J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

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

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time of his removal to Broad Hembury in 1768. His early
habits of study were kept up with unabated diligence. No man
among the spiritual heroes of last century seems to have read
more than he did, or to have had a more extensive knowledge
of divinity. His bitterest adversaries in controversy could never
deny that he was a scholar, and a ripe one. Indeed, it admits
of grave question whether he did not shorten his life by his
habits of constant study. He says himself, in a letter to a
relative, dated March 19, 1775: — "Though I cannot entirely agree
with you in supposing that extreme study has been the cause
of my late indisposition, I must yet confess that the hill of
science, like that of virtue, is in some instances climbed with
labour. But when we get a little way up, the lovely prospects
which open to the eye make infinite amends for the steepness
of the ascent. In short, I am wedded to these pursuits, as a
man stipulates to take his wife ; viz., for better, for worse, until
death us do part. My thirst for knowledge is literally inextin-
guishable. And if I thus drink myself into a superior world, I
cannot help it."

One feature in Toplady's character, I may here remark, can


hardly fail to strike an attentive reader of his remains. That
feature is the eminent spirituahty of the tone of his rehgion.
There can be no greater mistake than to regard him as a
mere student and deep reader, or as a hard and dry contro-
versial divine. Such an estimate of him is thoroughly unjust.
His letters and remains supply abundant evidence that he
was one who lived in very close communion with God, and
had very deep experience of divine things. Living much
alone, seldom going into society, and possessing few friends,
he was a man little understood by many, who only knew him
by his controversial writings, and specially by his unflinching
advocacy of Calvinism. Yet really, if the truth be spoken, I
hardly find any man of the last century who seems to have
soared so high and aimed so loftily, in his personal dealings
with his Saviour, as Toplady. There is an unction and savour
about some of his remains which few of his contemporaries
equalled, and none surpassed. I grant freely that he left behind
him many things which cannot be much commended. But he left
behind him some things which will live, as long as English is
spoken, in the hearts of all true Christians. His writings contain
" thoughts that breathe and words that burn," if any writings
of his age. And it never ought to be forgotten, that the man who
penned them was lying in his grave before he was thirty-nine !

The last three years of Toplady's life were spent in London.
He removed there by medical advice in the year 1775, under
the idea that the moist air of Broad Hembury was injurious to
his health. Whether the advice was sound or not may now,
perhaps, admit of question. At any rate, the change of climate
did him no good. Little by little the insidious disease of the
chest, under which he laboured, made progress, and wasted his
strength. He was certainly able to preach at Orange Street
Chapel in the years 1776 and 1777; but it is equally certain
that throughout this period he was gradually drawing near to
his end. He was never, perhaps, more thoroughly appreciated


than he was during these last three years of his ministry. A
picked London congregation, sucli as he had, was able to
value gifts and powers which were completely thrown away on
a rural parish in Devonshire. His stores of theological reading
and distinct doctrinal statement were rightly appraised by his
metropolitan hearers. In short, if he had lived longer he might,
humanly speaking, have done a mighty work in London. But
He who holds the stars in his right hand, and knows best
what is good for his Church, saw fit to withdraw him soon
from his new sphere of usefulness. He seemed as if he came
to London only to be known and highly valued, and then to die.
The closing scene of the good man's life was singularly beau-
tiful, and at the same time singularly characteristic. He died
as he had lived, in the full hope and peace of the gospel, and
with an unwavering confidence in the truth of the doctrines
which he had for fifteen years advocated both with his tongue
and with his pen. About two months before his death he was
greatly pained by hearing that he was reported to have receded
from his Calvinistic opinions, and to have expressed a desire to
recant them in the presence of Mr. John Wesley. So much
was he moved by this rumour, that he resolved to appear
before his congregation once more, and to give a public
denial to it before he died. His physician in vain remonstrated
with him. He was told that it would be dangerous to make
the attempt, and that he might probably die in the pulpit. But
the vicar of Broad Hembury was not a man to be influenced by
such considerations. He replied that " he would rather die in
the harness than die in the stall." He actually carried his
resolution into effect. On Sunday, June the 14th, in the last
stage of consumption, and only two months before he died, he
ascended his pulpit in Orange Street Chapel, after his assistant
had preached, to the astonishment of his people, and gave a
short but affecting exhortation founded on 2 Pet. i. 13, 14 : "I
think it meet, as long as I am in this tabernacle, to stir you up


by putting you in remembrance." He then closed his address
with the following remarkable declaration : —

