The Life of John Fletcher: Chapter 1 - Of His Parentage and Youth
1. John William De La Flechere, (this was properly his name,) was born at Nyon, in Switzerland, (Wesley's Life of Fletcher,) a town about fifteen miles north of Geneva, on September the twelfth, in the year 1729. His father was an officer in the French service, till he left the army in order to marry. But after a time, he returned to the same line of life, and was a colonel in the militia of his own country. Of this gentleman, whose family is one of the most respectable in the canton of Berne, and a branch of an earldom of Savoy, Mr. Fletcher was the youngest son.
2. He passed the early part of his life at Nyon, (Gilpin's Notes, subjoined to Fletcher's Portrait of St. Paul,) where he soon discovered an elevated turn of mind, accompanied with an unusual degree of vivacity. After having made a good proficiency in school learning, he was removed with his two brothers to Geneva, where he was distinguished equally by his superior abilities and his uncommon application. The first two prizes for which he stood a candidate he carried away from a number of competitors, several of whom were nearly related to the professors: and on these occasions he was complimented by his superiors in a very flattering manner. During his residence at Geneva, he allowed himself but little time, either for recreation, refreshment, or rest. After confining himself closely to his studies all the day, he would frequently consume the greater part of the night in noting down whatever had occurred, in the course of his reading, worthy of observation. Here he acquired that true classical taste which was so frequently and justly admired by his intimate friends, and which all his studied plainness could never conceal. Here also he laid the foundation of that extensive and accurate knowledge for which he was afterward distinguished, both in philosophical and theological researches. After quitting Geneva, he was sent by his father to Lentzbourg, a small town in the Swiss cantons, where he not only acquired the German language, but diligently prosecuted his other studies, to which he ever discovered a passionate attachment. On his return from this place he continued some time at home, studying the Hebrew language, and perfecting his acquaintance with mathematical learning.
3. His early piety was equally remarkable with his early attainments. From his childhood he was impressed with a deep sense of the majesty of God, and a constant fear of offending him, and manifested great tenderness of conscience, as appears by the following instances. One day having offended his father, who threatened to correct him, he did not dare to come into his presence, but retired into the garden: and when he saw him coming toward him, he ran away with all speed. But he was presently struck with deep remorse, and said to himself, "What! do I run away from my father? Perhaps I shall live to have a son that will run away from me!" And it was several years before the impression which he then received was worn off.
4. Another instance of his tenderness of conscience occurred when he was about seven years of age. He was one day reproved by the nursery maid, saying, "You are a naughty boy. Do you not know that the devil is to take away all naughty children?" He was no sooner in bed, than he begun to reflect very deeply upon her words. He thought, "I am a naughty boy. And how do I know but God may let the devil take me away this night." He then got up, fell down upon his knees before God, and prayed earnestly for a considerable time, till he felt such a sense of the Divine love as quieted every fear. He then lay down in peace and safety.
5. Mr. Fletcher's early acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures guarded him, on the one hand, from the snares of infidelity, and preserved him, on the other, from many of the vices peculiar to youth. His conversation was modest, and his whole conduct marked with a degree of rectitude not usually to be found in early life. He manifested an extraordinary turn for religious meditation: and those little productions which gained him the greatest applause, at this period, were chiefly of a serious tendency. His filial obedience and brotherly affection were exemplary; nor is it remembered that he ever uttered one unbecoming expression in either of those characters. He was a constant reprover of sin; and his modest freedom in this respect is said once to have offended a mother he tenderly loved. While she was, on some occasion, expressing herself in too warm a manner to one of the family, he turned his eye upon her with a gentle reproof. She was displeased with the modest reprehension, and repaid it with some severity, which he received with the utmost submission, making only the following reply: "When I am smitten on one cheek, and especially by a hand I love so well, I am taught to turn the other also." This expression was not employed with an air of bravado, but with a look of so much tender affection that the indignation of his mother was instantly turned into a look of pleasing admiration.
