J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

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

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about turning me out of my living as a Methodist or a Baptist,


and spread about, such stories as your Ladyship may guess at
witliout my writing them. ]\Iy Friday lecture took better than
I expected, and I propose to continue it till the congregation
desert me. The number of hearers then is larger than that
which my predecessor had on Sunday. The number of com-
municants is increased from thirty to above a hundred, and a
few seem to seek grace in the means. May they do it in
sincerity !"

The last letterwhich I shall quote in this memoir was addressed
to Lady Huntingdon on the 27th of April 1761. He says: —
" I learn by slow^ experience, tliat in me dwelleth no good
thing. This I find cannot be learned of man, nor by man. It
is a lesson that grace alone teaches effectually in the furnace of
affliction. I am still at the first fine; but I think I read it and
understand it in a manner quite different from what I did before.
Surely the Saviour speaks as no man ever spake; and he teaches
with authority, not as the scribes. His words are recorded in
the heart, while tliose of men only graze the surface of the
understanding. I have met with several trials since Providence
cast me, I shall not say into this part of the Lord's vineyard,
but into this part of our spiritual Sodom. Nevertheless, they
did not work upon me as they ought to have done. I stood
out against them in a kind of self-resolution, supported by
human fortitude rather than divine humility; and so they did
not bring down the pride of nature, but rather increased it.
The old man, if he cannot have his own food, will live quietly
and comfortably on spiritual food ; yea, he is often pampered
by what the natural mind supposes will poison him.

" Of late I have met with a trial that, by God's infinite
mercy, has found its way to my heart. Oh, may the wound be
deep enough to let in the mind of Jesus ! A young woman,
daughter of one of my most substantial parishioners, giving
place to Satan by pride and impatience, is driven in her con-
victions into a kind of madness. I could not bear patiently


enough, before this, the reports that went about that I drove
]jeople mad; but the fear of having this laid to my charge,
backed with so glaring an instance, has thrown me into some
agonies of soul.

" Why God permits these offences to arise, has not a little
staggered me. Once I was for taking to my heels, and hire-
ling-like, flying at the first approach of the wolf. But, thanks
to divine grace, I now try to commit to the Lord the keeping
of his own work, and pray for a blind faith in him who calls
light out of darkness. Had not this trial staggered me, I
should have great hopes that a few living stones may be
gathered here for the temple of the Lord. There is a consider-
able stir about religion in the neighbourhood ; and though
most people rise up against it, yet some begin to inquire in
earnest what they must do to be saved ; and some get a sight
of the way. My church is full, notwithstanding the oaths that
some of my parishioners have sworn never to hear me preach
again. I am insensibly led into exhorting sometimes in my
house and elsewhere. I preach on Sunday morning and Fri-
day evening; and on Sunday evening, after catechising or
preaching to the children, I read one of the Homilies, or a
sermon of Archbishop Usher, insisting on all that confirms
what I advanced in the morning, which greatly stops the mouth
of the gainsayers, till God shall turn their hearts."

Such were the beginnings of Fletcher's ministry of Madeley.
His subsequent history would occupy far more room than can
be assigned to it in this chapter. How he persevered in his
evangelistic work at Madeley for twenty-five years — how he
became the principal of Lady Huntingdon's College at Tre-
vecca — how his healtli broke down under the abundance of his
labours — how he lived on through evil report and good report —
how he married — how he died — how he preached and how he
wrote, — all these are matters which I think it best to reserve
for another distinct chapter.



Ministerial Labours at Madeley — Superintendent of Trevecca College, 1768 — Resigns Tre-
vecca, 1771 — Laid aside by ill health, 1776 — Goes to Clifton, Newington, and Switzer-
land — Returns to Madeley, 1781 — Marries— Dies, 1785 — His Preaching — Writing —
Private Character — Testimony of Wesley and Venn.

The position of a parish clergyman in the Church of England
wlio does his duty, is one of peculiar difficulties and discourage-
ments. He has not to deal with a voluntary congregation,
whose members have no connection with him beyond that of
free choice and inclination. He has the nominal charge of all
who reside within certain territorial boundaries, and, whether
they like him or not, in the eye of the law he is bound to do
what he can for their souls.

The larger the population of an English parish, the greater
are the English clergyman's difficulties. Many a clergyman
finds himself placed in the midst of dense masses of people
whose spiritual necessities he is utterly unable to overtake. He
sees around him hundreds of immortal souls continually pass-
ing out of time into eternity — ignorant, immoral, without God,
without Christ, and without hope — and yet has neither time
nor strength to get at half of them ! A position like this is
dreadfully trying and crushing to the spirit of a conscientious
man. Yet this is the position in which Fletcher found him-
self at Madeley. Who can wonder that at first he felt sorely
cast down, and half inclined to think, with Wesley, that he had
mistaken his calling?

