Ryle and Evangelical Identity

This article examines J. C. Ryle’s understanding of Evangelical identity. More specifically, it examines his discovery, definition, and defence of Evangelical principles. He was convinced that Evangelical religion, which is characterised by five distinguishing principles, was the religion of the Scriptures, the Thirty-nine Articles, the English Reformers, the leading Pre-Laudian divines, and the leaders of the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century. This conviction was born out of his own conversion and reinforced by his study of the Bible and church history, and it led him to become an outspoken advocate of Evangelical principles and an apologist for the Evangelical cause.

This year (May 10, to be exact) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth J. C. Ryle, the First Bishop of Liverpool, and evangelicals of various denominational stripes will be commemorating his life and legacy. Few Victorian evangelicals and even fewer Victorian bishops have enjoyed such enduring popularity. His tracts continue to be printed and distributed. His commentaries on the gospels remain popular with pastors and laymen alike. His biographical sketches are still read and appreciated. Holiness has become a modern spiritual classic. Practical Religion, Old Paths, and Thoughts for Young Men are regularly studied in small groups and in Sunday Schools. Even his short preaching manual, Simplicity in Preaching, continues to be required reading in some evangelical seminaries.

The focus of this article is not on Ryle’s popularity, but his understanding of Evangelical identity.[1] It will be shown that Ryle believed that Evangelical religion is the religion of Scripture and the Church of England. This conviction was born out of his own conversion, reinforced by his study of the Bible and church history, and led him to become and outspoken advocate and defender of the Evangelical cause. This article is divided into four parts. In the first part, Ryle’s conversion and its implications will be discussed. In the second part, the contributions of his study of English church history to his understanding of Evangelical identity will be examined. In part three, his definition of Evangelical religion will be explained. In part four, his defence of Evangelical principles against new threats will be considered.

Becoming an Evangelical: The Conversion of J. C. Ryle

Few Victorians were less likely to become an Evangelical clergyman than J. C. Ryle. Though his grandfather was a committed evangelical Christian and an intimate friend of John Wesley, his father did not share his grandfather’s concern for spiritual matters. As a result, he was raised in a wealthy but unspiritual home. Family prayers were almost never said. Religious instruction was nearly non-existent. The Sabbath was not kept. They had no religious friends or relatives to speak to them about their souls or bring them religious literature to read. And he was taught to regard Evangelicals as “well-meaning, extravagant, fanatical enthusiasts, who carried things a great deal too far in religion”.[2]

The family regularly attended Christ’s Church, which was one of only two parish churches in Macclesfield. For a brief period both churches had Evangelical incumbents, which was unusual for the time.[3] They were not, however, succeeded by Evangelical clergymen. Ryle described the incumbents of St. Michael’s and Christ’s Church of his childhood as “wretched high and dry sticks of the old school”, and later remarked, “I can truly say that I passed through childhood and boyhood without hearing a single sermon likely to do good to my soul”.[4]

The spiritual instruction he received at school hardly made up for what was lacking at home. He was sent to the Rev. John Jackson’s preparatory school at the age of eight, where he received a good grounding in Greek and Latin and a solid foundation for future academic success. However, from a moral and spiritual point of view, his three and a half years under Rev. Jackson was a complete failure. The school was poorly managed, bullying was commonplace, religious instruction was non-existent, and the moral condition of the school was absolutely deplorable. He later recalled,

As to the religion at the private school there was literally none at all, and I really think we were nothing better than little devils. I can find no other words to express my recollection of our utter ungodliness and boyish immorality.[5]

From a spiritual point of view, the next six and a half years at Eton were not much better. Though Eton was originally founded to combat heresy and provide a clerical education for the middle class, it was doing neither when Ryle arrived in January of 1828. Most of his classmates were the sons of noblemen, aristocrats, or the rich and well-connected, and religion was given no place in the curriculum and positively discouraged by the headmaster, Dr. John Keate. For example, Keate forbade John Bird Sumner, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, from speaking to his pupils about God while serving as an Assistant-master at Eton from 1802 to 1817. And instead of hearing “prayers“ read by the Headmaster on Sunday afternoon, the boys received a short lecture on “prose”, which consisted of nothing more than a discourse on abstract morality and a preview of the next week’s Latin theme. Eton historian Henry Maxwell Lyte writes, “It seems incredible that there should ever have been an entire absence of religious teaching at the greatest school in Christian England; yet such, from all accounts, must have been the case.”[6] Until the Duke of Newcastle founded a scholarship to promote the study of divinity in 1829, there was no official incentive to study religion whatsoever.

