J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

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

. (page 33 of 36)
Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 33 of 36)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

into the town, and did not retm-n till they were set out for
London. A horse being left for me, I rode after them and
overtook them in the evening. Mr. Hill asked me why I stayed
behind. I said, ' As I was walking I met with a poor old
woman, who talked so sweetly of Jesus Christ, that I knew not
how the time passed away.' Said Mrs. Hill, ' I shall wonder if
our tutor does not turn Methodist by-and-by.' * Methodist,
madam,' said I ; ' pray what is that % ' She replied, ' Why, the
Methodists are a people that do nothing but pray ; they are
praying all day and all night.' 'Are theyT said I; 'then, by
the help of God, I will find them out, if they be above ground.'
I did find them out not long after, and was admitted into the

The third important step in Fletcher's spiritual history was
hearing those clergymen who were called Methodists preach
about /^///^. Under the influence of newly awakened feelings,
he had begun to strive diligently to make himself acceptable to
God by his doings. But hearing a sermon one day preached
by a clergyman named Green, he became convinced that he did
not understand the nature of saving faith. This conviction was
only attained through much humiliation of soul. " Is it possible,"
he thought, " that I, who have always been accounted so reli-
gious, who have made divinity my study, and received the pre-
mium oi piety (so-called) from a Swiss university for my writings
on divine subjects — is it possible that I should yet be so igno-
rant as not to know what faith is ]" But the more he examined
himself and considered the subject, the more he was convinced
of the momentous truth. The more he saw his sinfulness, and
the entire corruption and depravity of his whole nature, the
more his hope of being able to reconcile himself to God by his
own works began to die aw^ay. He still sought, by the most
rigorous austerities, to conquer this evil nature, and to bring


into his soul a heaven-born peace. But alas ! the more he strove
the more he saw and felt that all his soul was sinful. In short, like
Bunyan's Christian, before he saw the way to the wicket-gate, he
felt his imminent danger, and yet knew not which way to flee.

How long this inward struggle continued in Fletcher's mind
is not quite clear. It seems probable that it was at least two
years before his soul found peace and was set at hberty, and his
burden rolled away. Evangelists were rare in these days, and
there were few to help an anxious conscience into the light.
His diary shows that he went through an immense amount of
inward conflict. At one time we find him saying, " I almost
gave up all hope, and resolved to sin on and go to
hell." At another time he says, " If I go to hell, I
will serve God even there ; and since I cannot be an in-
stance of his mercy in heaven, I will be a monument of his
justice in hell ; and if I show forth his glory one way or the
other, I am content." At another time he says, " I have re-
covered my ground. I thought Christ died for all, and there-
fore he died for me. He died to pluck such sinners as I am
as brands out of the burning. And as I sincerely desire to be
his, he will surely take me." At another time he records, " I
heard a sermon on justification by faith, but my heart was not
moved in the least. I was only still more convinced that I was
an unbeliever, that I am not justified by faith, and that till I
am, I shall never have peace with God." At another time he
says, " I have found relief in Mr. Wesley's journal, when I
heard that we should not build on what we feel, but go to Christ
with all our sins and all our hardness of heart."

Mental struggles like these are no strange things to many
of God's people. They are deep waters through which
some of the best and holiest saints have had to pass, in the
beginning of their journey towards heaven. John Bunyan's
little book called " Grace Abounding," is a striking account of
the inward agony which the author of " Pilgrim's Progress " had


to endure before he found peace. There are many pomts of
resemblance between his experience and that of Fletcher. It is
a pleasant thought, however, that sooner or later these painful
struggles end in sohd peace. The greater the conflict at first,
the greater sometimes is the peace at the last. The men that
God intends to use most as instruments to do his work, are
often tempered for his service by being frequently put into the
fire. The truths that we have got hold of by tremendous
exertion are precisely the truths which we afterwards grasp most
firmly, and proclaim most positively and powerfully. The man
who has embraced the doctrine of justification by faith alone,
through a hand-to-hand fight with Satan, and a contest even
unto death, is precisely the man to preach the doctrine to his
fellow-men with unction, with demonstration of the Spirit, and
with crushing power. This was the experience of that mighty
evangeUst, George Whitefield. This was the experience of
Fletcher of Madeley.

