FLETCHER OF MADELEY
BY BRIGADIER MARGARET ALLEN
THE SALVATION ARMY PRINTING WORKS, ST. ALBANS.
I. AT THE CASTLE II. IN THE MANOR HOUSE III. EARLY ADVENTURES IV. A SWEET GIRLHOOD V. A NEW LIFE VI. GIVEN UP TO THE FIGHT VII. TURNED FROM HOME VIII. THE TERN HALL TUTOR IX. THE VICAR OF MADELEY X. AN ALARMED PARISH XI. THE VICAR'S SERMONS XII. SCANTY ENCOURAGEMENTS XIII. THE ORPHAN HOME XIV. A SEEKER AFTER GOD XV. SANCTIFIED LETTER-WRITING XVI. AN UNFORTUNATE PURCHASE XVII. THE COLLEGE OF TREVECCA XVIII. A PEN OF POWER XIX. FAILING HEALTH XX. BY THE SHORES OF LAKE LEMAN XXI. A WONDERFUL WEDDING XXII. LIFE AT MADELEY XXIII. "GOD IS LOVE!" XXIV. EXTRACTS FROM FLETCHER'S LETTERS XXV. EXTRACTS FROM FLETCHER'S WRITINGS
BY COMMISSIONER RAILTON.
There is a great difference between a red-hot man and a Red-hot Library book. We have no desire at all to pander to the common idea of our day that "it does not matter what you belong to," by any of these books. Very little reflection will show anyone the immeasurable distance between the sort of clergyman this book describes and the mere leader of formalities holding a similar position in these days of ease and self-satisfaction.
John Fletcher was a marvel, if viewed only on his bodily side. At a time when clergymen had far more opportunity than they have even to-day to retire into their own houses and do nothing for the world, he pressed forward, in spite of an almost dying body, to work for God daily, in the most devoted manner. That he was able to continue his labours so long was simply by God's wonder-working mercy. We cannot judge him because he remained in the strange position (for anyone who cares about God or souls) in which he was found. No other sphere was perhaps possible for him at that time. It must not, however, for that reason be imagined that the Salvationist can conceive of a red-hot life mixed with the reading of prayers out of a book, or the teaching of any poor soul to turn to such heathenish folly.
We can gladly take whatever is red-hot out of such a life without allowing ourselves to be poisoned in any respect whilst so doing. But it seems necessary, at the very outset, to call attention to this, lest at any time it should be argued that, after all, the Salvationist life is no better, in our opinion, than the stiffest and most formal specimen of Christianity.
About this fervent soul, whose wife was one of the few preaching women of her century, there could have been little voluntary formality, and if he was able to exist amidst the framing that others had set up for him, it may be an encouragement to anyone who is shut out for a time from the free, happy worship that God desires, and left with no alternative but to be content with "Divine services" where God's wishes are too often made of no effect by the arrangement of man.
But what will be the Salvationist's condemnation if, with all the opportunities he has to cultivate the utmost freedom in prayer and service, he never attains to that intimacy with God, that delight in communion with Him, that power to force others into God's presence, which John Fletcher's life discloses to us?
The mere thought of Fletcher, if you read these pages carefully, will ever bring back to you an impression of nearness to God and companionship with Him which is scarcely conceived of in our day amongst the majority of those who ought to lead men to the Father. Do not let us excuse ourselves for any lack of that communion which must be His continual delight. If we prjde ourselves upon our repudiation of forms of worship that men have invented, and glory in the manifestations of Christ at the street corner and in the public-house, to which we have become accustomed, let us take care that we do not grieve Him by contentment with the general action of The Army or of the Corps, or of the Brigade, in the absence of any close contact between our own souls and God or the lost.
This book will be useless unless it brings us continually right up to the personal questions which it is so eminently calculated to raise: Am I on such terms with God as this man was? Can He equally reckon upon my continual obedience and faithfulness? Is He sure to hear and answer me also? Do I share with Him that agony for souls, that inexhaustible pity and love which will never let one perish, for whom, by any extremity of sacrifice, I can do anything? Do I breathe out the breath of God upon those with whom I come in contact, making the world feel that I have no harmony with any of its aims or inclinations, but that I really belong to Heaven?
By inference, rather than directly, this life is a tremendous confirmation of the old faith. John Fletcher gained all he had because he believed the Bible just as it stands. He knew from his own experience and from daily intercourse with Him that the promises it contains come direct from the mouth of God, and not from the "sublime imagination" of some Jew poet, as the contemptible deceivers of our day would have us believe. If there were any delusion about that old Book, then John Fletcher was one of the most pitiful specimens of a degraded superstition this world ever contained. But where, amongst all the applauded doubt-preachers of our day, is there to be found a man of love and prayer and power approaching to this one?
Do not let us be discouraged as to the possibility of a life as holy as this amidst the circumstances of our rushing warfare. John Fletcher was, after all, only a thorough disciple of Him who had not where to lay His head. None of us are called to live amidst denser crowds, more hurry, worry, or contention of any sort than was the daily lot of our Heavenly Master. This book would draw us farther from Him, not nearer, if it only made us thirst for retirement and stillness, for hours of meditation or privacy. It is, not the imitation of Fletcher, but the imitation of Christ to which these pages are meant to call us. Most of us may never possess many of the charming traits of this most refined gentleman. We may perhaps suit God's purposes amidst the rough crowd all the better for that. But, depend upon it, close intercourse with the Nazarene is as possible amidst the throngs of London, or Glasgow, or New York, or Madras, as it was in the alleys of Jerusalem or Capernaum, and intimacy with Jesus is, after all, the one thing needful for every disciple.
But whoever is red-hot will ceaselessly be thinking and planning for the worst; that is to say, not only for those commonly called the worst, whose wild career of sin strikes all decent people with horror, but for the far more seriously in danger, who turn their very religion into a form or an amusement, and care nothing for any real intercourse with God. These are the people perhaps most difficult of all to get at, the people whom we shall never be likely to make any impression upon unless we combine with the greatest possible activity an intensity of spiritual heat and power of which we suppose Fletcher was one of the grandest specimens the world ever had. Do not let us resent or run away from any reproach as to our own comparative coldness and inefficiency which this story may bring to us. How much better to writhe and be aroused under any such reproofs now than only to awake to them when life is slipping away! Alas! for the readers who shall close this book without resolving to be as holy and useful as God commands us all to be!
LONDON, April, 1905.
THE LIFE OF JOHN FLETCHER.
AT THE CASTLE
In the nursery of a fine old Swiss castle, on the shores of Lake Leman, stood a small boy of seven, confronted by his white-capped nurse.
"You are a naughty boy!" she exclaimed. "Do you not know that the devil is to take away all naughty children?"
The little fellow opened wide his clear, truthful eyes, into which there crept a deepening look of trouble—trouble rather than fear; big tears rolled down his pinafore, and when tucked away for the night, Jean Guillaume De La Fléchère crept out of his cosy cot, sank upon his knees, and began the first real prayer of his life: "O God, forgive me!" Nor would he be interrupted until the inward sense of pardon comforted his sorrowing little heart. Many years later he described this time as the shedding abroad of the love of God within him.
Colonel De La Fléchère's family mansion commanded as fine a view of Swiss scenery as could be found in the neighbourhood. "Hill and dale, vineyards and pastures, stretched right away to the distant Jura mountains. At a few paces from the château was a terrace overlooking Lake Leman, with its clear blue waters and its gracefully curved and richly-wooded bays. On the right hand, at a distance of fifteen miles, was Geneva, the cradle of the Reformation in Switzerland; on the left, Lausanne and the celebrated Castle of Chillon. High up in the heavens were Alpine peaks, embosoming scenes the most beautiful; and not far away was Mont Blanc, 'robed in perpetual and unsullied snow.'" (Tyerman.)
In this earthly paradise the little Jean received his first unconscious training, breathing not only the clear mountain air into his lungs, but a no less important atmosphere of refinement, of culture, and of nobility into his mental and moral being.
He was devoted to his mother, who could never say he wilfully disobeyed her. One day, however, she deemed him lacking in reverence for her, because, when rebuking a member of the family over-sharply, John turned upon her a long look of evident reproof. She promptly boxed his ears, but was more than mollified when the boy lifted his clear eyes to hers, brimful of tenderness, and said simply, "Mother, when I am smitten on one cheek, and especially by a hand I love so well, I am taught to turn the other also."
