John Fletcher

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John Fletcher
(Jean Guillaume de la Flechere)

1729-1785

The tribute Fletcher's wife, Mary Bosanquet, penned concerning her husband is the envy of all married Christians: "Since the time I had the honour and happiness of living with him, every day made me more sensible of the mighty work of the Spirit upon him….I never knew anyone walk as closely in the way of God as he did." He deserved the reputation his name still enjoys among Methodists. The key to Fletcher's saintliness was a humility that, so far from self-belittlement (a sign of psychological illness rather than of godliness) was utter self-forgetfulness. Genuinely humble because never conscious of it, Fletcher remained preoccupied with something vaster, grander, and unspeakably glorious. This accounted for a sanctity authentic and attractive in equal measure.

What was the vaster, the grander, the glorious that had first overtaken Fletcher, then inflamed him, and finally borne such fruit in him as to leave John Wesley awe-struck? We can glimpse it if we steal upon the Anglican clergyman's residence in Madeley, ten miles outside London, where Fletcher is dying. His wife is singing a hymn they both cherish:

Jesus's blood through earth and skies,
Mercy, free, boundless mercy cries.

-- and the tuberculosis-weakened man gasps, "Boundless! Boundless! Boundless!" -- boundless mercy visited upon sinners in bondage to anything and everything; boundless mercy visited upon all without exception or qualification. This theme reverberated throughout his theology, his life and his ministry.

Fletcher was born in Nyon, Switzerland, to parents whose social privilege allowed him to enrol at the University of Geneva. There he distinguished himself as a brilliant classics scholar. Possessing the intellectual qualifications for work as either professor or clergyman, he preferred the risky adventures of the mercenary soldier. He was scheduled to sail on a Portuguese warship that would take him to Brazil when a pre-boarding accident confined him to land. Next a wealthy uncle promised him a commission in the Dutch army but died before the nephew could become an officer. Dispirited now, Fletcher immigrated to England and found work as a tutor to the sons of a prominent family. Idling away several hours in the London marketplace while his master finished parliamentary business, Fletcher overheard an impoverished, elderly, uneducated woman speaking unselfconsciously -- and compellingly, as was soon to be evident -- of her intimate life in her Lord. When Fletcher mentioned the incident to his master's wife she sniffed haughtily, "I will be hanged if our tutor doesn't turn Methodist by this." She was never hanged, but Fletcher did turn Methodist. Shortly he came to treasure the Methodist expressions of faith, discipleship and devotion. An Anglican bishop, having reviewed Fletcher's academic record from the Swiss university, ordained him. Soon he was ministering with another Anglican, John Wesley, at West Street Chapel, as well as wherever French speaking Protestant refugees ("Huguenots") congregated in London.

Fletcher's next responsibility was the parish church in Madeley, Shropshire. While itinerancy was the rule among Methodist preachers, an exception was made for him. He relished remaining in the one place for the rest of his life, working relentlessly for the spiritual renewal of a parish whose members were distinguished only by their ignorance and worldliness, as callous toward their fellows as they were toward God. So far from dwelling amidst the one congregation lest he have to move beyond his "comfort zone", Fletcher believed his situation to be a divine appointment, and cheerfully withstood abuse that included physical and legal threats. Parishioners quickly learned that the selfsame appointment rendered him as resilient as spring steel.

Soon his theological ability and spiritual maturity were recognized in his elevation as head of Trevecca College (Wales.) The Countess of Huntingdon funded this institution, a centre designed to train evangelical leaders during the 18th century revival. Fletcher travelled there as often as his pastoral responsibilities permitted. The countess's college, however, soon displayed a stark Calvinism, denying mercy to be "boundless" but restricted rather to the "elect", those selected from the mass of humankind and marked out for favourable treatment. When the Countess of Huntingdon insisted he disown the tenets of Methodism or depart her home, Fletcher left without rancour or recrimination.

John Wesley, aware that Methodism needed a strong leader to succeed him, had already decided upon Fletcher. Fletcher, more than any other thinker of that era, had grasped the spirit and genius that Wesley had imparted to Methodism. For years Wesley had insisted that God could do something with sin beyond forgiving it; specifically, God could deliver people from sin's paralysing grip. If the church held up less than this then its proclamation was no more than a counsel of despair. Fletcher resonated with Wesley's understanding of sanctification in its substance and depth and power. At the same time Wesley knew that no theological perception, however necessary, was sufficient qualification for the leader of a Spirit-forged movement. The chief qualification was that numinous godliness which the

Spirit-quickened can discern but not define. Ultimately Wesley was to write, "Many exemplary men have I known, holy in heart and life, within fourscore years. But equal to him I have not known, one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God."

Wesley was dismayed to learn of Fletcher's death. The heartbroken 82-year old agreed to conduct the funeral. The text for Wesley's address leapt off the page at him: "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright." (Psalm 37:37)

Fletcher's single largest work, Checks to Antinomianism, expounded the theology of early Methodism and for years was a principal textbook in both England and America. The book reflects his elegant written English even as his spoken English remained awkward. There was nothing inferior, however, about his immersion in the depths of the One whose holiness was origin, invitation and reward for the man who had insisted to his wife, "Write nothing about me; God is all."

In 1776 he had scripted a tract decrying the American Revolution. A copy was forwarded to the king of England. The latter wanted to repay him with any ecclesiastical "plum" Fletcher cared to name. Graciously he turned down his monarch, adding, "I want only more grace."

 

Victor Shepherd
March 2000