Bishop J. C. Ryle

The full question:

Assess Bishop J. C. Ryle’s life, leadership and ministry. Determine the lessons that can be drawn for today.


The Bishop of Liverpool, John Charles Ryle (1816-1900), lived a life dominated by the grace of God. His understanding of the Gospel and deep desire for others to know Christ is an example for Christians today. Through his strong leadership, caring nature and ministry strategies, he was able to grow God’s Kingdom. There are many life lessons to glean from this man of God.


At J. C. Ryle’s (1816-1900) funeral Canon Hobson believed that ‘few men in the nineteenth century did so much for God, for truth, for righteousness, among the English-speaking race and in the world, as our late Bishop’[1]. Though he was ‘widely written off as a dinosaur’[2] near the end of his life, many now recognise his grit and determination as he was described by his successor, ‘a man of granite with the heart of a little child’[3]. This paper will assess Ryle’s leadership and ministry after briefly considering his life and finish by noting any abiding lessons that one can learn from his contribution.


Early Life

Born on 10 May 1816, at Macclesfield, J. C. Ryle was the oldest son of John and Susanna. He had three older sisters and another sister and brother that followed.[4] Although the home Ryle grew up in was respectable, he says ‘there really was not a bit of religion in it’.[5] They went to church but rarely spoke of it in the home and despite seeing some older members of the family read sermons at times they seemed ‘so unutterably grave and miserable over them, that [he] privately made up [his] mind that sermons must be very dull things, and religion must be a very disagreeable business’.[6] He did read two books, Pilgrim’s Progress and Conversations on the Church Catechsim, that brought him to tears as a child and his mother sometimes solemnly got him to recite the catechism while his father showed some old pictures in his Bible that he ill interpreted, but that was virtually everything that related to God growing up.[7]

As for Ryle’s education he was tutored and went to John Jackson’s school followed by Eton.[8] Moving on to Oxford in 1834, he graduated in 1838, then achieved an ‘MA in 1871 and being created DD, by diploma, in 1880’.[9] He considers himself thankful to God that he did not fall in to the wrong crowd although he did learn much of the evils of the world.[10]


In 1837 a dramatic development occurred in Ryle’s life.[11] In this year his whole character ‘underwent a thorough and entire change’ that has had ‘a sweeping influence’ over his entire life ever since.[12] While some scholars rely on Canon Christopher’s account of Ryle’s conversion at a church service with Ephesians 2 being read[13], Ryle himself does not point to any particular moment but considers it to be ‘very gradual’ believing he could not ‘trace it to any one person, or any one event or thing, but to a singular variety of persons and things’.[14] This conversion changed him dramatically. His decision to abstain from many social events such as dances and theatres reinforced a strong belief of the ‘absolute need of coming out from the world and being separate from its vain customs, recreations, and standard of what is right’[15].


The circumstances that led Ryle into ministry were not what you would at first expect. Initially hoping to enter a parliamentary career his father’s bankruptcy put an end to this possibility and at the necessity of earning a living he accepted a role in the clergy.[16] Russel calls it a ‘sanctified common sense’ that made up Ryle’s mind.[17] After being exhorted to preach Christ in all ministry at his ordination, ‘Ryle vowed to devote all his gifts and energies to the service of his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Chirst’.[18]

Ordained on the 12 December 1841 in the Church of England he became a curate of Exbury Hampshire (1841-1842) followed by St. Thomas, Winchester (1843-1844) then Helmingham (1844-1861) and Stradbroke (1861-1880).[19] In each of these areas the churches grew and he was very popular. At Stradbroke he included a new pulpit inscribing the words ‘Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel’.[20] Then in 1880, after accepting the Deanery of Salisbury, he was instead appointed the Bishop of Liverpool. He was 64 when ‘many clergymen eagerly await retirement’[21]. This is where he stayed until his retirement on the 1 March 1900, due to failing health; he died three months later.[22] Over his ministry Ryle married three times: Matilda Charlotte Louisa (1845-1847); Jessie Elizabeth (1850-1860); Henrietta (1861-1889).[23]

During his ministry Ryle was an avid writer, known as ‘the prince of tract writers’ in all he ‘wrote more than two hundred tracts and twenty books’[24]. The tracts sold in their millions.[25] Hobson sums up his ministry as Ryle being ‘bold as a lion for the truth, the truth of God’s Word and his Gospel’[26].

