J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

The Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago online

. (page 32 of 36)
Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 32 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

will find a very valuable collection of extracts from the works
of eminent Christians, and of anecdotes, incidents, and historical
passages, gathered by Toplady himself. He will find a sketch
of natural history, and some curious observations on birds,
meteors, animal sagacity, and the solar system. These papers,
no doubt, are of various merit ; but they all show the singular
activity and fertility of the author's mind, and are certainly far
more deserving of republication than many of the reprints of
modern days. Of Toplady's " Family Prayers " I shall say
nothing. They are probably so well known that I need not
commend them. Of his seveftty-eight letters to friends, I will
only say that they are excellent specimens of the correspondence
of the last century — sensible, well composed, full of thought and
matter, and supplying abundant proof that their writer was a
Christian, a scholar, and a gentleman. I cannot, however, do
more than refer to all these productions of Toplady's pen.
Those who wish to know more must examine his works for
themselves. If they do, I venture to predict that they will
agree with me that his miscellaneous writings are neither suffi-
ciently known nor valued.

3. As a controversialist^ I find it rather difficult to give a right
estimate of Toplady. In fact, the subject is a painful one, and
one which I would gladly avoid. But I feel that I should not
be dealing fairly and honestly with my readers, if I did not say
something about it. In fact, the vicar of Broad Hembury took
such a very prominent part in the doctrinal controversies of last
century, and was so thoroughly recognized as the champion


and standard-bearer of Calvinistic theology, that no memoir of
him could be regarded as complete, which did not take up this
part of his character.

I begin by saying that, on the whole, Toplady's controversial
writings appear to me to be in principle scriptural, sound, and
true. 1 do not, for a moment, mean that I can endorse all lie
says. I consider that his statements are often extreme, and
that he is frequently more systematic and narrow than the Bible.
He often seems to me, in fact, to go further than Scripture, and
to draw conclusions which Scripture has not drawn, and to
settle points which for some wise reason Scripture has not
settled. Still, for all tliis, I will never shrink from saying that
the cause for which Toplady contended all his life was decidedly
the cause of God's truth. He was a bold defender of Calvinistic
views about election, predestination, perseverance, human im-
potency, and irresistible grace. On all these subjects I hold
firmly that Calvin's theology is much more scriptural than the
theology of Arminius, In a word, I believe that Calvinistic
divinity is tlie divinity of the Bible, of Augustine, and of the
Thirty-nine Articles of my own Church, and of the Scotch Con-
fession of Faith. While, therefore, I repeat that I cannot
endorse all the sentiments of Toplady's controversial writings,
I do claim for them the merit of being in principle scriptural,
sound, and true. Well would it be for the Churches, if we had
a good deal more of clear, distinct, sharply-cut doctrine in the
present day ! Vagueness and indistinctness are marks of our
degenerate condition.

But I go further than this. I do not hesitate to say that
Toplady's controversial works display extraordinary ability.
For example, his " Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism
of the Church of England" is a treatise that displays a prodi-
gious amount of research and reading. It is a book that no
one could have written who had not studied much, thought
much, and thoroughly investigated an enormous mass of theo-


logical literature. You see at once that the author has
completely digested what he has read, and is able to concen-
trate all his reading on every point which he handles. The
best proof of the book's ability is the simple fact that down to
the present day it has never been really answered. It has been
reviled, sneered at, abused, and held up to scorn. But abuse
is not argument. The book remains to this hour unanswered,
and that for the simplest of all reasons, that it is unanswerable.
It proves irrefragably, whether men like it or not, that Calvinism
is the doctrine of the Church of England, and that all her lead-
ing divines, until Laud's time, were Calvinists. All this is done
logically, clearly, and powerfully. No one, I venture to think,
could read the book through, and not feel obliged to admit that
the author was an able man.

