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John Fletcher: A Man Who Walked With God

    John Fletcher (1729 – 1785) was a modern Nicodemus.  Not only was he moral and upright in character, he was religious in every fiber of his nature.  Born in Switzerland in 1729, his first religious impressions came to him at the age of seven.  He inherited a natural refinement and culture which might easily be mistaken for spirituality.  Unacquainted with the Gospel of grace he hoped by doing much and living very religiously to be acceptable to God.  During his student days in Geneva, he had written on religious subjects and yet he knew not saving faith and was astonished when awakened to discover how blind he was.

    It was after he traveled to England and there met the Methodists that John Fletcher was converted.  His biographer says of his conversion:  “His conversion was not imaginary but real.  It not only influenced his sentiments, but also extended to his conduct.  Whom he had found a Savior, he determined to follow as a Guide; and so unalterable was this determination that from the very hour in which it was formed, it is not known that he ever cast a wistful look behind him.  A cloud of witnesses are ready to testify that from his earliest acquaintance with the truths of the Gospel, he continued to walk worthy of his high vocation, ‘growing in grace,’ and ‘adorning the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.’”

His Life in Christ

    “John Fletcher,” says his biographer, “gave himself up to study, meditation and prayer, walking closely with God.  Indeed his whole life was now a life of prayer; and so intensely was his mind upon God, that he sometimes said, ‘I would not move from my seat without lifting up my heart to God.’ His first salute was, ‘Do I meet you praying?’ If ever the misconduct of an absent person was mentioned, his usual reply was, ‘Let us pray for him.’”

    Quotations from his letters and diary at this period of his ministry are most helpful:

    “I thank God that I troubled myself with no temporal things; my only fear is that of having too much, rather than too little, of the things received for life.  I am weary of abundance.  I could wish to be poor with my Savior.”

    “Let us plunge ourselves into the ocean of purity.  Let us try to fathom the depths of Divine mercy; and, convinced of the impossibility of such an attempt, let us lose ourselves in them.  Let us be comprehended by God, if we cannot comprehend Him.  Let us be supremely happy in God.  Let the intenseness of happiness border on misery, because we can make Him no return.

    “...I charge you before the Lord Jesus Christ, who giveth life and more abundant life – I entreat you by all the actings of faith, the exertions of hope, the flames of love you ever felt, sink to greater depths of self-abasing repentance, and rise to greater heights of Christ-exalting joy.”

Ministry at Madeley

    His first and only pastorate was at Madeley, England.  Here commenced one of the most remarkable ministries of all time, the results of which eternity alone will reveal.

    “In this beautiful place the Sabbath was openly profaned, and the most holy things contemptuously trampled underfoot; even the restraints of decency were violently broken through and the external form of religion held up as a subject of ridicule.  Such was the place where Mr. Fletcher was called to stand forth as a preacher of righteousness, and in which he appeared for five and twenty years as a burning and shining light.

    “He set his face like a flint against all who might oppose the truth and grace of God.  As a steward of the manifold grace of God, he faithfully dispensed the Word of Life according as every man had need:  instructing the ignorant, reasoning with gainsayers, exhorting the immoral, and rebuking the obstinate.  Instant in season and out of season, he diligently performed the work of an evangelist, and lost no opportunity of declaring the truths of the Gospel.  As often as a small congregation could be collected, which was usually every evening, he joyfully proclaimed to them the Gospel, whether in the place set apart for public worship, in a home, or in the open air.

    “Like a vigilant pastor, he daily acquainted himself with the wants and dispositions of his people, anxiously watching over their households, and diligently teaching them from family to family.  Esteeming no man too mean, too ignorant, or too profane to merit his affectionate attention, he condescended to the lowest and most unworthy of his flock, cheerfully becoming the servant of all, that he ‘might gain the more.’

    “In some of these holy visits, the earnest and constraining manner in which he has pleaded the cause of piety has melted down a whole family at once; the old and young have mingled their tears together, and solemnly determined to turn right humbly to their God.

    “There were, indeed, several families in his populous parish, to which he had no access, whose members, loving darkness rather than light, agreed to deny him admission, lest their deeds should be reproved.  In some cases, where his zeal for the salvation of individuals could not possibly be manifested by persuasion and entreaty, it was effectually discovered by supplication and prayer; nor did he ever pass the door of an opposing family without breathing out an earnest desire that the door of mercy might never be barred against their approaches.

    “With respect to his attendance upon the sick, he was exemplary and indefatigable.  ‘It was a work,’ says Mr. Wesley, ‘for which he was always ready.’  If he heard the knocker in the coldest winter night, his window was thrown open in a moment.  And when he understood either that someone was hurt in a pit, or that a neighbor was likely to die, no consideration was ever had of the darkness of the night, or of the severity of the weather; but this answer was always given – ‘I will attend you immediately.’”

