J. C. (John Charles) Ryle.

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

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Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 35 of 36)
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ledge myself unworthy of the yoke-fellow whom Heaven has
reserved for me. She is a person after my own heart ; and I
make no doubt we shall increase the number of the happy


marriages in the Church militant. Indeed, they are not so
many but it may be worth a Christian's while to add one more
to the number. God declared that it was 'not good for man,'
a social being, ' to live alone ; ' and therefore he gave him a
help-meet for him. For the same reason our Lord sent forth
his disciples two and two. Had I searched the three king-
doms, I could not have found one brother willing to share,
gratis, my weal, woe, and labour, and complaisant enough to
unite his fortune to mine. But God has found me a partner,
*a sister, a wife,' to use St. Paul's language, who is not afraid to
face with me the colliers and bargemen of my parish, until
death part us. Buried together in our country village, we shall
help one another to trim our lamps, and to wait, as I trust you
do continually, for the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom."

In another letter, written in the beginning of 1782, he says :
" Strangely restored to health and strength, considering my
years, by the good nursing of my dear partner, I ventured to
preach of late as often as I did formerly : and, after having read
prayers, I preached twice on Christmas-day. I did last Sunday
what I had never done : I continued doing duty from ten till
past four in the afternoon, owing to christenings, churchings,
and the sacrament, which I administered to a churchful of
people ; so that I was obliged to go from the communion-table
to begin the evening service, and then to visit some sick. This
has brought back upon me one of my old dangerous symptoms,
so that I had flattered myself in vain to do the whole duty of
my parish. But my dear wife nurses me with the tenderest
care, gives me up to God with the greatest resignation, and
helps me to rejoice that life and death, health and sickness,
work all for our good, and are all sure, as blessed instruments,
to forward us in our journey to heaven."

Fletcher's most useful ministry did not last long after his
return to Madeley. He died on Saturday the 14th of August
1785, after a short illness of only ten days' duration — appa-


rently a typhus fever — in the fifty-sixth year of his age. His
constitution was probably broken down by his long-continued
labours in Christ's cause, and a constant tendency to consump-
tion ; and when the last enemy came, he had no strength or
stamina to enable him to resist disease. Even to the last he
was the same man that he had been for twenty-five years, and
his obstinate determination to work on to the uttermost in all
probability made his attack of fever terminate fatally. Though
taken ill on Thursday the 4th of August, he persisted in taking
the full morning duty on the following Sunday in his church.
He read prayers, preached, and administered the Lord's Supper,
though he nearly fainted several times in the service. From
the church he was supported into his bedroom, where he lay
for some time in a swoon, and from that time he never left his
house alive. Never, perhaps, was there a more striking instance
of the " ruling passion being strong in death." Like White-
field, he almost died in harness.

All through the early part of the week he lay very ill, able to
speak little, but full of joy and peace, and delighting greatly in
hearing his wife read hymns and treatises on faith and love.
On Thursday and Friday he spoke very little, but seemed to
take peculiar pleasure in the text, " God is love," and in the
verse of a hymn containing these words, —

" The blood of Christ through earth and skies,
Mercy — free, boundless mercy cries ;
Mercy's full power I soon shall prove —
Loved with an everlasting love."

' On Saturday afternoon the fever seemed to leave him for a
little time, and he became so much more like himself that a
friend said, " Do you think the Lord will raise you up % " He
strove to answer, but could only just pronounce the words,
" Raise me up in the resurrection." To another who asked the
same question, he said, '' I leave it all to God."

On Saturday evening the fever returned again, and with


greater violence than ever. It became evident that he was
dying very fast. His wife then said, " My dear creature, I ask
not for myself — I know thy soul — but I ask for the sake of
others : — If Jesus be very present with thee, lift up thy right
hand." Immediately he did so. " If the prospect of glory
sweetly open before thee, repeat the sign." He instantly raised
his hand again, and in half a minute raised it a second time.
He then threw it up, as if he would reach the top of the bed.
After this he moved and spoke no more, excepting when Mrs.
Fletcher said, " Art thou in pain % " when he answered, " No."
From that time he lay in a kind of sleep, though with his eyes
open and fixed, sitting upright in his bed, with his head leaning
on pillows. Eighteen hours he continued in this position,
breathing quietly like a person in common sleep, and with a
countenance so calm and composed that not a trace of death
could be seen on it. During this period many of his mourning
parishioners, who had assembled for Sunday service, were
permitted to walk through the house, and past the open door
of his bedroom, and to see his much-loved face once more.
At length, at half-past ten on Sunday night, August 14th, he
fell asleep in Christ, without a struggle or groan, and entered
into the joy of his Lord. On the 17th, he was buried in
Madeley churchyard, amidst the tears and lamentations of
thousands, of whom many never knew the true value of their
vicar until they had lost him.