" It having been industriously circulated by some malicious
and unprincipled persons that during my present long and
severe illness I expressed a strong desire of seeing Mr. John
Wesley before I die, and revoking some particulars relative to
him which occur in my writings, — Now I do publicly and most
solemnly aver that I have not nor ever had any such intention
or desire ; and that I most sincerely hope my last hours will be
much better employed than in communing with such a man.
So certain and so satisfied am I of the truth of all that I have
ever written, that were I now sitting up in my dying bed with a
pen and ink in my hand, and all the religious and controversial
writings I ever published, especially those relating to Mr. John
Wesley and the Arminian controversy, whether respecting fact
or doctrine, could be at once displayed to my view, I should
not strike out a single line relative to him or them."

The last days of Toplady's life were spent in great peace. He
went down the valley of the shadow of death with abounding
consolations, and was enabled to say many edifying things to
all around him. The following recollections, jotted down by
friends who ministered to him, and communicated to his bio-
grapher, can hardly fail to be interesting to a Christian reader.
One friend observes : — " A remarkable jealousy was apparent
in his whole conduct as he drew near his end, for fear of receiv-
ing any part of that honour which is due to Christ alone.
He desired to be nothing, and that Jesus might be all and in all.
His feelings were so very tender upon this subject, that I once
undesignedly put him almost in an agony by remarking the great
loss which the Church of Christ would sustain by his death at
this particular juncture. The utmost distress was immediately
visible in his countenance, and he exclaimed, ' What ! by my
death? No, no! Jesus Christ is able, and will, by proper
instruments, defend his own truths. And with regard to what

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little I have been enabled to do in this way, not to me, not to
me, but to his own name, and to that only, be the glory.'

" The more his bodily strength was impaired the more vigor-
ous, lively, and rejoicing his mind seemed to be. From the
whole turn of his conversation during our interview, he appeared
not merely placid and serene, but he evidently possessed the
fullest assurance of the most triumphant faith. He repeatedly
told me that he had not had the least shadow of a doubt
respecting his eternal salvation for near two years past. It is
no wonder, therefore, that he so earnestly longed to be dissolved
and to be with Christ. His soul seemed to be constantly
panting heavenward, and his desire increased the nearer his
dissolution approached. A short time before his death, at his
request, I felt his pulse, and he desired to know what I thought
of it. I told him that his heart and arteries evidently beat
almost every day weaker and weaker. He replied immediately,
with the sweetest smile on his countenance, ' Why, that is a
good sign that my death is fast approaching ; and, blessed be
God, I can add that my heart beats every day stronger and
stronger for glory.'

"A few days before his dissolution I found him sitting up in
his arm-chair, but scarcely able to move or speak. I addressed
him very softly, and asked if his consolations continued to abound
as they had hitherto done. He quickly replied, ' O my dear
sir, it is impossible to describe how good God is to me. Since
I have been sitting in this chair this afternoon I have enjoyed
such a season, such sweet communion with God, and such
delightful manifestation of his presence with and love to my
soul, that it is impossible for words or any language to express
them. I have had peace and joy unutterable, and I fear not
but that God's consolation and support will continue.' But he
immediately recollected himself, and added, ' What have I
said % God may, to be sure, as a sovereign, hide his face and
his smiles from me ; however, I believe he will not ; and if he


should, yet will I trust him. I know I am safe and secure, for
his love and his covenant arc everlasting !'"

