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John Ryland, Jnr (1753 – 1825)

by James Culross, from Founders and Pioneers of Modern Missions, 1899

The Ryland FamilyThe Rylands, so honourably distinguished in Baptist history, were of a good yeoman family in the county of Gloucester. The name may have been connected with the now extinct village of Ryeland in that county. One of the family lived at Hinton-on-the-green, a few miles distant from Ryeland, and was a member of the ancient Baptist church at Alcester. His son Joseph lived near Stowe-on-the-wold.

John Collett Ryland His son, John Collett Ryland, born at Bourton-on-the-water, in 1723, claimed kindred through his mother, with the famous humanist, Dean Colet, founder of St. Paul’s School. Before his conversion he was very gay-fond of dress and card playing.   But he was awakened in the spring of 1741 and baptised October 2nd in the same year by Benjamin Beddom.  After a course of study in Bristol Academy under Bernard Foskett, he settled in Warwick as pastor of the Baptist church, deriving his main support from a boarding school which he established and conducted with great ability. He was a man of marked originality, strong-willed, plainspoken, very generous, and, according to Robert Hall, “of a careless intrepidity of temper.” In 1759 he removed to Northampton, transferring his boarding school thither, and acting as pastor of the College Lane church, which prospered greatly under his ministry. The meeting-house had to be twice enlarged to accommodate the increasing congregation, and the light of the Gospel was introduced into more than twenty of the surrounding villages that lay in almost heathen darkness. In the course of his ministry he published many treatises, larger and smaller, on educational and religious subjects. An extract or two will show the man: “An ignorant mind is a poor famished being, and for want of proper food must be always ranging from vanity to vanity, amongst the frivolous objects of fancy and appetite; and when these are all cut off by adversity, such a mind must turn in and devour itself with rage and despair.” “What is true honour but a noble and generous scorn of acting wrong, and a firm purpose of doing everything just, worthy, and good ? Honour is an emanation of virtue.” “If the methods of good education were faithfully pursued for seven years to come, it would have a more powerful effect upon the morals of the people than the united force of the twelve venerable judges, or a standing army of a hundred thousand men.” “Bigotry is the spirit of persecution without the power; persecution is no other than bigotry armed with force and the sword, and carrying its ill-will into act.” Robert Hall, speaking of him as a preacher, says: “Perfectly natural, unstudied, unexpected, there were often passages in his sermons sublime and terrible as the overflowing lava of a burning mountain. . . . He governed the spirits of men with a kind of absolute sway, but while he agitated most powerfully the passions of others, as a tempest of wind the mountain grove, he had always the command of his own.”

John Ryland. Jnr.His son John was born at Warwick, 29 January, 1753. He was unusually precocious, with a somewhat hasty temper, and keen sensibilities. Before he was twelve Years of age he had read Genesis in Hebrew five times through, and he had read the Greek Testament at a still earlier age. He was acquainted with Virgil and Horace, and had read Rollin’s Ancient History from beginning to end. His father, though proud of the boy, kept him in strict, perhaps stern subjection. The early promise was amply fulfilled. He became a fine linguist, was widely read, and was well acquainted with the science of his time. As he grew up he became more and more fond of reading. His chief delight was in history and poetry rather than in philosophy or romance. Select pieces which pleased him he was in the habit of transcribing and preserving. Some religious books he took special delight in, such as Bunyan’s ” Holy War” and De Foe’s “Family Instructor” with its irresistible realism. There is a time in the life of a lad when the mind seems to take a sudden bound, and when he is said to be at the. winning or the losing. That time came early in Ryland’s case. He often had yearning after God and resolutions to live another life, but they all seemed evanescent. When between thirteen and fourteen, in connection with a little religious association among his father’s boarders, described as an early instance of a Christian Endeavour Society, he entered on an experience which issued in simple submission and surrender to Jesus Christ. It could not have been supposed by anyone who knew how he had been trained that he was destitute of a speculative acquaintance with evangelical truth, but he now began to be more deeply concerned about it than he had been before, and “endeavoured to apply for mercy by earnest prayer.” The months that followed were marked by what was to him terrible distress of mind, with occasional gleams of sunshine. His diary gives a vivid and minute account of his inward history and the fluctuations of feeling. In reading the Bible a text would encourage him, and by and by the feelings of joy and hope that had been excited would seem delusive. He read ” Alleine’s Alarm,” “Baxter’s Call,” Bunyan’s ” Grace Abounding,” and similar books. At one time he seems to be rejoicing in God; and then he deplores that all his interest in the Gospel is dying out; then strong and dreadful convictions of sin would overwhelm him, and drive him almost to despair. He was baptised, along with two of his father’s pupils and Mr. Joseph Dent, his future brother-in-law, and received into the church in his fourteenth year.

In NorthamptonHe began to preach before he was seventeen. For some years he assisted in the school, but in 1781 he was associated with his father as co-pastor, and filled the office alone when his father removed to the neighbourhood of London, in 1786. His ministry in Northampton was eminently gracious and useful. Like his father he did not confine his labours to the congregation in College Lane, but extended them to the whole county and even beyond. He lacked his father’s originality and daring, and was characterised rather by sound sense, persuasiveness, deep sincerity, and Scriptural teaching, than by any elements that make for popularity. The effect of his preaching was greatly heightened by the veneration with which his character was regarded by all. He was just the man to co-operate with Carey, Fuller, and Sutcliff when the missionary movement began. At the formation of the Society Ryland’s name heads the list of original subscribers – John Ryland, Northampton, £2 2s -and is placed first in the Committee of five then appointed. Ryland threw himself heart and soul into the enterprise and kept up a very affectionate correspondence with his old friend Carey to the close of his life.

