The son of John Collett Ryland, he was born at Warwick on 29 January 1753. Before he was 15, he began teaching in his father's school. On 13 September 1767 he was baptised in the River Nene, near Northampton, and, after preaching at small gatherings of Baptists from 1769, was formally admitted into the ministry on 10 March 1771. Until his twenty-fifth year he assisted his father in his school at Northampton, and in 1781 was associated with him in the charge of his church. after his father's retirement in 1786, he had sole charge of the congregation.
In December 1793 Ryland became minister of the Broadmead chapel in Bristol, combining with the post the presidency of the Bristol Baptist College. These positions he retained until his death. He joined, on 2 October 1792, in founding the Baptist Missionary Society, and acted as its secretary from 1815 until his death at Bristol on 25 May 1825. On 2 June he was buried in the ground adjoining Broadmead chapel, and on 5 June Robert Hall, who succeeded him as minister, preached a memorial sermon (published 1825).
A convinced Calvinist throughout his life, Ryland moved from the high Calvinism of his father to an evangelical Calvinist position, under the influence of his long-term correspondent John Newton, and the writings of the American theologian Jonathan Edwards. He is said to have preached 8,691 sermons. Among his friends were Maria De Fleury, William Carey, John Erskine, Andrew Fuller, Robert Hall, John Newton, John Rippon, and Thomas Scott. The degree of D.D. was conferred on him by Brown University, in 1792.
Ryland's major works were:The Plagues of Egypt, by a School-boy thirteen years of Age, anon., .
Serious Essays on the Truths of the Gospel, 1771 (consisting of 121 pieces in verse); 2nd edit. corrected and enlarged, 1775; 3rd edit. revised by the Rev. J. A. Jones, 1829.
The Divine Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures; a Poem, 1772.
The Faithfulness of God in His Word evinced, 1773; a poetic rendering of the first argument of Robert Fleming the elder in The Fulfilment of Scripture.
Compendious View of the Principal Truths of the Gospel, 1774.
Salvation Finished: a Funeral Sermon on Robert Hall senior; with an Appendix on the Church at Arnsby, 1791; 2nd edit. revised by the Rev. J. A. Jones, 1850.
Earnest Charge of an Affectionate Pastor,’ 1794.
Christianæ Militiæ Viaticum; a brief Directory for Evangelical Ministers; 2nd edit. 1798; 6th edit. 1825.
Candid Statement of the Reasons for the Baptists, 1814 and 1827.
Memoir of the Rev. Andrew Fuller, 1816 and 1818.
Serious Remarks on the different Representations of Evangelical Doctrine, pt. i. 1817, pt. ii. 1818.
Two volumes of Pastoral Memorials, consisting of abstracts of some of his sermons, 25 of his hymns, and a short memoir by his son, were published after his death (vol. i. in 1826 and vol. ii. in 1828). Ryland wrote many prefaces for religious works and for biographies of his friends.
Ryland was a popular hymn-writer, with John Julian's Hymnology stating that 13 of his hymns were in common use. His earliest hymns appeared in Serious Essays (1771). Others appeared in magazines between 1770 and 1790. Ninety-nine Hymns and Verses on Sacred subjects, mainly from unpublished manuscripts, with a biographical sketch, came out in 1862.
Ryland married, on 12 Jan. 1780, Elizabeth, daughter of Robert Tyler of Banbury, who died on 23 January 1787, a few weeks after the birth of her only child. His second wife was Frances, eldest daughter of William Barrett of Northampton, whom he married on 18 June 1789. She survived him, with one son, Jonathan Edwards Ryland, and three daughters.