Reviewed by Ben Rogers
This year marks the 200th birthday of J. C. Ryle, the first bishop of Liverpool, and Iain H. Murray’s new biography, J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone, is a fitting tribute to Protestant champion of the Victorian Church.
Many evangelicals are undoubtedly familiar with the author and his work at the Banner of Truth Trust. He has written lives of some of the great evangelical leaders of the past three centuries, including John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, John Murray, and a magisterial two-volume life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. He is also the author of a number of popular historical works on revival, Puritanism, the Scottish Christianity, and 20th century evangelicalism. Those who have enjoyed these works will surely welcome this one.
The main contours of J. C. Ryle’s life and thought have been sketched by previous biographers such as M. Guthrie Clarke (1947), G. W. Hart (1963), Peter Toon and Michael Smout (1976), Marcus Loane (1983), Eric Russell (2001), J. I Packer (2002), and Alan Munden (2012). J. C. Ryle was born and raised in a wealthy but unspiritual home. He distinguished himself academically and athletically at Eton and Oxford. He experienced an evangelical conversion in his final year at university, and the account of it has achieved a semi-legendary status among evangelicals – a monument to the importance of the public reading of scripture in Christian worship. Ryle intended to go into politics, but his political career, along with his family’s fortune, was ruined by his father’s bankruptcy in 1841, and so he entered the ministry of the Church of England because he thought he had no other options open to him. Despite this unpromising beginning, he quickly gained a reputation for being a powerful preacher, diligent pastor, popular author, and effective controversialist. He rose through the evangelical ranks to become its undisputed leader and party spokesman – the first to hold that distinction since Charles Simeon. He became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880 at an age when many clergymen contemplate retirement, and served as the chief pastor of the Second City of the British Empire until his death in 1900.
Murray’s biography follows the main storyline of Ryle’s life, which makes this book a great introduction to J. C. Ryle’s life and works. However, he does more than simply cover the same ground as previous biographers. There are two chapter-length digressions on Ryle’s love of Puritanism (ch.7) and the abiding emphases of his teaching (ch.9). His discussion of Ryle’s famous conversion is the fullest and most nuanced treatment of the subject. The author includes two valuable appendices as well. The first contains extracts from his writings which allow readers to sample Ryle’s thought and writing first-hand. The second appendix is devoted to Ryle’s favorite son, Herbert Edward, and the serious theological differences that existed between father and son. Murray’s work makes at least three other contributions that deserve special mention.
First, the author does an excellent job of explaining various aspects of Ryle’s historical and ecclesiastical context. For non-Britons, in general, and non-Anglicans, in particular, Ryle’s world can be somewhat inaccessible. Few non-Anglican evangelicals have ever read the Book of Common Prayer; even fewer are familiar with the debates surrounding its history, interpretation, and relationship to other Church formularies. Thankfully, Murray fills in the contextual gaps with clarity and simplicity. For example, in the third chapter he provides a concise explanation of the theology and history of the Oxford Movement, as well as an illuminating discussion about the evangelical roots of many of its leaders. And in chapter six he discusses the place of Ryle’s popular works within the larger evangelical publishing strategy. Thanks to the author’s attention to contextual details, Ryle’s world and his place within it becomes much more intelligible.
Second, Murray’s work is the most personal treatment of Ryle to date. J. C. Ryle had the reputation for being unsocial, reserved, remote, and aloof. It originated, according to his son Herbert, with his High Church opponents who sought to “destroy his position by detraction.” It was reinforced by his reputation as a controversialist. Unfortunately for Ryle and his legacy, this reputation has managed to stick to him for more than a century. Those who knew Ryle best knew this accusation was simply untrue, as their writings attest. Even some of his most determined ritualistic opponents in Liverpool grew to love him, as Murray points out. This biography should finally put this unfair criticism to rest. The J. C. Ryle of Murray’s work is a loving father, devoted husband, concerned pastor, and even-handed bishop. In short, he is just the man his children, friends, clergy, and many of his opponents remembered him to be. This, perhaps, may be the single greatest achievement of the work.
Third, Murray highlights aspects of Ryle’s thought and life that often go unappreciated or unnoticed. One such example is Ryle’s love of Puritanism. Murray devotes an entire chapter to the subject and argues that Ryle gained more from Puritan authors than any other source. His love for the Puritans is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that they were regarded by many churchmen, including evangelicals, as traitors, regicides, and enemies of episcopacy and the establishment. Readers who share Ryle’s enthusiasm for English Puritans will appreciate this unique focus. Another, and perhaps most important, example is his relationship with his son, Hebert Edward Ryle. Herbert was his father’s favorite son, and, for a time, it looked as if he would follow in his father’s spiritual footsteps. However, like many of his generation, he embraced higher critical views of the Old Testament and departed from the “old path” of plenary verbal inspiration. As a result, Herbert could no longer serve his father as an examining chaplain and he had to be dismissed. Murray deserves high praise for drawing attention to their relationship and theological differences. Not only is it an essential to understanding the last decade of J. C. Ryle’s life, but it also highlights, in a very personal way, what was taking place on a large scale within British Christianity.
Murray’s work is an excellent introduction to the thought and life of J. C. Ryle. It is ideal for those who are generally unfamiliar with the man and his times. Those who know him well will appreciate the author’s unique emphases, contextual sensitivity, and focus on the man. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is a welcomed addition to the all-too-short list of Ryle biographies and a fitting tribute to the First Bishop of Liverpool on his 200th birthday.
Ben Rogers (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) did his doctoral work on J. C. Ryle. He is a Baptist minister and is presently working on a number of Ryle-related writing projects.
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J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone