George Ella's Biographical Sketches

John Collet Ryland (1723-1792) And The Restructuring Of Baptist History

A number of modern writers who preach common-grace and duty-faith as redemptive means in evangelisation, view John Collet Ryland as a Hyper-Calvinist. Such a person, a recent BOT article tells us, does not appeal to sinners, “directly encouraging them to trust him (Christ), and appealing to them to do so now.” Obviously, given such criteria, Ryland’s critics know nothing of his extensive gospel ministry or are deliberately introducing a new conception of what ‘directly encouraging sinners’ means. Most of their ‘encouragement’ is found in their slogan ‘God’s provisions and man’s agency’ which stresses the need for man to use all his supposed natural abilities and duties to grasp out and take God’s provisions in Christ. Ryland affirmed that salvation was all of grace. Only then could he preach to sinners that salvation was truly there for all who repented and turned to Christ. Otherwise there would be no gospel for any man. The legalism of the duty-faith protagonists was thus obnoxious to him. Referring to the false doctrine introduced by Andrew Fuller and the two Robert Halls and supported by his son, Ryland said, “The devil threw out an empty barrel for them to roll about, while they ought to have been drinking the wine of the kingdom. That old dog, lying in the dark, has drawn off many good men to whip syllabub, and to sift quiddities, under pretence of zeal for the truth.” Sadly, this empty barrel-rolling and the verbal froth whipped up by redefining theological basics and making grace law-bound has become the favourite game of nominal evangelicals in the Reformed camp.

As a preacher, pioneer Baptist John Collet Ryland, according to his colleague and biographer William Newman (1773-1835) was ‘a star of the first magnitude’. Converted under Benjamin Beddome in revival days, on taking over a well-established Independent church (College Lane, Northampton), he increased its membership seven-fold. Like Whitefield and Wesley he pioneered open-air preaching in the highways and byways of public recreation areas. Unlike Ryland’s modern critics who remove the doctrines of grace from the gospel of salvation and include man’s agency as a saving factor, Ryland was concerned that the full gospel should be preached to all, including the condemning terrors of the Law. He believed the younger generation neglected the full gospel by following Andrew Fuller in preaching the impossible duty to ‘love Christ as if they had never apostatised’. Ryland’s was an evangelical gospel of grace whereas his critics preach a legal gospel of duties in order to appropriate salvation.

Preaching to his startled congregation at the time of a devastating 18th century eruption of Mount Aetna which buried great cities, Ryland proclaimed:

“Some high Calvinists neglect the unconverted; but Paul left no case untouched. He spoke properly and suitably to Felix, as well as to Timothy. Some neglect to preach the law, and tell their hearers to accept Christ. O sinners, beware! If Christ says, “Depart,” ‘tis all over. Depart into a thousand Aetnas, bursting up for ever and ever. Your souls are now within an inch of damnation. I am clear of your blood. If you are condemned, I’ll look you in the face at judgment, and say, “Lord, I told that man – I told those boys and girls, on the 29th of August, 1790 – I warned them – they would not believe – and now they stand shivering before the bar!”

No wonder that Robert Hall, a duty-faith man, nevertheless testified that after hearing Ryland preach, it was as if he had experienced a veritable earthquake himself. Indeed, the evangelical giants of the Great Awakening such as Harris, Hervey, Toplady and Whitefield looked upon Ryland as one in the Spirit with them and yet our modern preachers of a legal agenda rather than gospel say Ryland would not tell sinners to flee from the wrath to come!

What strategy lies behind this absurd condemnation? The re-structuring of Ryland has to do with modern efforts to re-structure another most significant character in Baptist history and create myths about him which are harmful to the gospel. In September, 1785, a young man, new to the Baptist churches, who had already reaped criticism from the Baptist fold, literally gate-crashed a Nottinghamshire Association conference and allegedly proposed that they discuss ‘the duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel among heathen nations.’ Sixty-two year-old Ryland supposedly ordered the youngster to shut up and sit down, adding, “When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine!” [1. See Timothy George’s Carey biography for a lengthy blow-up of this supposed scene.] The story goes that Ryland’s was a lone voice in the Northampton Association and the majority of pastors and churches stood firmly behind the young man, seeing clearly the importance of bringing the gospel into foreign lands. That young man was William Carey who became one of the first Baptist missionaries to India.

The truth is that few Baptists at that time knew who Carey was and what he was capable of doing and in his new devotion to evangelism Carey made many blunders. Indeed, during the following three or four years as his great plans became known, most of the leading Baptist pastors disagreed with him in strong terms. Yet modern duty-faith adherents are striving to recreate a false picture of William Carey as a duty-faith Legalist after their image and likeness and an evangelical Ryland as an enemy opposite. Yet anyone who reads Carey’s famous Enquiry will see that the author is talking about duties exercised through faith and not duties leading to faith. John Rippon argued that such as Ryland and Gill had the proper understanding of duty to faith exercised at the right time in the right place. As our modern enthusiasts put duty to faith in its wrong place, i.e. before faith is given, it is no wonder that their understanding of it is so deficient.