I have now followed Fletcher from his cradle to his grave.
It only remains for me to offer some estimate of his real worth
as a preacher, a writer, and a man.

As 2i preacher, I am disposed to assign Fletcher a very high
rank. Even in the last century, when there were " giants of
pulpit power on the earth," I suspect there were not half-a-dozen
men superior to the Vicar of Madeley. He was naturally an
eloquent man. He had a mind well trained and stored with
scriptural matter. He was eminently direct, bold, and con-

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science-Stirring, in his way of putting things. Not least, he had
a very fine voice, and a singularly fervent and attractive manner.
It is recorded that many English people used to go to hear him
preach in French to the French congregations in London, though
they could not understand a word that he said. " We go,"
they used to say, " to look at him, for heaven seems to beam
from his countenance." A minister possessing such qualifica-
tions as these must have been a man of no common power in
the pulpit. John Wesley, who was no mean judge, used to
say, that if Fletcher had had more physical strength, he would
have been the first preacher in England. This is probably
saying too much. Nothing, I suspect, would ever have made
Fletcher equal Whitefield or Rowlands. But we need not hesi-
tate to place him in the first class among the Christian orators
of England a hundred years ago.

The following passage will probably convey a pretty correct
idea of what Fletcher was as a preacher. I have taken it from
his " Address to a serious reader who inquires what must he do
to be saved." The address was certainly not published in the
form of a sermon; but if it had not been preached, I am
greatly mistaken. Ministers who spend their whole life in
preaching, as Fletcher did, have seldom time to think and
compose in more than one style. To that rule Henry Venn
was perhaps the only exception among the great men of the
last century. But that Fletcher had preached the following
passage in Madeley pulpit before he committed it to the press,
I feel thoroughly persuaded in my own mind. After quoting a
long list of encouraging promises and invitations in Scripture,
he goes on, —

" Are these, O sinner, the gracious sayings of God to thee %
the compassionate expostulations of God, become incarnate for
thee 1 Did God so love thee as to set forth his only-begotten
Son, as a propitiation through faith in his blood, thus to declare
his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past ? May


the Almighty now be just, and yet the justifier of him that
believeth in Jesus? Is there no difference, no respect of
persons, with him % And is the same Lord over all rich unto
all that call upon him % Then shout, ye heavens ! triumph,
thou earth ! and thou, happy sinner, know the day of thy visi-
tation j be wdse, ponder these things, and thou shalt understand
the loving-kindness of the Lord.

" Be no longer afraid that it will be presumption in thee to
believe, and that God will be offended with thee if thou makest
so free with Jesus as to wash instantly in the fountain of his
atoning blood. He not only gives thee leave to believe, but
he invites thee to do it freely. Nay, he commands thee to
believe ; for ' this is his commandment, that we should believe
on the name of his Son Jesus Christ.' He even enforces the
precept by a double promise, that if thou believest thou ' shalt
not perish, but have everlasting life.' And that nothing may
be wanting to stir thee up to this important business, he is
gracious enough to threaten the neglect of it with the most
dreadful punishment ; for ' he that believeth not shall not enter
into his rest,' and ' shall be damned;' and he that to the end
remains 'fearful and unbelieving' 'shall be cast into the lake
that burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second
death.' How canst thou doubt, then, whether thou art welcome
to receive the Son by believing on his name %

" Come to him just as thou art, and he will make thee
what thou shouldst be. When he counsels thee to buy of him
the gold of faith, and the garment of salvation, take him at his
gospel-word. Come without regarding thy stuff — the poorer
thou art the better — the oil of his grace flows most abundantly
into empty vessels — his charity is most glorified in the relief of
the most miserable objects — his royal bounty scorns the vile
compensation of thy wretched merits — he sells like a king, like
the King of kings, ' without money and without price.'