These first feelings of discouragement, however, gradually
passed away. Little by little he became fitted to his post, and
saw clearly that he was where God would have him be. Once
settled down in his work at Madeley, he never gave it up, and
for twenty-five years did the work of an evangelist among
his semi-heathen parishioners in a way that few have ever
equalled, and none probably have surpassed. No other cure


ever tempted him away. Where he began his ministry, there
he ended it. Madeley was his first charge, and Madeley was
his last.

The machinery which Fletcher used in doing his work at
Madeley was very simple and apostolic. He was instant in
season and out of season, always " preaching the Word."
Publicly in church, privately from house to house, by the road-
side, in the fields, at the coal-pit mouth, he was continually
lifting up his voice, and " teaching and preaching Jesus Christ."
He counted the day lost in which he was not actually employed
in doing his Master's business. A warfare of holy aggression
on sin and Satan's kingdom was constantly kept up throughout
the district, and no one was let alone. So great indeed was his
zeal, that people who were determined to have their sins agreed
to lock their doors, and refuse him admission. Like Ahab,
they hated him because he did not speak good of their condi-
tion, but evil. Even John Wesley, who thought him wrong in
going to Madeley, bore this testimony to his work: " 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 sin-
ners who tried 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 cut 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 found abundance of organized wickedness in his neglected,
overgrown parish. It was a common thing for young men and
women to meet in large bodies on stated evenings for what


they called " recreation." This recreation usually consisted in
dancing, drinking, revelling, and immorality, and continued
all night. Against these licentious assemblies Fletcher reso-
lutely set his face, and used every exertion to put them down.
He would often burst suddenly into the room where tlie dis-
orderly company were assembled, rebuke the thoughtless revel-
lers with a holy indignation, and beard Satan in his high places.
Nor was his labour altogether in vain in this unpromising field.
After standing the first outbursts of rudeness and brutality, he
generally found his exhortations received with silent submission;
and in some cases he had the comfort of seeing a reformation
in the behaviour of the revellers.

Cases of sickness in a mining district like Madeley were
necessarily very frequent, and coal-pit accidents, we need not
doubt, were very many and often fatal. In attending such cases
Fletcher was peculiarly zealous and indefatigable. " It was a
work," says Wesley, "for which he was always ready. If he
heard a knock at his door in the coldest winter night, his win-
dow was thrown open in a moment. And when he understood
that some one was hurt in a pit, or that a neighbour was Hkely
to die, no consideration was ever had of the darkness of the
night or the severity of the weather. One answer was always
given: ' I will attend you immediately.' "

" In all labour there is profit." It will not surprise any Chris-
tian to hear that Fletcher's labours at Madeley produced an
immense effect on many souls. At first, indeed, he seemed to
labour in vain, and to spend his strength for nothing. People
were not converted in masses, and all at once. But gradually
a large number of hearers were led by the Spirit to Christ, and
became witnesses for God in the midst of the sin and darkness
around them. With success, no doubt, came opposition and
persecution of no common kind. This, however, will not sur-
prise any Bible-reading Christian. Satan will never allow his
kingdom to be pulled down without a mighty struggle, and


never is his wrath so great as when he sees he has but " a short
time." Let a great and effectual door be opened to the gos-
pel, and there will never fail to be " many adversaries." It is
an invariable mark of a real work of God, that it is carried on
" through much persecution."

One Sunday, for instance, after doing his usual duty at
Madeley, Fletcher was on the point of going to a place called
Madeley Wood, to preach and catechise. But, just as he was
setting out, he received a sudden notice that a child was to be
buried, and had to wait for the funeral. This waiting till the
child was brought prevented his going to the Wood till some
time after the appointed hour. Herein the providence of God
appeared in a very remarkable manner. At the hour origin-
ally appointed for his preaching, some colliers, who neither
feared God nor man, were baiting a bull just by the place where
he was expected. Having had plenty to drink, they had all
agreed, as soon as he came, to "bait the parson." Part of
them were then appointed to pull him off his horse, and the
rest to set the dogs upon him. But in the meantime the bull
broke loose, and threw down the booth in which the ring-
leaders were drinking, and the people were dispersed. The
result was that the godly people who had come together to
hear him preach were enabled to hold their meeting in quiet-
ness and safety.