Ryle entered Christ Church, Oxford in 1834 as the first of the Tracts for the Times were being published by the leaders of the Oxford Movement. E. B. Pusey, one of the movement’s principle leaders, was the Regius Professor of Hebrew at Christ Church. Ryle, however, was immune to the religious excitement that was sweeping through the university. He was indifferent to both Tractarianism[7] and Evangelicalism. He notes in his autobiography that that there were a good number of Evangelical men at Oxford at the time, but their preaching was “very defective”. He does, however, speak positively of the preaching of Edward Denison and Walter Hamilton at St. Peter’s in the East, who were sympathetic to evangelicalism at this point in their ministries.[8] Ryle also wrestled with scepticism for a time – a fact which he omits in his autobiography – but was delivered from it by reading George Stanley Faber’s The Difficulties of Infidelity. [9] For the most part, he was generally indifferent to religion during his time at Oxford until midsummer of 1837.

That year Ryle underwent an evangelical conversion. He described it as a gradual process as opposed to a “sudden immediate change”.[10] The discussion of his conversion in his autobiography is far from exhaustive, but he mentions a number of turning points that are worth noting. The first was the quest for academic honours at Eton and Oxford, which played an unintentional, but pivotal, role in his spiritual pilgrimage. In his last years at Eton he competed for the newly established Newcastle Scholarship. In addition to demonstrating proficiency in Greek and Latin, those competing for one of three £50 grants had to submit three papers: one on the Gospels, one on Acts, and one on general divinity and church history. Preparing for this examination exposed him to dogmatic Christianity for the first time, and he later traced the beginning of his first clear doctrinal views back to a study of the Thirty-nine Articles in preparation for this exam.[11] Something similar happened at Oxford as well. The new examination statute of 1800, which introduced the concept of honours degrees, required that every candidate demonstrate knowledge of the Gospels in Greek, the Thirty-nine Articles, and Bishop Butler’s Analogy or William Paley’s Natural Theology. He was also examined on the Prayer-book, church history and tradition, the Fathers, the Creeds, Augustine, and Pelagius. Through his pursuit of first-class honours at Oxford, he unintentionally, and perhaps to some degree unwillingly, received a substantial theological education.

The second was a rebuke from a friend. While out hunting with a group of friends about a year after leaving Eton, he swore in the presence of a friend, who rebuked him sharply for it. The rebuke pricked his conscience and made a deep and lasting impression on him.[12] It made him consider the sinfulness of sin, and it was the first time someone ever told him to think, repent, and pray.

The third was the Evangelical ministry of a newly opened church in Macclesfield – St. George’s in Sutton. The newly appointed Bishop of Chester, the evangelical John Bird Sumner, appointed an Evangelical clergyman, the Rev. William Wales, to be its first minister. He was succeeded by another Evangelical in 1834, the Rev. John Burnet. According to Ryle, the “gospel was really preached” by these men, and they introduced “a new kind of religion” into the Church of England in that part of Cheshire.[13] He attended St. George’s with his family while home on holiday, and its evangelical ministry began to “set him thinking about religion”.

The fourth was the conversion of Harry Arkwright, his first cousin. He was converted while preparing for ordination with Rev. Burnet of St. George’s. Ryle was struck by the “great change” that took place in Harry’s character and opinions. Shortly thereafter, Ryle’s sister, Susan, “took up Mr. Burnet’s opinions” and was converted as well. As a result, evangelical religion became the subject of many family conversations, and he began to think more deeply about it.

The fifth was a severe illness that struck in the middle of the summer of 1837 as he was preparing for his exams. He was confined to his bed for days and was brought “very low for some time”. During this “very curious crisis”, he began to read the Bible and pray for the first time. He later credited these new habits with helping him go through his exams “very coolly and quietly”.[14]

The final event was hearing a lesson from the second chapter of Ephesians read one Sunday morning. Around the time of his examinations, John Charles attended a church in Oxford feeling somewhat depressed and discouraged. The reader of the lesson made some lengthy pauses when he came to verse 8: “By grace – are ye saved – through faith – and that, not of yourselves – it is the gift of God.” This unusual and emphatic reading of Ephesians 2:8 made a tremendous impact on him and led to his own evangelical conversion. By year’s end, J. C. Ryle was “fairly launched as a Christian”.

