The Christian Leaders of the Last Century

J.C. Ryle, 1868


My contribution to the religious history of England a hundred years ago is now concluded. I have fairly exhausted the list of leading ministers who were the spiritual reformers of our land in the last century. That there were other great and good men beside the eleven whom I have selected, I do not for a moment deny. I only say that there were none equal to them in public usefulness. There were other laborers in the gospel-field of England whose record is on high. But they "attained not to the first" eleven.

In compiling these biographies, I am very sensible of many deficiencies. I know they might have been made larger. But I cannot forget that we do not live in a reading age, and that "great books are great evils." I know they might have been better written. But I hope the reader will remember that their preparation has been carried on under immense difficulties, and under the daily pressure of other ministerial duties. I have, at any rate, the satisfaction of feeling that this volume contains a mass of facts which have never been brought together before, and throws light on some points in English Church history which have never yet been rightly understood.

There are a few general statistics about my eleven heroes which deserve notice. Reading their lives singly and one by one, we may possibly overlook them. Viewed altogether and in combination, they will probably be thought interesting.

For one thing, everyone of the eleven leading ministers in the revival of last century was an ordained clergyman of the Church of England. This is a fact which ought not to be overlooked. I am not what is called a High Churchman. I do not hold the divine right of Episcopacy. I desire to regard all ministers who love Christ and preach the truth as my brethren. But still, honor should be given where honor is due. It is a total mistake to suppose, as many do, that English religion a hundred years ago was revived by Dissenters. Nothing of the kind! The men who did the mighty work of that day, and plucked Christianity out of the dust, were all clergymen of the Church of England—clergymen of whom the Church was unworthy, but still clergymen as really and truly as George Herbert, or Andrews, or Bull. Let that fact never be forgotten. Well would it have been for the Church of England if she had more children like Rowlands and Berridge, and fewer like Laud.

For another thing, the greater part of the leaders of the revival of English religion last century were University men. Five of them—namely, Wesley, Whitefield, Romaine, Hervey, and Walker—took their degrees at Oxford. Three of them—namely, Grimshaw, Berridge, and Venn—took their degrees at Cambridge. Toplady was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Rowlands and Fletcher alone were at no University at all. Let this fact also be carefully remembered. The common notion that the men who turned England upside down last century were mere common-place, illiterate, ignorant, uneducated fanatics, is a stupid mistake. So far from this being the case, the eleven clergymen described in this volume were in all probability better read and more furnished with knowledge than most ministers of their day.

For another thing, the majority of the eleven clergymen who led the revival of last century were married men. Of the four who never married, three died at a comparatively early age, of consumption, namely, Hervey, Toplady, and Walker. The most eminent one of the eleven who died unmarried was Berridge, and he, we have seen, was so quaint, that he was always unlike other men. This fact is one that ought not to be overlooked. In a day when celibacy is held up to admiration as the grand secret of exalted spirituality, it is worth remembering that devoted servants of God like Grimshaw, Rowlands, Venn, and Romaine, could walk with God like Enoch, and yet, like Enoch, "live according to God's ordinance in the holy estate of matrimony." The minister who has no sons and daughters of his own, suffers immense loss in the study of human nature.

It only remains for me now to point out a few practical lessons which appear to flow naturally from the biographies which fill the pages of this book. They are lessons which are strongly impressed on my own mind. Thankful should I be if I could impress them on the minds of others!

1. In the first place, would we know the right instrumentality for doing good in the present day? Evil is about us and upon us on every side, evil from Romanism, evil from infidelity, evil from tractarianism, evil from neologianism, evil amidst the working classes, evil amidst the educated bodies. What is the true remedy for the disease? What is the weapon to be wielded if we would meet the foe? Can anything be done? Is there no hope?

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 ceremonies, 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.

There never has been good done in the world excepting by the faithful preaching of evangelical truth. From the days of the apostles down to this time, there have been no victories won, no spiritual successes obtained, except by the doctrines which wrought deliverance a hundred years ago. Where are the conquests of neologianism and tractarianism over heathenism, irreligion, immorality? Where are the nations they have Christianized, the parishes they have evangelized, the towns they have turned from darkness to light? You may well ask where? You will get no answer. The good that has been done in the world, however small, has always been done by evangelical doctrines; and if men who are not called "evangelical" have had successes, they have had them by using evangelical weapons. They have ploughed with our heifer, or they would never have had any harvest to show at all.

I repeat it emphatically, for I believe it sincerely. The first need of our day is a return to the old, simple, and sharply-cut doctrines of our fathers in the last century. The second need is a generation of like-minded and like-gifted men to preach them. Give me in any county of England and Wales a man like Grimshaw or Rowlands or Whitefield, and there is nothing in the present day which would make me afraid. I confidently believe that in the face of such men and such preaching ritualism, neologianism, and infidelity—would be paralyzed and wither away.

