Fletcher, John William (DNB00)

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FLETCHER or DE LA FLECHERE, JOHN WILLIAM (1729–1785), vicar of Madeley, was born in 1729 at Nyon in Switzerland. His father was an officer in the army. His schooldays were spent at Nyon, whence he proceeded to the university of Geneva. Both at school and at college he was distinguished for his attainments, especially in classical literature. He was intended by his friends for the sacred ministry, but he himself determined to be a soldier. With this intention he went, without his parents' consent, to Lisbon, accepted a captain's commission, and engaged to serve the king of Portugal on board a man-of-war which was about to sail to Brazil. Being prevented by an accident from carrying out his resolution, he returned to Switzerland. His uncle, who was a colonel in the Dutch service, procured a commission for him, and he set out for Flanders; but his uncle having died before the arrangement was completed, he gave up all thoughts of being a soldier, and went on a visit to England. During this visit he was recommended as a tutor to the two sons of Thomas Hill, esq., of Tern Hall in Shropshire, and in 1752 entered Mr. Hill's family in that capacity. He was soon afterwards deeply impressed with the preaching of the methodists, and determined to seek holy orders. In 1757 he was ordained deacon and priest on two successive Sundays by the Bishop of Bangor (John Egerton), at the Chapel Royal, St. James's. His first ministerial work was to help Wesley at the West Street Chapel, and to preach in various places to the French refugees in their native tongue. He was urged to return to Switzerland, but preferred to remain in the land of his adoption, and again made Tern Hall his home. He was accustomed to help the vicar of Madeley, a large parish ten miles distant, and he ‘contracted such an affection for the people of Madeley as nothing could hinder from increasing more and more until the day of his death’ (Benson). His intimacy with the brothers Wesley, especially Charles, with whom he kept up a constant correspondence, increased, but, unlike them, he preferred parochial to itinerant work, and in 1760 he accepted the living of Madeley, of which Mr. Hill was the patron, in preference to one which was double its value. Madeley is said to have been a rough parish, ‘remarkable for little else than the ignorance and profaneness of its inhabitants, among whom respect to men was as rarely to be observed as piety towards God’ (ib.) It therefore offered abundant scope for the untiring and self-denying efforts of its new vicar, who continued, amid much opposition, to labour there for a quarter of a century. Mr. Gilpin, a gentleman who lived in the neighbourhood, and was well acquainted with Madeley, writes in the most rapturous terms of his ministerial work, and Wesley says that ‘from the beginning of his settling there he was a laborious workman in the Lord's vineyard, endeavouring to spread the truth of the gospel, and to suppress vice in every possible way. Those sinners who endeavoured to hide themselves from him he pursued to every corner of his parish, by all sorts of means, public and private, early and late, in season and out of season, entreating and warning them to flee from the wrath to come. Some made it an excuse for not attending the church service on a Sunday morning that they could not awake early enough to get their families ready. He provided for this also. Taking a bell in his hand, he set out every Sunday for some months at five in the morning, and went round the most distant parts of the parish, inviting all the inhabitants to the house of God.’ He established ‘societies,’ after the Wesley pattern, at Madeley Wood and Coalbrook Dale, two outlying hamlets, and was so lavish in his liberality that he injured his own health by his abstinence in order that he might give his money to the poor. Mr. Ireland, a rich and pious gentleman of Bristol, whose name frequently appears in connection with the evangelical revival, helped him with his purse, and persuaded him to make a tour with him in Italy and Switzerland. ‘As they approached the Appian Way, Fletcher directed the driver to stop before he entered upon it. He then ordered the chaise door to be opened, assuring his fellow-traveller that his heart would not suffer him to ride over that ground upon which the apostle Paul had formerly walked, chained to a soldier, on account of preaching the everlasting gospel. As soon as he had set his foot upon this old Roman road, he took off his hat, and walking on, with his eyes lifted up to heaven, returned thanks to God, in a most fervent manner, for that light, those truths, and that influence of the Holy Spirit which were continued to the present day.’ In 1768 Selina, countess of Huntingdon, invited him to take the superintendence of her college at Trevecca in Wales, founded for the education of ‘pious young men of whatever denomination for the ministry.’ He was not to reside at Trevecca, but was to visit the college as frequently as he could. He made there, as he did everywhere, an extraordinary impression. Benson, his principal biographer, was head-master at the time, and thus writes of him: ‘Mr. Fletcher visited them [the students] frequently, and was received as an angel of God. It is not possible for me to describe the veneration in which we all held him. Like Elijah, in the schools of the prophets, he was revered, he was loved, he was almost adored, and that not only by every student, but by every member of the family. And indeed he was worthy.’ When the Calvinistic controversy broke out in 1771 he resigned his office, because he sympathised with Wesley and not with Lady Huntingdon on the points in dispute; but he maintained, in relation to the college, the same truly Christian spirit which he had shown throughout the whole of that unhappy controversy. ‘Take care, my dear sir,’ he wrote to Mr. Benson, who was dismissed from the head-mastership because, like Fletcher, he took the Arminian side, ‘not to make matters worse than they are; and cast the mantle of forgiving love over the circumstances that might injure the cause of God, so far as it is put into the hands of that eminent lady [Lady Huntingdon] who hath so well deserved of the church of Christ. Rather suffer in silence, than make a noise to cause the Philistines to triumph.’

