I have recently been delving afresh into that classic work of J C Ryle – Christian Leaders of the 18th Century. Written in the second half of the 19th century, Ryle begins by analysing what it was that brought about the dramatic “change for the better” that came across England in the previous century, a change which he claims, “no well-informed person would ever attempt to deny”. [i]
He asks the question, “..by what agency was this great change effected? To whom are we indebted for the immense improvement in religion and morality 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?”
It was not, he is certain, the government of the day, the Church of England or the Dissenters. Rather it was “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” and their labours “shook England from one end to the other.” The means through which they effected such change was simple –
“no more or less than the old apostolic weapon of preaching…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.”.
Ryle then goes on to analyse the preaching of these men who turned the nation upside down and he has much to teach us in our own generation. Over the next few posts I’ll look at the conclusions Ryle came to and see what those lessons might be.
[i] Christian Leaders of the 18th Century Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1978