When we think of some of church history’s great preachers, we naturally think of them at the height of their ministries: preaching to thousands, organizing conferences, publishing books. But this is not where their ministries began. At one point in time, the greatest of men were unknown and inexperienced, and they had many things to learn before they became the preachers we know.
One such person was J. C. Ryle. As the Bishop of Liverpool, he would defend orthodoxy within the Church of England against modern theology, Anglo-Catholicism, and the growth of the Keswick Conference in the 19th century. But long before he ever became a bishop, his first ministry position came in 1841, the curacy in the district of Exbury within the parish of Fawley, “a dreary, desolate, solitary place.” (57) Though Ryle had been raised in a wealthy family and with fine schooling, he encountered a very different kind of people in this place:
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 during his time there. Not only that but “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 was not considered the work of clergymen in Ryle’s day, but Ryle would obtain unbound copies of tracts from the Religious Tract Society and bind 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.
Being present with the people
The tract distribution gave Ryle an excuse to visit his people in their homes, and this contributed to 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 an extraordinary load, but it is the kind of work an energetic single minister can take on. Ryle also involved himself in the life of the community, even when this meant confronting the worldly lifestyles of his parishioners. 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.
Growing in preaching
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 had learned about preaching in the halls of Oxford, but bringing God’s Word to an agricultural congregation on a hot afternoon after lunch was a far more difficult task. In his tract, ‘Simplicity in Preaching,’ Ryle tells of a farm labourer 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.”
Ryle set about using his first year of preaching as a series of experiments and in the end he 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 met in failure. 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 lessons and disciplines in preaching would lay a foundation for a preaching ministry that continues to have influence today.
Pastors are often tempted to be dissatisfied with their churches and long for greater prominence and larger congregations. But this dissatisfaction is part of the enemy’s lies and such outcomes must be left to the Lord. Instead we should see that God is also at work even in less than ideal situations. Ryle’s early life teaches us the importance of not despising small beginnings (Zech. 4:10), but serving faithfully wherever God has placed you. Because it is during these times that God is preparing and equipping us to serve Him.
 All page references from Murray, Iain H. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016.