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Fletcher, John William
1729-1785

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Born Jean Guillaume de la Fléchère on 11 or 12 September 1729, into an aristocratic family in Nyon, Switzerland, he attended Geneva University (1746), but rejected the ministry to pursue a military career. Thwarted in this, he came to England in 1750 and became tutor to the sons of Thomas Hill, a Shropshire MP. He experienced an evangelical conversion in January 1755, was ordained in 1757 and became involved with John and Charles Wesley and Lady Huntingdon in London Methodism, accepting the appointmnent as the latter's domestic chaplain. Surviving correspondence shows that his relationship with Charles Wesley was much closer than that with John.

Fletcher characteristically declined an invitation from Nathaniel Gilbert to accompany him on his return to Antigua in 1759. Nominally curate of Madeley, Salop on ordination, he was drawn to that parish, which included Coalbrookdale, the 'cradle of the Industrial Revolution', and which was notorious for 'the ignorance and profanity of its inhabitants'. Inducted as vicar in 1760, his ministry was outstanding for its preaching and pastoral qualities, especially in the new industrial areas. He also developed a wider ministry, but firmly resisted John Wesley's persistent attempts to persuade him to itinerate and to be nominated as his successor. In 1775 he and Joseph Benson proposed a plan to keep Methodism within the Church of England. In 1768 he was appointed President of Lady Huntingdon's College at Trevecka, but the reaction against Wesley's 1770 Minutes led to his resignation, and to the damaging Calvinistic controversy, in which he was the main exponent of the Arminian position. His Checks to Antinomianism (1771-75) were long regarded as the model of Arminian doctrine, arguing chiefly for the moral necessity of good works accompanying faith. His main adversaries were A.M. Toplady, Sir Richard Hill and the Rev. Rowland Hill. His final contributions to the controversy, The Doctrines of Grace and Justice and The Reconciliation (1777) suggest that Calvinism and Arminianism should co-exist. He also wrote poetry in English and French. His collected Works, edited by Joseph Benson, were published in 9 volumes, 1806-1808.

By 1775 the strain of his writing commitment, alongside an assiduous parish ministry and an ascetic lifestyle, led to a breakdown in health and he spent periods convalescing in London and Bristol, and then in Switzerland (1778-81), which he had also revisited in 1770. He travelled also in France and Italy with his friend and patron, James Ireland, a Bristol sugar merchant. In his native Nyon his ministry was initially welcomed, but later rejected. On 12 November 1781, after many years' acquaintance, he married Mary Bosanquet. They ministered together in Madeley and visited Dublin in 1783. Attending the Conference for the last time in 1784, he memorably mediated between Wesley and those of the preachers who resented not being named in the Deed of Declaration.

Fletcher died of typhoid on 14 August 1785 during an epidemic in Madeley. Wesley's 'Life' was hastily published, despite misgivings by his widow and others that it would prove sectarian. Charles Wesley's projected 'Elegy' seems never to have been composed. Recognized increasingly as a saint during his lifetime, Fletcher's reputation grew posthumously and in many ways he exemplified John Wesley's teaching on Christian Perfection.

Quotations

'He was above the middle stature, strongly built and well-proportioned… His deportment and manners were of the most engaging and courteous kind, presenting such a combination of gravity, condescension and gentleness as few have ever witnessed. Humility and dignity are seldom seen familiarly associated in the same person; but in this master of Israel, they grew together in so exact a proportion that while he everwhere discovered a sort of angelic superiority in his air, his carriage and his conversation, that superiority was inseparably blended with all the meekness and simplicity of a little child. His figure was wonderfully adapted to all the sacred offices he had to perform; but of his appearance in the pulpit it may especially be said, that the liveliest fancy could not frame for any of the ancient saints an aspect more venerable or apostollic.'

Description by 'one of his intimate friends', quoted in James Macdonald, Memoirs of the Rev Joseph Benson (1822), p.176

'Fletcher's rejection of Calvinist teaching on predestination - indicated chiefly in the 1760s by his silence on the subject, and in the 1770s by his theological arguments against it - should not be allowed to conceal the fact that in other areas, such as pneumatology, Christology and Trinitarian doctrine, he stood firmly in the Calvinistic-Reformed tradition.'

