J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

The Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago online

. (page 2 of 36)
Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 2 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

What were the bishops of those days 1 Some of them were
undoubtedly men of powerful intellect and learning, and of un-
blamable lives. But the best of them, like Seeker, and Butler,
and Gibson, and Lowth, and Horn, seemed unable to do more
than deplore the existence of evils which they saw but knew
not how to remedy. Others, like Lavington and Warburton,
fulminated fierce charges against enthusiasm and fanaticism,
and appeared afraid of England becoming too religious ! The
majority of the bishops, to say the truth, were mere men of the
world. They were unfit for their position. The prevailing
tone of the Episcopal body may be estimated by the fact, that
Archbishop Cornwallis gave balls and routs at Lambeth Palace
until the king himself interfered by letter and requested him to


desist* Let me also add, that when the occupants of the
Episcopal bench were troubled by the rapid spread of White-
field's influence, it was gravely suggested in high quarters that
the best way to stop his influence was to make him a bishop.

What were the parochial clergy of those days % The vast
majority of them were sunk in woridliness, and neither knew
nor cared anything about their profession. They neither did
good themselves, nor liked any one else to do it for them. They
hunted, they shot, they farmed, they swore, they drank, they
gambled. They seemed determined to know everything except
Jesus Christ and him crucified. When they assembled it was
generally to toast " Church and King," and to build one another
up in earthly-mindedness, prejudice, ignorance, and formality.
When they retired to their own homes, it was to do as htde and
preach as seldom as possible. And when they did preach,
their sermons were so unspeakably and indescribably bad, that
it is comforting to reflect they were generally preached to empty

What sort of theological literature was a hundred years ago
bequeathed to us % The poorest and weakest in the English
language. This is the age to which we owe such divinity as
that of the " Whole Duty of Man," and the sermons of Tillotson

* The king's letter on this occasion is so curious, that I give it in its entirety, as I find
it in that interesting though ill-arranged book, " The Life and Times of Lady Hunting-
don." The letter was evidently written in consequence of an interview which Lady
Huntingdon had with the king. A critical reader will remember that the king was pro-
bably more familiar with the German than the English language.

" My good Lord Prelate, — I could not delay giving you the notification of the grief
and concern with which my breast was affected at receiving authentic information that
routs have made their way into your palace. At the same time, 1 must signify to you my
sentiments on this subject, which hold these levities and vain dissipations as utterly inex-
pedient, if not unlawful, to pass in a residence for many centuries devoted to divine studies,
religious retirement, and the e.xtensive exercise of charity and benevolence ; I add, in a
place where so many of your predecessors have led their lives in such sanctity as has
thrown lustre on the pure religion they professed and adorned. From the dissatisfaction
with which you must perceive I behold these improprieties, not to speak in harsher terms,
and on still more pious principles, I trust you will suppress them immediately ; so that I
may not have occasion to show any further marks of my displeasure, or to interpose in a
different manner. May God take your grace into his almighty protection ! — I remain, my
Lord Primate, your gracious friend, G. R."

iiyoj 2


and Blair. In(|uire at any old bookseller's shop, and you will
lind there is no theology so unsaleable as the sermons published
about the middle and latter part of last century.

What sort of education had the lower orders a hundred years
ago % In the greater part of parishes, and especially in rural
districts, they had no education at all. Nearly all our rural
schools have been built since 1800. So extreme was the ignor-
ance, that a Methodist preacher in Somersetshire was charged
before the magistrates with swearing, because in preaching he
(quoted the text, "He that believeth not shall be damned!"
While, not to be behind Somersetshire, Yorkshire furnished a
constable who brought Charles Wesley before the magistrates as
a favourer of the Pretender, because in public prayer he asked
the Lord to "bring back his banished ones!" To cap all, the
vice-chancellor of Oxford actually expelled six students from
the University because " they held Methodistic tenets, and took
on them to pray, read, and expound Scripture in private houses."
To swear extempore, it was remarked by some, brought an
Oxford student into no trouble ; but to pray extempore was an
offence not to be borne I

What were the morals of a hundred years ago % It may suf-
fice to say that duelhng, adultery, fornication, gambling, swear-
ing. Sabbath-breaking and drunkenness were hardly regarded as
vices at all. They were the fashionable practices of people in
the highest ranks of society, and no one was thought the worse
of for indulging in them. The best evidence of this point is
to be found in Hogarth's pictures.