" ' Ask and have,' and ' take freely,' are the encouraging


mottoes written upon all the unsearchable treasures of his

" Be of good comfort, then ; rise, he calleth thee — stretch
out thy withered hand, and he will restore it — open thy mouth
wide, and he will fill it — bring an empty vessel, a poor hungry
heart, and he will give into thy bosom good measure, pressed
down, shaken together and running over.

" And now, what meanest thou, sleeper % Why tarriest thou %
Arise, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
Lose not time in conferring with flesh and blood ; much less
in parleying with Satan, or consulting thy unbelieving heart.
These delays lead to ruin ; the Philistines are upon thee,
instantly shake thyself; if thou art not altogether blinded by
the god of this world, and led captive by him at his will, this
moment, in the powerful name of Jesus, burst the bonds of
spiritual sloth — break, like a desperate soul, out of the prison
of unbelief — escape for thy life — look not behind thee — stay
not in all the plain. This one thing do ; leaving the things
that are behind — Sodom and her ways — press forwards towards
Zoar, and escape to the mount of God, lest thou be consumed.
By the new and living way consecrated for us, in full assurance
of faith, fly to the Father of mercies, pass through the crowd of
Laodicean professors, press through the opening door of hope,
take the kingdom of heaven by violence.

"With halting, yet wrestling, Jacob, say to the Friend of
sinners, * I will not let thee go unless thou bless me.' If he
makes as if he would go farther, with the two mournful disciples,
' constrain him to stay ; ' or rather, with the distressed women
of Canaan, ' follow him whithersoever he goeth,' take no denial.
Through the veil, that is to say, his flesh, torn from the crown
of his head to the sole of his feet — through this mysterious
veil, rent from the top to the bottom, rush into the blood-
besprinkled sanctuary ; embrace the horns of the golden altar ;
ay all thy guilt on the head of the sin-boning victim ; read thy


name on the breast of thy merciful high-priest. Claim the
safety, demand the blessings, receive the consolations bestowed
on all that fly to him for refuge, and begin a new, delightful
life, under the healing and peaceful shadow of his wings."

As a writer, Fletcher's reputation will never perhaps stand so
high as it deserves. Unfortunately, a very large portion of his
literary remains consists of controversial treatises against Cal-
vinism, and in defence of Arminianism. In these treatises I
must plainly say the worthy Vicar of Madeley says many things
with which I cannot agree, because I cannot reconcile them
with the statements of Scripture. Yet, even when I do not
agree with him, I feel bound as an honest man to admit that
Fletcher is a very able adversary, and makes the best that can
be made of a bad cause, and writes with courtesy. Indeed, I
never can help suspecting that he was not nearly so much an
Arminian in his heart as he thought he was, and that he was
pushed into saying things, in the heat of controversy, which he
afterwards regretted.

The following passage, from Fletcher's " Checks to Antino-
mianism," will convey a very fair idea of his power as a writer,
and will show how thoroughly his mind was saturated and imbued
with Scripture. It is almost needless to remark that, like many
controversialists, he was constantly fighting shadows of his own
creation, and that his Calvinistic antagonists hated Antinomian-
ism and unholy living quite as much as he did. But the
passage is a good specimen of his style of writing. He is giving
a long catalogue of the melancholy inconsistencies of professors
of religion, and says : —

"Who can number the ^adulterers and adulteresses' who
know not that the friendship of the world is enmity against God?
— the concealed idolaters, who have their 'chambers of imagery'
within, and 'set up their idols in their hearts?' — the envious
Cains, who carry murder in their breast?' — the profane Esaus,
who give up their birthright for a sensual gratification; and