Once set free from the burden of sin unforgiven, and feeling
the blessedness of peace with God, we need not wonder that
Fletcher longed to tell others of the way to life. Long before
he was ordained a minister, he began to speak to others about
their souls, according as he had opportunity. Both in London,
when he accompanied Mr. Hill, and even during the sitting of
Parliament, and in the neighbourhood of Tern Hall, he seized
every occasion of trying to do spiritual good. And even at this
early period his labours were not in vain. His biographer says :
" Though he was at present by no means perfect in the English
tongue, particularly in the pronunciation of it, yet the earnest-
ness with which he spoke, then seldom to be found in English
preaching, and the unspeakably tender affection to poor, un-
done sinners, which breathed in every word and question, drew
multitudes of people to hear him, and few went empty away."

We can easily understand that Fletcher's views about taking
orders now went through a complete change. Little by little


his doubts, and fears, and scruples as to his fitness for the
ministerial office melted away. Correspondence with John
AVesley encouraged him to go forward with the idea of being
ordained. Difficulties which seemed likely at one time to put
an insuperable barrier in his way, were unexpectedly removed.
A gentleman whom he hardly knew offered him a living which
was likely to be soon vacant. A clergyman whom he had never
even spoken to, of his own accord offered him a title to orders;
and at length, in the year 1757, he was ordained deacon on
Sunday the 6th of March, and priest on the following Sunday,
by the Bishop of Bangor, in the Chapel Royal at St. James's.
How Fletcher got over the difficulty of being a foreigner, and
of not having taken an University degree, I am unable to ex-
plain. I can only suppose that the influence of the family of
the Hills, in which he was still tutor, made a bishop of those
days ready to ordain him as a " literate person." On what
title he was ordained, I am also unable to say. But, putting
things together, I conjecture that he was nominated curate
of Madeley, the parish of which he afterwards became vicar.
The whole matter of his ordination seems to have been attended
with strange irregularities, judged by the standard of the present
day. But things were strangely managed in the Church of
England a hundred years ago.

With characteristic energy, Fletcher lost no time in beginning
the work of the ministry. The very day that he was ordained
priest, he came straight from the Chapel Royal to West Street
Chapel, and assisted John Wesley in the administration of the
Lord's Supper. Throughout the next two months, until Mr.
Hill's family left London for Shropshire, he preached in many
London pulpits both in the English and French language,
according as he had opportunity. Labouring in this way, he
soon became well known as a fellow-labourer of the leading evan-
gelists of the day, and rapidly attained a very high reputation.

In the month of May 1757 he went down into Shropshire


with Air. Hill's family, and found comparatively few openings
for the exercise of his ministry. In fact, a friend says that he
did not preach more than six times in six months ; partly, no
doubt, from his time being occupied with the education of his
young pupils, and partly, in all probabihty, because the Shrop-
shire clergy were afraid of him, and would not admit him into
their pulpits. The only churches in which he preached were
Atcham, Wroxeter, Madeley, and St. Alkmunds, and the Abbey
Church, Shrewsbury.

Whatever the cause may have been, I cannot discover that
Fletcher had any regular stated ministerial work for the first
three years after his ordination. From March 1757 to the
latter part of 1760, he seems to have retained his position as
tutor in Mr. Hill's family, and in that capacity to have gone
regularly to London for one part of the year, and to have been
generally in Shropshire for the other. Wherever he was, he
appears to have found time for itinerating and preaching a good
deal, and it is only natural to suppose that he was not required
to devote himself entirely to the superintendence of Mr. Hill's

I must confess my inability to trace out Fletcher's history
very accurately during the first three years of his ministry. The
memoirs of men of that day are so often written with a reckless
neglect of dates, that at this distance of time it is impossible to
follow their movements. Sometimes I read of his being at
Bristol, preaching for John Wesley at Kingswood ; sometimes I
find him in London, preaching in Lady Huntingdon's drawing-
room ; sometimes he is at Brighton, occupying the pulpit of
Lady Huntingdon's Chapel ; sometimes he is at Tunbridge,
preaching to French prisoners ; sometimes he is itinerating
about the country, and appearing in all sorts of strange and
unexpected places. But the order and reasons of his move-
ments during these three years are matters which I cannot pre-
tend to explain. One thing only is very clear. He became


notorious as a public supporter of the great religious revival of
which Lady Huntingdon was the mainspring, and formed
friendships with all its leading agents which lasted. till death.