It was not priggishness, but submissive affection, and she read it aright.
IN THE MANOR HOUSE.
In the château at Nyon Jean De La Fléchère was keeping his tenth birthday (September 12th, 1739). Away in old England the Lord of the Manor of Leytonstone, Essex, was giving his first caresses to a tiny baby girl, later to be known as little Mary Bosanquet, and forty years later still as the wife of the saintly John Fletcher, Vicar of Madeley.
Mary was but a four-year-old baby when she received her first definite conviction that God hears and answers prayer. She was a timid little maiden, and the greatest comfort she had in the world was the fact that she possessed a real Father in Heaven, strong, mighty, and willing to protect and help her. Sunday evenings in Forest House—as the Bosanquet mansion was called—were devoted to the children. On those occasions Mary's father taught her sister and herself the Church catechism. At five years old his youngest daughter asked questions concerning true Christians according to the Word of God, which might well have encouraged evasion on the part of her parent. She reasoned out everything told her; but her eager and earnest questions being so constantly put carelessly by, gave her childish mind the impression that the Bible did not mean all it said, therefore a sensible person would make due allowance for its threatenings.
As this thought began to take well hold of Mary, a Methodist girl entered the household as nurse, whose conversations with the children were a great enlightenment to them both.
In a year or two the nurse left them, but not before she had implanted in little Mary's mind the truth that it was not being united to any church or people which would save her, but that she must be converted through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the fruits of believing in Him as a personal Saviour would be power to love and serve God with a holy heart. That was excellent, but it had not been so explained to the child that she could understand the process either of "faith" or of "conversion." The result was perplexity.
Not a few children in bygone days have had to suffer long Sunday afternoon agonies over the harrowing pictures of Foxe's "Book of Martyrs," this being then considered a profitable and bracing Sabbatic "exercise" for hundreds of sensitive little ones whose dreams were haunted, and whose waking hours in the dark were rendered terrific by vivid imaginings of racked, tortured, and burning saints. Mary was one of these. Yet so troubled was her little heart over the ungrasped subject of faith that one day, while gazing upon these fearful pictures, she exclaimed to herself, "Oh! oh! I do think it would be easier to burn than to believe!"
Mary seems to have been busy with these thoughts for nearly two years. She had not passed her eighth birthday when we find her sitting by herself for "a good think," and wondering "What can it mean to have faith in Jesus?"
Vexed with the mystery of the subject, her childish soul rose in rebellion against God for having chosen so hard a way into salvation, and she exclaimed aloud—
"Oh, if I had to die a martyr, I could do it; or give away all I have, I could do that; or when I grow up to have to be a servant, that would be easy; but I shall never, never, never know how to believe!"
Two lines of an old hymn drifted instantly through her mind—
Who on Jesus relies, without money or price, The pearl of forgiveness and holiness buys.
It was the light she needed. The Spirit of Love had taken pity upon the little girl. From that moment the plan of salvation was clear to her, and she cried out—
"I do, I do rely on Jesus; yes, I do rely on Jesus; and God counts me righteous for all He has done and suffered, and hath forgiven all my sins!"
She felt that a great weight had been lifted from her heart. Before this it seemed that everything in the world was easier than to believe, now it appeared the simplest plan God could have devised. Had there been but a kindly and understanding person near to whom Mary could talk freely, she might have been a happy, trusting little Soldier of Jesus from that hour, but there was no one to help her into the sunshine of a child's daily faith and love and service, and religion became to her rather a subject for morbid thought. Terribly afraid of sin, not understanding temptation, wholly uninstructed how to get victory over her temper and other failings, she grew discouraged, and feared she had sadly grieved God. With all this shut up in her soul, perhaps it was no wonder that her mother should sometimes exclaim: "That girl is the most perverse creature that ever lived; I cannot think what has come to her."
From the bathing-place of Nyon château a slim, tall lad shot out into the blue water, as much at home there, evidently, as he had been while racing on the terrace. His long hair was bound by a strong ribbon, which the active movements of the swimmer at length loosened. In some unexplainable manner the ribbon caught and wound itself about the boy's feet, tying his head to his heels, and rendering a full stroke impossible. With all his might he struggled and tore, but the bond only grew tighter. He was in deep water, no help within call, and the awful thought came that there, in the budding of his bright young life, he must be cut off and die a helpless prisoner. He stayed his struggles, almost paralysed at the thought, and that instant the ribbon gave way and he recovered himself.
Nor was that his only narrow escape from death in the same lake. Five miles from the shore a rocky island reared its head.
"It would be a fine feat to swim there from land," said young Fletcher to four of his companions. They agreed, and the five set forth. Fletcher and one other lad succeeded in reaching the island, but found its smooth cliffs sank so steeply into the water that there was no possibility of climbing them. Despairingly they swam around the islet again and again, finding at last a bare foothold to which they clung until a boat fetched them off. The other three could swim but half the distance to the island, and would have sunk exhausted had not a passing boat picked them up.
A third time young Fletcher narrowly escaped drowning; on this occasion it was in the Rhine, where the river is wide and very rapid. The current swept him far from home, nor could he land for the sharp rocks on either hand. At length he was flung violently against one of the piles of a powder mill, lost consciousness, and disappeared, rising again on the other side of the mill (according to an onlooker, who took out his watch) twenty minutes after his head had vanished beneath the water. Surely a guardian angel accompanied Jean De La Fléchère in all his earthly wanderings!
Although a good rider and practised swimmer, the life of this young fellow was not by any means wasted in athletics and sport; he studied hard to prepare himself for the University of Geneva, succeeding most brilliantly. His extraordinary diligence, no less than his striking ability, distinguished him among the other students, and he bore off first prizes with ease, studying early and late that he might acquire the knowledge he loved. After leaving the University he gave himself to the acquirement of the German language, and studied Hebrew and higher mathematics.
All this he did with the idea of becoming a minister of the Gospel, but the more he thought about the burden which he would assume by so doing, the less he felt able for his suggested task.
"Go into the army, Fletcher," pleaded some of his friends, and it was not long before he turned the power of his clear brain to work upon military engineering. He became very keen on his chosen profession, and at the time when Portugal was despatching troops to Brazil, Fletcher hied himself to Lisbon, gathered together a company of young Englishmen, accepted a Captain's commission, and agreed to sail upon a certain day in the Portuguese Service.
His father, Colonel De La Fléchère, refused to sanction the step, or to supply him with the money he requested for the enterprise.
"I will go without it," he resolved, and counted the hours to the sailing of the man-o'-war.
A day or two before the appointed date a maid, who was serving him with breakfast, clumsily dropped the tea-kettle upon his leg, scalding him so severely that he had to take to his bed. While there the ship sailed, and in view of Fletcher's later life, it is a striking fact that she was never heard of again.
Though desperately disappointed, Fletcher was as keen as ever on becoming a soldier. He returned to Nyon, and, to his unbounded delight, learned that his uncle had procured him a commission in the Dutch Service, of which he was a Colonel.
Eagerly he made his way to Flanders, grudging the days of travel which kept him out of his ambition. Bent though he was in rough-hewing his way according to his desire, Providence was surely shaping for him an end other than he planned. On his arrival Fletcher found that peace was concluded; his soldiering capabilities were no longer required. Almost immediately his uncle died, and the door into the military profession seemed closed to him for ever.
A SWEET GIRLHOOD
Mary Bosanquet grew into sweet and graceful girlhood. "It is time she saw the world," decided her mother, and forthwith preparations were made for her to accompany the family, who were to spend three gay months in Bath. She dressed and danced as did the rest, but in the very ball-room found herself thinking, "If I only knew where to find the Methodists, or any who would show me how to please God, I would tear off all my fine things and run through the fire to them. If ever I am my own mistress I will spend half the day in working for the poor, and the other half in prayer."
Not long after this Mary's sister visited a friend who declared herself recently converted, and in her house Mary found her longed-for help and counsel—"the greatest comfort of my life," as she expressed it.
Association with this Mrs. Lefevre, who died when Mary was seventeen, led the girl to declare to her father that she desired to lead a better life than one of mere amusement, begging him to allow her to be left at home when the family visited the theatre and other scenes of gaiety. The opposition she met with was trying, but it served to strengthen her for the career which was to open to her in later life.
