The Conversion Of J. C. Ryle
I thoroughly disliked Oxford on many accounts. Of course the place, the buildings, and colleges are things matchless in the world, and to talk of comparing Oxford and Cambridge is simply ridiculous. But I thoroughly disliked the tone of society among the undergraduates at Oxford, the more so from its complete unlikeless to what I had been used to at Eton. Nothing disgusted me so much as the miserable idolatry of money and also of aristocratic connection. I never saw such an amount of toadying flattery, and fawning upon wealth and title as I saw among the undergraduates at Oxford. It thoroughly revolted me and almost made me a republican. There was also a coldness and a distance and a want of sociability and sympathy amongst undergraduates which to a boy fresh from Eton was extremely offensive. Added to this, tutors and college authorities seemed to me to give reading men no help, counsel, or advice and really seemed not to care what became of them, so long as you did not give them trouble.
The vacations of the three years I spent at Oxford were passed very much like the vacations at Eton, and I do not know that there is anything very particular to be remarked about them; the last summer vacation I passed before I took my degree was spent reading at Malvern, the others I think were chiefly at home. That my three months at Malvern were not very well spent will be pretty evident when I mention that I spent a great deal of time in going to balls at Malvern and Worcester, and dancing with two handsome Miss Leycesters, who waltzed very well. In fact it made so much talk that at last I left Malvern and went home, and never saw them again. Singularly enough I first met them at the home of Colonel Parker who then lived at Malvern, the same Colonel Parker in whose house I made my first speech about my good dinner. I have very little faith in vacation parties for reading. But, dancing with the Miss Leycesters in the evening, dining at the ordinary at the hotel, playing billiards, reading Byron’s works, my recollection is that I wasted a great deal of time.
As to my Oxford life, I may remark generally that I came forward very little except at cricket. During the summer time I played incessantly from 12 noon in the morning till dark, every day in the week. During the other terms I did very little beyond taking long walks and playing billiards and had very few friends and associates. At nights I idled a great deal of my time away in the rooms of my friends, excepting during the last year before I took my degree. On the whole I can only repeat the opinion I have already expressed, that I suffered a great deal at Oxford for want of some wise friend or adviser, and that I might have done a great deal better than I did if I had had one. The advice I give to all young men who go to university is, to begin from the very first the habit of regular reading, and to beware of dawdling away time in objectless, purposeless, mischievous ways; without hunting, shooting, or driving, it is astonishing how much time an undergraduate may waste if he does not take care.
About the end of 1837, my character underwent a thorough and entire change, in consequence of a complete alteration in my view of religion, both as to my belief and practice. This change was so extremely great and has had such a sweeping influence over the whole of my life ever since that I think it right that my children should know something about it.
Up to the time that I was about twenty-one years old, I think I had no true religion at all. I do not mean to say that I did not go to church, or was not a professed Christian; I had no infidel or R. C. opinions, but I think I was perfectly careless, thoughtless, ignorant and indifferent about my soul, and a world to come. I certainly never said my prayers, or read a word of my Bible, from the time I was seven to the time I was twenty-one. I do not say I never had any qualms of conscience on spasmodic occasions, and I quite remember being startled and annoyed and making a stubborn resistance, when I first went to Eton, on being ordered by my fag-master to go and buy things at a shop on a Sunday. But I certainly had no settled religious principles at all, the whole time I was at a private school, at Eton, and the greater part of the time I was at Oxford. In short, if I had died before I was twenty-one, if there is such a thing as being lost forever in hell, which I do not doubt, I certainly should have been lost forever. I never plunged into the immorality that many young men do, because I had no natural taste for it. I was never led into drunkenness, gambling, theatre-going, race-going, betting, or other things into which young men run; I really had no taste for them. But I really was altogether without God in the world, and though many thought me a proper, moral, respectable young man, I was totally unfit to die.