Ryle left Oxford with first class honours and new evangelical convictions, but he had no intention of entering the ministry of the Church of England. He moved to London in 1838 to read the law at Lincoln’s Inn but returned home six months later due to illness. He was preparing for a career in politics when his father’s bankruptcy ruined the family, ended his political career before it started, and forced him into ministry in 1841.

Before moving on, it is worth asking what impact Ryle’s evangelical conversion had on his understanding of Evangelical identity. It should be noted that nearly all of the contributing factors were connected to the ministry of the Church of England. Anglican institutions, churches, ministers, authors, the liturgy, and, above all, the Articles were instrumental in producing the “great change” of 1837. Therefore, it is not surprising that he concluded that evangelical principles were perfectly compatible with “church” principles. In fact, he would later argue that they were precisely what the founders and formularies of the Church of England intended her ministers to teach.

This conclusion had monumental consequences for Ryle’s ministerial outlook. Abandoning the Church for chapel was never an option. As long as the Articles and the Prayer-book remained unaltered, Evangelicals held an impregnable position. He never countenanced secession, encouraged others to do so, or sympathised with those who did. When the Church of England was rightly administered, it was the best Protestant and evangelical church on earth. And he laboured as a minister, author, controversialist, party leader, church reformer, and bishop to make sure that it lived up to its promise.

Discovering Roots: Ryle’s Historical Search for Evangelical Identity

C. Ryle was a life-long lover of history, especially church history. It offered guidance in the form of examples, which he needed in his earliest years of ministry. For example, George Whitefield’s sermons helped him find his voice as a preacher, Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor encouraged him to make regular pastoral visiting a normal part of his ministerial programme, and John Wesley’s organisational genius completely altered his attitude toward institutional church reform. It also helped him mature as a theologian, spiritual advisor, and controversialist. Readers who are familiar with his works, especially Knots Untied, Holiness, or Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of John, are undoubtedly accustomed to seeing numerous references to the works of the English Reformers, Puritans, and Church formularies.

In addition to being personally valuable and pastorally useful, the study of English church history helped shape his understanding of Evangelical identity in significant ways. His historical interests centred on three eras: the English Reformation of the sixteenth century, English Puritanism of the seventeenth century, and the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century. His study of each of these important periods of church history made a unique contribution to his understanding of what it meant to be an Evangelical churchman.

Ryle’s primary interest in the English Reformation, as it relates to Evangelical identity, was the theology of the Reformers. He argued that the Reformers were the “genuine prototypes and predecessors of… the Evangelical School”.[15] And to prove that the doctrine of the sixteenth century Reformers was “identical [to]” and “in complete harmony” with nineteenth century Evangelical churchmen, he compared their teaching on some of the most controversial issues of the day.[16] Both affirmed sola scriptura and justification by faith alone; both insisted that good works and personal holiness necessarily spring from true faith and are the only sure evidence of conversion; both denied that the sacraments confer grace ex opere operato; both rejected the doctrine of the real presence of Christ in the Supper and the notion that the Supper is a sacrifice, the table is an altar, and the minister is a sacrificing priest; both regarded the use of lighted candles, Eucharistic vestments, and superstitious gestures and postures as Romish ceremonial; both abhorred the practice of habitual private confession; both maintained that episcopacy is of the bene esse but not the esse of a true church; both taught that the Church of Rome has erred in both doctrine and practice; and both taught that repentance, faith, holiness, justification, conversion, union with Christ, and the indwelling of the Spirit are the principal things in religion, and though church membership and reception of the sacraments are important, they are of secondary importance. The point of this comparison was not simply to prove affinity, but to answer the charge of novelty. The study of the theology of the Reformers demonstrates that the distinctive opinions of the Evangelical school were not a modern invention but those of the founders of the Church of England. “Whatever good there may be in other schools of thought”, Ryle writes, “it is certain that no men can show a better title to be called ‘Successors of the Reformers’ than the members of the Evangelical school.”[17]

The theology of the Reformers also answered the charge of inconsistency or downright dishonesty. For many High Churchmen, Ritualists, and Dissenters, evangelical principles were simply incompatible with “church” views in general, and critical passages in the Prayer-book in particular. One of the most famous examples of this is Charles Spurgeon’s infamous sermon on Baptismal Regeneration, in which he questioned the integrity of Evangelical clergymen who denied baptismal regeneration and yet remained in a Church “which teaches that doctrine in the plainest of terms”.[18] For Ryle, the theology of the Reformers was decisive: The Articles, which are “in general tone, temper, spirit, intention, and meaning, eminently Protestant and eminently Evangelical”,[19] were the Church’s confession of faith and test of true churchmanship. Therefore, the controversial Prayer-book statements on baptismal regeneration, habitual confession, and Eucharistic vestments must be interpreted in light of the Articles and the evangelical Protestantism of its author. In short, the theology of the Reformers provided Evangelicals with a hermeneutical lens, as sense of internal consistency, and an answer to critics who questioned the sincerity of their attachment to “church” principles.