While, however, I claim for Toplady's controversial writings
the merit of soundness and ability, I must with sorrow admit
that I cannot praise his spirit and language when speaking of his
opponents. I am obliged to confess that he often uses expres-
sions about them so violent and so bitter, that one feels per-
fectly ashamed. Never, I regret to say, did an advocate of
truth appear to me so entirely to forget the text, " In meekness
instructing those that oppose themselves," as the vicar of Broad
Hembury. Arminianism seems to have precisely the same
effect on him that a scarlet cloak has on a bull. He appears to
think it impossible that an Arminian can be saved, and never
shrinks with classing Arminians with Pelagians, Socinians,
Papists, and heretics. He says things about Wesley and Sellon
which never ought to have been said. All this is melancholy
work indeed ! But those who are famiHar with Toplady's con-
troversial writings know well that I am stating simple truths.

I will not stain my paper nor waste my readers' time by sup-
plying proofs of Toplady's controversial bitterness. It would be
very unprofitable to do so. The epithets he applies to his
adversaries are perfectly amazing and astonishing. It must in


fairness be remembered that the language of his opponents was
exceedingly violent, and was enough to provoke any man. It
must not be forgotten, moreover, that a hundred years ago men
said things in controversy that were not considered so bad as
they are now, from the different standard of taste that prevailed.
Men were perhaps more honest and outspoken than they are now,
and their bark was worse than their bite. But all these considera-
tions only palliate the case. The fact remains, that as a contro-
versialist Toplady was extremely bitter and intemperate, and
caused his good to be evil spoken of He carried the principle,
" Rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith,"
to an absurd extreme. He forgot the example of his Master,
who " when he was reviled, reviled not again ;" and he entirely
marred the value of his arguments by the violence and uncharit-
ableness with which he maintained them. Thousands who
neither cared nor understood anything about his favourite cause,
could understand that no cause ought to be defended in such a
spirit and temper.

I leave this painful subject with the general remark, that
Toplady is a standing beacon to the Church, to show us the
evils of controversy. " The beginning of strife is like letting
out water." " In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin."
We must never shrink from controversy, if need be, in defence
of Christ's gospel, but we must never take it up without jealous
watchfulness over our own hearts, and over the manner in which
we carry it on. Above all, we must strive to think as charitably
as possible of our opponent. It was Calvin himself who said of
Luther, " He may call me a devil if he will ; but I shall always
call him a good servant of Jesus Christ." Well would it have
been for Toplady's reputation, if he had been more like Calvin !
Perhaps when we open our eyes in heaven we shall be amazed
to find how many things there were which both Calvinists and
Arminians did not thoroughly understand.

4. There is only one point about Toplady on which I wish


to say something, and that is liis character as a hyjnn-7vritcr.
This is a point, I am thankful to say, on which I find no diffi-
culty at all. I give it as my decided opinion tliat he was one
of the best hymn-writers in the English language. I am
quite aware that this may seem extravagant praise ; but I
speak deliberately. I hold that there are no hymns better than

Good hymns are an immense blessing to the Church of
Christ. I believe the last day alone will show the world the
real amount of good they have done. They suit all, both rich
and poor. There is an elevating, stirring, soothing, spiritualizing,
effect about a thoroughly good hymn, which nothing else can
produce. It sticks in men's memories when texts are forgotten.
It trains men for heaven, where praise is one of the principal
occupations. Preaching and praying shall one day cease for
ever ; but praise shall never die. The makers of good ballads
are said to sway national opinion. The writers of good hymns,
in like manner, are those who leave the deepest marks on the
face of the Church. Thousands of Christians rejoice in the
" Te Deum," and " Just as I am/' who neither prize the Thirty-
nine Articles, nor know anything about the first four councils,
nor understand the Athanasian Creed.

But really good hymns are exceedingly rare. There are only
a few men in any age who can write them. You may name
hundreds of first-rate preachers for one first-rate writer of hymns.
Hundreds of so-called hymns fill up our collections of congre-
gational psalmody, which are really not hymns at all. They
are very sound, veiy scriptural, very proper, very correct, very
tolerably rhymed ; but they are not real, live, genuine hymns.
There is no life about them. At best they are tame, pointless,
weak, and milk-and-watery. In many cases, if written out
straight, without respect of lines, they would make excellent
prose. But poetry they are not. It may be a startling asser-
tion to some cars to say that there are not more than two


hundred first-rate hymns in the Englisli language ; but starthng
as it may sound, I believe it is true.