covetous Judases, who ' sell the truth' which they should ' buy,'
and partvith Christ ' for filthy lucre's sake ?' — ' the sons of God,
who look at the fair daughters of men, and take to themselves
wives of all which they choose?' — the gay Dinahs, who 'visit
the daughters of the land,' and come home polluted in body or
in soul % — the prophets of Bethel, ' who deceive the prophets of
Judah,' entice them out of the way of self-denial, and bring the
roaring lion and death upon them % — the fickle Marcuses, who
depart when they should ' go to the work ?' — the self-made
prophets, who ' run before they are sent,' and scatter instead of
' profiting the people ?' — the spiritual Absaloms, who rise against
their fathers in the gospel, and, in order to ' reign without them,'
raise a rebellion against them % — the furious Zedekiahs, who
'make themselves horns of iron to push' the true servants of
the Lord, because they will not ' prophesy smooth things and
deceit' as they do? Who can count the fretful Jonahs, who
are ' angry to death' when the ' worm' of disappointment
' smites the gourd' of their creature-happiness ? — the weak Aarons,
who dare not resist a multitude, and are carried by the stream
into the greatest absurdities? — the jealous Miriams, who rise
against the ministers that God honours ? — the crafty Zibas, who
calumniate and supplant their brethren % — the treacherous Joabs,
who ' kiss' them to get an opportunity of ' stabbing them under
the fifth rib ?' — the busy sons of Zeruiah, who perpetually stir
up resentment and wrath ? — the mischievous Doegs, who carry
about poisonous scandal, and blow up the fire of discord ? — the
hypocritical Gehazis, who look like saints before their masters
and ministers, and yet can impudently lie and impiously cheat ?
— the Gibeonites, always busy in hewing wood and drawing
water, in going through the drudgery of outward services, with-
out ever aspiring at the adoption of sons ? — the halting Naamans,
who serve the Lord and bow to Rimmon? — the backsliding
Solomons, who once ' chose wisdom,' but now pursue folly
in her most extravagant and impious forms ? — the apostatizing


Alexanders, who ' tread under foot the Son of God, and count
the blood of the covenant, wherewith they are sanctified, an
unholy thing?' — and, to include multitudes in one class, the
Samaritans, who, by a common mixture of truth and error,
of heavenly and earthly mindedness, ' worship the Lord and
serve their gods ;' are one day for God, and the next for mam-
mon? — or the thousands in Israel who 'halt between two
opinions,' crying out, when Elijah prevails, ' The Lord he is the
God !' and when Jezebel triumphs, returning to the old song,
' O Baal, save us !' O trinity of the world, money, pleasure, and
honour, make us happy !"

But it really is not fair to judge Fletcher, as a writer, by his
controversial treatises alone. Out of the eight volumes of his
works, at least four contain many admirable things, which are
far less known than they ought to be. His admirable " Letter
to Mr. Prothero in Defence of Experimental Religion ;" his
" Critical Vindication of the Catholic Faith, in reply to Priest-
ley ;" his " Portrait of St. Paul ;" his " Pastoral Epistles" to his
flock at Madeley, are, generally speaking, all worthy of high
praise. Last, but not least, his letters to friends, like most of
the letters of the spiritual heroes of last century, are often
most excellent. If a volume of letters by Whitefield, Venn,
and their contemporaries, could be compiled and published —
and I have long regretted that the thing has not been done — I
am bold to say that Fletcher's letters would occupy a very pro-
minent place among them.

As a man., Fletcher's character stands above all praise. I can
find very few men of a hundred years ago about whom there is
so striking an agreement on all sides that he was pre-eminently
and peculiarly a most holy man, a saint indeed, a living epistle
of Christ. His deep humility, his extraordinary self-denial, his
unwearied diligence, his courage in Christ's cause, his constant
spirituality of tone, his fervent love to God and man, his single-
ness of eye, are features in his character so strongly marked and


developed, that even his adversaries never pretended to deny
them. Wrong as he was in some of his views of doctrine, his
worst foes never ventured to doubt his singular holiness of life.
In this respect, at any rate, the Vicar of Madeley ranked high
among his contemporaries. Like every earthen vessel, he had
his cracks and flaws, no doubt, and no one knew it better than
himself; but they were cracks and flaws which were far less
visible than, unhappily, they are in many of God's saints.