In addition to the English Reformation of the sixteenth century, Ryle was also deeply interested in English Puritanism of the seventeenth century. He described himself as “a thorough lover of Puritan theology”,[20] and his own theology, preaching, pastoral work, spirituality, writing style and reforming agenda all bear the Puritan stamp. In terms of Evangelical identity, his interest in the Puritans was twofold: First, they formed an important link in the line of Evangelical succession that stretched back from the nineteenth to the sixteenth century. He praised their “outspoken Protestantism”, and loved their “clear, sharply cut, distinct Evangelicalism”.[21] They alone kept the lamp of pure, evangelical religion burning in England during the reign of the Stuarts.[22] They were not enemies of the monarchy, nor of the Church of England, nor were they ignorant, fanatical, dissenters. In fact, he believed they did more to “elevate the national character of any class of Englishmen that ever lived”.[23] So why were they so maligned and hated in the nineteenth century? For the same reasons that Evangelicals were: their outspoken Protestantism and Evangelicalism. He explains:

Against Popery in every shape and form they were always protesting. Against sacramental justification, formalism, ceremonialism, baptismal regeneration, mystical views of the Lord’s Supper, they were always lifting up a warning voice. No wonder that Ritualists, Tractarians, Romanisers, and their companions, loathe the very name of the Puritans, and labour in every way to damage their authority.[24]

Ryle loved them for the very reason they were hated, welcomed the charge of “Puritan”, promoted their works, and published laudatory biographies of Richard Baxter, Samuel Ward, Thomas Manton, and William Gurnall.

Second, Ryle was interested in the Puritan era for polemical purposes. If Evangelicals were the heirs of the Puritans, High Churchmen and Ritualists were heirs of William Laud. Laud and his sympathisers were not Roman Catholic, but they did everything in their power to “High-Churchmanise” and “un-Protestantise“ the Church of England.[25] They opposed Calvinism and made it odious, they exalted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper at the expense of the preaching, they made extravagant claims of the Episcopal office, they introduced histrionic ceremonial into the Divine service, and they persecuted and harassed their opponents. The consequences of this policy were disastrous. The clergy became less Protestant, the middle and lower classes became alienated from the Church, and the Church of England was temporarily destroyed. In sum, “wittingly or unwittingly, meaningly or unmeaningly, intentionally or unintentionally, Laud did more to harm the Church of England than any churchman that ever lived”.[26] The results of the un-Protestantising policy of the anti-Puritan William Laud reminds the Church of what can happen when it abandons the Protestant and Evangelical principles of the Reformation.

The third era of English church history that interested Ryle was the Evangelical Revival of the eighteenth century. The leaders of the Revival formed another important link in the Evangelical succession, but that was not what interested him most with respect to Evangelical identity. He was interested, primarily, in two related questions: what were the means God used to rescue English Christianity, and who were the men he used to do it? The means God used was “the preaching of the great leading principles of the Protestant Reformation”.[27] The men God used were a handful of Evangelical clergymen of the Church of England.

Both of these answers were deeply instructive. They confirmed the abiding value of Protestant and evangelical principles, and they underscored the importance of preaching them. The men themselves – George Whitefield, John Wesley, William Grimshaw, William Romaine, Daniel Rowland, John Berridge, Henry Venn, Walker of Truro, James Hervey, Augustus Toplady, and Fletcher of Madeley – were examples of what Evangelical clergymen ought to be and ought to do. And they offered a prescription for the present:

I answer boldly that the true remedy for all the evils of our day is the same remedy that proved effectual a hundred years ago – the same pure unadulterated doctrine that the men of whom I have been writing used to preach, and the same kind of preachers. I am bold to say that we want nothing new – no new systems, no new school of teaching, no new theology, no new ceremonial, no new gospel. We want nothing but the old truths rightly preached and rightly brought home to consciences, minds, and wills. The evangelical system of theology revived England a hundred years ago, and I have faith to believe that it could revive it again.[28]

Defining Evangelical Identity: The Distinctive Principles of Evangelical Religion

On 27 November 1867, Ryle delivered a lecture entitled, Evangelical Religion: What It Is, and What It Is Not, to the London Church Association.[29] It was the fruit of an intensive two-year study on the works of the “Fathers of the Evangelical school”,[30] which included the English Reformers, Puritans and leaders of the Evangelical Revival. He set out to answer the question: does Evangelical religion have distinctive principles, and if so, what are they? He answered the question affirmatively and set forth his findings in this famous lecture.