6. Persons who are designed by the Almighty for eminent services in his Church are frequently distinguished in their youth by striking peculiarities, which awaken in those around them an expectation of something extraordinary in their future character. Of this kind was the following circumstance. During Mr. Fletcher's residence at Geneva, his sister, Madame de Botens, who had taken a house in that city for the convenience of her brothers, was visited by a widow lady from Nyon. This lady was accompanied by her three sons, who were not the most happily disposed, and whose improper conduct at this time provoked her to so uncommon a degree as to extort from her a hasty imprecation. Mr. Fletcher, who was present upon this occasion, was so struck with the unnatural carriage of this exasperated mother that, instantly starting from his chair, he addressed her in a very powerful remonstrance. He reasoned with her in an affecting and pointed manner. He observed and lamented the difficulties of her situation; but entreated her to struggle against them with discretion, and not with impatience. He exhorted her to educate her children in the fear of God, and to second such education by her own pious example. After assuring her that her conduct on the present occasion had filled him with the utmost horror, and that he could not but tremble for the consequences of it, he concluded his address by alarming her fears, lest the imprecation she had uttered should be followed by some unexpected family affliction. That same day the widow, in her return to Nyon, embarked upon the lake, where she was overtaken with a tremendous storm, and brought to the very point of perishing. In the midst of her danger, the words of her young prophet, as she ever afterward termed Mr. Fletcher, were deeply impressed upon her mind. But they shortly returned upon her in a most forcible manner, with the melancholy intelligence, that two of her sons were lost upon the lake, and the third crushed to death at one of the gates of Geneva. At this time Mr. Fletcher was not more than fourteen years of age.
7. While Mr. Fletcher was yet a youth, his life was sundry times in imminent danger, but was mercifully preserved. One day, as he informed Mrs. Fletcher, he and his elder brother, being about to exercise themselves in fencing, had taken real, instead of wooden swords, with buttons fixed upon the points of them. His brother making a hard push at him, the button upon the point of his sword split in two, and the sword entered Mr. Fletcher's side, near his bowels, and gave him so deep a wound that he carried the scar of it to his grave. At another time, he and his brother went upon the lake of Geneva in a little boat, and rowed forward till, being out of sight of land, they knew not what way they were going, nor whether they were approaching or removing farther from the shore from which they had set out. The evening now came on, and it was beginning to grow dark, and as they were proceeding toward the middle of the lake, in all probability they would have been lost, had it not providentially happened that, in consequence of some news arriving in town, the bells began to ring. They could but just hear them, but were soon convinced that instead of rowing to land, as they had intended, they had been proceeding farther and farther from it. Making now toward the quarter from which they perceived the sound to come, they found they had just strength enough left to reach the shore.
8. To these accounts of his remarkable preservation given by himself to Mrs. Fletcher, I shall add some still more remarkable, which he gave to Mr. Samuel Webb, of London, then residing at Madeley, as related in the short Narrative of his Life and Death, published by the Rev. Mr. Wesley. "When I was a lad, I had a design to get some fruit out of my father's garden. The door being locked, I could not get in, but by climbing over the wall. This was very high; but with some difficulty I got to the top of it. As I was walking upon it, my foot slipped, and I fell down to the bottom. But just where I fell, a large quantity of fresh-made mortar was laid. I fell exactly upon it. This broke my fall, or it might have cost me my life." Again. "Once as I was swimming by myself in a deep water, one end of a strong riband which bound my hair, getting loose, I know not how, and twisting about my leg, tied me as it were neck and heels. I strove with all my strength to disengage myself; but it was to no purpose. No person being within call, I gave myself up for lost. But when I had given over struggling, the riband loosed of itself."
"Another instance of the tender care which God had over me, was as follows: One evening I and four young gentlemen, in high spirits, made a solemn agreement with each other to swim next day to a rocky island, five miles distant from the shore. But this foolish adventure was within a very little of costing us all our lives. I and another indeed did with great difficulty and hazard swim to the island. But when we came thither, the rock was so steep and smooth, that we could not possibly climb up. After swimming around several times, and making many ineffectual efforts, we thought we must perish there. But at length one of us found a place, where he made a shift to crawl up. He then helped his companion. The others swam about half way, a boat then took them up, when they were just sinking. Another boat which he had ordered to follow us, afterward came and took us home."