What was the popular literature of a hundred years ago 1 I
pass over the fact that BoHngbroke, and Gibbon, and Hume
the historian, were all deeply dyed with scepticism. I speak
of the light reading which was most in vogue. Turn to
the pages of Fielding, Smollett, Swift, and Sterne, and you have
the answer. The cleverness of these writers is undeniable ;
but the indecency of many of their writings is so glaring and


gross, that few people now-a-days would like to allow their
works to be seen on their drawing-room table.

My picture, I fear, is a very dark and gloomy one. I wish
it were in my power to throw a little more light into it. But
facts are stubborn things, and specially facts about literature.
The best literature of a hundred years ago is to be found in the
moral writings of Addison, Johnson, and Steele. But the
effects of such literature on the general public, it may be feared,
was infinitesimally small. In fact, I believe that Johnson
and the essayists had no more influence on the religion and
morality of the masses than the broom of the renowned Mrs.
Partington had on the waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

To sum up all, and bring this part of my subject to a conclu-
sion, I ask my readers to remember that the good works with
which every one is now familiar did not exist one hundred
years ago. Wilberforce had not yet attacked the slave trade.
Howard had not yet reformed prisons. Raikes had not estab-
lished Sunday schools. We had no Bible Societies, no ragged
schools, no city missions, no pastoral aid societies, no missions
to the heathen. The spirit of slumber was over the land. In
a religious and moral point of view, England was sound asleep.

I cannot help remarking, as I draw this chapter to a conclu-
sion, that we ought to be more thankful for the times in which
we live. I fear we are far too apt to look at the evils we see
around us, and to forget how much worse things were a hundred
years ago. I have no faith, for my part, and I boldly avow it,
in those "good old times" of which some delight to speak. I
regard them as a mere fable and a myth. I believe that our
own times are the best times that England has ever seen. I do
not say this boastfully. I know we have many things to de-
plore ; but I do say that we might be worse. I do say ihat we
were much worse a hundred years ago. The general standard
of religion and morality is undoubtedly far higher. At all
events, in 1868, we are awake. We see and feel evils to which,


a liLindred years ago, men were insensible. We struggle to be
free from these evils ; we desire to amend. This is a vast im-
provement. With all our many faults we are not sound asleep.
On every side there is stir, activity, movement, progress, and
not stagnation. Bad as we are, we confess our badness ; weak
as we are, we acknowledge our failings ; feeble as our efforts
are, we strive to amend ; little as we do for Christ, we do try
to do something. Let us thank God for this 1 Things might
be worse. Comparing our own days with the middle of last
century, we have reason to thank God and take courage. Eng-
land is in a better state than it was a hundred years ago.


^Ije i^gcnaj bn tol/rtlj Cljristhtnitn inns nbibcb


Improvement of England since middle of Eighteenth Century an undeniable Fact — Agents
in effecting the Change a few isolated and humble Clergymen — Preaching the chief
Instrument they employed — The Manner of their Preaching — The Substance of their

iHAT a great change for the better has come over Eng-
land in the last hundred years is a fact which I sup-
pose no well-informed person would ever attempt to
deny. You might as well attempt to deny that there was a
Protestant Reformation in the days of Luther, a Long Parlia-
ment in the time of Cromwell, or a French republic at the end
of the last century. There has been a vast change for the
better. Both in religion and morality the country has gone
through a complete revolution. People neither think, nor talk,
nor act as they did in 1750. It is a great fact, which the chil-
dren of this world cannot deny, however they may attempt to
explain it. They might as well try to persuade us that high-water
and low-water at London Bridge are one and the same thing.