What do the facts say? Carey was brought up in the Church of England and owed his salvation to the preaching of Thomas Scott and the witness of his Congregationalist fellow-apprentice, John Warr. Nevertheless, he approached Ryland Sen. at College Lane (now Baptist) with a view to receiving believer’s baptism. Carey was passed on to Ryland’s son and assistant-pastor, John Ryland who baptised Carey in the River Nene on October 5 1783. Instead of becoming a member of Ryland’s church, Carey immediately looked for a Dissenting congregation to pastor. A Congregationalist and a Baptist church called him. This did not please the Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire Baptist churches and John Sutcliffe (1752-1840) of Olney, told Carey sensibly that he should join a ‘respectable church’ as an ordinary member and be appointed to the ministry ‘in the regular way.’ So Carey joined Sutcliffe’s church at Olney, established by John Bunyan in 1672 on a ‘baptism no bar to communion’ basis. The church had now moved to a believer’s baptism only position. Immediately Carey asked the church to set him apart for the ministry but continued preaching every other Sunday for the Congregationalists. Then, early in 1785, he accepted a call to pastor Moulton Baptist church. The Olney church did not invite Carey to preach before them with a view to recommending him as a minister until the following summer. Then, Carey failed to convince them of his suitability and was told to improve himself and try again at some future date. Carey, however, not only continued to pastor the Moulton Church but attended the Northamptonshire Associations meetings as a member pastor, though his own church had refused to set him apart for such a ministry. It was at such an association visit, it is said, that Ryland rebuked Carey.

The first record of the encounter between Ryland and Carey was penned over thirty years later by J. W. Morris who affirmed that the two men ‘exchanged pleasantries!'[2. I am thankful to Michael Haykin for this information.] By 1859, when all witnesses were long dead, the positive story reappeared in the quite different negative form recorded above. Pearce Carey combines the two. Underwood and Hoad merely say that Ryland thought Carey was an ‘enthusiast’. Ryland Jr. denied any such exchange took place.

Even if Ryland cautioned Carey, this was in keeping with his fellow-pastors whom Ryland’s critics place on the duty-faith side and thus in opposition to him. Sutcliffe warned Carey repeatedly against running before he could walk and Benjamin Beddome (1717-1795) disagreed with Carey in stronger terms than those attributed to Ryland. Confessing that he admired Carey and even thought that Carey might succeed him at Bourton-on-the-Water, Beddome insisted that Carey should not waste time on thoughts of foreign fields but learn that charity begins at home. He agreed fully with the caution practised by Sutcliff and Carey’s Olney church. Indeed, Beddome was so convinced that good men were still needed in Britain that he said concerning world-wide evangelism, “the time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built.”[3. Taken from Pearce Carey, p. 103.] According to Pearce Carey, Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) related how some of the most respectable ministers thought that Carey’s ideas were ‘wild and impractical’. John Rippon (1750-1836) was most sceptical of Carey’s plans and even Ryland Jr, (1743-1825), Fuller and Samuel Pearce (1766-1799) only gave Carey full support in his enterprise some years later. Ryland Jr. was a sad figure. When he took over his father’s church, he dropped his practical Calvinism, launched into Fullerism, became high-handed with his congregation and lost many members. He had James Hewit disciplined for suggesting he was wishy-washy in comparison to his father and even had three generations of the Adams family excommunicated when John Adams compared him unfavourably with his father and criticised his rejection of evangelical doctrines. Carey had to wait another two years (1 August, 1787) for the Olney church and Association to officially set him apart ‘to preach wherever God in his providence might call him’. At that service, no less than twenty Baptist ministers gathered in Olney to give Carey their blessing. This was the turning of the tide for Carey.

The opposition the Liberal younger generation gave Ryland was also because of his openness to evangelicals of other denominations such as Hervey, Whitefield and Toplady and his conviction, along with most of his contemporaries, that the Lord’s Supper should be shared by all who loved the Lord. Interestingly enough, Ryland’s critics who call him a Hyper-Calvinist and even Antinomian, have slackened their doctrinal position, but tightened their denominationalism and closed communion stance, becoming absolute Legalists in their adherence to Neonomianism with its ‘Gospel of New Obedience’. We remember in this connection that Andrew Fuller, the doyen of our modern critics of Ryland, Gill, Toplady and Romaine, introduced Liberalism into Baptist folds but demanded of Indian missionaries Carey, Ward and Marshman that they should not fellowship or share communion with non-Baptists whom he said by definition were ‘not real Christians’. If the Serampore Trio had followed Fuller as he demanded, they would have isolated themselves from their Lutheran, Anglican and Independent brethren already in India and stopped the necessary British political support. Fuller was two-faced on this issue. Though he denied repeatedly that Non-Baptists could be Christians, he canvassed widely amongst them for funds for the Baptist mission. This reminds one of the questionable method of Roland Hill who begged money from Huntington’s members for his own church yet denounced them as ‘Antinomians’. Religions built on a relative understanding of law are bound to remain hypocritical where no enlightenment by grace is present. Carey, however, was different. He journeyed to India only after receiving the assurance that he would be able, like Paul, to pay his own way through combining preaching with occupational work. It was this re-discovery of the Biblical pattern that made Carey’s mission ‘modern’ and not the myth that the Baptist Missionary Society was the first of its kind as there were many similar earlier and contemporary organisations world-wide.

George Ella


George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.

George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.

George Ella on Doctrinal Matters
George Ella's Biographical Sketches