John Charles Ryle was born on 10th May 1816 at Park House, Macclesfield. His father was the owner of a local silk mill. His mother Susanna was the daughter of the manufacturer Charles Hurt and cousin of Sir Richard Arkwright, a famous industrialist and inventor. John Ryle came from a good Methodist family but he and his wife Susanna decided to attend the Church of England. They had their son John Charles Ryle christened at Christ Church, Macclesfield on 28th September 1816. Ryle's grandfather was a very successful businessman who made a fortune as a banker, landowner and silk manufacturer. When he died, Ryle's father inherited a fortune of half a million pounds, became part owner of a silk mill and a bank, and also became the new master of Park House and its estate.
Ryle's education began with private lessons in English and Maths from the Clerk of the Parish Church. When he was eight years old he was sent to Rev John Jackson's Academy in Bowden, which was a prep. school. Jackson told the boys that if any boy found it difficult to get up, the other boys should toss him out of bed. Ryle was tossed so high that he hit the ceiling and fell out of the blanket. He entered Eton College in February 1828.
Ryle excelled in sports at Eton. He was good at rowing and cricket. He was selected for the cricket team in his fifth year and became team captain in his sixth year. In October 1834 Ryle went to study at Christ Church, Oxford. He continued to play cricket at Oxford and was selected for the University First Eleven in his first year and was made Captain in his second and third year. In 1836 there was a match between Oxford and Cambridge at Lords Cricket Ground. Ryle took four wickets in the first innings and six wickets in the second!
In 1837 Ryle fell sick with a serious chest infection not long before he was to take his final examinations. He wanted to get a good degree but was stuck in bed. It was a great trial for him and he actually opened his Bible and began to pray. He hadn't prayed or read the Bible for fourteen years. The Lord was drawing him by his Spirit. One Sunday he arrived late to a church service in Oxford but was in time to hear the second reading, which was Ephesians chapter two. As he listened to the reading he felt that the Lord was speaking directly to his soul. His eyes were opened when he heard verse 8, 'For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God.' Ryle was converted through hearing the Word of God, without comment or sermon. He was born again by the incorruptible seed of the Word of God.
Ryle returned home from Oxford with a First in Classics and a Blue for cricket, which made his family very proud. However, they were not happy about his faith in Christ. They were Christians in name only. They attended the local Anglican Church on Sunday but their religion did not change their lives. They thought young John was taking things too far. He had given up dancing, the theatre, playing cards and even billiards! They wondered what was wrong with him.
After leaving university Ryle was unsure about what to do next. He thought about a number of different avenues but none were right for him. He had ambitions to become a Member of Parliament and thought that a good knowledge of the law would help him, so he went to London to study law. But he gave up his studies after six months due to chest problems caused by the London smog. When he returned home his father gave him a job in the bank, signing notes. In Macclesfield Parish Church there is a five pound note hanging on the vestry wall which was issued by the Macclesfield and Cheshire Bank on 25th February 1841 and signed by J.C. Ryle. However his father did not let him get involved in the running of the bank because he did not approve of his stand for Christ. Ryle kept himself busy with other activities during his time at the bank. He was a Captain in the Cheshire Yeomanry. He did ten days military training every year. He also sat as a magistrate once a week. He was even asked to speak at Christian meetings. He did not speak often at Christian meetings to avoid upsetting his father.
In June 1841 the Macclesfield and Cheshire Bank crashed and Ryle's father lost everything. His father lost all of his property to creditors, including the new family home and the silk mill. Ryle was humiliated by his father’s loss. He was once an heir to a great fortune but reduced to an owner of £200 and two horses. He had to find work quickly. He had to give up the idea of a career in Parliament as he had no money to back him. He thought about a number of different career paths but most of the jobs that interested him required years of training without much income. He needed money now. The only thing that he thought he could do that would give him an immediate income was to become a clergyman. His Oxford degree was enough to get him into the Church; all he needed to do was get a bishop to ordain him.
Ryle was ordained by Charles Richard Sumner, Bishop of Winchester and made deacon on 21st December 1841. He started his ministry at the Chapel of Ease in Exbury, which was a small parish of about 400 people. He was given a stipend of £100 per year and a house. This was about four times the average wage of his parishioners. Ryle was a very zealous worker for the Lord at Exbury. He visited every house in the parish once a month and spoke to the people about their souls. He gave out many tracts and visited the sick, sometimes giving them medicine, as there was no doctor in the parish. Ryle left Exbury after two years due to ill health but he left with an assurance that many souls had been saved in the parish.
Ryle’s next post was at St Thomas', Winchester. Through his zealous preaching it was said that he filled the church 'to suffocation and turned the parish upside down.' The mid-week Bible study was well attended and people travelled from other parishes to hear the gospel. Ryle's ministry at Winchester lasted only five months.