It was natural that Mary's friends should wish her to marry, but at the time when this was first put before her she heard Mrs. Crosby (one of Wesley's helpers) speak upon the necessity of holiness and the joy of a life fully devoted to God. With the gentleman who was striving to win her affections life would never have been the sacred thing Mary desired for herself, she therefore gave up all thought of marriage, began to dress plainly, and waited for God to show her His way.
A NEW LIFE.
Checked in his military ardour, John Fletcher turned his thoughts again to study. His linguistic powers were great; it was to him a cheerful distraction to join a party of students who were proceeding to England to become familiar with the language.
At the first English inn at which they stayed Fletcher showed that simple confidence in his brother-man which so distinguished his later life by trusting a strange Jew with all his money for the purpose of changing it into English coin. His fellow-students exclaimed, "You will never see another crown of it!" but whether or not that quality in Fletcher which always expected the very best from a man worked salvation in this case as in many another, certain it is that the Jew returned with the £90 intact.
For eighteen months Fletcher studied English at a school in Hertfordshire, and afterwards became tutor to the two sons of a Member of Parliament named Hill.
He little knew then how important a link in the providential chain was that appointment. Up to this time, although he had deeply appreciated religion, had read his Bible and prayed much, using any leisure he could gain between his ordinary studies for the research of prophecy and the perusal of devotional books, yet he lacked any experience of living union with God; joy in Christ was an unknown bliss; the "peace which passeth all understanding" was unrevealed to him. To his brother Henry he thus described his condition:—
"My feelings were easily excited, but my heart was rarely affected, and I was destitute of a sincere love to God, and consequently to my neighbour. All my hopes of salvation rested on my prayers, devotions, and a certain habit of saying, 'Lord, I am a great sinner; pardon me for the sake of Jesus Christ!' In the meantime I was ignorant of the fall and ruin in which every man is involved, the necessity of a Redeemer, and the way by which we may be rescued from the fall by receiving Christ with a living faith. I should have been quite confounded if anyone had asked me the following questions: 'Do you know that you are dead in Adam? Do you live to yourself? Do you live in Christ and for Christ? Does God rule in your heart? Do you experience that peace of God which passeth all understanding? Is the love of God shed abroad in your heart by the Holy Spirit?'"
A vivid dream concerning the Day of Judgment was used to arouse him, and for some days he was so depressed and harassed in mind that he could not settle to any occupation for long together. Sunday arrived; no teaching demanded his mental application; he wandered listlessly from place to place, miserable and dejected. At length he sat down to copy some music. The door opened and in walked the butler, an old servant of the family, and a countryman of Fletcher's. For a moment he paused, then approaching the tutor, said firmly, but respectfully:—
"Sir, I am surprised that you, who know so many things, should forget what day this is, and that you should not be aware that the Lord's Day should be sanctified in a very different manner."
The man was a true Christian, deeply humble, and full of zealous love for God. The knowledge of many things he had borne patiently for Christ, coupled with the strange power with which he spoke, smote the tutor with a sense of his own shortcomings, and made him exclaim to his own heart, "I am not renewed in the spirit of my mind, and without this the death of Christ will not avail for my salvation!"
Not long after this Mr. Hill went up to London to attend Parliament, accompanied by his tutor and family. On the road they stayed for a meal and to change horses at St. Albans, and Fletcher went for a brisk walk through the streets to stretch his limbs.
The horses were put to, but the tutor did not appear. After some delay the post-chaise drove off, a horse being left in readiness for the tutor to mount and ride after them. When in the evening he overtook the party, Mr. Hill enquired why he stayed behind. He replied, "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."
"I shall wonder," said Mrs. Hill, "if our tutor does not turn Methodist by-and-by."
"Methodist, Madame!" asked he, puzzled; "pray what is that?"
"Why, the Methodists are a people that do nothing but pray," was her rejoinder; "they are praying all day and all night."
"Are they? Then by the help of God I will find them out," said he decidedly.
He not only "found them out," but joined a Methodist society, meeting with them whenever an opportunity presented itself.
Fletcher could not readily rid himself of the idea that "much doing" would make him acceptable unto God. Gradually, however, he was brought to consider the value of "saving faith," and writes in his diary:—
"Instead of going straight to Christ I have lost my time in fighting against sin with the dim light of reason, and the use of the means of grace. I fear my notions of Christ are only speculative, and do not reach the heart. I never had faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God. Then every thought, word, and work of mine have only been sin and wickedness before God, though ever so specious before men. All my righteousness is as filthy rags. I am a very devil, though of an inferior sort, and if I am not renewed before I go hence, hell will be my portion to all eternity....
"I begged of God to show me all the wickedness of my heart, and to fit me for His mercy. I besought Him to increase my convictions, for I was afraid I did not mourn enough for my sins. But I found relief in Mr. Wesley's Journal, where I learned that we should not build on what we feel, but that we should go to Christ with all our sins and all our hardness of heart.
"On January 21st I began to write a confession of my sins, misery, and helplessness, together with a resolution to seek Christ even unto death, but, my business calling me away, I had no heart to go on with it. In the evening I read the Scriptures, and found a sort of pleasure in seeing a picture of my wickedness so exactly drawn in the third chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, and that of my condition in the seventh; and now I felt some hope that God would finish in me the work He had begun."
It would have been strange if at this important crisis the devil had let him alone. In many ways the enemy fought for his soul. Among other hindrances he was beset with temptations to evil thoughts, and, distressed beyond measure, he cried to God with a definite faith which grew out of the very desperateness of his immediate need of help. Hope grew within his cheerless soul, for, as he says:—
"Having withstood two or three temptations, and feeling peace in my soul through the whole of them, I began to think it was the Lord's doing. Afterwards it was suggested to me that it was great presumption for such a sinner to hope for such a mercy. I prayed I might not be permitted to fall into a delusion; but the more I prayed the more I saw it was real, for though sin stirred all the day long, I always overcame it in the name of the Lord.
"In the evening I read some of the experiences of God's children, and found my case agreed with theirs, and suited the sermon I had heard on Justifying Faith. I called on the Lord for perseverance and an increase of faith, for still I felt some fear lest this should be all delusion. Having continued my supplication till near one in the morning, I then opened my Bible and fell on these words, 'Cast thy burden on the Lord, and He shall sustain thee. He will never suffer the righteous to be moved.' Filled with joy, I fell on my knees to beg of God that I might always cast my burden upon Him. I took up my Bible again, and fell on these words, 'I will be with thee; I will not fail thee, neither forsake thee; fear not, neither be dismayed.' My hope was now greatly increased, and I thought I saw myself conqueror over sin, hell, and all manner of affliction.
"With this beautiful promise I shut my Bible, and as I shut it I cast my eye on the words, 'Whatsoever ye shall ask in My name I will do it.' So, having asked perseverance and grace to serve God till death, I went cheerfully to take my rest."
GIVEN UP TO THE FIGHT
Not content, as many are, with consciousness of sins forgiven, Fletcher at once began to plead that God would take fullest possession of his heart, and grant to him a deeper experience of His love. While lying upon his face in earnest prayer the Saviour strangely manifested Himself to his eye of faith, and it was revealed to him that Jesus had wondrously become his soul's inmost life, abiding in him to conquer sin.
This completely changed his spiritual position. The blessed realisation that in Christ he could triumph over sin and keep the world beneath his feet, filled him with a glad sense of freedom. He resolved that nothing should prevent him from experiencing this to the full: he gave all his leisure to prayer and meditation, living on vegetables, bread, milk and water, that he might be able to save time from the long courses of dinner, many a day lunching in the garden from a piece of bread and a few bunches of currants; also making it a rule to do without sleep two nights of each week in order to pray.
This extremely rigid rule of life was a mistake. Lack of proper rest and food at this period undoubtedly laid the foundation of his subsequent delicacy. Most men attend to the cravings of the body to the expense of the lightly-fed soul; all his life Fletcher gave less heed to physical needs than his not-too-robust frame required, and he paid the penalty.
As a natural gift, Fletcher possessed a very sweet and gentle spirit. Companionship with Christ grafted upon this an unusual humility, as simple as it was sincere. An instance of this is found in the fact that when the clergyman of Atcham Church (which Fletcher attended while at Tern Hall) invited adults who required instruction to join the children's catechumen class, gifted scholar though he was, he stepped out and took his place by the little ones as a matter of course, unmoved by the fact that he was the only adult who did not despise the proffered instruction.