To another friend, speaking about his dying avowal in the
pulpit of his church in Orange Street, he said : " My dear
friend, these great and glorious truths which the Lord in rich
mercy has given me to believe, and which he has enabled me
(though very feebly) to defend, are not, as those \vho oppose
them say, dry doctrines or mere speculative points. No ! being
brought into practical and heartfelt experience, they are the
very joy and support of my soul ; and the consolations flowing
from them carry me far above the things of time and sense.
So far as I know my own heart, I have no desire but to be
entirely passive, to live, to die, to be, to do, to suffer w^hatever
is God's blessed will concerning me, being perfectly satisfied
that as he ever has, so he ever will do that which is best con-
cerning me, and that he deals out in number, weight, and
measure, whatever will conduce most to his own glory and to
the good of his people."

Another of his friends mentioning the report that was spread
abroad of his recanting his former principles, he said with some
vehemence and emotion, " I recant my former principles ! God
forbid that I should be so vile an apostate!" To which he
presently added, with great apparent humility, " And yet that
apostate I should' soon be, if I were left to myself"

Within an hour of his death, he called his friends and his
servant to him, and asked them if they could give him up.
Upon their answering that they could, since it pleased the Lord
to be so gracious to him, he replied : " Oh, what a blessing it
is that you are made willing to give me up into the hands of
my dear Redeemer, and to part with me ! It will not be long
before God takes me ; for no mortal man can live, after the
glories which God has manifested to my soul." Soon after this
he closed his eyes, and quietly fell asleep in Christ on Tuesday,
August II, 1778, in the thirty-eighth year of his age.


He was buried in Tottenham Court Chapel, under the gal-
lery, opposite the pulpit, in the presence of thousands of people,
who came together from all parts of London to do him honour.
His high reputation as a champion of truth, the unjust misre-
presentations circulated about his change of opinion, his effec-
tiveness as a preacher, and his comparative youthfulness,
combined to draw forth a more than ordinary expression of
sympathy. " Devout men carried him to his burial, and made
great lamentation over him." Foremost among the mourners
was one at that time young in the ministry, who lived long
enough to be a connecting link between the last century
and the present — the well-known and eccentric Rowland Hill.
Before the burial-service commenced, he could not refrain from
transgressing one of Toplady's last requests, that no funeral-
sermon should be preached for him, and affectionately declared
to the vast assembly the love and veneration he felt for the
deceased, and the high sense he entertained of his graces, gifts,
and usefulness. And thus, amidst the tears and thanksgivings
of true-hearted mourners, the much-abused vicar of Broad Hem-
bury was gathered to his people.*

The following passage from Toplady's last will, made and
signed six months before his decease, is so remarkable and
cliaracteristic, that I cannot refrain from giving it to my readers:
" I most humbly commit my soul to Almighty God, whom I
honour, and have long experienced to be my ever gracious and
infinitely merciful Father. Nor have I the least doubt of my
election, justification, and eternal happiness, through the riches
of his everlasting and unchangeable kindness to me in Christ
Jesus, his co-equal Son, my only, my assured, and my all-suffi-
cient Saviour ; washed in whose propitiatory blood, and clothed
with whose imputed righteousness, I trust to stand perfect,

* It Is a curious fact that Toplady expressly desired that he might be buried at least
nine feet, and, If possible, twelve feet, under ground ! He assigned no reason. Perhaps
it was because he wished to be buried inside his church.


sinless, and complete ; and do verily believe that I most cer-
tainly shall so stand, in the hour of death, and in the kingdom
of heaven, and at the last judgment, and in the ultimate state
of endless glory. Neither can I write this my last will without
rendering the deepest, the most solemn, and the most ardent
thanks to the adorable Trinity in Unity, for their eternal,
unmerited, irreversible, and inexhaustible love to me a sinner.
I bless God the Father for having written from everlasting my
unworthy name in the book of life — even for appointing me to
obtain salvation through Jesus Christ my Lord. I adore God
the Son for having vouchsafed to redeem me by his own most
precious death, and for having obeyed the whole law for my
justification. I admire and revere the gracious benignity of
God the Holy Ghost, who converted me to the saving know-
ledge of Christ more than twenty-two years ago, and whose
enlightening, supporting, comforting, and sanctifying agency is,
and (I doubt not) will be my strength and song in the hours of
my earthly pilgrimage."