To enter into all the details of Fletcher's history during the
twenty-five years of his ministry at Madeley, would be clearly
impossible in the narrow limits of a brief and condensed memoir.
In fact, to attempt it would be only telling the same story over
and over again. Throughout this whole period, with little in-
termission, he was always doing one and the same thing —
always preaching, always teaching, always trying to awaken
sinners, always trying to build up saints ; but always one and
the same man, giving himself up wholly to his Master's busi-
ness. Sometimes he found time to take a few Sundays at Lady


Huntingdon's chapel at Bath. Sometimes he exchanged duties
for a Httle season with friends, such as Mr. Sellon, at Bredon,
in Leicestershire. Sometimes he wrote long controversial
treatises, in defence of what he believed was Christ's truth,
against what he called Calvinism and Antinomianism. Some-
times he was entirely laid aside from work by ill health. But
wherever he was, and in whatever condition, John Fletcher
was unmistakably the " man of God," always the minister of
Christ, always delighting in work, always insatiably desirous to
do good to souls. I find no man of the last century, whatever
his defects may have been in doctrine, to whom the scrip-
tural motto might be so justly applied, " One thing I do."

About the year 1768 Fletcher was invited by Lady Hunting-
don to become superintendent of her Training College for
young ministers at Trevecca, in Wales. He accepted this
important post with the distinct understanding that he was not
to be generally resident there. He felt strongly that his duty
to his flock at Madeley would not admit of this. But it was
settled that he should attend as often as he could, should give
advice about the appointment of masters and the admission or
exclusion of students, should oversee their studies and conduct,
and should judge of their fitness for the work of the ministry.

Whether a native of Switzerland, who had never seen Eng-
land or spoken the English language till he was twenty-one,
was exactly the man to be head of a training college, may
admit of some doubt. In all probability, however, Fletcher
was the best man among the evangelists of the day whom Lady
Huntingdon could find. His reputation as tutor to Mr. Hill's
son was probably a strong recommendation. His learning and
scholarship were undeniable. His character as a holy, decided
man stood very high. In short, if he were not the fittest person
in the world to be principal of a college, it would not be very
easy to say who, in that day, was more fit.

Fletcher, at any rate, appears to have done what he could to


give the new Institution success. A letter to Lady Huntingdon,
dated January 1768, gives a very favourable idea of his sound
judgment. He evidently sees the materials he had to work
upon, and wisely resolves not to pitch the standard of attain-
ments required too high. He proposes to instruct all the
students in grammar, logic, rhetoric, ecclesiastical history, geo-
graphy, a little natural philosophy, and a great deal of practical
divinity. The books he specially wishes to have in the library
are, — Henry's and Gill's Commentaries on the Bible, Baxter's
Works, Keach on Metaphors, Taylor on Types, Gurnall's
Christian Armoury, Edwards on Preaching, Wesley's Christian
Library, Usher's Body of Divinity, Scapula's Greek Lexicon,
Lyttleton's Latin Dictionary, and Johnson's English Dictionary.
Short and scanty as this list may appear for the beginning of a
college library, it cannot be denied that it was well selected,
considering the times. The mention of Gill's Commentary is
also an interesting fact. It is enough to show that Fletcher's
Arminianism did not prevent him valuing the works of a tho-
roughly Calvinistic writer.

The best account of Fletcher's proceedings as Principal of
Trevecca is to be found in the writings of one of the under-
masters ; and it is so interesting, that I shall make no apology
for giving it entire. He says : — " I went to reside at Trevecca
in 1770. The young men whom I found there were serious,
and made considerable progress in learning, and many of them
seemed to have talents for the ministry. Mr. Fletcher visited
us 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 school 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. Prayer, praise, love, and zeal, all-ardent, ele-
vated above what we would think attainable in this state of
frailty, was the element in which he continually lived. And 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, art, sciences, grammar, electricity, logic, even
divinity itself, so-called, were all laid aside when he appeared
in the school-room among the students. His full heart would
not suffer him to be silent ; he must speak. The students were
readier to hearken to this servant and minister of Christ than
to attend to Sallust, Virgil, Cicero, or any Latin or Greek his-
torian, 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 which burned in his
soul. Such seasons generally terminated in this. Being con-
vinced that to be filled with the Holy Ghost was a better quali-
fication for the ministry of the gospel than any classical learning,
after speaking awhile in the school-room he used often to say,
' As many of you as are athirst for the fulness 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, for the blessing ; and praying one after
another, till we could not bear to kneel any longer." I make
no comment on this curious account. I dare not say that I
think it would be well to be incessantly converting college-
lectures into prayer-meetings. But I will not shrink from say-
ing, that a few more head-masters of schools and principals of
colleges as spiritual-minded and prayerful as the Vicar of
Madeley, would be an immense blessing to the Church of
Christ. Head-masters and principals too often go into the
very opposite extreme from that into which Fletcher w^ent.
Too often they are cold, dry, hard, and unsympathizing, and
seem to forget entirely that young men have hearts, and con-
sciences, and souls.