Prayer, with Fletcher, was not a duty but a refreshment and an inspiration. Every Sunday morning, between four and five, and two or three nights in the week, after his pupils were asleep, he used to go out into the meadows, or on to the banks of the Severn, to meet an Excise Officer, a servant, and a poor widow. These four would pour out their whole souls to God in prayer, and wonderful were the manifestations of Divine love and grace vouchsafed to them.
The poor of Atcham village and its neighbourhood grew well accustomed to the fine, pure face of the Tern Hall tutor; sickness always drew him, and were there none at hand to nurse them as they needed he was quick to give help.
Thus continually brought face to face with the needs of ignorant and uncared-for men, it was no wonder that Fletcher should return to the thought (suggested to him many times previously) of devoting himself altogether to ministering the gospel of the grace of God. Before taking any step towards such a life, however, he asked the advice of John Wesley, whom he already looked upon as his spiritual guide. Apparently the answer he received was encouraging, for less than four months after he put the question, John Fletcher was ordained as a clergyman of the Church of England.
Straight from his ordination service in the Chapel Royal at St. James's, Fletcher hurried to Snowsfields Methodist Chapel to assist Wesley in a service there—a sufficiently unusual commencement of a clergyman's career!
TURNED FROM HOME.
Mary Bosanquet's determination to lay aside the ordinary pleasures of girlhood, and live a life of waiting upon God for the revelation of His will, came just two months after John Fletcher's ordination. Little enough happened to her for a couple of years, save that she succeeded in increasingly impressing those around her that it was useless to invite her into paths of worldliness and frivolity. When a girl of nineteen she stayed for seven weeks in Bristol, renewing there her friendship with Miss Sarah Ryan—to whom Fletcher wrote some of his famous letters—through whom, and through Mrs. Crosby, Mary was introduced to her future husband.
When she came of age Mary Bosanquet found herself mistress of her personal fortune, and more strongly than ever was she assured that she might do better work for God if she left her own home. Always afraid of moving before the Guiding Pillar, however, she feared exceedingly to take this step unless the express command were laid upon her.
One day her father asked for her solemn promise that she would not try to persuade her brothers to follow Christ.
"I am afraid I cannot promise that, father," she replied.
"Then you will force me to put you out of the house," was his rejoinder.
In preparation for whatever might follow, Mary took a lodging, and waited until she should be told to go, which quickly happened.
It was a pathetic departure. Before dinner a message reached her by a servant that she had better go to her lodging that night. During the meal no word was said, and Mary's heart was wrung by sorrowful questionings. "How shall I go, if they say no more to me? How shall I bear it, if they never invite me to see them again?"
Dinner being at last concluded, and the carriage announced, Mrs. Bosanquet swept out into the hall, remarking casually to Mary as she passed by :—
"If you will, the coach, when it has set us down, may carry you home to your lodgings."
"And we shall be glad to see you to dinner on Sunday," added her father.
Mary choked and could not reply, but she quickly recovered sufficiently to order her trunk downstairs, and, when cloaked and hooded, she passed down the staircase, she found all the servants assembled in a row to bid her farewell with tears.
The two rooms she had taken were fireless, dark, and unfurnished. A table and candlestick were quickly borrowed, and Mary sat down upon a broad window-seat to ponder what was to her a strange situation.
By the time her maid arrived, and invited her to a fire, and a sumptuous supper of bread, rank salt butter, and water, God had so comforted her and assured her of His favour and presence that she was filled with thankfulness and peace; the empty room and sparse, candle- lit meal seemed to her part of "a little heaven."
No beds could be put up at so late an hour; blinds and curtains were not in evidence. Mary Bosanquet lay that night upon the bare floor, and the pure, clear moonlight shone coldly upon her as she lay, but the fire of Divine love burned warm within her heart; she communed with her God in utter content.
THE TERN HALL TUTOR.
For three years after his ordination Fletcher received no church appointment. He remained as tutor at Tern Hall, and preached wherever he could find an opening, either in French or in English.
Amongst ordinary church-goers his decided utterances made him far from popular, but the warm hearts of the Methodist people bade him hearty welcome, and these he learned to love truly and well. They introduced him to "many honourable women," several of whom became his friends and correspondents; none of them, however, impressed him as did Mary Bosanquet.
In writing to her brother nearly twenty-five years later he said of this meeting: "It was soon after my ordination that I saw Miss Mary Bosanquet. I had resolved not to marry, but the sweetness of her temper and her devotedness to God made me think that if ever I broke through my resolution it would be to cast my lot with one like her."
One may judge of the quiet but strong influence Fletcher exerted in his neighbourhood by an incident which happened during that autumn. To Tern Hall one night came a messenger from Salop, asking urgently for "the tutor." The letter he delivered bore no name, but it begged Mr. Fletcher to hasten at once to a certain inn, where he might find a soul who wanted God. Without a question the tutor set out on his five- mile walk, not knowing whether beggar or duke demanded his help. He found the eldest son of a baronet, whom God's Spirit had rendered so strangely wretched on account of sin that he could neither eat nor sleep. Doctors had done their best to remove this remarkable malady, but the one remedy lay in the touch of the hand of the Great Physician, and, almost in despair, his soul cried, "Oh, that I knew where I might find Him!"
The visit of that October night resulted in correspondence which was blessed to Sir Richard Hill's conversion, although the young man became in later years one of Fletcher's most active opponents in a doctrinal controversy.
This time of waiting for God to show his future sphere of work was much blessed to Fletcher in spiritually preparing him for it. Through an incident in which he was much misunderstood by many, he learned the all-important lesson to a preacher, that a sermon full of the most vigorous ideas is as nothing if not inspired by the living Spirit.
His own account of the matter is brief but instructive:—
"Just as I was going to resume my daily course of business I was called to preach in a church at Salop, and was obliged to compose a sermon in the moments I should have spent in prayer. Hurry and the want of a single eye drew a veil between the prize and my soul. In the meantime Sunday came, and God rejected my impure service and abhorred the labour of my polluted soul; and while others imputed my not preaching to the fear of the minister who had invited me to his pulpit, and to the threatenings of a mob, I saw the wisdom and holiness of God, and rejoiced in that providence which does all without the assistance of hurrying Uzzah."
During the holidays Fletcher would betake himself to London, giving all his time to service in connection with a chapel in Seven Dials. The sermon he did not preach bore fruit in his own heart, and to his beloved friend, Charles Wesley, he wrote: "May God water the poor seed I have sown, and give it fruitfulness, though it be only in one soul! But I have seen so much weakness in my heart, both as a minister and a Christian, that I know not which is most to be pitied— the man, the believer, or the preacher. Could I at last be truly humbled and continue so always, I should esteem myself happy in making this discovery. I preach merely to keep the chapel open until God shall send a workman after His own heart."
During the famous earthquake of nine years before a little Welsh girl named Mary Price was then attending a London school. The children were frightened nearly out of their wits by the upheaval, the crash of broken glass, the long subterranean rumbling, and, in common with many London residents, in that hour little Mary promised to serve God. For nine years she strove and prayed, but found no way by which she could come near to Him. Persuaded by a friend who knew her inward sorrow, she sought out the despised Methodist meeting-house in Seven Dials, and there heard Fletcher preaching for his "one soul." Light flashed through all her being as she listened, and that morning Mary Price saw the "Way" to unerring "Truth" and everlasting "Life," entering later on into lifelong communion with Him whom her spirit had so earnestly sought.
For fifty-nine years Mary was a shining light in the kingdom of grace.
THE VICAR OF MADELEY.
At thirty years of age Fletcher was pressed to become a missionary to Antigua, but was prevented by the advice of Charles Wesley, who foresaw for him a more useful service in England.
Introduced by John Wesley to the famous Countess of Huntingdon, Fletcher was further commended to her by the poet-brother in such a manner as led her to urge him to become chaplain to her household. On the understanding that the appointment should not interfere either with his preaching, or the work he had taken up amongst French prisoners and refugees, he accepted the post, and through it became acquainted with many great spirits who ranked amongst the noble of the earth.
A great work was at this time being done at Everton, the parish of the Rev. John Berridge, and Fletcher made special efforts to see and profit by it. He introduced himself to the noted clergyman as a convert seeking instruction and advice. Berridge, noting his foreign accent, asked him his nationality.