By his incessant work in his parish, his frequent journeys in all weathers to Trevecca, his self-denying abstinence, and his literary labours, he injured his health, which was not naturally strong, and to recruit it he paid a long visit at the house of Charles Greenwood, who lived at Stoke Newington. But he could not find there the rest and retirement which he needed; for ‘he was continually visited by high and low, and by persons of various denominations, one of whom being asked when he went away what he thought of Mr. Fletcher, said: “I went to see a man that had one foot in the grave; but I found a man that had one foot in heaven!”’ During his enforced absences from Madeley he frequently wrote pastoral letters to his parishioners, which breathe the spirit of the most ardent piety; and always took care to provide a ‘locum tenens’ who would carry on his work on his own lines. Partly to see his relations, and partly in the hope of recovering his health, he made another journey to Switzerland, and stayed for some time at Nyon, his birthplace, where he lodged in the same house with William Perronet, son of that vicar of Shoreham whom Charles Wesley called the archbishop of methodism. He returned to England with his health greatly improved in 1781, and in the same year married Mary Bosanquet, a lady of a kindred spirit with his own. With her he settled quietly down at Madeley, and spent the remainder of his life in active parochial work. He showed a particular interest in the children of the parish, teaching them himself every day, and warmly took up the new scheme of Sunday schools, establishing a large one at Madeley. In all his labours he was cordially helped by Mrs. Fletcher. The laying the foundation of the Sunday schools at Madeley was his last public work. After about a week's illness he died at Madeley on 14 Aug. 1785, leaving behind a reputation of saintliness such as few have ever attained. John Wesley, in a funeral sermon on the suggestive text, ‘Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace,’ said that he had never met so holy a man, and never expected to do so on this side of eternity; and the testimony of others is equally explicit.

Fletcher was a voluminous and very much admired writer. His best-known work is his ‘Checks to Antinomianism,’ which was called forth by the disputes between the Arminians (so called) and Calvinists in 1771. It was written in defence of the minutes of the Wesleyan conference of 1770, which aroused the hostility of Lady Huntingdon and her friends, and had special reference to a ‘circular printed letter,’ under the name of the Hon. and Rev. Walter Shirley, inviting all ‘real protestants’ to meet and protest against the obnoxious minutes. John Wesley ‘knows not which to admire most [in the ‘Checks’], the purity of the language (such as scarce any foreigner wrote before), the strength and clearness of the argument, or the mildness and sweetness of the spirit that breathes throughout the whole.’ Much of this praise is thoroughly deserved; and there is another feature in the work which Mr. Wesley has not noticed. The ‘Checks’ show that the writer had a great sense of humour, and a vein of delicate satire, which, if he had not been restrained by that spirit of Christian charity to which Mr. Wesley refers, would have made him a most dangerous antagonist to meddle with. But, unfortunately, the ‘Checks to Antinomianism’ are so inextricably mixed up with the most feeble, bitter, and unprofitable controversy of the eighteenth century, that justice has scarcely been done to their intellectual merits. His other works are: 1. ‘An Appeal to Matter of Fact and Common Sense; or a Rational Demonstration of Man's Corrupt and Lost Estate,’ which was addressed ‘to the principal inhabitants [that is, the gentry] of the parish of Madeley,’ and was published in 1772, though written a year earlier. 2. ‘An Essay on Truth; or a Rational Vindication of the Doctrine of Salvation by Faith,’ which he dedicated to Lady Huntingdon and published in 1773. 3. ‘Scripture Scales to weigh the Gold of Gospel Truth,’ 1774. 4. ‘Zelotus [? Zelotes] and Honestus Reconciled; or an Equal Check to Pharisaism and Antinomianism’ (which includes the first and second parts of the ‘Scripture Scales’), 1775. 5. ‘The Fictitious and Genuine Creed,’ 1775. 6. ‘A Polemical Essay on the Twin Doctrines of Christian Imperfection and a Death Purgatory,’ popularly called his ‘Treatise on Christian Perfection,’ 1775. 7. ‘A Vindication of Mr. Wesley's Calm Address to our American Colonies, in Three Letters to Mr. Caleb Evans.’ 8. ‘American Patriotism further confronted with Reason, Scripture, and the Constitution; being Observations on the Dangerous Politics taught by the Rev. Mr. Evans and the Rev. Dr. Price,’ 1776 (‘I carried one of them’ (these tracts), wrote Vaughan to Wesley, ‘to the Earl of D. His lordship carried it to the lord chancellor, and the lord chancellor handed it to the king. One was immediately commissioned to ask Mr. Fletcher whether any preferment in the church would be acceptable? Or whether he [the chancellor] could do him any service? He answered, “I want nothing but more grace”’). 9. ‘The Reconciliation; or an Easy Method to Unite the Professing People of God, by placing the Doctrines of Grace and Justice in such a Light as to make the candid Arminians Bible-Calvinists, and the candid Calvinists Bible-Arminians,’ 1776. This was preceded by a tract entitled ‘The Doctrines of Grace and Justice equally essential to the Pure Gospel; with some Remarks on the mischievous Divisions caused among Christians by parting those Doctrines;’ but this was intended as an introduction to the ‘Reconciliation,’ and the two were subsequently printed and sold in one volume. During the last nine years of his life his health was too delicate to allow him to write anything except letters to his friends and the pastoral addresses already referred to.

[Life of the Rev. John W. de la Flechere, compiled from the narrative of the Rev. J. Wesley (1786); the Biographical Notes of the Rev. Mr. Gilpin, his own Letters, &c., by the Rev. Joseph Benson; Fletcher's Checks to Antinomianism, and Works, passim.]

J. H. O.