of Spurgeon and John Henry Newman. Years later he produced Simplicity in Preaching to help young preachers avoid some of his own early mistakes. His work as an author arose out of his early pastoral ministry and Chapter Three considers Ryle’s evangelistic tracts, his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, and closes with a most intriguing and lengthy analysis of the neglected subject of Ryle’s interest in hymns and his published hymnbooks.
The following three chapters are more lengthy, but certainly not boring. Chapter Four is devoted to Ryle the controversialist. He opposed three movements that he considered were detrimental to the true gospel: ritualism, that sought to introduce Roman Catholic practices into church services; ‘neologianism’, that undermined the authority and inspiration of Scripture and rejected dogmatic theology and eternal punishment; and Keswick spirituality. Out of this latter controversy came Ryle’s book on Holiness. Ryle’s indebtedness to the Puritans is noted, but nowhere does the author explain the reference in the closing chapter to his being a ‘moderate Calvinist’ (p.313).
Chapter Five, entitled ‘A National Ministry’, concentrates on Ryle’s influence within Anglicanism, especially his endeavours to unite the different factions within the evangelical party, to encourage evangelicals to be more active in church affairs and, finally, to initiate reform within the Church. This section will be of particular interest to members of the Church of England, but for non-Anglicans too, it will give a clearer understanding of the mindset of their Anglican friends, as Rogers engages sympathetically with Ryle’s belief in a state church and his rather suspicious and sometimes condescending attitude toward Christians of other denominations. The chapter also gives a brief glimpse into Ryle’s political views.
In the final main chapter, Ryle’s time as bishop of the new diocese of Liverpool is considered, concentrating on his vision for an effective witness in such a challenging situation as the second city of the British Empire posed. Rogers also shows how Ryle’s new office gave him a stronger platform from which to oppose the disestablishment of the state church, ritualism and theological liberalism while always abiding by the law, which included dutifully consecrating churches for ritualists. Ryle’s views on the need for a cathedral are explored, as well as his relations with his favourite son who embraced the latest critical views on the Old Testament.
There are two appendices that list Victorian Periodicals and Ryle’s Church Congress Participation, a bibliography that includes all Ryle’s publications and a general index.
No one can read this biography and not be in some way uplifted and challenged.