"A Swiss from the Canton of Berne," was the reply.
"From Berne! Ah, then you can give me some account of a young countryman of yours, one John Fletcher, who has lately preached a few times for the Mr. Wesleys, and of whose talents, learning, and piety they both speak in terms of high eulogy. Do you know him?"
"I know him intimately, and did those gentlemen know him as well they would not speak of him in such terms, for which he is more obliged to their partial friendship than to his own merits," was the unexpected reply.
"You surprise me," objected Berridge, "in speaking so coldly of a countryman in whose praises they are so warm."
"I have the best of reasons for speaking of him as I do—I am John Fletcher."
Berridge melted at this, and insisted upon his occupying his pulpit the following morning. For three days Fletcher remained at Everton, joined there by the Countess of Huntingdon and two well-known clergymen, Martin Madan and Henry Venn. The services were, perforce, held in the open-air, for on the third day ten thousand persons gathered to hear the word of God. Many fell to the ground overpowered by the influence of the Spirit, and numbers cried for mercy.
Fletcher's life as a tutor now ended. Mr. Hill was extremely anxious to benefit him, and to this end offered him the living of Dunham, in Cheshire, explaining that the duty was light, the income £400 a year (a good sum in those days), and the surrounding country delightful.
"Dunham will not suit me," said Fletcher quietly; "there is too much money and too little labour."
"What shall we do? Would you like Madeley? My nephew is the patron, and I am sure the present Vicar would be only too glad to exchange it for anything so good as Dunham."
"It would suit me exactly," quoth Fletcher, kindling at the thought. He had preached there, and knew the rough character of its colliers and forgemen.
Curiously enough, the old Vicar of Dunham died suddenly. The day after the event Mr. Hill met his nephew at the Shrewsbury races, and in that unlikeliest place of all, it was arranged that the Madeley living should be presented to Fletcher.
It was a matter of course that he should consult his friend Charles Wesley, but though he longed, if God so led, to undertake the work, he feared greatly that many who were violently opposed to some of his views would resist the appointment, and that the greatest barrier of all, the Bishop of Lichfield, would refuse to countersign his testimonials.
An extract from one of his letters to the Countess of Huntingdon shows how all these obstacles were removed:—
"The difficulty of getting proper testimonials, which I had looked upon as insurmountable, vanishes at once; the three clergymen that had opposed me with the most bitterness signed them; the Bishop of Lichfield countersigns them without the least objection; the lord of the manor, my great opposer, leaves the parish; and the Vicar, who told me that I should never preach in that church, now recommends me to it, and tells me he will induct me himself. Are not these the intimations of the will of God? It seems so to me."
So it came to pass that in the parish book was made the following entry:—
"John Fletcher, clerk, was inducted to the vicarage of Madeley the 17th of October, 1760.—John Fletcher, Vicar."
AN ALARMED PARISH.
In the same month as Mary Bosanquet was cast out of her father's home to commence life anew as a toiler for God, John Fletcher settled down to his work in the parish of his choice.
Madeley lies three or four miles from the foot of the Wrekin in a winding glen, through which flows the River Severn. So far it was a place of beauty, but in no other sense. The colliers and iron-workers of Coalbrookdale and Madeley were ignorant, brutal, and much given to drunkenness and profanity. The Sabbath was ignored, decency frequently flouted, bull-baiting a favourite pastime, and religion a matter of coarse ridicule and bitter scorn. After their day's work the inhabitants frequently held nights of revelry, lasting until dawn, when dancing, drunkenness, and obscenity reigned supreme.
Fletcher commenced his campaign with great earnestness and zeal. He had no idea of contenting himself with preaching to a handful of feeble folk twice upon a Sunday; he counted every day lost if he had not in it brought some of his people face to face with the requirements of God. In cottages, at street corners, or in the church, he held a service just as often as he could gather sufficient people together; he visited the public-houses, and even appeared at the midnight carousals, warning men of the wrath of God, and urging them to flee to Jesus for mercy.
The parishioners of Madeley grew decidedly uncomfortable. They desired nothing so much as to be left alone, and the influence of this new parson was a force with which they found it necessary to reckon. They grew to dread the sudden opening of their tavern and dance-room doors, and the appearance of the pale, pure-faced man, whose eyes glowed like coals, and whose words burned and stung as he rebuked sin.
They were not used to being continually confronted with the claims of God; they did not relish the urgency with which Fletcher insisted upon conversion rather than church-going. They turned upon him in public; they maligned him in private; they disturbed his informal meetings; they cursed his name. One thing they were bound to do, however, they respected his courage and goodness, and that alone was sufficient eventually to turn the tide.
It was a lonely time for Fletcher. He was a young man, with no companion; he was of cultured mind, and greatly missed some kindred intelligence and friendly spirit with which he might commune of the things which pressed upon his soul. Little wonder that his heart should turn towards the sweet-spirited woman whose face dwelt in his memory with gentle persistence. He looked upon the idea of marriage, however, as a snare to draw his thoughts from his work, and he fought it down as something unworthy of his high calling.
"I am driven to the Lord," he wrote to the Countess of Huntingdon, "and He comforts, encourages, and teaches me. The devil, my friends, and my heart have pushed at me to make me fall into worldly cares and creature snares . . . 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."
Fletcher lived with the utmost frugality, for some time doing without even a servant, and taking his meals at a neighbour's house. An idea of his simplicity of life may be gained from a story told by one who was at a boarding-school at Madeley which Mr. Fletcher frequently visited:—
"One morning he came in just as the girls had sat down to breakfast. He said but little while the meal lasted, but when it was finished he spoke to each girl separately, and concluded by saying to the whole, 'I have waited some time on you this morning, that I might see you eat your breakfast; and I hope you will visit me to-morrow morning to see how I eat mine.' He told them his breakfast-hour was seven o'clock, and obtained a promise that they would visit him. Next morning they went at the time appointed, and seated themselves in the kitchen. Mr. Fletcher came in quite rejoiced to see them. On the table stood a small basin of milk and sops of bread. Mr. Fletcher carried the basin across the kitchen and sat down on an old bench. He then took out his watch, laid it before him, and said, 'My dear girls, yesterday morning I waited on you a full hour while you were at breakfast; I shall take as much time this morning in eating my breakfast as I usually do, if not rather more. Look at my watch!' He immediately began to eat, and continued in conversation with them. When he had finished he asked how long he had been at breakfast. They said, 'Just a minute and a-half, sir.' 'Now, my dear girls,' said he, we have fifty-eight minutes of the hour left,' and he then began to sing—
"Our life is a dream! Our time as a stream Glides swiftly away, And the fugitive moment refuses to stay.
"After this he gave them a lecture on the worth of time and the worth of the soul. They then all knelt down in prayer."
The Vicar's Sermons.
The Vicar of Madeley led no idle life. He started Friday evening lectures; on Sunday afternoon he catechised the school-children, spent many hours of every day in visiting the sick and poor, and hesitated not at all to sit up whole nights with any who lacked attention. To the careless landowners and farmers whom he failed to get into his church he addressed the first of his published sermons, with a preface which urged them to read his message if they would not listen to it.
With Fletcher there was no preaching against the absent wrong-doer, no haranguing evil in the abstract, but there was never lacking a definite and personal denouncement of present and personal sin. One tremendous word loomed large before his hearers, nor could any misunderstand when he talked about SIN, and the arousing thought was pressed ever closer to them by his pointed use of the word YOU. Here is an example:—
"Did you ever make a prey of the poor and helpless? Are you like the horse-leech, ever crying, 'Give, give!' still wanting more profit, and never thinking you have enough? Do you take more care to heap up treasure on earth than in Heaven? Have you got the unhappy secret of distilling silver out of the poor man's brow, and gold out of the tears of helpless widows and friendless orphans? Or, which is rather worse, do you, directly or indirectly, live by poisoning others, by encouraging the immoderate use of those refreshments which, if taken to excess, disorder the reason, ruin the soul, and prove no better than slow poison to the body? If your business calls you to buy or sell, do you use falsehoods? do you equivocate? do you exaggerate or conceal the truth in order to impose upon your neighbour, and make a profit of his necessity or credulity? If any of these marks be upon you, God's word singles you out and drags you to the bar of Divine justice to hear your doom in the text, 'The wicked shall surely die.' Oh, see your danger; repent and make restitution! Why should you meet the unjust steward in Hell, when you may yet follow Zacchaeus into Heaven?...