    John Fletcher was preeminently a preacher of righteousness, but also of mercy.  Yet in spite of his zeal, he was tempted to leave because he saw so little fruit and was in doubt more than once thinking he had mistaken the leading of God and was out of His will.  But while the first year passed with small congregations and much discouragement, the second found him preaching in a building so filled that many were compelled to stand in the church yard unable to get in.

Spiritual Letters

    John Fletcher’s letters at this time reveal his heart experiences, and the following excerpts are worthy of study:

    “Your prayers will not avail much unless you deny yourself and take up every cross which the Lord suffers men, devils, or your own heart to lay upon you.  In the name of Jesus, and in the power of His might, break through all; and you will find more and more that Jesus is the Light of the world, and that he who follows Him ‘shall not walk in darkness.’

    “Your dullness in private prayer arises from the want of familiar friendship with Jesus.  To obviate it, go to your closet as if you were going to meet the dearest friend you ever had; cast yourself immediately at His feet, bemoan your coldness before Him, extol His love to you, till your heart break with a desire to love Him, yea, till it actually melts with His love.”

Leading a Seminary

    It was at this time that the Countess of Huntingdon founded a seminary in Wales for the education of young men for the ministry.  After surveying the field carefully, the Countess chose John Fletcher as the first superintendent.  He accepted the position with the understanding that this new field of service would not interfere with his work at Madeley.

    Thus began a new era in the ministry of God’s devoted servant, and the influence he exerted upon the young men of the seminary can never be estimated.  His biographer writes, “As to others, his one employment was to call, entreat, and urge them to ascend with him to the glorious Source of being and blessedness.  He had leisure comparatively for nothing else.  Languages, arts, sciences, grammar, rhetoric, logic, even divinity itself, as it is called, were all laid aside when he appeared in the schoolroom among the students.  His full heart would not suffer him to be silent; he must speak; and they were readier to hearken to this servant and minister of Jesus Christ than to attend to Virgil, Cicero, or any Latin or Greek historian, poet, or philosopher they had been engaged in reading.  And they seldom hearkened long before they were all in tears and every heart caught fire from the flame that burned in his soul.

    “These seasons generally terminated in this:  Being convinced that to be ‘filled with the Holy Ghost’ was a better qualification for the ministry of the Gospel than any classical learning (although that too, be useful in its place), after speaking awhile in the schoolroom, he used to frequently say, ‘As many of you as are athirst for this fullness of the Spirit, follow me into my room.’  On this, many of us have instantly followed him, and there continued for two or three hours, wrestling like Jacob, praying one after another till we could bear to kneel no longer.  This was not done once or twice, but many times.”

The Furnace of Affliction

    Some of the most spiritual messages that fell from the lips of John Fletcher are those associated with his terrible illness, for he was a victim of tuberculosis.  God saw fit to put His servant through the furnace of affliction so that he was tried to the utmost.  Excerpts from his letters at this time are most instructive:

    “I see life so short,” he writes, “and that time passes away with such rapidity that I should be very glad to spend it in solemn prayer; but it is necessary that a man should have some exterior occupation.  The chief thing is to employ ourselves profitably.

    “My throat is not formed for the labors of preaching; when I have preached three or four times together, it inflames.  Thus I am obliged to employ my time in writing a little.  O that I may be enabled to do it to the glory of God!

    “I begged the Lord to guide me by His counsel and make me willing to go anywhere or nowhere, to be anything or nothing.”

    “O how life goes!  I walked, now I gallop into eternity.  The bowl of life goes rapidly down the steep hill of time.  Let us be wise.  Let us trim our lamps, and continue to give ourselves to Him that bought us, till we can do it without reserve.”

    “What are your heart, your pen, your tongue, doing?  Are they receiving, sealing, spreading the truth everywhere within your sphere?”

    “Beware, my friend, of the world; let not its cares nor the deceitfulness of its riches keep or draw you from Jesus.  Time flies.  Years of plenty and scarcity, or peace and of war, disappear before the eternity to which we are hastening.  May we see now the winged dispatch of time as we shall see it in a dying hour; and by coming to and abiding in Christ, our fortress and City of Refuge, may we be enabled to bid defiance to our ‘last enemy.’  Christ has fully overcome him, and by the victory of the Head, ‘the living members’ cannot but be fully victorious.”

    One who visited Fletcher during his illness commented, “I went to see a man who had one foot in the grave; but I found a man that had one foot in heaven.”