Having now traced Toplady's history from his cradle to his
grave, it only remains for me to offer some general estimate of
liis worth and attainments. To do this, I frankly confess, is no
easy task. Not only is his biography a miserably deficient one
— this alone is bad enough — but his literary remains have been
edited in such a slovenly, careless, ignorant manner, without
order or arrangement, that they do not fairly represent the
author's merits. Certainly the reputation of great writers and
ministers may suffer sadly from the treatment of injudicious
friends. If ever there was a man who fell into the hands of the
PhiHstines after his death, that man, so far as I can judge, was
Augustus Toplady. I shall do the best I can with the mate-
rials at my disposal ; but I trust my readers will remember that
they are exceedingly scanty.

I. As 2i preacher, I should be disposed to assign to Toplady
a very high place among the second-class men of the last cen-


\x\x)T, His constitutional delicacy and weakness of lungs, in all
probability, made it impossible for him to do the things that
Whitefield and Berridge did. Constant open-air addresses,
impassioned extempore appeals to thousands of hearers, were
a style of thing entirely out of his line. Yet there is pretty good
evidence that he had no mean reputation as a pulpit orator,
and possessed no mean powers. The mere fact that Lady
Huntingdon occasionally selected him to preach in her chapels
at Bath and Brighton, of itself speaks volumes. The additional
fact that at one of the great Methodist gatherings at Trevecca
he was put forward as one of the leading preachers, is enough
to show that his sermons possessed high merit. The follow-
ing notes about preaching, which he records in his diary, as
having received them from an old friend, will probably throw
much light on the general turn of his ministrations : — (i.) Preach
Christ crucified, and dwell chiefly on the blessings resulting
from his righteousness, atonement, and intercession. (2.) Avoid
all needless controversies in the pulpit ; except it be when your
subject necessarily requires it, or when the truths of God are
likely to suffer by your silence. (3.) When you ascend the
pulpit, leave your learning behind you : endeavour to preach
more to the hearts of your people than to their heads. (4.) Do
not affect much oratory. Seek rather to profit than to be

Specimens ofToplady's ordinary preaching are unfortunately
veiy rare. There are but ten sermons in the collection of his
works, and out of these the great majority were preached on
special occasions, and cannot, therefore, be regarded as fair
samples of his pulpit work. In all of them there is a certain
absence of fire, animation, and directness. But in all there is
abundance of excellent matter, and a quiet, decided, knock-
down, sledge-hammer style of putting things which, I can well
believe, would be extremely effective, and especially with edu-
cated congregations. The three following extracts may perhaps


give some idea of what Toplady was in the pulpit of Orange
Street Chapel. Of his ministry in Broad Hembury, I suspect
we know next to nothing at all.

The first extract forms the conclusion of a sermon preached
in 1774 at the Lock Chapel, entitled " Good News from
Heaven :" — " I perceive the elements are upon the sacramental
table. And I doubt not many of you mean to present your-
selves at that throne of grace which God has mercifully erected
through the righteousness and sufferings of his co-equal Son.
Oh, beware of coming with one sentiment on your lips and
another in your hearts ! Take heed of saying with your mouths,
' We do not come to this thy table, O Lord, trusting in our
own righteousness,' while perhaps you have in reality some
secret reserves in favour of that very self-righteousness which
you profess to renounce, and are thinking that Christ's merits
alone will not save you unless you add something or other to
make it effectual. Oh, be not so deceived ! God will not thus
be mocked, nor will Christ thus be insulted with impunity.
Call your works what you will — whether terms, causes, condi-
tions, or supplements — the matter comes to the same point,
and Christ is equally thrust out of his mediatorial throne by
these or any similar views of human obedience. If you do not
wholly depend on Jesus as the Lord your righteousness — if you
mix your faith in him with anything else — if the finished work
of the crucified God be not alone your acknowledged anchor
and foundation of acceptance with the Father, both here and
ever — come to his table and receive the symbols of his body
and blood at your peril ! Leave your own righteousness behind
you, or you have no business here. You are without the wed-
ding garment, and God will say to you, ' Friend, how earnest
thou here?' If you go on, moreover, to live and die in this
state of unbelief, you will be found speechless and excuseless in
the day of judgment ; and the slighted Saviour will say to his
angels concernmg you, ' Bind him hand and foot, and cast him