Fletcher's connection with Trevecca College only lasted three
years. It came to an end in 1771, in consequence of his steady


adherence to Arminian principles, and his firm determination
to stand by John Wesley in matters of doctrine. He parted
from the Institution on good terms with Lady Huntingdon, and
without any bitterness or asperity on either side. Whether, in
point of fact, there was so very much difference in doctrinal
views between him and Lady Huntingdon's party, as he sup-
posed, is a matter on which I feel considerable doubt. At any
rate, I suspect it was greatly exaggerated. There is no getting
over the remarkable fact that for three years he took a leading
part in the great anniversary gatherings at the college, and
preached side by side with men like Whitefield, Rowlands,
Berridge, and Venn. That simple fact speaks volumes. In
days of controversy, bystanders are fond of exaggerating differ-
ences, and blowing up the fire of division. When men can
preach and pray together with freedom, we may rest assured
that in heart they do not greatly differ. Let us try to believe
that all was ordered for good. It is pretty certain that Fletcher
could not long have retained his double position as Principal
of Trevecca and Vicar of Madeley. The double responsibility
would have killed him. It is far from improbable that he saw
this himself, and was not sorry to have a door opened for

About the year 1776, Fletcher's health failed so much that
he was completely laid aside from public work, and obliged to
leave Madeley entirely for the long space of five years. He
had never been very strong at any time, and for some years
before 1776 he had many premonitory symptoms of consump-
tion. Like many unmarried ministers, he had lived alone and
taken no care of himself, and at the age of forty-seven he seemed
to be breaking down entirely under the abundance of his
labours. He felt himself that he had often been imprudent,
and taxed his constitution too much. But it is just one of
those lessons which ministers generally find out too late, when
the mischief is done. Over-laziness is so much more a besetting


sin than over-zeal, that a conscientious man may well be ex-
cused if he turns a deaf ear to the suggestion, " Spare thyself,"
and suspects it to be a temptation of the devil. Such, I have
httle doubt, was the case with Fletcher.

The first two years of Fletcher's forced retirement from work'
was spent in England, — partly at Brislington, near Bristol ;
partly at Newington, near London ; and partly at other places,
— but always at the house of loving friends. His one employ-
ment was that most wearing and depressing one, the search for
health ; and many, strange, and various were the remedies he
seems to have tried in order to obtain it. At no time of his
life, perhaps, did his graces shine more than they did at this.
He gave full proof that he could bear God's will as well as do
it, suffer patiently as well as work actively, sit still and do
nothing as well as run about and do a great deal. Let me here
express my own firm conviction, that this is the highest point
of excellence in a Christian. Self-conceit, and the love of
the praise of men, will often help us to preach, and speak, and
write, and make a great noise in the world. Nothing but great
grace will enable us to be content to do nothing, and to sit still
and wait. No wonder that one who came to visit him at New-
ington, when he was thought to be dying, said afterwards, " I
went to see a man that had one foot in the grave, but I found
a man that had one foot in heaven."

The last three years of Fletcher's period of ill health were
spent on the Continent, — partly in the south of France, and
partly in Switzerland. This Continental tour was a wisely-
devised plan, and answered perfectly. The return to his native
air, the entire change of scene and occupation, the freedom
from a thousand causes of care and anxiety in England, the
society of his valued and kind travelling companion, Mr. Ire-
land of Brislington, — all these things acted with mighty power
on Fletcher's shattered constitution. Little by little he began
to rally. Little by little he lost the many unfavourable symp-


toms with which he had left England. At last, to his own great
delight, he was able to preach without difficulty ; and at lengthy
in the month of June 1781, like one miraculously raised from
the dead, he found himself once more in his vicarage at

In the latter end of 1781, the same year that he returned to
Madeley, Fletcher was married. He was now in the decline of
life, a man of broken health, in the fifty-second year of his age,
and the step probably took his friends by surprise. But it seems
to have been a wise and well-ordered step, and one that added
much to the comfort of his latter days. The lady of his choice,
a Miss Bosanquet, was one whom lie had known well as a
decided Christian for at least twenty years, and she appears in
every respect, both in age and character, to have been eminently
calculated to be a help-meet for him. The account of the
wedding, which is given at great length by Fletcher's biographer,
Mr. Benson, is very curious indeed, and deserves an attentive
perusal. Seldom, perhaps, was a marriage ever celebrated in
a fashion so utterly unlike the fashion of this world. But
Fletcher was no common man, and his wedding was no com-
mon wedding.

The Vicar of Madeley's letter to a friend, written shortly
after his marriage, is interesting ; and the more so as it throws
some light on his motives for changing his state. He says :
" I am married in my old age, and have a new opportunity of
considering a great mystery, in the most perfect type of our
Lord's mystical union with his Church. I have now a new call
to pray for a fulness of Christ's holy, gentle, meek, loving spirit,
that I may love my wife as he loved his spouse the Church.
But the emblem is greatly deficient. The Lamb is worthy of
his spouse, and more than worthy : whereas I must acknow-

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 34 of 36)