It was about this period of his life that Fletcher became
acquainted with the famous Berridge of Everton. This took
place under such singular circumstances that I shall give them
at length in the words of Lady Huntingdon's biographer. It
appears that he went to Everton vicarage uninvited and unex-
pectedly, and " introduced himself as a raw convert who had
taken the liberty to wait on Berridge for the benefit of his in-
struction and advice. From his accent and manner the shrewd
vicar of Everton perceived at once that he was a foreigner, and
inquired from what country he came. ' I am a Swiss, from the
canton of Berne,' was the reply. ' From Berne!' said Berridge ;
' then probably you can give me some account of a young fel-
low-countryman of yours, one John Fletcher, who has lately
preached a few times for Mr. Wesley, and of whose talents,
learning, and piety, he speaks in high terms. Do you know
him'?' 'Yes, sir,' said Fletcher; 'I know him intimately; and
did the Messrs. Wesley know him as well as I do, they would
not speak of him in such terms, for which he is more obliged
to their partial friendship than to his own merits.' ' You sur-
prise me,' said Berridge, ' by speaking so coldly of a country-
man in whose praise they are so warm.' ' I have the best
reason,' he rejoined, ' for speaking as I do, for I am myself
John Fletcher.' ' If you are John Fletcher,' said his host,
' you must do me the favour to take my pulpit to-morrow, and
when we are better acquainted, without implicitly receiving
either your statement or that of your friends, I shall be able to
judge for myself Thus commenced an intimacy between
Fletcher and Berridge, which no subsequent controversy could
ever entirely interrupt."

The turning-point in Fletcher's ministerial history was his
appointment to the vicarage of Madeley, in October 1760.


Madeley is a large and unattractive parish near Wellington, in
Shropshire, containing at this time between eight and nine
thousand inhabitants, employed almost entirely in collieries and
ironworks. There is no reason to suppose that it was very dif-
ferent a hundred years ago from what it is now, though the
i:)opulation has probably increased. The circumstances under
which he obtained the living were very remarkable, and are well
described in his own letters.

The first link in the chain of providence which took him to
i\Iadeley, was the offer of the living of Dunham in Cheshire by
his friend Mr. Hill. He told Fletcher that the parish was
small, the duty light, and the income good — ^400 a-year —
and that it was situated in a fine sporting country. After thank-
ing Mr. Hill most cordially for his kindness, Fletcher replied,
" Alas, sir ! Dunham will not suit me. There is too mucli
money, and too little work." " Few clergymen make such
objections," said Mr. Hill ; "it is a pity to resign such a living,
as I do not know that I can find you another. What shall we
do 1 Would you like Madeley ? " " That, sir, would be the very
place for me." " My object, Mr. Fletcher, is to make you
comfortable in your own way. If you prefer Madeley, I shall
find no difficulty in persuading Chambers, the present vicar, to
exchange it for Dunham, which is worth twice as much, and in
getting Madeley for you." In this way, curious, as it now
appears, John Fletcher, in the month of October 1760, found
himself in the strange position of an English incumbent, and
vicar of a large parish in Shropshire.

He did not go to Madeley without many doubts and mis-
givings. Not a few of his best friends thought it a move of
very questionable wisdom. Even now, one cannot help fancy-
ing that his valuable life would have been longer, and his extra-
parochial usefulness greatly increased, if he had been content
with the lighter work and smaller population of Dunham. But
we must not forget that the " steps of a good man are ordered


by the Lord." It is place that often draws out grace. For
anything we know, Fletcher might have sunk into com])arative
indolence and obscurity, if he had not been planted at Madeley.
His letters, however, at this period, show plainly that the move
was not made without great anxiety and exercise of soul.