Move to BristolWhen the first news from the missionaries came home, Ryland had removed to Bristol. No sooner had he read his letter from Carey than at once he sent for Dr. Bogue and Mr. Stephen, who happened to be in Bristol, calling them to rejoice with him. They joined in giving thanks to God. Then Bogue and Stephen, calling on Mr. Hey, a leading citizen, the three took the first steps toward the formation of the London Missionary Society, which has since achieved such triumphs in all quarters of the world. Thus Ryland was privileged to have part in forming two of the noblest societies of modern times. Bristol College, then the only institution for ministerial education in the denomination had been left without a president by the death of Caleb Evans the previous year, and now the eyes. of the whole country turned to Ryland as the fittest man to ‘be his successor. After prolonged correspondence he consented, and in the close of 1793 removed to Bristol to be pastor of the Broadmead Church and president of the college. The diploma of D.D. was conferred upon him in September, 1792, by Brown University, Rhode Island, U.S.A. The same learned body had constituted him M.A. in 1773. He was the same man in Bristol that he had been in Northampton, as indefatigable in Christian work, and held in as profound esteem for unselfishness, uprightness, and graciousness of spirit. If he was remarkable for any one thing more than another, it was the rare grace of forgetting himself in doing the work that lay to hand. ” His readiness,” says Hall, ” to take the lowest place could only be exceeded by the eagerness of all who knew him to assign him the highest; and this was the only competition which the distinctions of life ever cost him.” He lived at a time of keen controversy, but shared nothing of the too common bitterness and striving for victory. I have read many of his private letters and memoranda, some of them relating to matters of painful dispute, and have been struck by the self-restraint they manifest, and the spirit of fairness and charity pervading them. What he was to the college William Rhodes, of Damerham, one of his most distinguished students, whose memory Dr. Stanford has immortalised, may tell: ” No tutor could be more loved and revered: none could more highly deserve it. The sentiment indulged towards him by us all, and that most deeply by the most pious and cultivated of our number, was a deep and affectionate veneration for his character, together with gratitude for the tenderness and fidelity with which he performed his various duties among us. His whole behaviour impressed us with the most serious and delightful conviction that he not only did his utmost to promote our mental advancement and watched over our progress with benignant complacency, but that our improvement in piety was an object of fervent solicitude to his holy and devotional mind.”

In Bristol he retained all his missionary enthusiasm, and his exertions in behalf of the missionary cause were of the most strenuous and indefatigable kind. His counsel in all matters of perplexity in the great undertaking was of great value from the singleness of mind which always characterised it. No doubt the missionary ardour which still distinguishes Bristol, both in the college and in the general Christian community is largely due to Ryland’s Influence – as it is to-day to that of Dr. Glover. When Fuller died in 1815, the office of secretary of the Missionary Committee was forced upon him, in addition to his varied and onerous duties. The fitness of the appointment was universally recognised. He was one of the “three mighty men” who had fought the battle of the Mission when the odds against it were at the greatest; and he sympathised with the men in India to the full and understood them and was understood by them. The Rev. James Hinton, of Oxford, was afterwards appointed joint-secretary.

As his seventieth year drew near his strength began to fail and he was compelled to diminish his exertions. On the 30th of December, 1824, the day after he had completed his seventy first year, he preached for the last time. The subject of discourse was Psalm lxxxvi. 5: “Thou, Lord, art good and ready to forgive, and plenteous in mercy to all them that call upon Thee.” He lingered on for a few months, and fell asleep, calmly and hopefully, on 25th May, 1825. His last words were: “No more pain.”His immense and methodical industry may be estimated by the journeys he took, by his diligence as a pastor, by the productions of his pen, and by the marginalia in the vast number of books he read. The estimate formed of him by men like Hall and Foster gives him a front rank among the best men of his time. Rhodes of Damerham says: “With all the regard and admiration in which he was held by those who knew him, and by many who had no personal intercourse with him, it does not appear to me that the strong and luminous character of his mind, or the wide and varied range of his knowledge were, in general, sufficiently appreciated. Nor is it to be wondered at his piety was so conspicuous that his other qualities and attainments were hardly thought of by any one while in his society, or in the contemplation of his character. His mental endowments and attainments were eclipsed by the brightness of the sanctity which pervaded them.” For many years he conducted an extensive correspondence with distinguished men, both at home and abroad. One of the most delightful parts of it was his correspondence with missionaries – particularly with his old friend, Dr. Carey. Very touching are Carey’s words when he heard of Ryland’s death: “There are now in England very few ministers with whom I was acquainted. Fuller, Sutcliff, Pearce, Fawcett, and Ryland, besides many others whom I knew, are gone to glory. My family connection also, those excepted who were children when I left England or have since that time been born, are all gone, two sisters only excepted. Wherever I look in England, I see a vast blank; and were I ever to revisit that dear country I should have an entirely new set of friendships to form. As it respected my late very dear brother Ryland, he has left the world and is gone to glory, I hope to meet him there, and with him in ‘transporting joy recount the labours of our feet.’ I must mourn and struggle with difficulties some time longer.”

One of Dr. Ryland’s favourite recreations was the study of natural history, for which his eyesight singularly fitted him. His eyes were microscopic, so that he could accurately observe the minutest objects. This is illustrated by his sermon-notes, written with singular beauty in the smallest hand, yet legible by the naked eye. Several hundreds of them are preserved in the College Museum as curiosities.


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