into outer darkness, .... for many are called, but few are

My second extract is from a sermon on " Free Will," preached
at St. Anne's, Blackfriars, in 1774: — "I know it is growing
very fashionable to talk against spiritual feelings. But I dare
not join the cry. On the contrary, I adopt the apostle's
prayer that our love to God and the manifestation of his love
to us may abound yet more and more in knowledge and in all
feeling. And it is no enthusiastic wish in behalf of you and
myself, that we may be of the number of those godly persons
who, as our Church justly expresses it, ' feel in themselves the
workings of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the
flesh, and drawing up their minds to high and heavenly things.'
Indeed, the great business of God's Spirit is to draw up and to
bring down — to draw up our affections to Christ, and to bring
down the unsearchable riches of grace into our hearts. The
knowledge of this, and earnest desire for it, are all the feelings
I plead for ; and for these feelings I wish ever to plead, satis-
fied as I am that without some experience and enjoyment of
them we cannot be happy living or dying.

" Let me ask you, as it were one by one, has the Holy Spirit
begun to reveal these deep things of God in your soul % If so,
give him the glory of it. And as you prize communion with
him, as ever you value the comforts of the Holy Ghost, endea-
vour to be found in God's way, even the highway of humble
faith and obedient love, sitting at the feet of Christ, and im-
bibing those sweet sanctifying communications of grace which
are at once an earnest of and a preparation for complete heaven
when you die. God forbid that we should ever think lightly of
religious feelings. If we do not in some measure feel ourselves
sinners, and feel that Christ is precious, I doubt the Spirit of
God has never been savingly at work upon our souls."

My last extract shall be froni a sermon preached at St. Anne's,
Blackfriars (Romaine's church, be it remembered), in 1770,


entitled, "A Caveat against Unsound Doctrine:" — "Faith is
the eye of the soul, and the eye is said to see almost every
object but itself; so that you may have real faith without being
able to discern it. God will not despise the day of small things.
Little faith goes to heaven no less than great faith ; though not
so comfortably, yet altogether as surely. If you come merely
as a sinner to Jesus, and throw yourself, at all events, for salva-
tion on his alone blood and righteousness, and the grace and
promise of God in him, thou art as truly a believer as the most
triumphant saint that ever lived. Amidst all your weakness,
distresses, and temptations, remember that God will not cast
out nor cast off the meanest and unworthiest soul that seeks
salvation only in the name of Jesus Christ the righteous. When
you cannot follow the Rock, the Rock shall follow you, nor
ever leave you for a single moment on this side the heavenly
Canaan. If you feel your absolute want of Christ, you may on
all occasions and in every exigence betake yourself to the
covenant-love and faithfulness of God for pardon, sanctification,
and safety, and with the same fulness of right and title as a
traveller leans upon his own staff, or as a weary labourer throws
himself upon his own bed, or as an opulent nobleman draws
upon his own banker for whatsoever sum he wants."

I make no comment on these extracts. They speak for
themselves. Most Christians, I suspect, will agree with me,
that the man who could speak to congregations in this fashion
was no ordinary preacher. The hearers of such sermons could
never say, " The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed." I
am bold to say that the Church of the nineteenth century would
be in a far more healthy condition if it had more preaching like

2. As a writer of miscellaneotis papers on religious subjects^ I
do not think Toplady has ever been duly appreciated. His pen
seems to have been never idle, and his collected works contain
a large number of short useful essays on a great variety of sub-


jects. Any one who takes the trouble to look at them will be
surprised to find that the worthy vicar of Broad Hembury was
conversant with many things beside the Calvinistic contro-
versy, and could write about them in a very interesting manner.
He will find short and well-written biographies of Bishop Jewell,
Bishop Carleton, Bishop Wilson, John Knox, Fox the Martyr-
ologist, Lord Harrington, Witsius, Allsop, and Dr. Watts. He

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 31 of 36)