Of all English hymn-writers, none, perhaps, have succeeded
so thoroughly in combining truth, poetry, life, warmth, fire,
depth, solemnity, and unction, as Toplady has. I pity the man
who does not know, or, knowing, does not admire those glorious
hymns of his beginning, " Rock of Ages, cleft for me ;" or,
"Holy Ghost, dispel our sadness;" or, "A debtor to mercy
alone ;" or, " Your harps, ye trembling saints ;" or, " Christ,
whose glory fills the skies;" or, "When languor and disease
invade ;" or, " Deathless principle, arise." The writer of these
seven hymns alone has laid the Church under perpetual obliga-
tions to him. Heretics have been heard in absent moments
whispering over " Rock of Ages," as if they clung to it when
they had let slip all things beside. Great statesmen have been
known to turn it into Latin, as if to perpetuate its fame. The
only matter of regret is, that the writer of such excellent hymns
should have written so few. If he had lived longer, written
more hymns, and handled fewer controversies, his memory would
have been had in greater honour, and men would have been
better pleased.

That hymns of such singular beauty and pathos should have
come from the same pen which indited such bitter controversial
writings, is certainly a strange anomaly. I do not pretend to
explain it, or to offer any solution. I only lay it before my
readers as a naked fact. To say the least, it should teach us
not to be hasty in censuring a man before we know all sides
of his character. • The best saints of God are neither so very
good, nor the faultiest so very faulty, as they appear. He that
only reads Toplady's hymns will find it hard to believe that he
could compose his controversial writings. He that only reads his
controversial writings will hardly believe that he composed his
hymns. Yet the fact remains, that the same man composed both.
Alas ! the holiest among us all is a very poor mixed creature !


I now leave the subject of this chapter here. I ask my
readers to put a favourable construction on Toplady's life, and
to judge him with righteous judgment. I fear he is a man who
has never been fairly estimated, and has never had many friends.
Ministers of his decided, sharply-cut, doctrinal opinions are
never very popular. But I plead strongly that Toplady's undeni-
able faults should never make us forget his equally undeniable
excellencies. With all his infirmities, I firmly believe that
he was a good man and a great man, and did a work for Christ
a hundred years ago, which will never be overthrown. He will
stand in his lot at the last day in a high place, when many,
perhaps, whom the world liked better shall be put to shame.



Eorn in Switzerland, 1729 — Educated at Geneva and Leutzburg — Wishes to be a Soldier —
Becomes a Tutor in England, 1750 — Private Tutor in Mr. Hill's Family, 1752 — Be-
comes Acquainted with Methodists — Inward Conflict — Ordained 1757 — Vicar of
Madeley, 1760 — Correspondence with Charles Wesley and Lady Huntingdon.

' BELIEVE that no one ever reads his Bible with atten-
tion without being struck with the deep beauty of the
fourteenth chapter of St. John's gospel. I suspect

that few readers of that marvellous chapter fail to notice the

wondrous saying of our Lord, " In my Father's house are many

mansions : if it were not so, I would have told you." Cold and

dull must be the heart that is not roused and stirred by these


This beautiful saying, of late years, has been painfully wrested

from its true meaning. Men of whom better things might have

been expected, have misapplied it sadly, and imposed a false

sense on it. They have dared to say that men of all faiths and

creeds will find a place in heaven at last ; and that " every man

shall be saved by the law or sect which he professeth, so that

he be diligent to frame his mind according to that law and the

light of nature." They would fain have us believe that the

inhabitants of heaven will be a mixed body, including heathen

idolaters and Mohammedans as well as Christians, and compris-
(195) 26


ing members of every religious denomination in the world, how-
ever opposite and antagonistic their respective opinions may be.
Miserable indeed is such theology ! Wretched is the prospect
which it holds out to us of eternity ! Small could be the har-
mony in such a heterogeneous assembly ! At this rate, heaven
would be no heaven at all.

