John Fletcher: The First Wesley Scholar

Laurence W. Wood

Jean Guillaume de la Fléchère was born in 1729 in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. He attended the academy in Geneva (later, the University of Geneva), although it is not clear how long he was there. He emigrated to England at the age of 22, where he changed his name to John William Fletcher (cf. P. Streiff, Reluctant Saint? A Theological Biography of Fletcher of Madeley [Epworth Press, 2001] 3). He was employed as the tutor for two sons of a wealthy merchant whose wife told him about the Methodists in an unflattering manner, but Fletcher was determined to get acquainted with them. John Wesley soon became his “spiritual guide” (see Fletcher’s Works [vol.4; W. Waugh and T. Mason, 1833] 368), and shortly thereafter Fletcher was ordained a priest in the Church of England.

On the same day of his ordination in 1757 Fletcher hurried to West Street Chapel in London to assist Wesley in serving Holy Communion, and forever thereafter became Wesley’s coadjutor (cf. John Wesley, The Methodist Societies: History, Nature, and Design, in Wesley’s Works [vol. 9; ed. R.E. Davies; Oxford University Press, 1944] 466; J. Benson, The Life of the Rev. John W. de la Flechere [J. Mason, 1833] 42). Three weeks later, Wesley entered this note in his Journal: “Mr. Fletcher helped me again. How wonderful are the ways of God! When my bodily strength failed, and none in England were able and willing to assist me, He sent me help from the mountains of Switzerland; and a help meet for me in every respect: where could I have found such another?” (Journal and Diaries, in Works [vol. 21; ed. W.R. Ward and R.P. Heitzenrater; Abingdon, 1992] 89). Fletcher quickly became the most influential person in Methodism next to John and Charles Wesley.

Wesley’s annual conference in 1770 provoked a highly publicized controversy with the Calvinist Methodists with the charge that Calvinism led to spiritual mediocrity and antinomianism (No. XXVI, London, Tuesday, August 7, 1770, Q. 28. A. 2. Minutes of the Methodist Conferences 1744-98 [Mason, 1862] 95). Fletcher, a Geneva-trained scholar, rose to the occasion to defend Wesley. Out of this conflict, Fletcher emerged as Wesley’s authoritative interpreter with the publication of a series of books under the title, Checks to Antinomianism, which were edited, corrected, and published by Wesley. Fletcher was introduced on the title page as Wesley’s “Vindicator,” a term specifically used by Wesley himself to describe Fletcher (Davies, Societies, 9:406-07, “Answer to Rowland Hill’s Tract”). Fletcher’s numerous writings clarified, vindicated, and synthesized Wesley’s developing ideas. Wesley said they frequently consulted one another on the most important issues and that their friendship was sealed with mutual loyalty. Wesley further said: “We were of one heart and one soul. We had no secrets between us for many years; we did not purposely hide anything from each other.” Wesley spoke of “the strongest ties” between them (Works [Jackson], 11:276-77, “A Short Account of the Rev. John Fletcher”).

Fletcher’s Checks did not merely repeat Wesley’s ideas, but reshaped them. This reshaping is what Fletcher meant by making Wesley consistent with himself (a letter published for the first time in Tyerman, Wesley’s Designated Successor, 182-83). T. Langford noted that “so important was Fletcher in the movement, that he has been called the Theologian of Methodism” (Practical Divinity [Abingdon, 1983] 51). Langford also noted that “Wesley gave his approval [to the Checks to Antinomianism] and thereby endorsed the first exposition of a distinctively Wesleyan theological position” (50-51). Although Wesley expressed a few reservations about Fletcher’s theology when his ideas were still being developed in manuscript form, Wesley never once expressed a single word of disagreement with any of Fletcher’s published writings because Fletcher accepted Wesley’s corrections.

Fletcher offered three main contributions.

  1. He refuted absolute predestination, of which Wesley said that simply to read Fletcher was to be convinced of his arguments (cf. J. Benson, The Life of the Rev. John W. de la Flechere [J. Mason, 1833] 156).
  2. His writings on holiness decisively shaped Methodist theology. His treatise on Christian Perfection was often published together in the same volume with Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, and received equal status with Wesley’s own writings on this subject. Wesley said Fletcher had written with a clearer understanding on the theme of “pardon and holiness” than “scarcely any one has done before since the Apostles” (J. Telford, Letters [Epworth Press, 1931] 6:79-80; Letter to Mrs. Bennis [May 2, 1774]).
  3. Fletcher expanded Wesley’s via salutis with a concept of four stages (or dispensations) of faith which believers pass through in the course of their lives. These personal and progressive stages of faith are abstracted from the public history of salvation as typified in the age of Noah (Gentilism), where there is a general awareness of God; the dispensation of Moses (Judaism), where there is a awareness of the personal character of God in special revelation; the dispensation of John the Baptist (and the disciples of Jesus during his earthly life), where there is God’s self-revelation and the offer of redeeming grace and forgiveness of sins; and the dispensation of the risen Lord (culminating on the day of Pentecost which marked the birthday of the church) where believers are enabled to love God with a pure heart through the agency (baptism, infilling, or sealing) of the Holy Spirit. Wesley applauded Fletcher’s concept of dispensation: “Mr. Fletcher has given us a wonderful view of the different dispensations which we are under. I believe that difficult subject was never placed in so clear a light before. It seems God has raised him up for this very thing” ([6:136-137] “Letter to Elizabeth Ritchie,” January 17, 1775).