2. Would we know, in the next place, why the ministers who profess to follow the evangelical fathers of last century are so much less successful than they were? The question is a delicate and interesting one, and ought not to be shelved. The suspicion naturally crosses some minds, that the doctrines which won victories a hundred years ago are worn out, and have lost their power. I believe that theory to be an entire mistake. The answer which I give to the inquiry is one of a very different kind.

I am obliged then to say plainly, that, in my judgment, we have among us neither the men nor the doctrines of the days gone by. We have none who preach with such peculiar power as Whitefield or Rowlands. We have none who in self-denial, singleness of eye, diligence, holy boldness, and unworldliness, come up to the level of Grimshaw, Walker, Venn, and Fletcher. It is a humbling conclusion; but I have long felt that it is the truth. We lack both the men and the message of the last century! What wonder if we do not see the last century's results. Give us like men and a like message, and I have no fear that the Holy Spirit would grant us like results.

Wherein do today's evangelical Churchmen fall short of their great predecessors in the last century? Let us look this question fairly in the face. Let us come to particulars.

They fall short in DOCTRINE. They are neither so full nor so distinct, nor so bold, nor so uncompromising. They are afraid of strong statements. They are too ready to fence, and guard, and qualify all their teaching, as if Christ's gospel was a little baby, and could not be trusted to walk alone.

They fall short as preachers. They have neither the fervor, nor fire, nor thought, nor illustration, nor directness, nor holy boldness, nor simplicity of language which characterized the last century.

Above all, they fall short in life. They are not men of one thing, separate from the world, unmistakable men of God, ministers of Christ everywhere, indifferent to man's opinion, regardless who is offended, if they only preach truth, always about their Father's business, as Grimshaw and Fletcher used to be. They do not make the world feel that a prophet is among them, and carry about with them their Master's presence, as Moses when he came down from the mount. I write these things with sorrow. I desire to take my full share of blame. But I do believe I am speaking the truth.

It is no use trying to evade the truth on this subject. I fear that, as a general rule, the evangelical ministry in England has fallen far below the standard of the last century, and that the simple account of the want of success to which so many point is, the low standard both of doctrine and life which prevails. Ease and popularity, and the absence of persecution, are ruinous to some. Political involvement eat out the vitality of others. An extravagant and excessive attention to the petty details of parish machinery withers up the ministry of others. An absurd straining after the reputation of being "intellectual" and original is the curse of others. A desire to seem charitable and liberal, and keep in with everybody, paralyzes the ministry of others.

The plague is abroad! We need a revival among evangelical ministers. Once let the evangelical ministry of England return to the ways of the last century, and I firmly believe we would have as much success as before. We are where we are, because we have come short of our fathers.

3. Last of all comes the all-important question, What ought we to do? I answer confidently, There are three things which we shall do well to remember, if we wish our work to prosper.

FIRST, let us resolve to cast in our lot boldly on the side of what I must call "evangelical" religion in England. Let us not be moved by the sneers and contempt which are poured on it in some quarters. Let us cleave to it, hold it fast, and never let it go. Let us beware of the plausible charity which says, "All earnest men hold the truth. No earnest man can err." Let us beware of the idolatry of intellect, which says. "A man cannot make mistakes in doctrine if he is a clever man." Of both these dangers let us beware. Let us lay hold firmly on evangelical religion as the truth of God, and never be ashamed to confess it. Let us stand by it, and it will stand by us in the hour of sickness and on the bed of death, in the swellings of Jordan, and in the day of judgment!

NEXT, let us resolve to work heartily for evangelical truth, each in his own place. There is always work for everyone before his own door. Let us never stand still because we are in a minority. What though we stand alone in a house of business, alone in the banking-house, alone in a regiment, alone in a ship, alone in a family! What of it? Let us think of the little company who shook England one hundred years ago, and work on. It is truth, not numbers, which shall always in the end prevail. The three hundred at Thermopylae were better than the million of Persians. A small minority of evangelical Christians with the gospel in their hearts, are stronger than a host of servants of the Pope, the devil, and the world.

And let us PRAY, last of all, as well as work. Let us pray night and day that God would revive his work in England, and raise up many more instruments to do his will. Let us pray with the abiding thought that God's arm is not shortened, that what he has done he can do again, and that the same God who wrought so mightily for England one hundred years ago can do greater things still. Let us ask Him who holds the stars in his right hand, to revive his work among our ministers, and to raise up men for our times. He can do it. He is willing to do it. He waits to be entreated. Then let all who pray cry night and day to the Lord of the harvest, "Lord, send forth more laborers into your harvest!"