Evangelical religion, according to Ryle, is characterised by five distinctive principles. The first is the “absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the alone rule of faith and practice, the alone test of truth, the alone judge of controversy”.[31] He explains,

Its theory is that man is required to believe nothing, as necessary to salvation, which is not read in God’s Word written, or can be proved thereby. It totally denies that there is any other guide for man’s soul, co-equal or co-ordinate with the Bible. It refuses to listen to such arguments as “the Church says so”, – “the Fathers say so”, – “primitive antiquity says so”, – “Catholic tradition says so”, – “the Councils say so”, – “the ancient liturgies say so”, – “the Prayer book says so”, – “the universal conscience of mankind says so”, – “the verifying light within says so”, – unless it can be shown that what is said is in harmony with Scripture.[32]

The second distinctive principle of Evangelical religion is “the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption”.[33] He explains,

Its theory is that in consequence of Adam’s fall, all men are as far as possible gone from original righteousness, and are of their own natures inclined to evil. They are not only in a miserable, pitiable, and bankrupt condition, but in a state of guilt, imminent danger, and condemnation before God. They are not only at enmity with their Maker, and have no title to heaven, but they have no will to serve their Maker, no love to their Maker, and no meetness for heaven.[34]

The third distinctive principle of Evangelical religion is “the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the nature of the salvation which He has wrought out for man”.[35] He explains,

Its theory is that the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, has by His life, death, and resurrection, as our Representative and Substitute, obtained a complete salvation for sinners, and a redemption from the guilt, power, and consequences of sin, and that all who believe on Him are, even while they live, completely forgiven and justified from all things, – are reckoned completely righteous before God, – are interested in Christ and all His benefits.[36]

The fourth distinctive principle of Evangelical religion is “the high place which it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man”.[37] He explains,

Its theory is that the root and foundation of all vital Christianity in any one, is a work of grace in the heart, and that until there is real experimental business within a man, his religion is a mere husk, and shell, and name, and form, and can neither comfort nor save. We maintain that the things which need most to be pressed on men’s attention are those mighty works of the Holy Spirit, inward repentance, inward faith, inward hope, inward hatred of sin, and inward love to God’s law. And we say that to tell men to take comfort in their baptism or Church-membership, when these all-important graces are unknown, is not merely a mistake, but positive cruelty.[38]

The fifth distinctive principle of Evangelical religion is “the importance which it attaches to the outward and visible work of the Holy Ghost in the life of man”.[39] He explains,

Its theory is that the true grace of God is a thing that will always make itself manifest in the conduct, behaviour, tastes, ways, choices, and habits of him who has it. It is not a dormant thing, that can be within a man and not show itself without. The heavenly seed is “not corruptible, but incorruptible”. It is a seed which is distinctly said to “remain” in every one that is born of God. Where the Spirit is, He will always make His presence known.[40]

Ryle happily acknowledged that Evangelicals were not the only churchmen to believe these doctrines. What made them unique, however, was the stress they placed on them. To Evangelicals, these truths were the “first, foremost, chief, and principal things in Christianity”.[41] In short, they belonged to the very essence of the Christian gospel.

As the title of the work suggests, Ryle was interested in doing more than just explaining what Evangelical religion was; he also wanted to explain what it was not, and so in the second part of his lecture he addressed a number of popular misrepresentations. The first is the charge that Evangelicals despised “learning, research, or the wisdom of days gone by”.[42] He pointed out that theological giants such as Ridley, Jewell, Usher, Lightfoot, Davenant, Hall, Whittaker, Willett, Reynolds, Leighton, Owen, Baxter, Manton, Poole, Hervey, Romaine, Toplady, and Dean Goode were all men of great learning, all made significant contributions to theological scholarship, and were all Evangelical men. Furthermore, he noted that no school had done more for the exposition and interpretation of Scripture than the Evangelical body and given the world more commentaries. “In thorough appreciation of anything that throws light on God’s Word we give place to none.”[43] It is simply unfair and untrue to charge Evangelicals with despising learning because they refused to place any uninspired writings on a level with the Scripture.