Leadership Assessment

J. C. Ryle was a strong leader. This could be seen even before his conversion in his cricketing career. One Vicar, C. W. Furse, later recounted watching Ryle slog the ball so hard down the field saying, ‘it was as much as a boy’s life was worth to try to stop them; he was a hard hitter, a character which he kept up through life, and wherever I go into battle, either in great or small things, I always hope to be at his side if he will take me with him.’[27]. He inspired confidence in others with his strong, dominating personality ‘of unceasing energy and impassioned fervour’[28].

His strategic mindset and ability to envision ‘what could be’ was a key feature of his leadership style. This attracted many to his cause because he knew what he wanted and he understood how to get there. He always aimed high believing ‘he that aims high is the most likely to strike high, and he that shoots at the moon will shoot further than the man who shoots at the bush’[29]. Yet this was not an ‘airy-fairy’ dream, he practically set in motion the means to accomplish these goals.[30]

This leadership did not just involve a dictatorial attitude delegating responsibility from up high but rather he was in the trenches. He was an example of everything he preached. Atherstone, when considering his evangelistic strategy, noted, ‘Ryle did not just exhort his diocese to put this mission strategy into action, he led from the front’[31]. Near the end of his life when his strength was waning ‘he challenged his successors to outdo him, if they could, in their zeal to see people won for Christ’[32].

One could conclude from this leadership style of such a strong personality that he would come across as unapproachable. This may have been true somewhat, as Dean Church wrote ‘The Bishop of Liverpool is as obnoxious to all High Churchmen as the Bishop of Lincoln can be to any Low’[33]. His strong leadership style and oxen like character would have polarised many who encountered such a leader. The Times of London (12 April 1880) recounted as much noting, ‘like many bishops he will have his professed champions, and like many he will have his serious antagonists’[34]. Even after his death he is still equated by some as a villlian and others as a hero. The Liverpool Review in 1985 published, ‘Dr. Ryle is simply about the most disastrous episcopal failure ever inflicted upon a long-suffering diocese’.[35] Considering the class system and culture of the time it may be ignorant to claim Ryle was completely pure in his attitude to other social classes, yet there is significant evidence of his love for those whom society at the time may have considered ‘beneath him’. Whilst in Liverpool, he took specific interest in many of the causes of the ‘lower class’. Helping sailors, prostitutes and many other worthy causes.[36] Hobson also notes his interest in the working class.[37] His willingness to make himself available to all those in his ministry shows a concern and love to his parishioners making himself ‘available every Tuesday morning to see any of them’.[38] His leadership style bucked the trend of society and caused him to consider carefully how to communicate, love and encourage those who are ‘uneducated and illiterate’.[39] His evident sadness that the working classes were often absent from church made his ‘heart bleed’.[40] Contrary to what some may believe his leadership still held warmth and sincerity which is demonstrated in his connections and love for those around him that do ‘not fit the picture of a reserved and distant man’[41].

It seems clear that his vision for reaching people with the gospel drove him throughout his ministry. It was this drive and passion that attracted people to his cause. His leadership was strong, reflective, polarising, impassioned and considerate.

Ministry Assessment

If numbers were possible to indicate the success or failure of a ministry then Bishop J. C. Ryle’s ministry was a success. Beginning with 120 curates, over his time they increased to 220. The first year he arrived at Liverpool he confirmed 4,500 young people and in his sixteenth year of ministry there were 8,300 candidates.[42] Although such numbers do not prove a ministry as successful, they still clearly indicate God’s pleasure to bear fruit through John’s ministry. What was his drive and passion that God chose to work through for the growth of this diocese that went far beyond any expectations?