When Wesley was fifty-eight years of age and Fletcher was thirty-two years old, Wesley asked him to join him: “You would do more good and gain more benefit from being among us. Come, then, and if you do not wish to be an equal partner with me, I will be ready to serve under you” (cf. Fletcher’s letter to Charles Wesley, cited by Streiff). Fletcher did not accept this invitation. In 1773 as Wesley was getting older, he invited Fletcher to become his successor. Wesley told Fletcher that he was the only person qualified to serve as his sole replacement, noting his popularity with the preachers and his “clear understanding…of the Methodist doctrine and discipline” (Works [Jackson], 12:163-64, Letter to John Fletcher [January 1773]).

Fletcher did not think it was the proper time to take on this responsibility. Fletcher believed his continuing task was to write as an interpreter of Wesley’s theology: “I have laid my pen aside for some time; nevertheless, I resumed it last week, at your brother’s request, to go on with my treatise on Christian Perfection. I have made some alterations in the sheets you have seen, and hope to have a few more ready for your correction, against the time you come this way” (cited by H. Moore, The Life of the Rev. John Wesley (John Kershaw, 1825), 2:259-60; cf. J. Benson, Life, 171). So Fletcher deferred any decision about this until he felt the right time had come. Henry Moore reported that Wesley’s preachers had also “pressed Mr. Wesley to apply to him; and, on his reporting Mr. Fletcher’s answer, they were so encouraged, that they requested that the application should be renewed” (H. Moore, Life, 2:261). So in January 1776, Wesley renewed the same invitation to Fletcher to become his successor. Wesley believed that the timing of his selection of Fletcher as his successor was right because “just now the minds of the people in general are on account of the Checks greatly prejudiced in your favor. Should we not discern the providential time?” Wesley pleaded with Fletcher to accept immediately the role of his designated successor (Telford, Letters, 6:34). Fletcher explicitly declined the offer this time.

In 1781, Fletcher married M. Bosanquet, who was like Wesley’s own daughter and the first woman Methodist preacher. If Fletcher was the most influential clergyman among Methodist preachers next to the Wesleys, then Mary “always held, in general estimation, the chief place” among the “private members” (H. Moore, The Life of Mrs. Mary Fletcher [Hunt & Eaton, 1738] 7). Their friendship and subsequent marriage brought together the two most highly respected persons among all of Wesley’s followers.

Fletcher attended his final Methodist conference in 1784, where he served as a decisive mediating force between Wesley and the preachers over the decision to name one hundred preachers to serve as his successor (L. Tyerman, Wesley’s Designated Successor, 541-42). Fletcher preached twice during this conference. The impact of his preaching powerfully moved everyone (Tyerman, 543; cf. Mrs. R. Smith, The Life of Rev. Henry Moore, 337-40). The following year Fletcher died at the age of 55.

The only biography Wesley ever wrote was on The Life of John Fletcher. Wesley wanted the memory of Fletcher to be a permanent fixture in the minds of Methodists everywhere. Wesley desired that his saintly life and writings would never be lost to Methodism. In his memorial sermon, Wesley described Fletcher’s life in these terms: “I was intimately acquainted with him for above thirty years. I conversed with him morning, noon, and night, without the least reserve, during a journey of many hundred miles; and in that time, I never heard him speak one improper word, nor saw him do an improper action. To conclude. Many exemplary men have I known, holy in heart and life, within fourscore years. But one equal to him I have not known—one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God. So unblamable a character in every respect I have not found either in Europe or America. Nor do I expect to find another such on this side of eternity” (A. Outler, Sermons, in Works (Oxford University Press, 1964), 3:227-68, “On the Death of John Fletcher”).

Bishop Asbury introduced Fletcher’s writings as required reading for his American preachers (cf. Autobiography of Dan Young, ed. W.P. Strickland [Carlton and Porter, 1860] 213-14, 164-65, 212-35). There were thirteen imprints of Fletcher’s various writings in America, including five reprints of his complete Works, even before Wesley’s complete Works were first published in 1826 in America. The pocketsize edition of Fletcher’s Christian Perfection (1796) was one of the most, if not the most, widely read book in 19th-century American Methodism. There were at least 174 different printings of Fletcher’s various books in the nineteenth century (cf. The National Union Catalog Pre-1956 Imprints, 175:232-40, for the record of the various reprints of Fletcher’s books).

In light of these numerous reprints, it is possibly justified to say that Fletcher’s writings in the 19th century did “control the opinions of the largest and most effective body of evangelical clergymen of the earth,” as Abel Stevens claimed in 1864 (The History of the Religious Movement of the Eighteenth Century, Called Methodism [George Watson, 1864] 2:55). Another biographer claimed that Fletcher was more widely read than Wesley (cf. J. Wiggins, The Embattled Saint [Wesleyan College, 1966] 52). The editors of The Methodist Magazine wrote: “After the Holy Scriptures, and, in subordination to these, the works of Mr. John Wesley, the writings of John Fletcher are held next in estimation, we believe, by the whole body of Wesleyan Methodists throughout the world” (The Methodist Magazine and Quarterly Review 13 [January 1831] 104). An early twentieth-century Methodist bishop and author referred to Fletcher as “the thought of Wesley voiced by Fletcher” (T.B. Neely, The Doctrinal Standards of Methodism (Revell, 1918] 86). To be sure, Wesley’s sermons were always considered to be the norm of Methodist beliefs, while Fletcher’s writings were considered to be their official interpretation.

Posted Apr 01, 2009