Small Beginnings: J. C. Ryle in Exbury

Ryle’s early life teaches us the importance of not despising small beginnings.

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.


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.[1] 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

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.

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