But we must not allow human misinterpretations to make us
overlook great truths. It is true, in a most comfortable sense,
that "in our Father's house there are many mansions," and that
all who are washed in Christ's blood, and renewed by Christ's
Spirit, will find a place in heaven, though they may not see eye
to eye upon earth. There is room in our Father's house for all
who hold the Head, however much they may differ on points
of minor importance. There is room for Calvinists and room
for Arminians, room for Episcopalians and room for Presby-
terians, room for Thomas Cranmer and room for John Knox,
room for John Bunyan and room for George Herbert, room for
Henry Mart}m and room for Dr. Judson, room for Edward
Bickersteth and room for Robert M'Cheyne, room for Chalmers
of Edinburgh, and room for Daniel Wilson of Calcutta. Yes !
thank God, our Father's house is a very wide one. There is
room in it for all who are true-hearted believers in the Lord
Jesus Christ.

Thoughts such as these come crowding over my mind as I
take up my pen to write an account of the eleventh spiritual
hero of the eighteenth century, whom I want to introduce to my
readers. The man whom I mean is the well-known Fletcher,
vicar of Madeley. I cannot forget that there was a doctrinal
gulf between him and my last hero, Toplady, and that while one
was a Calvinist of Calvinists, the other was an Arminian of
Arminians. But I will never shut my eyes to the fact that
Fletcher was a Christian as well as an Arminian. Mistaken, as
I think he was, on some points, he was certainly thoroughly
right on others. He was a man of rare grace, and a minister of


rare usefulness. In short, I think that no account of Enghsh
rehgion a hundred years ago could be considered just, fair,
and complete, which did not supply some information about
Fletcher of Madeley.

John William Fletcher was a native of Switzerland, and was
born at N)^on, in that country, on the 12th of September 1729.
His real name was De La Flechiere, and he is probably known
by that name among his own countrymen to this day. In
England, however, he was always called Fletcher, and, for con-
venience' sake, I shall only speak of him by that name. His
father w^as first an officer in the French army, and afterwards a
colonel in the militia of his own country. The family is said
to have been one of the most respectable in the canton of
Berne, and a branch of an earldom of Savoy.

Fletcher appears to have been remarkable for cleverness even
when a boy. At the first school which he went to at Geneva,
lie carried away all the prizes, and was complimented by the
teachers and managers in a very flattering manner. During his
residence at Geneva, his biographer records that " he allowed
himself but little time either for recreation, refreshment, or rest.
After studying hard all day, he would often consume the greater
part of the night in writing down whatever had occurred in the
course of his reading which seemed worthy of observation.
Here he acquired that true classical taste which was so frequently
and justly admired by his friends, and which all his studied
plainness could never entirely conceal. Here, also, he laid the
foundation of that extensive and accurate knowledge for which
he was afterwards distinguished, both in philosophy and theo-

From Geneva his father sent him to a small Swiss town called
Leutzburg, where he not only acquired the German language,
but also diligently prosecuted his former studies. On leaving
Leutzburg, he continued some time at home, studying the
Hebrew language, and perfecting his acquaintance with mathe-


matics. Such was Fletcher's early training and education. I
ask the reader's special attention to it. It supplies one among
many proofs that those who call the leaders of the English
revival of religion in the last century "poor, ignorant, illiterate
fanatics," are only exposing their own ignorance. They know
neither what they say, nor whereof they afhrm. In the mere
matter of learning, Wesley, Romaine, Berridge, Hervey, Top-
lady, and Fletcher, were second to few men in their day.

Young Fletcher's education being completed, his parents
hoped that he would at once turn his attention to the ministry,
a profession for which they considered him to be eminently
well fitted. In this expectation, however, they were at first
curiously disappointed. Partly from a sense of unfitness, partly
from scruples about the doctrine of predestination, young
Fletcher announced that he had "given up all idea of being
ordained, and wished to go into the army. His theological
studies were laid aside for the miHtary works of Vauban and
Cohorn, and, in spite of all the remonstrances of his friends, he
seemed determined to become a soldier.