    His letter to his parishioners at this time is one of the most precious documents recorded by his biographers.  Portions of it read as follows:

    “Tottering as I stand on the brink of the grave, some of you who seem far from it may drop into it before me.  Let us then all awake out of sleep; and let us all prepare for our approaching change, and give ourselves no rest till we have got gospel ground to hope that our great change will be a happy one.  In order to do this, I beseech you, harden not your hearts.

    “Let the long-suffering of God toward us…lead us all to repentance.  Dismiss your sins, and embrace Jesus Christ, who bled for you in Gethsemane, hung for you on the Cross, and now pleads for you on His mediatorial throne.  By all that is near and dear to you, as men and as Christians, meet me not, on the great Day, in your sins, enemies of Christ by unbelief, and to God by wicked works.  Meet me in the garment of repentance, in the robe of Christ’s merits, and in the white linen, which is the holiness of the godly – that ‘holiness without which no man shall see God.’  Let the time past suffice, in which some of you have lived in sin.  By repentance put off the old man and his works; by faith put on the Lord Jesus and His righteousness. Let all wickedness be gone, forever gone, and begin a new life, a life of new devotion to God, and of increasing love to your neighbor.

    “What glory!  The Lord shall be our sun and our crown; and we shall be jewels in each other’s crown – I in yours, and you in mine.  Forever we shall be with the Lord, and with one another.  We shall all live in God’s heavenly church, the Heaven of heavens.  All our days will be a Sabbath, and our Sabbath eternity.

    “Some of you have supposed that I made more ado about eternity and your precious souls than they are worth; but how great was your mistake!  Alas!  It is my grief and shame that I have not been in both public and private, a thousand times more earnest and importunate with you about your spiritual concerns.

    “The Lord is gracious to me; does not suffer the enemy to disturb my peace; and gives me, in prospect, the victory over death.  Thanks be to God who giveth us this great victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Absolute resignation to the Divine will baffle a thousand temptations, and confidence in our Savior carries us sweetly through a thousand trials.”

A Trip To Switzerland

    After much prayer and counsel, Fletcher decided that a visit to his native air was imperative, and ill though he was, he undertook a journey to Switzerland in the hope of improving his physical condition.  The following excerpts from his letter during his absence to his parishioners in Madeley are worthy of special notice:

    “Have every day lower thoughts of yourselves, higher thoughts of Christ, kinder thoughts of others, higher thoughts of your brethren, and more hopeful thoughts of all around you.  Be burning and shining lights wherever you are.  Set the fire of Divine love to the hellish ­stubble of sin.  Be valiant for the truth.  Be champions for love.  Be sons of thunder against sin, and sons of consolation toward humbled sinners.  Let your heavenly-mindedness and your brotherly kindness be known to all men, so that all who see you may wonder and say ‘See how these people love one another!’

    “You have need of patience as well as of faith and power.  You must learn to suffer as well as to do the will of God.  Do not, then, think it strange to pass through fiery trials; they are excellent for the proving, purifying, and strengthening of your faith.”      

Fletcher’s Final Years

    During the major portion of his ministry, John Fletcher labored alone.  Years before he had met a Christian woman, Mary Bosanquet, to whom he was greatly attracted; but on account of her wealth he made no attempt to win her.  She likewise kept him constantly in mind during the many years that she carried on a work that proved in itself to be a blessing to multitudes. 

    The day came when she was exiled from her own home on account of her affiliation with the Lord’s people, and was stripped of everything she possessed.  With the barrier of wealth removed that had kept them apart, they were united in marriage in November of 1781.

    Only four years later in August 1785, Mr. Fletcher returned home from a long day of work saying, “I have taken cold.”  On Friday and Saturday, he became worse and was led to pray much.  In spite of a rising temperature, he insisted on preaching as usual on Sunday.  It was difficult for him to stand and every eye was riveted upon him.  But as he began to preach he grew stronger.  His old time freedom and energy returned.  He was lifted above his surroundings and his message moved the congregation.  He then presided at the Lord’s Table during which his weakness returned.  With his dying hands, he distributed the love tokens of his Lord.  At the close, he fainted and he was taken to his home.

    During the next week, Fletcher and his wife communed together.  God gave him such manifestations of His love that Fletcher almost shouted aloud the praises of his Redeemer:  “God is love! love! love! O for that gust of praise!”  By Saturday evening his strength and breath had weakened.  From then on he peacefully rested in God, until on Sunday, August 14th, his soul entered into the joy of his Lord.  He was fifty-five years of age.

   – Adapted from the book Fletcher of Madeley by Oswald J. Smith.  Copyrighted, 1962.  Used by permission.

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