But by what agency was this great change effected^ To
whom are we indebted for the immense improvement in religion
and moraUty which undoubtedly has come over the land? Who,
in a word, were the instruments that God employed in bringing
about the great English Reformation of the eighteenth century?


This is the one point that I wish to examine generally in the
present chapter. The names and biographies of the principal
a^^ents I shall reserve for future chapters.

The government of the country can lay no claim to the credit
of the change. Morality cannot be called into being by penal
enactments and statutes. People were never yet made religious
by Acts of Parliament. At any rate, the Parliaments and ad-
ministrations of last century did as little for religion and moral-
ity as any that ever existed in England.

Nor yet did the change come from the Church of England,
as a body. The leaders of that venerable communion were
utterly unequal to the times. Left to herself, the Church of
England would probably have died of dignity, and sunk at her

Nor yet did the change come from the Dissenters. Content
with their hardly-won triumphs, that worthy body of men
seemed to rest upon their oars. In the plenary enjoyment of
their rights of conscience, they forgot the great vital principles
of their forefathers, and their own duties and responsibilities.

Who, then, were the reformers of the last century % To whom
are we indebted, under God, for the change which took place %

The men who wrought deliverance for us, a hundred years
ago, were a few individuals, most of them clergymen of the
Established Church, whose hearts God touched about the same
time in various parts of the country. They Avere not wealthy
or highly connected. They had neither money to buy ad-
herents, nor family influence to command attention and respect.
They were not put forward by any Church, party, society, or
institution. They were simply men whom God stirred up and
brought out to do his work, without previous concert, scheme,
or plan. They did his work in the old apostolic way, by
becoming the evangelists of their day. They taught one set of
truths. They taught them in the same way, with fire, reality,
earnestness, as men fully convinced of what they taught. They


taught them in the same spirit, ahvays loving, compassionate,
and, like Paul, even weeping, but always bold, unflinching, and
not fearing the face of man. And they taught them on the
same plan, always acting on the aggressive ; not waiting for
sinners to come to them, but going after, and seeking sinners ;
not sitting idle till sinners offered to repent, but assaulting the
high places of ungodliness like men storming a breach, and
giving sinners no rest so long as they stuck to their sins.

The movement of these gallant evangelists shook England
from one end to another. At first people in high places
affected to despise them. The men of letters sneered at them
as fanatics ; the wits cut jokes, and invented smart names for
them ; the Church shut her doors on them ; the Dissenters
turned the cold .shoulder on them ; the ignorant mob persecuted
them. But the movement of these few evangelists went on, and
made itself felt in every part of the land. IVIany were aroused
and aAvakened to tliink about religion ; many were shamed out
of their sins ; many were restrained and frightened at their own
ungodliness ; many were gathered together and induced to pro-
fess a decided hearty religion ; many were converted ; many
who affected to dislike the movement were secretly provoked
to emulation. The little sapling became a strong tree ; the
little rill became a deep, broad stream ; the little spark became
a steady burning flame. A candle was lighted, of which we are
now enjoying the benefit. The feeling of all classes in the land
about religion and morality gradually assumed a totally different
complexion. And all this, under God, was effected by a few
unpatronized, unpaid adventurers ! Wlien God takes a work
in hand, nothing can stop it. When God is for us, none can
be against us.

The instrumentality by which the spiritual reformers of the
last century carried on their operations was of the simplest
description. It was neither more nor less than the old apostolic
weapon of preaching. The sword which St. Paul wielded with


such mighty effect, when he assaulted the strongholds of hea-
thenism eighteen hundred years ago, was the same sword by
which they won their victories. To say, as some have done,
that they neglected education and schools, is totally incorrect.
Wherever they gathered congregations, they cared for the chil-
dren. To say, as others have done, that they neglected the
sacraments, is simply false. Those who make that assertion
only expose their entire ignorance of the religious history of
England a hundred years ago. It would be easy to name men
among the leading reformers of the last century whose com-
municants might be reckoned by hundreds, and who honoured
the Lord's Supper more than forty-nine out of fifty clergymen
in their day. But beyond doubt preaching was their favourite
weapon. They wisely went back to first principles, and took
up apostolic plans. They held, with St. Paul, that a minister's
first work is " to preach the gospel."