Second, Evangelicals did not “undervalue the Church, or think lightly of its privileges”.[44] Though Evangelicals were considered by many to be loosely attached to the Church at best, he insisted that “in sincere and loyal attachment to the Church of England we give place to none”.[45] They valued its form of government, its Articles, its Prayer-book, the Liturgy, and its establishment. And they proved their loyalty to the Church during the various disestablishment crises.[46] Though they refused to exalt the Church above Christ or equate membership in the Church of England with membership in the Church of Christ, they were, in fact, faithful and devoted churchmen.

Third, Evangelicals did not “undervalue the Christian Ministry”.[47] The opposite was true. They regarded it to be an honourable office and generally necessary for the carrying on the work of the gospel. Ministers were preachers of God’s Word, God’s ambassadors, God’s messengers, God’s servants, God’s shepherds, God’s stewards, God’s overseers, and labourers in God’s vineyard. However, they refused to admit that ministers are sacrificing priests, mediators between God and man, lords of men’s consciences, or private confessors. By rejecting a sacerdotal view of ministry, they were not minimising the importance of the ministry in the least.

Fourth, Evangelicals did not “undervalue the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper”.[48] They honoured them as holy ordinances appointed by Christ and blessed means of grace, which have a wholesome effect on all who use them “rightly, worthily, and with faith”. However, they denied that the sacraments convey grace ex opere operato. They rejected the doctrine of baptismal regeneration as unbiblical. And they protested against the notion that the Lord’s Supper is a sacrifice, the table is an altar, and that there is a real, corporeal presence of Christ in the elements.

Finally, Evangelicals did not “undervalue Christian holiness and self-denial”.[49] Evangelicals were as concerned as any to promote the spiritual life. “We give place to none in exalting humility, charity, meekness, gentleness, temperance, purity, self-denial, good works, and separation from the world.”[50] No one promoted prayer, Bible-reading, family worship, Sabbath-keeping, and private communion with God more strenuously than they did. However, they refused to call everything “holy” in religion, and did not encourage ostentatious Lent observance, keeping ecclesiastical fasts and saints’ days, frequent communion, joining houses of mercy, doing penance, going to confession, wearing peculiar dress, frequent gestures, and other forms of holiness not taught in God’s Word.

Ryle provided an excellent summary of what Evangelicalism was not, when he said,

We give all lawful honour to learning, the Church, the ministry, the Sacraments, Episcopacy, the Prayer-book, Church ornament, unity, and holiness; but we firmly decline to give them more honour than we find given to them in God’s Word.[51]

Defending Evangelicalism: Principles Worth Contending For

In Evangelical Religion, Ryle did more than simply describe the distinctive principles of evangelicalism: he summoned Evangelicals to defend them. Promoting true religion by refuting false teaching was a normal part of his ministerial programme, as his earliest writings can attest. At least in theory, the same should have been true of every clergyman who vowed ex anima to be “ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God’s Word” at ordination. However, the exhortation to “contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” took on a new sense of urgency in the 1860s and 1870s as three new theological movements – ritualism, neologianism, and Keswick spirituality – began to undermine essential elements of the evangelical gospel.

The most dangerous of these new movements was ritualism. This was a movement within the Church of England to restore the forgotten worship of the Catholic Church into the Divine service. Eucharistic vestments, high ceremonial, the adoption of the eastward position in the celebration of Holy Communion, and other forms of ornamentation began to be introduced into parish worship in the early 1850s. But ritualists were concerned with more than aesthetic expression; in addition to beautifying worship, these ritualistic innovations gave expression to Catholic truths which had been lost since the Reformation.

For Ryle, ritualism was nothing less than an overt attempt to un-Protestantise and un-evangelicalise the Church of England and bring it closer to Rome in doctrine and practice. His extensive critique of ritualism goes beyond the scope of this paper, but it should be noted, at least in passing, that he opposed it with every means available to him, addressed every aspect of the controversy in writing, attempted to unite all Protestant churchmen against it, and in the process became “the most effective of all controversialists on the Low Church side”.[52] Though ritualistic novelties and the Catholic truth that lay behind them represented a challenge to all of the distinctive principles of Evangelical religion, most of the differences between the two parties could be traced back to one issue – the rule of faith.