He was asked to take the parish of Helmingham in Suffolk. He was offered a stipend of £500 per year. He accepted the offer. Helmingham was a quiet parish with about 300 people. The local squire was an evangelical and paid for the church building to be renovated. 24 gospel texts of Ryle's choice were painted on the walls. Ryle paid regular visits to his parishioners and took part in Bible studies in various houses. Ryle bought his own printing press and printed his own sermons and tracts. He distributed his printed sermons to all those living in the parish, who didn't attend the services. He had a strong manly voice and he preached the gospel with power.
When he first started preaching he copied the style of a famous London preacher but after some time he realised that his hearers could not understand. So he started to speak in a simple and direct manner, which could be easily understood and he urged other preachers to do the same. Much of the preaching of the day in the Church of England was dull and lifeless. There were many different factions in the church and men would preach in a way that they might not upset a particular party. Ryle said, 'We have hundreds of jellyfish clergyman who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have no definite opinions; they belong to no school or party; they are so afraid of extreme views that they have no views at all.' He complained that 'the absence of a certain sound, the want of a sharply cut, well-defined doctrine in sermons is one of the worst and most dangerous symptoms of the present day.' This was a far cry from the preaching of the Reformers and Puritans whose works he had started to read. He admired the Puritans for their emphasis on the application of Scripture to their daily lives and their stand against the Stuart persecutions. Ryle had his tracts published by William Hunt of Ipswich. They sold in thousands. People are still using his tracts today. He was known as the 'Prince of Tract Writers.'
On 29th October 1845 Ryle married Matilda Plumptre, the daughter of a Tory MP. She died of a chill on 18th June 1847 leaving him with one child, Georgina Matilda. It was the worst thing ever to see his wife buried. He married again on 21st February 1850 to Jessie Elizabeth Walker, the daughter of a rich landowner. Jessie did not enjoy good health and John had to spend a lot of time looking after her and the children. She died of Bright's disease on 10th May 1860. Ryle said,'I was once more left a widower with five children, the eldest only thirteen, and altogether more disconsolable and helpless than ever.'
In 1861 Ryle moved to All Saints Church in Stradbroke, Suffolk. Not long after arriving at Stradboke he married Henrietta Amelia Clowes on 24th October 1861. Henrietta was the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel William Legh Clowes. Ryle was a zealous worker at Stradbroke. He held open-air meetings twice a week and ran a large Sunday School. He also had a new school built in the village, where he often taught from the Bible. Ryle held three services every Sunday and had cottage meetings in the week. He was particularly concerned about children and he often gave a word for them in his sermons. There was a marked change in the village. A magazine article of the time said, 'Some twenty or thirty years ago (Stradbroke was one of the worst places in the neighbourhood) a respectable person could hardly ride through without being insulted or very likely his hat would be knocked off his head. Now a quieter and more orderly parish is hardly to be found.'
In 1870 Ryle was made Dean of Hoxne with the responsibility of looking after 25 parishes. He was unhappy with lazy vicars who spent all their time in leisure activities. His hard work at Hoxne did not go unnoticed. He was made Dean of Norwich Cathedral in 1872. Ryle was appointed Dean of Salisbury in 1880, after the death of Dean Hamilton. This was a very controversial appointment. The Church Times accused him of being a 'Ritualist at heart.' It was a strange thing for an evangelical to be left in charge of a Cathedral. He did not actually go to Salisbury as the Prime Minister asked him to become Bishop of Liverpool soon after his appointment. Ryle was consecrated Bishop on 11th June 1880. Although he was used to wearing clerical attire, he refused to wear a mitre, or cope or carry a staff. He wrote to the supplier, 'If you send me a staff I shall lock it up in a cupboard and never see it again. A bishop wants a Bible and not a staff.' He was enthroned at St Peter's Cathedral in Liverpool on 1st July 1880.
Ryle did not change his preaching when he became a bishop. A woman travelled miles to hear him and said, 'I thought I'd hear something great. He's nowt. He's no bishop. I could understand every word.' Ryle had a zeal for evangelistic work and he invited D L Moody to hold a campaign in Liverpool in 1883. He was much criticised for this because Moody was not an ordained man. However, more than five thousand people heard the gospel at the same time.
His wife, Henrietta died of a chill on 6th April 1889. She was an active Christian, leading women's meetings, giving out tracts and helping missionary societies. Ryle said, 'Life has never been the same thing, or the world the same place since my wife died.' Ryle retired due to ill health in March 1900. He died on l0th June 1900.
Ryle was not only a zealous preacher but also a prolific author.1 Many of his books are still in print today - Practical Religion, Old Paths, The Upper Room are collections of sermons which will benefit the believer in his devotional life. He wrote commentaries on all four Gospels, and a number of books on Church History. We find it hard to relate to the episcopal system with its consecrations, enthronements and infant baptisms but we see a man who preached the gospel and won many souls for Christ.
1. Ryle's writings which are available from the Trust are shown below. Click on the book image to go to the appropriate page in the Book Catalogue.
Some titles are also available in Spanish.
Taken with permission from the local church magazine, Clifton News of the Clifton Hall, South Norwood, London. Book links added.