To Charles Wesley he writes : •' My heart revolts at the idea
of being at Madeley alone — opposed by my superiors, hated by
my neighbours, and despised by all the world ; without piety,
without talents, without resolution, how shall I repel the assaults
and surmount the obstacles which I foresee if I discharge my
duty at Madeley with fidelity? On the other hand, to reject
this presentation, burn the certificate, and leave in the desert
these sheep whom the Lord has evidently brought me into the
world to feed, appears to me nothing but obstinacy and refined
self-love. I will hold a middle course between these extremes.
I will be wholly passive in the steps I must take, and yet active
in praying the Lord to deliver me from the evil one, and to
conduct me in the way that he would have me go. If you can
see anything better, inform me of it speedily ; and at the same
time remember me in all your prayers, that if this matter be not
of the Lord, the enmity of the Bishop of Lichfield — who must
countersign my testimonials, the threats of the Bishop of Here-
ford's chaplain who was a witness to my preaching at West
Street Chapel, the objections drawn from my not being natural-
ized, or some other obstacle, may prevent the kind intention of
Mr. Hill."

It is written that "when a man's ways please the Lord, he
maketh his enemies to be at peace with him." This text was
eminently illustrated in the matter of Fletcher's appointment to
Madeley. Obstacles which at one time seemed insuperable,
melted away in a most extraordinary manner, and, almost in
spite of himself, he was instituted into possession of the living.
In a letter to Lady Huntingdon, on the 3rd of October, he says,
" I seem to be the prisoner of God's providence, who is going,


in all probability, to cast my lot for life among the colliers and
forgemen of Madeley. The two thousand souls of that parish,
for whom I was called into the ministry, are many sheep in the
wilderness, which, after all, I cannot sacrifice to my own private
choice. When I was once suffered to attend them for a few
days, some began to return to the Shepherd of their souls, and
I found it in my heart to spend and be spent for them. When
I was afterwards sent away from them, that zeal, it is true,
cooled to such a degree that I have wished a thousand times
they might never be committed to my charge. But the impres-
sion of the tears of those who, when I left them, ran after me
crying, ' Who shall now show us the way to heaven V never
quite wore off from the bottom of my heart ; and, upon second
thoughts, I always concluded that if the Lord made my way
plain to this church, I could not run away from it without dis-
obeying the order of providence. That time is come, the
church is vacated, the presentation to it brought unasked into
my hands ; the difficulty of getting proper testimonials, which I
looked upon as insurmountable, vanishes at once; the three
clergymen who had opposed me with most bitterness signed
them; — the Bishop of Lichfield countersigns them without the
least objection; the lord of the manor, my great opponent,
leaves the parish; and the very man, the vicar, who told me I
should never preach in that church, now recommends me to it,
and tells me he will induct me himself. Are not these intima-
tions of the will of God?"

On the 28th of October 1760, he writes to Lady Huntingdon
as follows : — " Since I had the honour to write last, all the little
circumstances of my institution and induction have taken such
an easy turn that I question whether any clergyman noted for
good fellowship ever got over them with less trouble. I preached
last Sunday, for the fijst time, in my church, and shall con-
tinue to do so, though I propose staying with Mr. Hill till he
leaves the country, partly to comply with him to the last, and


partly to avoid falling out with my predecessor, who is still at
Madeley, but who will remove about the same lime. If I know
anything of myself, I shall be much more ready to resign my
benefice, when I have had a fair trial of my unprofitableness to
the people committed to my care, than I was to accept it.
Mr. John Wesley bids me do it without a trial. He will have
me see in this appointment to Madeley ' the snare of the devil,
and fly from it at the peril of my soul.' I answer, I cannot see
it in that light. He says, •' Others may do well in a living; you
cannot, for it is not your calling.' I tell him I readily own I
am not fit either to plant or water any part of the Lord's vine-
yard, but that if I am called at all, I am called to preach at
Madeley, where I was first sent into the ministry, and where a
chain of providences I could not break has again fastened me.
I tell him, that though I should be as unsuccessful as Noah
before the flood, yet I am determined to try to be to them a
preacher of Christ's righteousness; and that, notwithstanding
my universal inability, I am not quite without hope that he who
reproved a prophet's madness by the mouth of an ass, may re-
prove a collier's profaneness even by my mouth."