What had ultimate authority over the doctrine and practice of the Church? For Evangelicals that authority was the Bible alone. For ritualists, the Scriptures interpreted by the Primitive Church were coordinate sources of authority. Ryle opposed the ritualist rule of faith for two primary reasons: First and foremost, it was not taught in the Bible. For example, when Jesus was asked a question about where to find eternal life in Luke 10.25-28, he referred the inquirer to the Scriptures, not to the Jewish Church or to the traditions of the elders.[53] This established both a principle and precedent. According to the New Testament, “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, [is] the rule of faith and practice… [it] is the only rule, and measure, and gauge of religious truth”.[54] The Scriptures themselves support the Evangelical position.

Secondly, the doctrine of sola scriptura was enshrined in the Church’s confession of faith, the Thirty-nine Articles. Ryle believed the teaching of the Sixth Article is identical to the evangelical position.[55] In fact, he borrowed the language of this article to explain this evangelical distinctive in Evangelical Religion. He finds support in other Articles as well. The Eight Article says that the Creeds ought to be believed and received because their teaching “may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture”. The Twentieth Article declares that it is unlawful for the Church to “ordain anything contrary to God’s Word written’’. The Twenty-first Article connects the authority of General Councils to their faithfulness to Holy Scripture. The Twenty-second and the Twenty-eighth Articles condemn certain Roman doctrines and practices because they are “repugnant to the Word of God”. And the Thirty-fourth Article allows the Church to change traditions and ceremonies, “so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word”.[56] According to Ryle, this is abundant proof that the Bible, and the Bible only, is the rule of faith in the Church of England. In short, the Church formularies as well as the Scriptures support the Evangelical position.

Just as the ritualist movement was gaining steam, a series of monumental works were published that unsettled the faith of many Englishmen. The first of these was The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin in 1859. Darwin was not the first to call into question the historicity of Genesis 1 or to propound a doctrine of evolution; he simply expanded the concept by arguing that life on earth evolved over generations through a process of natural selection. Though he did not discuss the religious implications of his theories, many of his militant supporters, such as T. H. Huxley and the X Club, were more than willing to do so. Thanks to their efforts Darwin became a symbol for the incompatibility of science and religion.

In addition to new scientific theories, biblical criticism began to undermine popular faith in the Bible. In 1860 Essays and Reviews was published by seven eminent liberal churchmen. These essays did not mark a significant advancement in critical method; their importance lies in the fact that six of the seven contributors were clergymen of the Church of England, and they were willing to openly question traditional orthodox views. Shortly after the publication of Essays and Reviews, the Bishop of Natal, John William Colenso, published his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, and the first instalment of The Pentateuch and Book of Joshua Critically Examined. Colenso advocated a low view of inspiration, denied eternal punishment, judged parts of the Pentateuch to be unhistorical, asserted that the essential truths of the Bible did not depend on the historical truth of its narratives, and declared that Anglican doctrine must be broadened to appeal to intelligent men. These conclusions shocked the nation.

Colenso, along with the essayists, were attempting to restate the Christian faith in light of new scientific and historical thought. They sought to bridge a perceived gap between Christian doctrine and the views of educated Englishmen. Evangelicals pejoratively referred to this enterprise as “neology”, and considered these “new views” to be nothing more than old expressions of rationalism, scepticism, and infidelity in new garb.

If publishing is a reliable indicator of his level of concern, Ryle was far more worried about ritualism than neology. And, it is worth noting, that his attitude toward new scientific discoveries was remarkably positive,[57] which serves as a reminder that there is a moderate and progressive streak in Ryle which often goes unnoticed and unappreciated. He realised, however, that some “new views” either explicitly or implicitly threatened the distinctive principles of evangelicals, and so he offered a popular and pastoral rebuttal.

Ryle was zealous to defend the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration for a number of reasons and did so on a number of occasions.[58] He appealed to internal and external evidence, church history, its timeless relevance, the effect it has had on mankind, and the practical consequences of denying it. He was also keen to point out that an uninspired or partially-inspired Bible undermines the cornerstone of Evangelical religion – the absolute supremacy of Scripture. A flawed Bible cannot serve as the sole rule of faith and practice, test of truth, and judge of controversy.

