There’s nothing particularly unusual about that in England, where the sight of a glorious steeple piercing a canopy of trees and sky is the focus of nearly every village.
But I was particularly drawn to this one, on the edge of the magnificent Helmingham Hall estate belonging to Lord and Lady Tollemache, whose fabulous gardens we had just visited.
It turns out that this aristocratic family has had strong connections with the church over the centuries and had been responsible for the mass of illuminated Bible verses inscribed on virtually every spare space inside the building.
Anyone who comes to church without a Bible has much of it ‘printed in large type’ on the walls, while the pulpit is graphically backed up by the text “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”
Intrigued to find out more of its history, I soon discovered that none other than John Charles Ryle (later to become the first Bishop of Liverpool) was Rector there for nearly 20 years in the mid-19th century (1844-1861).
But J C Ryle (as he was generally known) would in no way have been intimidated by such evangelical fervour. He would literally have basked in it like a sun-seeker soaking up the warmth of its rays.
During his time at Helmingham, he wrote over eighty tracts which were delivered to every door in the parish. He challenged the complacency of many who seemed disinterested in their spiritual state with prose that – unusually for the day – was both pithy and engaging. He mocked the notion that you should be thought very uncharitable if you dared to question whether a man was a Christian, thus:
“The man’s practice may be no better than that of a heathen: many a respectable Hindu might put him to shame – but what of that? He is an Englishman. He has been baptized. He goes to church, and behaves decently when there. What more would you have?”
He reminded his readers that “sacraments, services and sermons may produce outward formality, and clothe us with a skin of religion, but there will be no life.” Only the Holy Spirit could wake us from our spiritual slumber and save us from the “deep corruption” of our human nature.
He is particularly mindful of those who profess Christianity without backing it up by a transformed life:
“Sin is plainly not considered their worst enemy, nor the Lord Jesus their best friend, nor the will of God their rule of life, nor salvation the great end of their existence.”
Urging us to receive the Spirit, he concludes: “You may not like the tidings. You may call it enthusiasm, or fanaticism, or extravagance. I take my stand on the plain teaching of the Bible.”
Unlike some today, he emphasizes that Christ is the “only way” to heaven and mocks those who treat the Bible as “a heathen idol” only to be brought out at christenings, or upon the arrival of sickness, the doctor and death.
His messages are urgent, passionate, blunt and uncompromising – and what a legacy he has left, for he still speaks, even though dead. He continues to be widely read, and there are apparently many Internet websites devoted to him.
Oh that today’s bishops would speak with such directness and authority! With some notable exceptions, they seem to have had what many have dubbed ‘the operation’ to remove their spine.
But Ryle’s passion for the gospel echoes down the ages, still addressing those lost in a sea of despair, confusion and hopelessness: “I fear lest you should live without Christ, die without pardon, rise again without hope, receive judgment without mercy, and sink into hell without remedy.”
He was unequivocal in stating that “the Bible is all true, and must be fulfilled”. For example, hefirmly believed that the Jews scattered around the world for 18 centuries would soon return to their ancient homeland in fulfillment of many scriptures. And he encouraged Christians to work and pray toward that end.
He said: “I believe that the Jews shall ultimately be gathered again as a separate nation, restored to their own land and turned to the faith of Christ (Messiah).”
And so it was, less than 50 years after he died in 1900, that the modern State of Israel was born! And a growing number have since acknowledged Jesus as their Messiah.
Judge for yourself whether you think a man with such foresight was off the mark in diagnosing the spiritual health of his parishioners.
He did not escape suffering himself – he was twice widowed while at Helmingham – but was not afraid to preach what many today would deem ‘hell-fire and damnation’ as he left his readers with this fiery challenge: “Where is the man that can hold his finger for a minute in the flame of a candle? Who shall dwell with everlasting burnings?”
That there was a heaven to be gained and a hell to be shunned was a fairly orthodox line taken by preachers of the day, but few even then had the courage to put it quite as bluntly as J C Ryle.
Thus galvanized by the gospel, Ryle lit a flame that time would not extinguish and my prayer is that readers will continue to have their hearts similarly warmed by fire from heaven.
PHOTO: The parish church at Helmingham, Suffolk, where J C Ryle preached for 20 years. (Charles Gardner)
Charles Gardner is author of Israel the Chosen
, available from Amazon, and Peace in Jerusalem
, available from olivepresspublisher.com