In explanation of this, though not as an excuse, a few things ought to be mentioned. I really had no opportunities or means of grace, so to speak, when I was young. My father’s house was respectable and well conducted but there really was not a bit of religion in it. We had no family prayers at all, except on Sunday nights and that only occasionally. My father and mother went to church and took us on Sundays, but I never could see that the service, or sermon, were regarded as anything but a mere form. Conversation on a Sunday went on much as on weekdays. Letters were read and written, newspapers read just the same as on weekdays. We dined early and had plum pudding, which was always a joyful thing, and we also had an extremely good hot supper, and sometimes oysters and hot ale. The elder members of the family on Sunday evenings in winter used to read sermons to themselves in separate corners of the room. But they all used to look so unutterably grave and miserable over them, that I privately made up my mind that sermons must be very dull things, and religion must be a very disagreeable business. The plain truth is that for the first sixteen or seventeen years of my life, there was no ministry of the gospel at the church we attended. Macclesfield with only 35,000 people had only two churches and in neither of them was the gospel preached. The clergymen were wretched high and dry sticks of the old school and their preaching was not calculated to do good to anybody. I can truly say that I passed through childhood and boyhood without hearing a single sermon likely to do good to my soul. We had no real religious friends or relatives and no real Christian ever visited our house. We never had any really religious books or tracts given us. The only two books I can ever remember to have rather affected me when I was a child were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Mrs Sherwood’s Conversations on the Church Catechism; each of these books in some places made me cry. The utmost teaching our mother ever gave us was occasionally hearing us say our Catechism, which she did in a very grave and rather gloomy manner. As to my father, the utmost he ever did was sometimes to show us pictures in an old Bible when he was not sleepy on Sunday nights. The picture that I specially remember used to be shown us as a great favour was the devil dancing over the ruins of Job’s house. And then he used to tell us this was what we should come to if we were not good. Poor dear man! He ought to have known better. My grandfather was a really good man, but he died unfortunately when he was young and he came into his fortune too soon and left the Wesleyans and got thrown into the company of men who did him no good.
The only preaching I ever heard at Oxford that ever did me any good was on a Sunday evening at St Peter’s from Denison and Hamilton, who were afterwards successively Bishops of Salisbury. They were much more evangelical men then than they afterwards were when they became bishops, and though their preaching was very defective I think it did me a little good. To sum up all, I wish my children to remember that for about the first eighteen years of my life, neither at home, nor at college, nor among my relatives and friends, had I anything to do good to my soul, or teach me anything about Jesus Christ.
I repeat that I do not mention these things at all as an excuse for my very irreligious condition to the time I was twenty-one. But they do perhaps supply some explanation of it.
The circumstances which led to a complete change in my character were very many and very various, and I think it right to mention them. It was not a sudden immediate change but very gradual. I cannot trace it to any one person, or any one event or thing, but to a singular variety of persons and things. In all of them I believe now the Holy Ghost was working though I did not know it at the time. Some account of these circumstances will not be without interest.
Perhaps one of the first things that ever made me think seriously and begin to consider the sinfulness of sin, was a rebuke for swearing which I had from my friend, A. Coote, about a year after I left Eton, when I was nineteen. I do not for a moment mean to say that it did more than startle me and made me think, but certainly it was one of the first things that I can ever remember that made a kind of religious impression upon my soul.
About the same time in my life also, a new church was opened in Macclesfield and the gospel was really preached in it first by Mr Wales and afterwards by Mr Burnet. I hardly heard either of them at that time, but I certainly remember that the opening of this new church introduced a new kind of religion into the Church of England, in that part of Cheshire, and was a kind of era. It certainly set many people thinking who never thought before about religion, even though they were not converted, and of these I was one. There was a kind of stir among dry bones, and great outcry against the attendants of this new church.
About the same time too, I was a good deal struck by the great change that took place in the character and opinions of Harry Arkwright, with whom I had been very intimate and who was reading for Orders at that time with Mr Burner.
About the same time too my sister Susan took up Mr Burnet’s opinions, and began to be regarded as one of his adherents. And evangelical religion in one way and another began to be talked of and too often ridiculed and abused in our family.
I do not pretend to say there was anything like a real change in me at this time. I was not comfortable inwardly, and was rather perplexed by things that I saw and heard, but there was no change in my habits or outward behaviour and I still neither read my Bible nor said my prayers. I continued in this state of mind till I was twenty-one – for two years then about midsummer, a severe illness which I had at Oxford of inflammation of the chest, confined me to bed for some days and brought me very low for some time. That was the time when I distinctly remember I began to read my Bible and began to pray. It was a very curious crisis in my life, and it was just about the time I was taking my degree and I have strong recollection that my new views of religion helped me very greatly to go through all my exams very coolly and quietly. In short, from midsummer 1837 till Christmas in the same year was a turning point in my life. I had many struggles and inward fights and I am sure I was guilty of many gross inconsistencies. But by the beginning of 1838, I think I was fairly launched as a Christian, and started on a road which I think I have never entirely left from that time to this.
This article was taken from Issue 142, July 1975 of The Banner of Truth
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