Small Beginnings: J. C. Ryle in Exbury


When we think of church history’s greatest preachers, we naturally think of them at the height of their ministries: preaching to thousands, organizing conferences, publishing books. But no ministries begin like this. At one point, even the greatest of men were unknown and inexperienced, and they had many things to learn before they became the preachers we know.

Consider J. C. Ryle. As the Bishop of Liverpool in the 19th century, he would defend orthodoxy within the Church of England against modern theology, Anglo-Catholicism, and the growth of the Keswick Conference. But long before he became a bishop, in 1841, he worked as a curate in the district of Exbury within the parish of Fawley. Years later, his biographer Iain Murray called it “a dreary, desolate, solitary place” (57).[1] Though Ryle had been raised in a wealthy family and fine schools, he encountered a very different kind of people in Exbury:

A great number of the people had been brought up as poachers and smugglers, and were totally unaccustomed to being looked after or spoken to about their souls. . . . Drunkenness and sin of every kind abounded. (57)

The rector who supervised him was largely absent. Ryle wrote, “He was eaten up with caution, and seemed to me so afraid of doing wrong, that he would hardly do right.” And yet, the inexperienced Ryle set about doing whatever good he could for the people of his parish. His early ministry consisted of three main parts: tract distribution, simply being present among the people, and consistent growth in preaching. Let’s consider each of these in turn.


Tract distribution wasn’t considered worthy of clergymen in Ryle’s day. Nonetheless, Ryle obtained unbound copies of tracts from The Religious Tract Society and bound them himself in brown paper, circulating them widely. Given his limited salary, Ryle recalls, “I was too poor to give any away. I was obliged to lend and change them” (58). For someone who would go on to publish many books and commentaries, Ryle recognized the value of good Christian literature as a useful tool for ministry and used them for the good of his people.


Tract distribution gave Ryle an excuse to visit his people in their homes. This multiplied his influence in their lives:

My regular work was . . . to visit, confer with, and distribute tracts among 60 families every week. . . . I kept a regular account of all the families in the parish and was in every house in the parish at least once a month. (59)

By any account, to visit 60 families each week is extraordinary, but it’s the kind of work an energetic, unmarried minister can take on. Ryle also involved himself in the life of the community, even when this meant confronting his parishioners’ worldly lifestyles. On one occasion, he was called to stop a fight between two men not far from his house:

I remember walking into the fight suddenly between the two combatants and insisting on their stopping. I told them they might do what they liked to me, but I would not have it if I could prevent it; the result was that the fight was stopped. The affair made a great noise at the time. . . . It taught me what power one man has against a multitude as long as he has right on his side. (59)

Ryle’s persistence and courage for truth began not as a bishop, but in the small acts of pastoral visitation and care.


Ryle would later say that it was not until he turned fifty that he learned how to preach, but that learning began during this time. He was responsible for two sermons on Sunday and two expository lectures during the week. He learned about preaching in the cool lecture halls of Oxford, but bringing God’s Word to an agricultural congregation on a hot afternoon after lunch proved to be a far more difficult task. In his tract “Simplicity in Preaching,” Ryle recalls a farmer who enjoyed Sunday more than any other day “because I sit comfortably in church, put up my legs, have nothing to think about, and just go to sleep.”

In his first year of preaching, Ryle experimented with various approaches. He ultimately found that expounding “a short pithy text” did more good for his people than preaching through long passages of Scripture. He also learned that he could not simply open his Bible, take the first text that he found, “and write off a sermon in two or three hours” (61). Any such attempts failed. Ryle learned the importance of study, preparation, and crafting a sermon with just the right words:

It is an extremely difficult thing to write simple, clear, perspicuous and forcible English. . . . To use very long words, to seem very learned . . . is very easy work. But to write what will stick, to speak or write that which at once pleases and is understood, and becomes assimilated with a hearer’s mind and a thing never forgotten—that, we may depend on it, is a very difficult thing and a very rare attainment. (60)

These disciplined lessons about preaching became the foundation for a preaching ministry that influences young ministers even to this day.


Pastors are often tempted to be dissatisfied with their churches. Some long for greater prominence and larger congregations. But this dissatisfaction is part of the Enemy’s lies; such outcomes must be left to the Lord.

Instead, we should see that God is at work even in less-than-ideal situations. J. C. Ryle’s early life teaches us the importance of not despising small beginnings (Zech. 4:10), but serving faithfully wherever God has placed us. After all, it’s during these times that God prepares and equips us to serve and follow him.

Author’s note: For a similar article, read Geoff Chang’s “Small Beginnings: C. H. Spurgeon at Waterbeach.”

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[1] All page references from Murray, Iain H. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016.

Geoff Chang

Geoff Chang serves as an assistant professor of church history and historical theology and is also the curator of the Spurgeon Library at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @geoffchang.

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