Patrick Streiff, Reluctant Saint: a theological Biography of Fletcher of Madeley , p.97

'The effect of Fletcher's writings is hard to determine. .. On the one hand, the writings were published and read within the framework of Wesleyan Methodism and, as a result of its great expansion, not only during Fletcher's lifetime, but throughout the whole of the nineteenth century. Their influence was therefore very widespread. This applies both to England and to America, both to the main stem and to the side-branches of the spreading tree formed by the proliferation of Methodist churches. For many decades, Fletcher's works were required reading in the studies programme of would-be Methodist peachers. Their effect on the Holiness Movement of the nineteenth century and the Pentecostal Movement of the twentieth is to be seen precisely in the special link between the doctrine of perfection and the gift of the Holy Spirit… On the other hand, the effect of Fletcher's writings should not be overestimated. Reconciliation between the Calvinistic and Wesleyan streams in Methodism was not achieved, and his writings were hardly likely to win the assent of those on the Calvinistic side. Fletcher's mediating theology did not become the basis for greater mutual esteem between Calvinistic and Wesleyan Methodists, nor an incentive for the development of a similarly motivated, moderate Methodist theology on the part of the Calvinists. The continuing division between the two streams of Methodism is illustrated by the fact that at the end of 1777, as a riposte to the Calvinistic periodical Gospel Magazine, John Wesley founded his own periodical, the Arminian Magazine - a very provocative title to Calvinist ears.'

Ibid, pp.186-7

Sources

  • John Wesley, A Short Account of the Life and death of the Revd. John Fletcher (1786)
  • Joseph Benson, The Life of the Rev. John W. de la Flechere (1804)
  • Luke Tyerman, Wesley's Designated Successor (1882)
  • F.W. Macdonald, Fletcher of Madeley (1885)
  • WHS Proceedings, 7 pp.56-58; 28 pp.30-32
  • George Lawton, 'Madeley in the Eighteenth Century', 'John Fletcher's Incumbency at Madeley', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, April 1956, pp.142-48, October 1956, pp. 281-87
  • George Lawton, 'John Fletcher's Pulpit Prayers', in WHS Proceedings, 30 pp.2-6
  • George Lawton, Shropshire Saint: a study in the ministry and spirituality of Fletcher of Madeley (1960)
  • Frank Baker, 'John Fletcher, Methodist Clergyman', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, October 1960 pp.291-98
  • J. Maycock, 'The Fletcher-Toplady Controversy', in London Quarterly and Holborn Review, July 1966, pp.227-35
  • William R. Davies, 'John Fletcher's Georgian Ordinations and Madeley Curacy', in WHS Proceedings, 36 pp.139-42
  • Barrie Trinder, The Industrial Revolution in Shropshire (Chichester, 1973) pp.267-81
  • Peter S. Forsaith, '"Wesley's Designated Successor"', in WHS Proceedings, 42 pp.69-74
  • Barry Williamson, 'The Spilsbury Portrait of John Fletcher', in WHS Proceedings, 47 pp.44-49
  • Barbara Coulton, 'Tutor to the Hills: the Early Career of John Fletcher', in WHS Proceedings, 47 pp.94-103
  • Peter S. Forsaith, 'Portraits of John Fletcher of Madeley and their Artists', in WHS Proceedings, 47 pp.187-201
  • Peter S. Forsaith, John Fletcher (Peterborough, 1994)
  • Edwin Welch, 'John Fletcher and the Trevecka College Revival', in WHS Proceedings, 51 pp.25-30
  • Patrick Streiff, Reluctant Saint: a theological Biography of Fletcher of Madeley (Peterborough, 2001)
  • Laurence W. Wood, 'John Fletcher's Influence on John Wesley's Theology', in Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 85:2-3 (Summer Autumn, 2003) pp.387-404
  • Peter Forsaith, 'Charles Wesley and John Fletcher', in Kenneth G.C. Newport and Ted A. Campbell (eds.), Charles Wesley, Life, Literature & Legacy (Peterborough, 2007) pp.109-23
  • Peter S. Forsaith (ed.), Unexampled Labours: Letters of the Rev. John Fletcher to leaders in the Evangelical Revival (Peterborough, 2008)
  • Peter Forsaith, 'Remembering Fletcher of Madeley', in Methodist Recorder, 14 October 2010
  • Herbert B. Mcgonigle, John Fletcher, Methodist Saint and Scholar (2016)
  • Oxford DNB

Entry written by: PSF
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