9. But the deliverance of which he gave an account in the year 1760, is yet more wonderful. "Some years since I lived at a place very near the river Rhine. In that part it is broader than the Thames at London bridge, and extremely rapid. But having been long practiced in swimming, I made no scruple of going into it at any time. Only I was always careful to keep near the shore, that the stream might not carry me away. Once, however, being less careful than usual, I was unawares drawn into the mid channel. The water there was extremely rough, and poured along like a galloping horse, I endeavored to swim against it, but in vain, till I was hurried far from home. When I was almost spent, I rested upon my back, and then looked about for a landing place, finding I must either land or sink. With much difficulty I got near the shore but the rocks were so ragged and sharp that I saw, if I attempted to land there, I should be torn in pieces. So I was constrained to turn again to the mid stream: at last, despairing of life, I was cheered by the sight of a fine smooth creek, into which I was swiftly carried by a violent stream. A building stood directly across it, which I did not then know to be a powder mill. The last thing I can remember, was the striking of my breast against one of the piles whereon it stood. I then lost my senses, and knew nothing more, till I rose on the other side of the mill. When I came to myself I was in a calm safe place, perfectly well, without any soreness or weariness at all. Nothing was amiss but the distance of my clothes, the stream having driven me five miles from the place where I left them. Many persons gladly welcomed me on shore: one gentleman, in particular, who said, 'I looked when you went under the mill, and again when you rose on the other side, And the time of your being immerged among the piles, was exactly twenty minutes.'"
But some will say, "Why this was a miracle!" "Undoubtedly," observes Mr. Wesley, "it was. It was not a natural event; but a work wrought above the power of nature, probably by the ministry of angels."
10. After Mr. Fletcher had gone through the usual course of study at the university of Geneva, it was the desire of his parents that he should be a clergyman. "And as far as nature can furnish a man," says Mr. Gilpin, "for offices of a sacred kind, perhaps there never was a person better qualified to sustain the character of a minister of Jesus Christ, than Mr. Fletcher. His disposition and habits, his sentiments and studies, his reverential awe of God, his insatiable thirst after truth, and his uncommon abhorrence of vice, gave his friends abundant reason to apprehend that he was marked, at an early age, for the service of the Church. Contrary, however, to all expectation, and contrary to the first designs of his family, before he had arrived to the age of twenty, he manifested views of a very opposite nature. His theological studies gave place to the systems of Vauban and Cohorn, and he evidently preferred the camp to the Church. All the remonstrances of his friends, on this apparent change in his disposition, were totally ineffectual; and, had it not been for repeated disappointments, he would have wielded another sword than that of the Spirit. Happily, his projects for the field were constantly baffled and blasted by the appointments of that God who reserved him for a more important scene of action. His choice of the army is, however, to be imputed rather to principle than inclination. On the one hand, he detested the irregularities and vices to which a military life would expose him; on the other, he dreaded the condemnation he might incur by acquitting himself unfaithfully in the pastoral office. He conceived it abundantly easier to toil for glory in fields of blood than to labor for God, with unwearied perseverance, in the vineyard of the Church. He believed himself qualified rather for military operations than for spiritual employments, and the exalted ideas he entertained of the holy ministry determined him to seek some other profession more adapted to the weakness of humanity, and he preferred being an officer in the army to all others."
11. Mr. Fletcher himself, in a letter to the Rev. Mr. Wesley, dated November 24, 1756, a few weeks before he took orders, partly confirms these observations of Mr. Gilpin, and partly assigns an additional reason why he then declined the sacred office of the ministry. "From the time I first began to feel the love of God," says he, "shed abroad in my soul, which was, I think, at seven years of age, I resolved to give myself up to him and to the service of his Church if ever I should be fit for it; but the corruption which is in the world, and that which was in my heart, soon weakened, if not erased, those first characters which grace had written upon it. However, I went through my studies with a design of going into orders; but afterward, upon serious reflection, feeling I was unequal to so great a burden, and disgusted by the necessity I should be under to subscribe the doctrine of predestination, I yielded to the desire of those of my friends who would have me to go into the army. But just before I was quite engaged in a military employment, I met with such disappointments as occasioned my coming to England." Add to this, that he disapproved of the motives which had chiefly induced his parents to desire him to enter into the ministry. This appears from an observation which he made to Mrs. Fletcher one day, while he was showing her a piece of painting which he had executed when he was about sixteen years of age. "I was then studying fortification," said he, "with a view to go into the army. Once, indeed, my friends having a prospect of obtaining preferment for me, wanted me to go into the Church. But that motive I thought by no means right, and therefore still pursued my plan of being a soldier." So that, according to his own account, he at that time declined the ministry, for three reasons: lst. Because he judged himself unqualified for so high and holy a calling: 2dly. He scrupled subscribing the doctrine of predestination, which, it seems, he must have done to have taken orders in Switzerland; and, 3dly. He disapproved of undertaking so sacred an office as that of preaching the Gospel in order to obtain preferment, or with any worldly views whatever.