Ryle’s ministry was marked by one great attribute, his passion ‘for preaching of the Gospel to souls…entirely neglected’[43]. Although many considered strategic evangelisation of Liverpool impossible, ‘Ryle believed it was his primary task as bishop’.[44] He knew this would not be possible without praying and raising labourers for the harvest field. He ‘promoted the office of Scripture Reader, paying lay men to complement the ordained ministry…Fifty Readers took services in mission rooms, organised Sunday schools and visited the sick’[45]. He believed the task of ‘his clergy was to preach and to visit, not administrate’[46]. Freeing them up for more to hear the Gospel. He also ‘increased roles for women as church visitors and Scripture readers’[47]. Ryle strongly believed multiplication of, Gospel-oriented, evangelists was the key to reaching a city in dire need of the gospel. He knew the first thing Liverpool needed was ‘not buildings, but living men…men who have the grace of God and the love of souls in their hearts’[48]. This ministry can be seen as driven by an awareness of the need for people to hear the Gospel. Through Ryle’s ability to recognise the needs of this endeavour, he was able to encourage the means of raising the church up to accomplish this task.

This Bishop was obsessed with keeping the Gospel forefront in all he did, especially his preaching. He believed:

‘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’.[49]

For the purpose of the gospel Ryle was willing to ‘hold out the right hand to all loyal churchmen, holding at the same time [his] own opinions determinedly’[50]. This attitude no doubt advanced the Gospel more significantly than a staunch, separatist attitude. His ability to work with people of other denominations allowed his ministry to have a greater impact.[51] At the same time, this desire did not compromise the certainty of the Gospel and the core elements he strongly believed.

This passion for the Gospel also equated in an intense involvement for the education and social betterment of the society around him. In Liverpool he increased educational provision ‘as a key phase in his strategy for the diocese’.[52] He also ‘promoted medical work…and he gave a good deal of time to supporting charities’[53].

As noted above, other Gospel driven energies were put into the writing of tracts. The fact they ‘were priced at a penny’[54] also demonstrate this ministry goal of spreading Christ-crucified to as many as possible. Many of these tracts, now updated, are available today because ‘they still convey a powerful message, in a simple style’[55]. All of this was driven by a rich ministry goal.

Despite his clear objective and his understanding of the Gospel, Ryle still knew it was not in his hands to make the Gospel effective for the salvation of souls. He depended solely on the grace of God and so he knelt and called others to kneel in prayer saying, ‘let us all pray and besiege the throne of grace continually’[56]. A dependence on God in prayer was a key factor in his ministry that must not go unnoted.

With this clear endeavour in mind, the Bishop of Liverpool found it difficult to simply accept the Church of England’s structures that he believed was ‘stiff and rigid, like a bar of cast-iron, when it ought to be supple and bending like a whalebone’[57]. He considered some of this ‘red tape’ made evangelism all the more ineffective. At times in his ministry he would dismiss some of the ‘norms’ that other bishops would have held, particularly the strong notion of ‘parish boundaries’. At a time when these boundaries were important, Ryle noted, ‘if an indolent and ineffectual minister would not change his ways, nor retire, the best remedy was to plant competent gospel ministers over the boundary into his parish’[58]. He also rejected much of the ritual symbols that many attempted to push onto him, once warning that ‘if anyone gave him a staff as a gift he would lock it away; what he wanted was the Bible’[59]. Part of Ryle’s success, seems to be this daring attitude and driving focus for the great task he knew to be his ministry and purpose – the proclamation of the Gospel. Such a ministry has at its heart a firm understanding of the purpose to which Christ commissioned his disciples.