The doubts and misgivings with which Fletcher accepted the
living of Madeley, appear to have clung to him for several
months after he entered on the duties of his parish. Great
allowance must, of course, be made for the natural ignorance
of a young Swiss about the habits and customs of a neglected
mining population in England. But, judging from the three
following letters, he seems for some time to have gone through
great exercise of mind after commencing his residence at
Madeley. I make no excuse for inserting these letters at

On the 19th of November 1760, he writes to Lady Hunting-
don as follows : — " I have hitherto written my sermons, but I
am carried so far beyond my notes when in the pulpit, that I
propose preaching with only my sermon-cover in my hand next


Friday, when I shall venture on an evening lecture for the
first time. I question whether I shall have half-a-dozen hearers,
as the god of a busy world is doubly the god of this part
of the world; but I am resolved to try. The weather and
the roads are so bad, that the way to church is almost impracti-
cable; nevertheless, all the seats were full last Sunday. Some
begin to come from the adjacent parishes, and some more, as
they say, threaten to come when the season permits. I can-
not yet discern any deep work, or, indeed, anything but what
will always attend the crying down man's righteousness and
exalting Christ's — I mean a general liking among the poor,
and offence and ridicule and opposition among the respectable
and rich people. Should the Lord vouchsafe to plant the
gospel in this country, my parish seems to be the best centre
of a work, as it lies just among the most populous, profane,
and ignorant parts. But it is well if, after all, there is any
work in my parish. I despair of this when I look at myself,
and fall in with Mr. John Wesley's opinion about me. Yet
sometimes, too, I hope the Lord has not sent me here fot
nothing; and I beg for strength to stand still and see the
salvation of the Lord. Nevertheless, I am still fully deter-
mined to resign my living after a while, if the Lord does not
think me worthy to be his instrument. If your Ladyship could
at any time spare me a minute, I should be glad to know
whether you do not think I should then be at full liberty to
do it before God. I abhor the title of a living for a living's
sake. It is death to me.

" There are three meetings in my parish — a Papist, Quaker,
and Baptist ; and they begin to call the fourth the Methodist
one — I mean the church. But the bulk of the inhabitants
are stupid heathens, who seem past all curiosity, as well as
all sense of godliness. I am ready to run after them into
their pits and forges, and I only wait for God's providence to

show me the way. I am often reduced to great perplexity,
(195) 26


but the end of it is sweet. I am driven to the Lord, and he
comforts, encourages, and teaches me. I sometimes feel that
zeal which forced Paul to wish to be accursed for his brethren's
sakes, but I want to feel it without interruption. The devil,
my friends, and ray heart, have pushed hard at me to make
me fall into worldly cares, and creature snares — first by the
thought of marrying, then by the offer of several boarders, one
of whom offered me sixty pounds a-year; but I have been
enabled to cry, ' Nothing but Jesus, and the service of his
people;' and I trust the Lord will keep me in the same mind."

On the 6th of January 1761, he writes to Lady Huntingdon
again, even in a lower key and a more depressed frame of
mind. He says : — '' I had a secret expectation to be the instru-
ment of a work in this part of our Church, and I did not
despair of soon becoming a little Berridge ! Thus warmed
with sparks of my own kindling, I looked out to see the
rocks broken in pieces and the water flowing out; but, to the
great disappointment of my hopes, I am now forced to look
within, and to see the need I have of being broken, and of
repenting myself If my being stationed in this howling wil-
derness is to answer no public end as to the gospel of Christ,
I will not give up the hope that it may answer a private end as
to myself, in humbling me under a sense of universal unprofit-
ableness. If I preach the gospel ten years here, and see no
fruit of my labours, in either case I promise to bless God, if I
can only say from my heart, ' I am nothing, I have nothing, I
can do nothing.'

" As to my parish, all that 1 see hitherto in it is nothing but
what one may expect from speaking plainly, and with some
degree of earnestness. Many cry out, ' He is a Methodist, a
downright Methodist;' while some of the poorer sort say, 'Nay,
but he speaketh the truth.' Some of the best farmers and most
respectable tradesmen talk often among themselves, I hear,

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 33 of 36)