In the year Charles Spurgeon died (1892), at least 18 biographies were written to commemorate his life and legacy. Less than half that have been written to remember the ministry of the “Anglican Spurgeon”—Bishop John Charles Ryle—since his death in 1900. Thankfully, as we celebrate the bicentenary of Ryle’s birth today (May 10, 2016), that list is growing a little longer due to the labors of Iain Murray.
Many are familiar with Murray and his works. He has written biographies 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 has also written a number of popular historical works on revival, Puritanism, Scottish Christianity, and 20th-century evangelicalism. If you’ve enjoyed those works, you’ll surely welcome J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone.
Storyline of a Legendary Man
The main contours of 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). 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, the account of which has achieved a semi-legendary status among evangelicals.
Shortly thereafter, his father’s bankruptcy ruined the family, ended his political career before it started, and forced him into the ministry of the Church of England. Although he initially became a clergyman because he felt “shut up to it,” Ryle quickly gained a reputation for being a powerful preacher, diligent pastor, popular author, and effective controversialist. He rose through the evangelical ranks to become the undisputed leader and party spokesman—the first to hold that distinction since Charles Simeon (1759–1836). He became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880 at an age (64) when many clergymen contemplate retirement, and served as the chief pastor of the second city of the British Empire until his death in 1900.
While Murray follows the main storyline of Ryle’s life, he does more than merely cover the same ground as previous biographers. There are two enjoyable chapter-length digressions on Ryle’s love of Puritanism and the abiding emphases of his teaching. Murray includes two valuable appendices as well.
Triumvirate of Contributions
J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone makes at least three other contributions that deserve special mention.
Murray does an excellent job explaining various aspects of Ryle’s historical and ecclesial context. For non-Brits 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 Murray’s attention to contextual details, Ryle’s world and place within it becomes much more intelligible.
Murray’s work is the most personal treatment of Ryle to date. 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,” and was reinforced by his reputation as a controversialist. Unfortunately for Ryle and his legacy, this reputation has managed to stick for more than a century. Those who knew Ryle best, however, 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 criticism to rest. The Ryle of Murray’s work is a loving father, devoted husband, concerned pastor, and even-handed bishop. In short, he’s 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.
Murray highlights aspects of Ryle’s life and thought that often go unappreciated or unnoticed. One such example is Ryle’s love of Puritanism. Murray devotes an entire chapter to the subject, arguing that Ryle gained more from Puritan authors than from any other source. His love for the Puritans is all the more remarkable when it’s remembered 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 unnoticed aspect of Ryle is his relationship with his son, Herbert Edward Ryle. Herbert was his father’s favorite son and, for a time, looked as if he’d follow in his father’s spiritual footsteps. Like many of his generation, however, 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 had to be dismissed. Murray deserves high praise for drawing attention to their relationship and theological differences. Not only is it essential to understanding the last decade of 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 famed Anglican bishop’s life and work. It’s ideal for those generally unfamiliar with the man and his times. And those who know him well will appreciate Murray’s unique emphases, contextual sensitivity, and focus on the man.
J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is a welcome addition to the all-too-short list of Ryle biographies, and a fitting tribute to the First Bishop of Liverpool on his 200th birthday.
Iain H. Murray. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone. Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 2016. 259 pp. $28.00.