Pithy and Powerful: the Crucified-style of J.C. Ryle
By Matthew Harper
J.C. Ryle was an excellent preacher and a master prose stylist in an era when florid language was in style. Victorian-era writers were notoriously flowery in their writing. David Holloway notes, J.C. Ryle “was a brilliant writer. Unlike many Victorians (and particularly religious writers) he is still readable today. The style is uniquely his own and from a different day to ours. But what he says is crystal clear." Others have praised his writings.
J. I. Packer summarizes Ryle's style:
At the start of his ministry … Ryle developed a distinctive prose style that served him equally well as preacher, debater, speechmaker, counselor, and writer. It was a brisk, blunt style, pungent and persuasive, made up of short, abrupt, in-your-face sentences, rarely with more than one subordinate clause, all regularly piled together to produce cumulative and drumbeat effects.
Like Charles Spurgeon, Ryle was primarily a preacher and most of his writings are made up of sermons he preached and tracts he distributed. Nevertheless, his writing style still has applicability for everyone who writes. Readers today haven't changed much from the audience of Ryle’s day; he held their attention through engaging content and a unique style. Ryle had a name for it: the crucified style.
Writing with Crucified-style
Ryle demonstrated that this unique style, applied to both writing and preaching, can be incredibly powerful if executed correctly. It is not accomplished easily, however. As William P. Farley states, "Many have tried to copy his [Ryle's] style, but none have mastered it." Though you may not be able to match Ryle’s style perfectly, let’s look at several ways writers can emulate and implement the pithy and powerful aspects of Ryle’s crucified style.
First, be as simple and concise in your writing as possible. John Piper notes:
Ryle knew the preaching of his day was languishing. It was "dry, heavy, stiff, dull, cold, tame … and destitute of warmth, vivacity, direct appeal, or fire." So he made every effort to break the mold, even as a dignified Bishop of Liverpool. He would keep it simple, but he would untame his preaching. His simple, forceful, clarity was renown. One older lady came to the church hoping to hear the Bishop, but afterwards said to a friend, "I never heard a Bishop. I thought I’d hear something great…. He’s no Bishop. I could understand every word." Ryle took it as a great compliment.
Ryle was simple and straightforward. When a simple word will suffice in your writing, use it instead of the more flowery synonym. In Simplicity in Preaching, Ryle admonished pastors to "[t]ry to use in all your sermons, as far as you can—simple words," to "beware of writing many lines without coming to a pause," and to "[b]eware of colons and semicolons." Always keep your sentences on the shorter side—this holds the reader’s attention and also helps you communicate more complete thoughts in each paragraph.
The last admonition Ryle gives is to beware of colons and semicolons. William Zinsser notes in his On Writing Well that "[t]here is a 19th-century mustiness that hangs over the semicolon" and "it should be used sparingly by modern writers of nonfiction." Zinsser applies the same critique to the colon. Though Ryle wrote in that musty century, he was ahead of his time in terms of simplicity and punctuation. In your own writing, avoid punctuation that will slow down your writing and make your reader bored. Use punctuation purposefully.
Another aspect of Ryle’s style was his masterful use of repetition. John Newby explains that Ryle’s use of it came about because "[y]ears of pastoral experience probably convinced Ryle that a truth would be best remembered if 'hammered home' by repetition," but that "[i]t is not so much that he says the same thing over again, as that he uses different lines of evidence to emphasise[sic] the same truth."
Do not be redundant, but when you want to emphasize a particular point, be willing to forcefully repeat it. Consider this example from Ryle’s Holiness, where he emphasizes the effects of lukewarm Christianity:
But suddenly some unlooked for trial assails them. Their property makes itself wings, and flies away. Their own health fails. Death come up into their house. Tribulation or persecution ariseth, because of the Word. And where now is their faith? Where is the strong confidence they thought they had? Where is their peace, their hope, their resignation? Alas, they are sought for and not found.
Redundancy is drudgery, but effective repetition draws the reader in and helps them see a subject from multiple angles.
Though J.C. Ryle’s style may not be perfectly imitated, contemporary writers can draw many helpful principles from the 19th-century Anglican bishop. Keep it simple, keep it short, avoid semi-colons and colons, and use effective repetition. Apply these tips, and you will see your writing grow more pithy and powerful than ever before.
Farley, Ian D. J.C. Ryle: First Bishop of Liverpool. Waynseboro, GA: Paternoster Publishing, 2000.
Farley, William P. "J.C. Ryle: A 19th-century Evangelical." Enrichment Journal, Fall 2006, accessed November 20, 2016, http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/200604/200604_120_jcryle.cfm.
Holloway, David. http://www.christian.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/j-c-ryle.pdf.
Newby, John. https://dspace.nwu.ac.za/handle/10394/852
Packer, J. I. Faithfulness and Holiness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010.
Piper, John. "'The Frank and Manly Mr. Ryle': The Value of Masculine Ministry," http://cbmw.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/JBMW-Spring-12-Complete.pdf.
Ryle, J.C. Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, & Roots. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2017.