This strange determination, however, was frustrated by a
singular train of providences. The same overruling hand which
would not allow Jonah to go to Tarshish, and sent him to
Nineveh in spite of himself, was able to prevent the young
Swiss student carrying out his military intentions. At first, it
seems, on his parents flatly refusing their consent to his entering
the army, young Fletcher went away to Lisbon, and, like many
of his countrymen, offered his services to a foreign flag. At
Lisbon, on his offer being accepted, he soon gathered a com-
pany of Swiss recruits, and engaged a passage on board a Por-
tuguese man-of-war which was about to sail for Brazil. He then
wrote to his parents, asking them to send him money, but met
with a decided refusal. Unmoved by this, he determined to go
without the money, as soon as the ship sailed. But, on the
morning that he ought to have put to sea, the servant at break-


fast let the kettle fall and scalded his leg so severely that he had
to keep his bed for a considerable time. In the meanwhile the
ship sailed for Brazil, and, curiously enough, was never heard of
any more !

Fletcher returned to Switzerland, in no wise shaken or deterred
by his Lisbon disappointment. Being informed that his uncle,
then a colonel in the Dutch service, had procured a commission
for him, he joyfully set out for Flanders. But just at that time
a peace was concluded, and the continental armies were reduced ;
and his uncle dying shortly after, his expectations were com-
pletely blasted, and he gave up all thought of being a soldier.

Being now disengaged from business, and all military pros-
pects seeming completely at an end, young Fletcher thought it
would not be amiss to spend a little time in England. He
arrived in this country, almost totally ignorant of our language,
sometime in the year 1750, and began at once to inquire for
some one who could instruct him in the English tongue. For
this purpose he was recommended to a boarding-school, kept
Ijy a Mr. Burchell, at South Mimms, and afterwards at Hatfield,
in Hertfordshire. With this gentleman he remained eighteen
months, and not only acquired a complete mastery of English,
but also became exceedingly popular as a clever, amiable, and
agreeable man, both in his tutor's family and throughout the
neighbourhood in which he resided. While staying at Mr.
Burchell's, Mr. Dechamps, a French minister to whom he had
been recommended, procured him the situation of private tutor
in the family of Mr. Hill of Tern Hall, in Shropshire. His
acceptance of this post in the year 1752, in the twenty-second
year of his age, was the turning-point in his life, and affected
his whole course, both spiritually and temporally, to the very end
of his days.

Up to this time, there is not the slightest evidence that
Fletcher knew anything of spiritual and experimental religion.
As a well-educated man, he was of course acquainted with the


facts and evidences of Christianity. But he appears to have
been profoundly ignorant of the inward work of the Holy Ghost,
and of the distinctive doctrines of the gospel of Christ. Hap-
])ily for him, he seems to have been carefully and morally brought
up, and to have had a good deal of religion of a certain sort
when he was a boy. From an early period of life, he was
famihar with the letter of Scripture, and to this circumstance he
traced his preservation from infidelity, and from many vices into
which young men too often fall. Beside this, a succession of
providential escapes from death, which his biographers have
carefully recorded, undoubtedly had a restraining effect upon
him. Nevertheless, there is no reason to think that he really
experienced a work of grace in his heart until he had been
some time an inmate of Mr. Hill's house. Up to this time he
had, after a fashion, believed in God and feared God ; but he
had never felt his love in Christ Jesus shed abroad in his heart
by the Holy Ghost. He had never really seen his own sinful-
ness, nor the preciousness of Christ's atoning blood.

The first thing which awakened Fletcher to a right conviction
of his fallen state, was the simple remark of a servant in Mr.
Hill's household. This man, coming up into his room one
Sunday evening, in order to make up the fire, found him writing
some music, and, looking at him with concern, said, " Sir, I am
sorry to see you so employed on the Lord's day." At first his
pride was aroused and his resentment moved, to hear a reproof
given by a servant. But, upon reflection, he felt the reproof
was just, put away his music, and from that very hour became
a strict observer of the Lord's day. How true is that word of
Solomon, "Reproofs of instruction are the way of life !" (Prov.
vi. 23.)

The next step in his spiritual history was his becoming ac-
quainted with the people called Methodists. The way in which
this was brought about he afterwards related to John Wesley,
in the following words: — "When Mr. Hill went to London to


attend Parliament, he took ]iis family and me with him. On
one occasion, while they stopped at St. Alban's, I walked out

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 32 of 36)