Consider Wesley

Shapers of Early Methodism: John Fletcher

Henry H. Knight III

Next to his brother Charles, no one played a more significant role in John Wesley’s Methodism than John Fletcher. Although little remembered today, Fletcher’s theological works were read alongside the Wesley brothers by Methodists on both sides of the Atlantic well into the 19th century.

He was born in 1729 near Lake Geneva in Switzerland as Jean Gillaume de la Flѐchére, into a respectable family and a privileged life. A gifted student, Fletcher wanted to enter the ministry, but was opposed to the predestinarian teaching of the Reformed Church. Instead he joined the Dutch army to serve as an engineer, but an accident in which his legs were badly scalded put an abrupt end to this military career in 1749.

Fletcher went to England, and by 1752, he had become a tutor to the two sons of Thomas Hill, an influential member of Parliament. It was during his years with the Hill family that Fletcher discovered the Methodists and joined the London society. There he came to realize his moral striving, as earnest as it was, would not bring him the assurance of salvation he desired. This led in 1755 to an experience in which through the power of God he came to know forgiveness of sins and received a transformed heart and life.

He then returned to his original calling to the ministry and was ordained in the Church of England in 1757. Turning down more lucrative offers, Fletcher felt called to Madely, in the heart of the English iron and coal industry.

As he began his ministry there in 1760, he faced much opposition. Many of his working class parishioners were devoted to drink and rowdiness, while the more well-to-do disliked his Methodist beliefs and practices. But people began to attend his services in increasing numbers, conversions were occurring, and his diligent pastoral care was well-received.

Fletcher’s ties with the leaders of the awakening also began to strengthen. Madely became a place of welcome for the Wesley brothers and their preachers, as well as George Whitefield and others. In 1768, Fletcher became President of the Countess of Huntingdon’s school for preachers at Trevecca, while continuing the serve as priest at Madely.

Then, in 1770, John Wesley published the minutes of the annual conference of his preachers which, to Calvinist ears, seemed to endorse works as necessary for salvation. The Countess demanded her teachers all sign a disavowal, which in the end Fletcher refused to do. Resigning from the college, he put his pen in the service of Wesley and his Arminian theology.

This led to John Fletcher’s “Checks to Antinomianism,” a series of open letters defending Wesleyan teaching, from prevenient grace to Christian perfection. At the time they helped fuel a five-year controversy between the Calvinist and Arminian wings of the awakening. Soon “Mr. Fletcher’s Checks” became standard reading for generations of Methodist preachers and many laity.

By 1775, Fetcher began to suffer from tuberculosis, and traveled in order to rest and recover, including a return to Switzerland. He returned to Madely in 1781. That same year he proposed marriage to Mary Bonsanquet, who he had been drawn to for 26 years but had hesitated to approach due to his health issues. She too was a highly influential leader among Wesley’s Methodists. They were married in 1781 and happily in ministry together until John Fletcher’s death in 1785.

Fletcher’s other major theological work, A Portrait of Saint Paul, was published after his death in 1790. Written while recuperating in Switzerland, Fletcher developed Wesleyan theology in two ways that would have lasting impact. The first was his identification of the baptism of the holy Spirit with Christian perfection. Although Fletcher himself can speak of one or many “fillings” of the Spirit, his language of Spirit baptism will prove influential as it is passed along from early Methodism to the Holiness movement, and then to Pentecostalism.

The second was his theology of trinitarian dispensations. Fletcher’s description of humanity as now in the dispensation of the Spirit, and his argument that these dispensations are also stages within the way of salvation, would capture the imagination of Methodist and Holiness adherents throughout the 19th century.

Wesley had hoped Fletcher would succeed him and Charles as the leader of Methodism, but he died before either of the two brothers. Many in and out of Methodism thought of Fletcher as a saint. In his short biography of Fletcher, John Wesley said “I have not known one so uniformly and deeply devoted to God…nor do I expect to find another such, on this side of eternity.”

Posted May 28, 2018