The subject of the higher criticism of the Old Testament was a separate but related issue. It is difficult to overstate the intensity of Ryle’s hatred of the “new views” of the Old Testament; it was comparable only to the most overtly Romish novelties of the Ritualists. Chief among his many objections to biblical criticism were its blasphemous Christological implications. To suggest that Christ was ignorant about the true authorship and historicity of the Pentateuch, for example, calls into question his authority as a teacher, the fullness of his divinity, and his sufficiency as a Saviour. Though new theories of kenosis attempted to rescue Christ from the implications of ignorance, Ryle was unmoved. Old Testament criticism was a direct assault on the person and work of Christ and an affront to his honour and glory.

He also addressed “new views” regarding the eternality of punishment. Some were denying eternal punishing altogether and affirming a form of universal reconciliation. Others argued for a form of conditional immortality in which the misery of the impenitent comes to an end after a finite period of suffering. Ryle rejected both eschatological novelties for Scriptural, theological, historical, liturgical, and pastoral reasons. Once again, his chief concerns about the denial of eternal punishment touch on the essentials of the evangelical gospel. Why did Christ suffer and die if men can be saved without him? Why is the Spirit’s work necessary if men may enter into heaven without being born again? Why should men be urged to repent and believe if a sinner may be converted after death? Why pursue holiness if men may live in sin and escape eternal perdition? He was especially concerned about the impact of these “new views” on the second Evangelical distinctive – the doctrine of sin. No amount of misery could satisfy that breach of God’s law for which the blood of Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God, was needed to provide atonement. “It is the blood, and not the length of time that alone exhausts the sinfulness of sin.”[59]

In the mid-1870s Ryle became involved in a third major controversy: Keswick spirituality. In 1858 William Edwin Boardman, an itinerant Presbyterian minister, published The Higher Christian Life, which urged Christians to embrace a superior form of spiritual life immediately, by faith. A second conversion experience, full salvation, and deliverance from sin, is offered to all Christians on the sole condition of full trust in Jesus. Boardman’s book generated interest and criticism on both sides of the Atlantic, but his impact as an author and speaker was limited. A husband and wife ministry team from Philadelphia would spread and popularise his gospel of sanctification by faith.

Robert Pearsall Smith, a Quaker glass manufacturer from Philadelphia, and his wife, Hannah Whitall Smith, received the second blessing of entire sanctification at a Methodist camp meeting in 1867. Shortly thereafter the Smiths began writing of their experience and travelling around the eastern United States proclaiming immediate and complete victory over sin by faith, not by works or effort. Robert was a persuasive platform speaker, but his wife made an even greater impact than he did. Her personal piety was genuine, her gifts for biblical exposition were evident, and she became a popular author. Her book, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life, is considered to be the most influential book of all in the origins of Keswick spirituality. The Smiths arrived in England in 1873. They carried letters of introduction and were soon meeting with clergymen and influential laymen in private gatherings to promote holiness through faith. These meetings led to a series of conventions that ultimately gave birth to the Keswick Convention.

Many evangelicals were suspicious of the new holiness teaching, none more so than J. C. Ryle. He published his own response in 1877 under the following title Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots, which he enlarged in 1879. It proved to be one of the most extensive critiques of early Keswick spirituality and one of Ryle’s most popular and enduring works.

Keswick spirituality, though espoused exclusively by evangelicals, was inconsistent with nearly every Evangelical distinctive. Their doctrine of sin was unbiblically low. Without rejecting original sin, they practically redefined it to include only voluntary or known sin. This, in turn, led to an unbiblically high view of perfection. Though they did not teach absolute sinless perfection, they came dangerously close to it, promising deliverance from all known sin and full, unbroken and uninterrupted communion with God by believing and resting in God’s promises alone. Here the Keswick teachers confound justification with sanctification. Though justification is by faith alone, sanctification requires work, effort, and exertion, not merely a “resting faith”. Furthermore, the Keswick division of the Christian life into three distinct phases – the unconverted unbeliever, the converted but struggling believer, and the consecrated and victorious believer – lacked Scriptural warrant, revealed an inadequate understanding of conversion, and minimised the gradual and progressive nature of sanctification. For Ryle, Keswick spirituality was incompatible with evangelical principles.


J.C. Ryle devoted a considerable amount of time to discovering, defining and defending the distinctive principles of Evangelical religion from his conversion in 1837 until the end of his life in 1900. He was convinced they were the teaching of both the Scripture and the Church of England. His conversion and study of the Bible and English church history led him to this conclusion, and he devoted his life to promoting and defending Evangelical religion as a minister, author, party leader, church reformer and bishop.