They preached everywhere. If the pulpit of a parish church
was open to them, they gladly availed themselves of it. If it
could not be obtained, they were equally ready to preach in a
barn. No place came amiss to them. In the field or by the
road-side, on the village-green or in a market-place, in lanes or
in alleys, in cellars or in garrets, on a tub or on a table, on a
bench or on a horse-block, wherever hearers could be gathered,
the spiritual reformers of the last century were ready to speak
to them about their souls. They were instant in season and
out of season in doing the fisherman's work, and compassed sea
and land in carrying forward their Father's business. Now, all
this was a new thing. Can we wonder that it produced a great
effect %

They preached simply. They rightly concluded that the very
first qualification to be aimed at in a sermon is to be under-
stood. They saw clearly that thousands of able and well-com-
posed sermons are utterly useless, because they are above the
heads of the hearers. They strove to come down to the level


of the people, and to speak what the poor could understand.
To attain this they were not ashamed to crucify their style, and
to sacrifice their reputation for learning. To attain this they
used illustrations and anecdotes in abundance, and, like their
divine Master, borrowed lessons from every object in nature.
They carried out the maxim of Augustine, — " A wooden key is
not so beautiful as a golden one, but if it can open the door
when the golden one cannot, it is far more useful.'" They re-
vived the style of sermons in which Luther and Latimer used
to be so eminently successful. In short, they saw the truth of
what the great German reformer meant when he said, " No one
can be a good preacher to the people who is not willing to
preach in a manner that seems childish and vulgar to some."
Now, all this again was quite new a hundred years ago.

They preached fervently and directly. They cast aside that
dull, cold, heavy, lifeless mode of delivery, which had long made
sermons a very proverb for dulness. They proclaimed the
words of faith with faith, and the story of life with life. They
spoke with fiery zeal, like men who were thoroughly persuaded
that w^hat they said was true, and that it was of the utmost
importance to your eternal interest to hear it. They spoke like
men who had got a message from God to you, and must deliver
it, and must have your attention while they delivered it. They
threw heart and soul and feeling into their sermons, and sent
their hearers home convinced, at any rate, that the preacher
was sincere and wished them well. They believed that you
must speak from the heart if you wish to speak to the heart,
and that there must be unmistakable faith and conviction
within the pulpit if there is to be faith and conviction among
the pews. All this, I repeat, was a thing that had become
almost obsolete a hundred years ago. Can we wonder that it
took people by storm, and produced an immense effect ?

But what was the substance and subject-matter of the preach-
ing which produced such wonderful effect a hundred years ago ?


I will not insult my readers' common sense by only saying that
it was " simple, earnest, fervent, real, genial, brave, life-like,"
and so forth ; I would have it understood that it was eminently
doctrinal, positive, dogmatical, and distinct. The strongholds
of the last century's sins would never have been cast down by
mere earnestness and negative teaching. The trumpets which
blew down the walls of Jericho were trumpets which gave no
uncertain sound. The English evangelists of last century were
not men of an uncertain creed. But what was it that they
proclaimed % A little information on this point may not be
without use.

V For one thing, then, the spiritual reformers of the last century
taught constantly the sufficiency and supremacy of Holy Scripture.
The Bible, whole and unmutilated, was their sole rule of faith
and practice. They accepted all its statements without ques-
tion or dispute. They knew nothing of any part of Scripture
being uninspired. They never allowed that man has any
" verifying faculty " within him, by which Scripture statements
may be weighed, rejected, or received. They never flinched
from asserting that there can be no error in the Word of God ;
and that when we cannot understand or reconcile some part of
its contents, the fault is in the interpreter and not in the text.
In all their preaching they were eminently men of one book.
To that book they were content to pin their faith, and by it to
stand or fall. This was one grand characteristic of their
preaching. They honoured, they loved, they reverenced the Bible.
^ Furthermore, the reformers of the last century taught con-
stantly the total corruptiofi of human nature. They knew nothing
of the modern notion that Christ is in every man, and that all
possess something good within, which they have only to stir up
and use in order to be saved. They never flattered men and
women in this fashion. They told tliem plainly that they were
dead, and must be made alive again ; that they were guilty,
lost, helpless, and hopeless, and in imminent danger of eternal