"Perhaps your conscience bears you witness that you are not a swearing Christian, or rather a swearing infidel. Well, but are you clear in the point of adultery, fornication, or uncleanness? Does not the guilt of some vile sin, which you have wickedly indulged in time past, and perhaps are still indulging, mark you for the member of a harlot, and not the member of Christ? Do you not kindle the wrath of Heaven against yourself and your country, as the men and women of Gomorrah did against themselves and the other cities of the plain? If you cherish the sparks of wantonness, as they did, how can you but be made with them to suffer the vengeance of eternal fire? Do not flatter yourselves with the vain hope that your sin is not so heinous as theirs. If it be less in degree, is it not infinitely greater in its aggravating circumstances? Were these poor Canaanites Christians? Had they Bibles and ministers? Had they sermons and sacraments? Did they ever vow, as you have done, to renounce the devil and all sinful lusts of the flesh? Did they ever hear of the Son of God sweating great drops of blood, in an agony of prayer, to quench the fire of human corruption? Oh, acknowledge your guilt and danger, and by deep repentance prevent infallible destruction!"
Faithful and fearless utterances such as these made him famous, but not popular: inconsistent professors resented them deeply; open sinners raged at the unsparing denunciations which they could not fail to appropriate, yet out of the latter class came some of Fletcher's best and most encouraging converts.
Much of his success in getting men to listen to unpalatable truths lay in his gentleness of manner and rare humility of mind, but "gentlest of human beings" as he has been described, he had the courage of a lion in fight, and for his Master's sake he knew no palliation of unrighteousness, even though his truth-telling made the bitterest of enemies.
By nature Fletcher was not a meek man; he had "a fiery passionate spirit," says one of his biographers, "insomuch that he has frequently thrown himself on the floor, and lain there most of the night bathed in tears, imploring victory over his own temper. And he did obtain the victory, in a very eminent degree. For twenty years and upwards before his death no one ever saw him out of temper, or heard him utter a rash expression on any provocation whatever.... I never saw him in any temper in which I myself would not have wished to be found at death."
A friend who lived for some time in his house writes thus:—
"His enemies wrested his words, misrepresented his actions, and cast out his name as evil; but whether he was insulted in his person or injured in his property; whether he was attacked with open abuse or pursued with secret calumny, he walked amid the most violent assaults of his enemies, as a man invulnerable, and while his firmness discovered that he was unhurt, his forbearance testified that he was unoffended."
To a man with talents trained as were his, with a power of expression which could melt into uncommon eloquence when he chose, with learning to illuminate, judgment to balance his effects, and extreme quickness of perception to adapt illustration and appeal to any audience, Fletcher might have made for himself a mighty name. Instead of this, "his design was to convert and not to captivate his hearers; to secure their eternal interests, and not to obtain their momentary applause.... He spake as in the presence of God, and taught as one having Divine authority. There was an energy in his preaching that was irresistible. His subjects, his language, his gestures, the tone of his voice, and the turn of his countenance, all conspired to fix the attention and affect the heart. Without aiming at sublimity, he was truly sublime, and uncommonly eloquent without affecting the orator."
Fletcher's encouragements at Madeley were at first sufficiently scanty to have disheartened many an earnest man.
Two Marys were amongst his earliest converts. Mary Matthews, of Madeley Wood, went to hear him with the mind of the Pharisee, but she left his presence with the heart of the publican. Having obtained the pardon of her sins, she opened her little house for preaching, and stood firm, although threatened by some of the villagers with a drum- led mob, and eventually haled before the magistrates and fined £20 for the offence of turning her cottage into a conventicle.
Mary Barnard, a lame old women of ninety, counted no pain or distance too great to prevent her from making her toilsome journey to the church where she "first saw the light," and, uneducated as she was, her definite testimony to the power of the cleansing Blood often cheered the preacher who had blessed her.
Fletcher's methods were unique for the times in which he lived. There was no hiding from him. Those who tried to escape his influence by avoiding his preachings were pursued into their various haunts and homes under all kinds of circumstances and at all hours. Some pretended that they could not awake in time to get ready for his early services; he responded by going out himself with a bell and sounding such clashing peals in various parts of the parish that there remained no shadow of excuse for their sleeping after 5 a.m.!
He adopted the practice of dealing with criticisms and objections from the pulpit, a course sufficiently unusual to attract much attention to what he had to say.
Work as he might, however, Fletcher received so little encouragement that he was frequently burdened with the fear lest he had mistaken the Divine appointment.
One day, when he was much oppressed in this way, he was summoned to bury a parishioner. At once he lost sight of his own trouble in the opportunity of dealing out red-hot truths to a crowd of people. One man was so convicted that he broke out into a storm of bad language, fighting as best he knew how the strange influences of the Spirit. These were too strong for him, however, and he melted into tears of penitence. How gladly the Vicar gave him the pardon he asked for his behaviour, and led him further still into the joy of sins forgiven, can never be told. From that time he became an active helper in the parish, and one of Fletcher's greatest encouragements.
The conversion of this man, however, seemed only the signal for greater opposition on the part of some of the colliers. A number of them were baiting a bull near Madeley Wood Meeting-house one night when he was expected there to preach. "We'll wait here and bait the parson!" they cried, settling at once who should pull him off his horse, and who should set the dogs upon him.
Mr. Fletcher, all unsuspectingly, prepared for his walk to the wood, but on the threshold was met by a messenger who had forgotten to give notice of the burial of a child who was even then being carried up for its funeral. Here was a duty which could not be put off; the Vicar stayed to attend to it, and so missed his preaching appointment.
The men waited in vain, then repaired to a public-house to drink and curse their ill-luck. As they swore horrible oaths a huge china punch- bowl standing in the room fell in small fragments. This so impressed one of the number that he rose and left the place, vowing there and then to break with his old companions, and seek the salvation of his soul.
A somewhat well-known story is connected with Fletcher's sensitiveness to the influence of the Spirit with regard to his message for men. He had entered the pulpit one Sunday morning at Madeley to preach a sermon prepared for the purpose, when all remembrance of it fled; he could not even recall the text. Instantly throwing himself upon the Spirit of God for guidance, he turned to the First Lesson for the day, which happened to be the history of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. As soon as he began to make some remarks upon it thoughts flowed, words burned, and he found himself so strangely upheld and inspired that he felt certain God intended the word for someone of whom he was not himself aware. So sure did he become of this fact that he requested to be privately informed if this were the case.
Three days later a woman called at the vicarage and told him that she had for some time been greatly concerned about her soul through attending his services. Her husband noticed her habits of private prayer, and in a violent rage threatened her with frightful consequences if she did not refrain from her church-going. She told him her conscience would not allow that, and with terrible oaths he cried, "I'll cut your throat as soon as you come back, if you go!"
The poor woman only prayed the harder, and when Sunday morning came she dressed herself for church as usual. As she passed through the kitchen her husband bellowed out, "I shall not cut your throat as I said, I shall heat the big oven and throw you into it the minute you get back." To the accompaniment of savage swearing she closed the door and made her way to the church, praying all the time that God would strengthen her to suffer whatever might befall her.
In grateful amaze she drank in every word of Fletcher's impromptu talk upon the three martyrs in the fiery furnace, and to herself she cried softly, "If I had a thousand lives I'd lay them all down for Jesus!"
Knowing the brutal nature of her husband—a butcher by trade—she was quite prepared for the worst that might happen to her, but God kept her in utter and perfect peace when she actually saw flames issuing from the oven. She was even joyful as she opened the door to death.
Then, to her unspeakable astonishment, she saw her husband upon his knees, beseeching God to pardon his sins. He caught her in his arms, crying, "Forgive me, wife; oh, forgive me if you can!" turning from her only to cry yet more earnestly to God for the mercy he had been led by the Spirit Himself to seek.
