The Ryle family had gone from riches to rags almost overnight. They had been a strong, vibrant Victorian family during the mid-1800s, but poor management of the family bank by the father, John Ryle, would plummet them into ruin. By June 1841, the business and the family were bankrupt. Ryle was left only with his wife and children, and two horses. The loss would be devastating for the whole family, but the humiliation would weigh especially heavy on their oldest son, John Charles.
John Charles Ryle (1816-1900) had enjoyed the best of life. He had gone to the best schools, attended the finest gatherings, and partook in the luxuries of the elite. He fit the Victorian English model well. He was tall (6’3″), handsome and charismatic, which left him fending off women for most of his young life. John was raised in a religious family, and attended church regularly. But it would be a fateful stint at Oxford that would change his life, and the whole world, for that matter.
John was an avid sportsman and took to the field with great command. But a serious chest infection would confine him to a bed in the spring of 1837. It was during his illness that he began to spend time reading his Bible. Shortly thereafter, in the summer, John attended a church service, hearing the preacher expound on Ephesians 2:8, “By grace are ye saved through faith, and not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” This verse pierced John to the heart and he became a true Christian. His biographer would later write, “He was converted not by a tract, nor a sermon, but by the Word of God.”
When the bank went under and the family lost everything, John recalls, “I, [at] twenty-five, with all the world before me, lost everything, and saw the whole future of my life turned upside down and thrown into confusion.” But God would sustain him, and even though the family would spend the next two decades digging out from the mess, John managed to keep a God-centered view of his own calamity. He wrote,
“Banks may break and money make itself wings and flee away. But the man who has come to Christ by faith will still possess something which can never be taken away from him.”
John’s original plans would change, and he would pursue the ministry. Early on, John sought a more distinguished calling, but God settled him in smaller rural churches. John was highly intellectual and over-qualified, but he would serve his blue-collar congregation faithfully.
However, the shame of his family’s fall from prominence still haunted him. His early years in ministry yielded him a small salary, of which he would send home large portions of it to help the family dig their way out of debt. He would wrestle with God, praying “Why did you allow this to happen to my family?” But John’s latter years would give him insight. It was through suffering that God grew him the most.
John would outlive three wives, Matilda (d. 1847), Jessie (d. 1860), and Henrietta (d. 1889). In spite of the immense grief of loss, paired with the sourness and bitterness he carried from the bankruptcy, John pressed on, working harder and harder in the ministry.
His output was nothing less than stellar. In addition to his weekly expository sermons, John was able to write a slew of books, including Knots Untied (1874), Holiness (1877), Old Paths (1877), Practical Religion (1878), The Upper Room (1888), a 7-volume expository series on the Gospels, and an expansive tract ministry which blanketed the whole of England. In time, he would be nationally recognized and appointed as the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. He died in 1900, and was buried with his preaching Bible clutched to his heart.
J.C. Ryle’s legacy is nearly immeasurable as nearly all of his books are still in print and continue to be re-released in new editions. His writing is clear and profound, his doctrine is rich and sound, his gospel focus is forefront. For these, and many other reasons, Ryle is a favorite of many.
But for me, it’s his perseverance in the face of suffering that endears me to him. Having lost three wives and dug his family out of debt over the span of twenty years, all while serving joyfully in the ministry, is nothing short of inspiring. And I would argue that Ryle would not have been the man he was were it not for God’s sovereign allowance of adversity.
“True holiness does not make a Christian evade difficulties, but face and overcome them.” – J.C. Ryle
Note: Find the rest of the Portraits of Faith series here: EntreatingFavor.com/PortraitsOfFaith