Abiding Lessons

As with all the people of God who have served Him and the message of Christ faithfully, ‘we could learn much from Ryle’[60]. This larger than life figure has lived a life of devotion to the cause of the Gospel that every Christian should humbly consider. This devotion is on the surface and beneath the waters of everything Ryle writes and accomplishes. With a passion for the declaration of Christ-crucified in every Christian heart, much could be done for the glory of God. Is the salvation of lost souls still the overpowering desire of the church today? Nothing can be more convicting than this overwhelming passion that the Bishop of Liverpool demonstrates in his life and ministry. For even today, nothing has changed. As Ryle writes, ‘the longer I live the more I am convinced that the world needs no new Gospel…the heart of man is the same in every age’.[61] This age is in just as desperate a state as Ryle’s time. This must be as keenly felt as the Bishop of Liverpool felt it. Where his heart bled, our hearts must bleed.

The way in which this is accomplished and furthered is also a great lesson that the church must be willing to take into account today. For prayer is still just as vital. How many fall on their knees every day beseeching the throne of God for more people to hear of Christ?

The preaching of Christ is still just as necessary. Is there a focus on Christ in the pulpits of the church? Is preaching about the listeners more than the preacher? Is a concerted effort for the simplicity of preaching still highly prized? Ryle is indeed correct in seeing, ‘church growth as depending on a ‘revival among ministers’ who would preach better by ‘closer living with God’’[62]. Preaching must be impassioned by a personal relationship with Christ.

A love of the Bible and its authority and inerrancy is still to be upheld. Just as Ryle was buried with his Bible perhaps it is time for every church to dig it up once again and to take seriously what he took so seriously.[63]

The ability to train and equip the Church for the ministry of the Gospel is just as essential. We must raise up workers for the harvest field wherever they can be found and send out more labourers who love the Gospel. The church is grown through people not buildings.

Are the ministers of today just as eager to get in the trenches with their congregations? Are they sitting on the sidelines explaining carefully what to do or are they putting their hands to the task? How many ministers are regularly demonstrating the work of evangelism? Do the shepherds of the sheep set the pace by example?

Is there a clear passion for the unchurched, those whom many denominations fail to have represented within their buildings? How much time and effort is put in to supporting and witnessing to the lower socio-economic of Australia? Sadly, it seems as though there is an imbalance in many churches today that fail to reach out to every part of society as Ryle did. Christians today must reach across ‘social barriers’ and a middle class syndrome that holds back the Gospel of Christ.

How willing is the church today to work with others for the advance of the Kingdom? Is there an eager desire to make God’s name known or one’s own denomination’s name uplifted? The clarity with which Ryle both joined with others and held firmly to his beliefs, is a tightrope that Christians must walk as Ryle walked to further the glory of God.

Many lessons can be drawn from the life of J. C. Ryle and it requires continual reflection on his principles and his actions. The lessons above are merely scratching the surface of the deep treasure trove that is grounded in Ryle’s love of the Gospel. By God’s grace, it is this foundation that must be cemented. With this in place, the practices that Ryle demonstrated can be further explored and implemented.


Through this one man’s life, his leadership and ministry, are many lessons that must be gleaned for today. The greatest of them all is the sincere knowledge that the core elements of the Gospel must be firmly held to and declared. For if those who held to the core doctrines of the Gospel,

‘were only more faithful to their own principles, and more bold, and uncompromising, and decided, both in their preaching and their lives, they would soon find…that they hold the only lever which can shake the world’.[64]

May the church learn, hold firm and be emboldened to shake the world with the wonderful news of Christ with which Ryle also quaked his life and ministry.

  1. Richard Hobson, Richard Hobson of Liverpool: The Autobiography of a Faithful Pastor. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2003), 346.

  2. J. I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J.C. Ryle (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 10.

  3. G. R. Balleine, A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1933), 279.

  4. Iain H. Murray, J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 3. His grandfather seems to have been a committed Christian and his great-grandmother is said to have been converted by John Wesley. P. J. Cadle, ‘Ryle, John Charles’, in Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (eds. Timothy Larsen, D. W. Bebbington, and Mark A. Noll; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003), 573.

  5. Andrew Atherstone (ed.), Bishop J. C. Ryle’s Autobiography (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 62.

  6. Atherstone, Autobiography, 62.

  7. Atherstone, Autobiography, 63–64. The picture his father would show them was one of Satan dancing over the ruins of Job and his father would insinuate the same would happen to them if they did the wrong thing.