With here and there such incidents to cheer him, Fletcher found, after two years of rough work and numberless hindrances, that public respect was taking the place of open opposition, and the word of truth, sown in difficulty and hardness, was beginning to bring forth fruit in many hearts. Wesley says of him:—
"Having chosen this narrow field of action, he was more and more abundant in his ministerial labours, both in public and in private, not contenting himself with preaching, but visiting his flock in every corner of his parish. And this work he attended to, early and late, whether the weather was fair or foul, regarding neither heat nor cold, rain nor snow, whether he was on horseback or on foot. But this farther weakened his constitution, which was still more effectively done by his intense and uninterrupted studies, in which he frequently continued with scarce any intermission fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen hours a day. But still he did not allow himself such food as was necessary to sustain nature. He seldom took any regular meals, except he had company; otherwise, twice or thrice in four and twenty hours he ate some bread and cheese or fruit. Instead of this, he sometimes took a draught of milk, and then wrote on again. When one reproved him for not affording himself a sufficiency of necessary food, he replied, 'Not allow myself food? Why, our food seldom costs my housekeeper and me together less than two shillings a week!'"
THE ORPHAN HOME.
Isolated as was the life she lived at Hoxton, Mary Bosanquet was not wholly severed from her parents. At intervals her father would drive up in his carriage, bringing her some present and renewing his persuasions to her to live at home upon the terms of spiritual silence on which he had previously insisted. But though, to all appearance peculiarly alone, the two years spent in her solitary lodging was a time of the richest blessing, during which she entered into such communion with God as influenced the whole of her after-life.
An almost curious sensitiveness to the sorrows and needs of men so possessed her that all consideration of self or repining at her condition was entirely shut out, and with this insight into the woe of the world came a wonderful baptism of Divine love. God became all in all to her soul, and she lived in the spirit of Gerhardt's inspired hymn:—
Oh, grant that nothing in my soul May dwell but Thy pure love alone; Oh, may Thy love possess me whole, My joy, my treasure, and my crown! Strange flames far from my heart remove, My every act, word, thought, be LOVE!
It was inevitable that her Methodist friends should suggest to her a less lonely life; some of them, indeed, went so far as to speak of her in connection with Mr. Fletcher.
"Ah, if I were to marry him," she thought, "he would be a help and not a hindrance to my soul!"
She little knew that Fletcher had been fighting the same thought. Indeed, it was not long after this that, in answer to Charles Wesley's practical suggestion, that a wife would be helpful in his lonely work, Fletcher drew up as quaint a set of Reasons for and Against Matrimony as have ever been committed to paper:—
1. A tender friendship is, after the love of Christ, the greatest felicity of life; and a happy marriage is nothing but such a friendship between two persons of different sexes.
2. A wife might deliver me from the cares of housekeeping, etc.
3. Some objections and scandals may be avoided by marriage.
4. A pious and zealous wife might be as useful as myself; nay, she might be much more so among my female parishioners, who greatly want an inspectress.
1. Death will shortly end all particular friendships. The happier the state of marriage, the more afflicting is the widowhood; besides, we may try a friend and reject him after trial; butwe cannot know a wife till it is too late to part with her.
2. Marriage brings after it a hundred cares and expenses; children, a family, etc.
3. If matrimony is not happy, it is the most fertile source of scandal.
4. I have a thousand to one to fear that a wife, instead of being a help, may be indolent, and consequently useless; or humoursome, haughty, capricious, and consequently a heavy curse.
Fortunately for Mary Bosanquet, towards the end of these two years there came to London her friend Mrs. Ryan (housekeeper of Wesley's new Room at Bristol), who fell ill, was nursed by her with great devotion, and afterwards taken home to share her rooms.
"I acknowledge," she writes, "I neither gained honour, gold, nor indulgence to the flesh by uniting myself to a sickly, persecuted saint; but I gained such a spiritual helper as I shall eternally praise God for."
Shortly after their union a house of Miss Bosanquet's at Leytonstone became vacant, and in March, 1763, the Friends moved into it, and began private and public meetings under their own roof-tree.
One evening, as Miss Bosanquet was speaking to a large company assembled in her kitchen, the fore-gate bell clashed with a mighty peal. The servant went to answer it, and meantime there strode through the back door into the kitchen four ill-looking men with clubs in their hands. The servant hurried back trembling, saying that a messenger had come to warn them of a great mob coming to upset them, the ringleaders being four men with clubs.
Mary Bosanquet cast a glance at her audience and answered the maid aloud, "Oh, we do not mind mobs when we are about our Master's business. 'Greater is He that is for us than all that can be against us.'" Then calmly she continued her subject, unhindered by any.
Having upon her table a few copies of the simple "Rules for the Society of the People called Methodists," she handed one of them to each of the four ringleaders, begging their acceptance that at their leisure they might see the nature of the profession made by the worshippers. They received them with respectful bows, and no more was heard of "mobs" for that night.
The house was a lonely one, open on one side to the forest, and in it at that time lived only Mary Bosanquet, Mrs. Ryan, a maid, and Sally Lawrence, a little child of four years, whom Miss Bosanquet had taken from her mother's coffin to her own warm care. When the nights became dark, a disorderly crowd would gather at the gate to pelt the worshippers with dirt, afterwards invading the yard to reach the unshuttered windows, where they would roar like so many wild beasts. But the protecting hand of God kept them from any real bodily harm. "The Lord was with us," wrote the lady of the house most sweetly, "and preserved us under Love's almighty shade."
Little Sally was the first of many orphans who followed. Through various misfortunes and deaths around her, Miss Bosanquet quickly found herself mothering six of them. The number grew until twenty children and several grown people found a home beneath her hospitable roof at one time. This family involved much nursing, for there were never more than six in the house in perfect health.
Miss Bosanquet adopted for the whole household what was almost a uniform of dark purple cotton; she fed them upon simple diet, kept them to regular hours for meals and employment, trained the children for service, and nursed sick people until they were well. Hers was indeed a House of Mercy!
A SEEKER AFTER GOD.
Five years had passed since Fletchcr entered Madeley as its Vicar, and with the result of his labours he was anything but satisfied.
Of the fifth year he wrote: "This last year has been the worst I have had here—barren in convictions, fruitful in backslidings." And to the same correspondent (Miss Hatton, of Wem) he wrote later:—
"The coming of Mr. Wesley's preachers into my parish gives me no uneasiness. As I am sensible that everybody does better, and is more acceptable than myself, I should be sorry to deprive anyone of a blessing; and I rejoice that the work of God goes on, by any instrument, or in any place."
This was characteristic of him—ever depreciative of self, and rejoicing in other men's labours.
Not only Wesley's itinerants, but the great preacher himself visited Madeley, and it is significant that the straight-speaking old man did not take the same pessimistic view of Fletcher's work as he did himself. After preaching to crowds of his people, Wesley speaks of Madeley as a great and encouraging "prospect." "There are many adversaries indeed," writes the Father of Methodism, "but yet they cannot shut the open and effectual door."
It was not for lack of invitation, but rather because he was so engrossed in his work that the Vicar of Madeley had up to this time confined his labours to his own parish. Now, however, he was persuaded to make an evangelistic visit to Breedon, in Leicestershire, also to Bath and Bristol.
While in Bath—conducting an extension of the opening services of Lady Huntingdon's new chapel—he wrote his first Pastoral Letter to his flock at home. Never were letters written less to please the ear, or to make a bid for the affections of a people; honest, faithful exhortations they were, plain to hurting-point, but made of wonderful blessing to those to whom they were read. A sample of one will be of interest:—
"Some of you wonder why you cannot believe, why you cannot see Jesus with the eye of your mind, and delight in Him with the affections of your heart. I apprehend the reason to be one of these, or perhaps altogether:—
"1. You are not poor, lost, undone, helpless, despairing sinners in yourselves. You indulge spiritual and refined self-righteousness; you are not yet dead to the law, and quite slain by the commandment. Now the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to none but the poor in spirit. Jesus came to save none but the lost. What wonder, then, if Jesus is little to you, and if you do not live in His kingdom of peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Ghost?
"2. Perhaps you spend your time in curious reasonings, instead of casting yourselves as forlorn sinners at the feet of Christ, leaving it to Him to bless you when and in the manner He pleases. Know that He is the wise and Sovereign God, and that it is your duty to lie before Him as clay, as fools, as sinful nothings.