Let us hear what John Wesley thought of Fletcher. No
doubt he was an Arminian, like Fletcher, and likely to think
well of him. But Wesley was a calm, cool-blooded man, and
not one to speak strongly in any one's praise without good
reason. This is his testimony :—

"I was intimately acquainted with Mr. Fletcher for thirty
years. I conversed with him morning, noon, and night, with-
out the least reserve, during a journey of many hundred miles ;
and in all that time I never heard him speak an improper word,
or do an improper action. To conclude, within fourscore years
I have known many excellent men, holy in heart and life ; but
one equal to him I have not known, one so uniformly devoted
to God. So unblamable a man, in every respect, I have not
found, either in Europe or America, nor do I expect to find
another such on this side eternity."

Let us hear, finally, what Henry Venn thought of Fletcher.
His testimony, at any rate, is unexceptionable. Though not an
extreme Calvinist, he certainly was not in the least an Arminian.
He had little or no direct connection with the Vicar of Made-
ley, and did not move in the same path. Above all, he was a
man of rare good sense as well as grace, and one whose gift of
sound judgment was great and extraordinary.

His testimony was as follows : — " Mr. Fletcher was a lumi-
nary. A luminary, did I say? He was a sun. I have known
all the great men for these fifty years, but I have known none
like him. I was intimately acquainted with him, and was under


the same roof with him once for six weeks, during which 1 never
heard him say a single word which was not proper to be spoken,
and which had not a tendency to minister grace to the hearers.
One time meeting him when he was very ill with a hectic fever,
which he had brought on himself by excessive labour, I said,
' I am sorry to find you so ill.' Mr. Fletcher answered with
great sweetness and energy, ' Sorry, sir ! Why are you sorry ?
It is the chastisement of my heavenly Father, and I rejoice in it.
I love the rod of my God, and rejoice therein, as an expression
of his love and affection tow^ards me.' "

With John Fletcher I now close my biographical accounts of
the ministers who were prime movers in the revival of EngHsh
religion a hundred years ago. I have shown, I think, that in
the best sense " there were giants in those days." The Vicar
of Madeley, my readers will probably agree with me, was not the
least of them.


Y contribution to the religious history of England a
hundred years ago is now concluded. I have fairly
exhausted the list of leading ministers who were the
spiritual reformers of our land in the last century. That tliere
were other great and good men beside the eleven whom I have
selected, I do not for a moment deny. I only say that there
were none equal to them in public usefulness. There were
other labourers in the gospel-field of England whose record
is on high. But they " attained not to the first " eleven.

In compihng these biographies I am very sensible of many
deficiencies. I know they might have been made larger. But
I cannot forget that we do not live in a reading age, and that
" great books are great evils." I know they might have been l)et-
ter written. But I hope the reader will remember that their
preparation has been carried on under immense difiiculties, and
under the daily pressure of other ministerial duties. I have, at
any rate, the satisfaction of feeling that this volume contains a
mass of facts which have never been brought together before,
and throws light on some points in EngHsh Church history
which have never yet been rightly understood.

There are a few general statistics about my eleven heroes
which deserve notice. Reading their lives singly and one by
one, we may possibly overlook them. Viewed altogether and
in combination, they will probably be thought interesting.

For one thing, every one of the eleven leading ministers in


the revival of last century was an ordained clergyman of the
Church of England. This is a fact which ought not to be over-
looked. I am not what is called a High Churchman. I do
not hold the divine right of Episcopacy. I desire to regard all
ministers who love Christ and preach the truth as my brethren.
But still, honour should be given where honour is due. It is a
total mistake to suppose, as many do, that English religion a
hundred years ago was revived by Dissenters. Nothing of the
kind ! The men who did the mighty work of that day, and
plucked Christianity out of the dust, were all clergymen of the
Church of England— clergymen of whom the Church was un-
worthy, but still clergymen as really and truly as George Her-
bert, or Andrews, or Bull. Let that fact never be forgotten.
Well would it have been for the Church of England if she
had more children like Rowlands and Berridge, and fewer like


For another thing, the greater part of the leaders of the
revival of Enghsh religion last century were University men.
Five of them— namely, Wesley, Whitefield, Romaine, Hervey,
and Walker— took their degrees at Oxford. Three of them—

Online LibraryJ. C. (John Charles) RyleThe Christian leaders of the last century; or, England a hundred years ago → online text (page 35 of 36)