  8. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 6–10. At first he did not stand out in any particular way but eventually became quite the academic.

  9. Cadle, “Ryle, John Charles,” 573.

  10. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 6.

  11. He says before this time, ‘I certainly never said my prayers, or read a word of my Bible, form the time I was seven, to the time I was 21’. Atherstone, Autobiography, 61.

  12. Atherstone, Autobiography, 61.

  13. Cadle, “Ryle, John Charles,” 573.

  14. Atherstone, Autobiography, 67. Indeed it may be true that the reading of Ephesians 2 was one of the many events but there was much more than just this one event and Ryle ‘neither in his own experience, nor in that of anyone else’ thought ‘it important to date conversion to a particular day’. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 23.

  15. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 40.

  16. He had ‘a strong feeling that God did not intend all Christian men to become clergymen’ but in the end he says, ‘I could see nothing whatever before me but to become a clergyman because that brought me in some income at once’. Peter Toon (ed.), J. C. Ryle: A Self Portrait (Swengel: Reiner Publications, 1975), 60.

  17. Eric Russel, J. C. Ryle: That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 40.

  18. Russel, The Man of Granite, 41.

  19. Cadle, “Ryle, John Charles,” 573.

  20. Martin Wellings, Evangelicals Embattled: Responses of Evangelicals in the Church of England to Ritualism, Darwinism, and Rheological Liberalism 1890-1930 (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster Press, 2003), 53.

  21. Andrew Atherstone, ‘J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy’, Churchman 125/3 (2011): 215.

  22. A. R. M. Finlayson, Life of Canon Flemming (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1909), 178–179.

  23. Cadle, “Ryle, John Charles,” 574. Each of these dates are from when he married them to when they died.

  24. Nigel Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901 (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster Press, 2004), 121.

  25. Atherstone, “J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy,” 215.

  26. Hobson, Richard Hobson of Liverpool, 294.

  27. Ian D. Farley, J.C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool: A Study in Mission Amongst the Masses (Carlisle, Cumbria: Paternoster, 2000), 46.

  28. Farley, First Bishop of Liverpool, 46.

  29. J. C. Ryle, Warnings to the Churches (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 37.

  30. This will be seen more clearly in the next section.

  31. Atherstone, “J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy,” 226.

  32. Atherstone, “J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy,” 227.

  33. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 159.

  34. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 159.

  35. Farley, First Bishop of Liverpool, 236.

  36. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 170–173.

  37. Hobson, Richard Hobson of Liverpool, 145.

  38. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 175.

  39. J. C Ryle, Simplicity in Preaching (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010).

  40. Atherstone, “J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy,” 396.

  41. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 174.

  42. Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901, 124.

  43. J. C. Ryle, Charges and Addresses (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1978), 14.

  44. Atherstone, “J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy,” 216.

  45. Cadle, “Ryle, John Charles,” 574.

  46. Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901, 122.

  47. Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901, 123.

  48. Ryle, Charges and Addresses, 35.

  49. Cited in Cadle, “Ryle, John Charles,” 574.

  50. Cited by Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901, 122 originally Guardian, 28 April 1880.

  51. Murray, J. C. Ryle, 170.

  52. Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901, 123.

  53. Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901, 124.

  54. Scotland, Evangelical Anglicans in a Revolutionary Age 1789-1901, 121.

  55. Cadle, “Ryle, John Charles,” 574.

  56. Ryle, Charges and Addresses, 352.

  57. Atherstone, “J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy,” 220.

  58. Atherstone, “J. C. Ryle’s Evangelistic Strategy,” 221.

  59. Farley, First Bishop of Liverpool, 238.

  60. Farley, First Bishop of Liverpool, 239.

  61. J. C Ryle, Old Paths: Being Plain Statements on Some of the Weightier Matters of Christianity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), vii.

  62. Farley, First Bishop of Liverpool, 238.

  63. Farley, First Bishop of Liverpool, 239.

  64. Ryle, Old Paths, ix.




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