"3. Perhaps, also, some of you wilfully keep idols of one kind or another; you indulge some sin against light and knowledge; and it is neither matter of humiliation nor of confession to you. The love of praise, that of the world, that of money, and that of sensual gratifications, when not lamented, are as implacable enemies to Christ as Judas and Herod were. How can ye believe, seeing ye seek the honour that cometh from men? Hew, then, your Agags in pieces before the Lord. Run from your Delilahs to Jesus resolutely. Cut off the right hand and pluck out the right eye that offends you. 'Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and I will receive you.' Nevertheless, when you strive, take care not to make yourself a righteousness of your own striving. Remember that justifying righteousness is finished and brought in, and that your goodness can no more add to it than your sins diminish it. Shout then, 'the Lord your righteousness!' And if you are undone sinners, humbly, and yet boldly, say, 'In the Lord have I righteousness and strength.'"
There was no false comforting, or fine talk about "only believe" with John Fletcher! If any lacked faith, he cut down to the roots to find out why.
The preaching tours named were followed by many others. London, Brighton, and Oathall were visited, in the first of which he officiated for Whitefield in Tottenham Court Road Chapel.
We may judge by a letter to Whitefield that he would have gone yet more frequently if he could, as he remarks, "I should be glad to be your curate some time this year, but I see no opening, nor the least prospect of any. What between the dead and the living, a parish ties one down more than a wife."
He was not without distinguished visitors at the vicarage, however, hostess though he had none; the Countess of Huntingdon, accompanied by Lady Anne Erskine and Miss Orton, accepted the frugal provision for comfort with which John Wesley had previously contented himself; the scarlet coat and gold lace of a famous officer of Dragoons (Captain Scott) was seen in his garden—a man, by the way, who preached daily to his soldiers, and frequently exhorted in a Methodist meeting-house in the full blaze of his regimentals—and was mounted by Fletcher upon his horse-block to address large crowds which gathered to hear him. Whitefield was also expected, but could not then avail himself of the invitation, and, later on, he differed very seriously from the Vicar regarding the doctrine of free salvation which it was ever his glory to preach.
Before and beyond everything else John Fletcher was a seeker after God. To assist himself in this supreme endeavour he drew up the following rules for nightly use:—
1. Did I awake spiritual, and was I watchful in keeping my mind from wandering this morning when I was rising?
2. Have I this day got nearer to God in times of prayer, or have I given way to a lazy, idle spirit?
3. Has my faith been weakened by unwatchfulness, or quickened by diligence this day?
4. Have I this day walked by faith and eyed God in all things?
5. Have I denied myself in all unkind words and thoughts? Have I delighted in seeing others preferred before me?
6. Have I made the most of my precious time, as far as I had light, strength, and opportunity?
7. Have I kept the issues of my heart in the means of grace, so as to profit by them?
8. What have I done this day for the souls and bodies of God's dear saints?
9. Have I laid out anything to please myself when I might have saved the money for the cause of God?
10. Have I governed well my tongue this day, remembering that "in a multitude of words there wanteth not sin"?
11. In how many instances have I denied myself this day?
12. Do my life and conversation adorn the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
By way of encouraging others to keep themselves thus in touch with God, Fletchcr formed what he called a Religious Society, into whose fellowship he brought all he could whom he found desirous of living the life of full salvation which he everywhere advocated. He laid before them a set of home-questions which he urged upon them as a useful form of self-examination. A sample of these will show how practical was the religion he both lived and preached.
"Do I feel any pride? Am I dead to all desire of praise? If any despise me, do I like them the worse for it? Or if they love and approve me, do I love them more on that account? Is Christ the life of all my affections and designs, as my soul is the life of my body? Have I always the presence of God?...Am I saved from the fear of man? ... Am I always ready to confess Christ, to suffer with His people, and to die for His sake?...Am I willing to give up my ease and convenience to oblige others, or do I expect them to do so to my hours, ways, and customs?...Do I never take that glory to myself which belongs to Christ?...Am I courteous, not severe; suiting myself to all with sweetness; striving to give no one pain, but to gain and win all for their good?...Do I perform the most servile offices, such as require labour and humiliation, with cheerfulness?...Is every thought brought into subjection to Christ?...Do I think no evil, listen to no groundless surmises, nor judge from appearances? How am I in my sleep? If Satan presents any evil imagination, does my will immediately resist or give way to it? Do I bear the infirmities of age or sickness without seeking to repair the decays of nature by strong liquors? Or do I make Christ my sole support, casting the burden of a feeble body into the arms of His mercy?"
Fletcher's correspondence was an unusually heavy one; his letters make quite as spiritual reading as his sermons, yet he gave the choicest of reasons for not writing to one man who expected a letter: "Tell Mr. Keen," he wrote to Whitefield, "I am a letter in his debt, and postpone writing it till I have had such a sight of Christ as to breathe His love through every line."
Many pearls of thought were contained in these epistles; while the advice in them was quaintly put, it was always helpful, and never hurled at random.
"Your dulness in private prayer," wrote he to Miss Hatton, "arises from the want of familiar friendship with Jesus. To obviate it, go to your closet as if you were going to meet your dearest friend; cast yourself at His feet, bemoan your coldness, extol His love to you, and let your heart break with a desire to love Him. Get recollection —a dwelling within ourselves—a being abstracted from the creature and turned towards God. For want of such a frame, our times of prayer are frequently dry and useless; imagination prevails, and the heart wanders, whereas we pass easily from recollection to delightful prayer."
To the same person, however, he recommended the cultivation of a wholesome naturalness in religion which would ensure acknowledgment of its beauty in those around her:—
"There is no sin in looking cheerful. 'Rejoice evermore'; and if it is our duty always to be filled with joy, it is our duty to appear what we are in reality. I hope, however, your friends know how to distinguish between cheerfulness and levity.
"Beware of stiff singularity in things barely indifferent: it is self in disguise; and it is so much the more dangerous when it comes recommended by a serious, self-denying, religious appearance."
It is evident from a glance at his correspondence that Fletcher's extremely frugal habits and large generosity to others gave not a little anxiety to those who loved him. A wealthy merchant of Bristol, named Mr. Ireland, a constant, true, and close friend, sent him a parcel of broadcloth as a gift, beseeching him kindly not to send his coat again to be patched. His thanks were thus concluded:—
"Your broadcloth can lap me round two or three times; but the mantle of Divine love, the precious fine robe of Jesus's righteousness, can cover your soul a thousand times. The cloth, fine and good as it is, will not keep out a hard shower; but that garment of salvation will keep out even a shower of brimstone and fire. Your cloth will wear out; but that fine linen, the righteousness of saints, will appear with a finer lustre the more it is worn. The moth may fret your present, or the tailor may spoil it in cutting it, but the present which Jesus has made you is out of reach of the spoiler, and ready for present wear. Let me beseech you, my dear friend, to accept of this heavenly present as I accept of your earthly one. I did not send you one farthing to purchase it; it came unsought, unasked, unexpected, as the seed of the woman came. It came just as I was sending a tailor to buy me cloth for a new coat, and I hope when you next see me it will be in your present; now let Jesus see you in His. Accept it freely. Wear no more the old rusty coat of nature and self-righteousness. Send no more to have it patched. Make your boast of an unbought suit, and love to wear the livery of Jesus."
John Fletcher's letters all tended to the same point as his sermons—a personal appeal to the soul to whom he addressed himself. To the Rev. Joseph Benson he wrote:—
"The few professors I see in these parts are so far from what I could wish them and myself to be, that I cannot but cry out, 'Lord, how long wilt Thou give Thine heritage to desolation and barrenness? How long shall the heathen say, Where is now their indwelling God?' I hope it is better with you in the north. What are your heart, your pen, your tongue doing? Are they receiving, sealing, spreading the truth everywhere within your sphere? Are you dead to praise or dispraise? Could you quietly pass for a mere fool, and have gross nonsense fathered upon you without any uneasy reflection of self? The Lord bless you! Beware of your grand enemy, earthly wisdom and unbelieving reasonings. You will never overcome but by child-like, loving simplicity."
In writing to his schoolmaster at Madeley, the Vicar gives a real home-thrust, yet in so kindly a manner that it could hardly be resented:—
"If I were not a minister I would be a schoolmaster, to have the pleasure of bringing up children in the fear of the Lord. That pleasure is yours, relish it, and it will comfort and strengthen you in your work. The joy of the Lord and of charity is our strength. Salute the children from me, and tell them I long to show them the way to happiness and Heaven. Have you mastered the stiffness and shyness of your temper? Charity gives a meekness, an affability, a child- like simplicity and openness, which nature has denied you. Let me find you shining by these virtues, and you will revive me much. God bless your labour about the sheep and the lambs!"