J.C Ryle – Prepared to Stand Alone – Review

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JC Ryle – Prepared to Stand Alone – Iain H Murray – Banner of Truth

I’d been really looking forward to reading this since it came out earlier this year.  Ryle’s books on Holiness, Christian Leaders of the 18th Century and his Expository thoughts on the four gospels are classics and very readable even today. Iain Murray is a brilliant story teller who writes in an engaging way with elegant prose. Murray recounts Ryle’s early life in Macclesfield, and time at Eton, to his conversion at Oxford. After a period of considering whether to be an MP, Ryle entered inadvertently into ministry after the devastation of his father’s financial  ruin. It’s  a wonderful tale.

During his ministry, Ryle spent decades in geographical backwaters. I love that the Lord has made him so strategic and yet he had three pastorates in places that you can’t even find on most maps. It is God who has made Ryle strategic. There can be a tendency for us to want to minister in places which, humanly speaking, look strategic. I’m sure there is a place for that, in terms of looking for a place where you think you might be able to have the most impact for the gospel. However, the problem with that is that our view of influence and impact is very limited. For anyone to undertake truly strategic work in Christ’s kingdom there is the need for God to work.  This is illustrated in Ryle’s life as, looking back over history it is clear to see that his work and writing carried out whilst living in the small and seemingly insignificant parishes has borne greater fruit over the years than his labour during his time as Bishop of Liverpool.

Ryle became Bishop of Liverpool in his mid 60s and served there for 20 years. There were real encouragements and heartaches during these years. Ryle’s time as Bishop was characterised as a time filled with forlorn hopes of reform and yet serious engagement with the denomination. I would have loved to have seen the minutes of the meetings of Bishops that Ryle attended. It’s no surprise that he left early on occasions and by the end of his Bishopric he doesn’t seem to  have attended them at all. By the end of his time he seems to have been loved by his clergy and even by those who disagreed with him.

It’s a delightful book and the quotes at the end from Ryle’s writings are magnificent. Iain Murray’s biographies are without fail encouraging and he has served the church magnificently with these.

I do think however that there is one area that Murray overlooks which should have been dealt with. JC Ryle had 6 children – Georgina from his first wife and from his second marriage Isabelle, Reginald, Herbert and Arthur, there was also another daughter who died shortly after her birth. Iain Murray rightly spends a considerable amount on Herbert Ryle, who was later to become a bishop himself. He sadly took a very different theological position to his father. Murray ably deals with this and brings out some of the poignant sadness that Ryle must have felt over his son’s liberalism.  The loving care of Isabelle to her father is also documented. The only mention of Reginald and Arthur is to record the date of their birth and a footnote on page 208 where it states “Herbert spoke of them as ‘two such loving brothers as few men ever had’, but sadly they made no profession of faith in Christ“.

The home is spoken of as being a happy . Herbert Ryle is quoted as saying ‘To us boys he was extraordinarily indulgent‘ (p212), I’m not convinced that is a great quality . Ryle’s’ family life should have featured more prominently in the biography as Ryle himself wrote on parenting. The booklet, ‘The Duties of Parents’ by Ryle, is published by Banner of Truth and it’s a helpful article, just last month someone in my congregation was raving about it. However it doesn’t seem that Ryle’s boys believed the gospel he preached. I honour the man for wonderful books and for a legacy that goes on until today but you worry about his home life. Obviously election takes place within the covenant and yet I think we can often understand why covenant children go away from the gospel. There is profound mystery in all of this and yet it would seem there were some issues within Ryle’s family life that I think Murray should have probed further. It must certainly  change how we read Ryle’s teaching on parenting.

In spite of this omission the book is worth getting, reading and enjoying.

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