ruin. Strange and paradoxical as it may seem to some, their
first step towards making men good was to show them that
they were utterly bad ; and their primary argument in persuad-
ing men to do something for their souls was to convince them
that they could do nothing at all.

Furthermore, the reformers of the last century taught con-
stantly that Chris fs death tipojt the cross was the only satisfaction
for mans sin ; and that, when Christ died, he died as our sub-
stitute — " the just for the unjust." This, in fact, was the cardi-
nal point in almost all their sermons. They never taught the
modern doctrine that Christ's death was only a great example
of self-sacrifice. They saw in it something far higher, greater,
deeper than this. They saw in it the payment of man's mighty
debt to God. They loved Christ's person ; they rejoiced in
Christ's promises ; they urged men to walk after Christ's
example. But the one subject, above all others, concerning
Christ, which they delighted to dwell on, was the atoning blood
which Christ shed for us on the cross.

-1- Furthermore, the reformers of the last century taught con-
stantly the gteat doctrine of justification by faith. They told
men that faith was the one thing needful in order to obtain an
interest in Christ's work for their souls ; that before we believe,
we are dead, and have no interest in Christ ; and that the
moment we do believe, we live, and have a plenary title to all
Christ's benefits. Justification by virtue of church member-
ship — justification without believing or trusting — were notions
to which they gave no countenance. Everything, if you will
believe, and the moment you believe ; nothing, if you do not
believe, — was the very marrow of their preaching.

Furthermore, the reformers of the last century taught con-
stantly the universal necessity of heart conversion and a new
creation by the Holy Spirit. They proclaimed everywhere to
the crowds whom they addressed, " Ye must be born again."
Son ship to God by baptism — sonship to God while we do the


will of the devil — such sonship they never admitted. The
regeneration which they preached was no dormant, torpid,
motionless thing. It was something that could be seen, dis-
cerned, and known by its effects.

•f Furthermore, the reformers of tlie last century taught con-
stantly the inseparable coimedion between true faith and personal
holiness. They never allowed for a moment that any church
membership or religious profession was the least proof of a man
being a true Christian if he lived an ungodly life. A true Chris-
tian, they maintained, must always be known by his fruits ; and
these fruits must be plainly manifest and unmistakable in all
the relations of life. " No fruits, no grace," was the unvarying
tenor of their preaching.

4- Finally, the reformers of the last century taught constantly,
as doctrines both equally true, GocVs eternal hatred against sin,
and God's love toiuards sijifiers. They knew nothing of a " love
lower than hell," and a heaven where holy and unholy are all
at length to find admission. Both about heaven and hell they
used the utmost plainness of speech. They never shrunk from
declaring, in plainest terms, the certainty of God's judgment
and of wrath to come, if men persisted in impenitence and
unbelief; and yet they never ceased to magnify the riches of
God's kindness and compassion, and to entreat all sinners to
repent and turn to God before it was too late.

Such were the main truths which the English evangelists of
last century were constantly preaching. These were the princi-
pal doctrines which they were always proclaiming, whether in
town or in country, whether in church or in the open air,
whether among rich or among poor. These were the doctrines
by which they turned England upside down, made ploughmen
and colliers weep till their dirty faces were seamed with tears,
arrested the attention of peers and philosophers, stormed the
strongholds of Satan, plucked thousands like brands from the
burning, and altered the character of the age. Call them simple


and elementary doctrines if you will. Say, if you please, that
you see nothing grand, striking, new, peculiar about this Hst of
truths. But the fact is undeniable, that God blessed these

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 2 of 36)