12. Not being able to gain the consent of his parents to his going into the army, according to Mr. Wesley, he went away to Lisbon. Here, it seems, he gathered a company of his own countrymen, accepted of a captain's commission, and engaged to serve the king of Portugal on board a man-of-war, which was just then getting ready with all speed in order to sail to Brazil. He then wrote to his parents, begging them to send him a considerable sum of money. Of this he expected to make a vast advantage. But they refused him. Unmoved by this, he determined to go without it as soon as the ship sailed. But in the morning the maid, waiting on him at breakfast, let the tea kettle fall, and so scalded his leg that he kept his bed for a considerable time after. During that time the ship sailed for Brazil. But it was observed that the ship was heard of no more.
13. His desire of being an officer in the army, Mr. Wesley tells us continued after he returned from Lisbon. And when he was informed that his uncle, then a colonel in the Dutch service, had procured a commission for him, he joyfully set out for Flanders. But just at that time the peace was concluded; and his uncle dying quickly after, his hopes were blasted, and he gave up all thoughts of being a soldier. And, being disengaged from all business, he thought it would not be amiss to spend a little time in England.
14. Coming to the custom house in London with some other young gentlemen, none of whom could speak any English, they were treated with the utmost surliness and ill manners by some brutish custom house officers. These not only took out and jumbled together all the things that were in their portmanteaus, but took away their letters of recommendation, telling them, "All letters must be sent by the post." It is justly observed by Mr. Wesley, that "they are such saucy and ill-mannered wretches as these who bring up an evil report on our nation. Britons might well be styled Hospitibus feri, if they were all like these vermin.
15. From hence they went to an inn; but here they were under another difficulty. As they spoke no English they could not tell how to exchange their foreign into English money; till Mr. Fletcher, going to the door, heard a well dressed Jew talking French. He told him the difficulty they were under with regard to the exchange of money. The Jew replied, "Give me your money and I will get it changed in five minutes." Mr. Fletcher without delay gave him his purse, in which were ninety pounds. As soon as he came back to his company he told them what he had done. They all cried out with one voice, "Then your money is gone. You need never expect to see a crown or a doit of it any more. Men are constantly waiting about the doors of these inns on purpose to take in young strangers." Seeing no remedy, no way to help himself, he could only commend his cause to God. And that was enough. Before they had done breakfast, in came the Jew and brought him the whole money.
16. Inquiring for a person who was proper to perfect him in the English tongue, (the rudiments of which he had begun to learn before he left Geneva,) he was recommended to Mr. Burchell, who then kept a boarding school at South Mimms, in Hertfordshire. And when Mr. Burchell removed to Hatfield he chose to remove with him. All the time he was both at South Mimms and at Hatfield he was of a serious and reserved behavior; very different from that of the other young gentlemen who were his fellow students. Here he diligently studied both the English language and all the branches of polite literature. Meantime his easy and genteel behavior, together with his eminent sweetness of temper, gained him the esteem as well as the affection of all that conversed with him. He frequently visited some of the first families in Hatfield, who were all fond of his conversation, so lively and ingenious, at the same time evidencing both the gentleman and the scholar. All this time he had the fear of God deeply rooted in his heart. But he had none to take him by the hand and lead him forward in the ways of God. He stayed with Mr. Burchell about eighteen months, who loved him as his own son.
17. Afterward one Mr. Decamps, a French minister, to whom he had been recommended, procured him the place of tutor to the two sons of Thomas Hill, Esquire, at Ternhall, in Shropshire, In the year 1752, he removed into Mr. Hill's family, and entered upon the important province of instructing the young gentlemen. He still feared God, but had not yet an experimental sense of his love. Nor was he convinced of his own fallen state, till one Sunday evening a servant came in to make up his fire, while he was writing some music, who, looking at him with serious concern, said, "Sir, I am sorry to see you so employed on the Lord's day." At first his pride was alarmed, and his resentment moved at being reproved by a servant. But upon reflection, he felt the reproof was just. He immediately put away his music, and from that very hour became a strict observer of the Lord's day.
18. "I have heard," says Mr. Wesley, "two very different accounts of the manner wherein he had the first notice of the people called Methodists. But I think it reasonable to prefer to any other that which I received from his own mouth. This was as follows:-"
When Mr. Hill went to London to attend the parliament, he took his family and Mr. Fletcher with him. While they stopped at St. Albans, he walked out into the town, and did not return till they were set out for London, A horse being left for him, he rode after, and overtook them in the evening. Mr. Hill asking him why he stayed behind, he said, '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. H., 'if our tutor does not turn Methodist by and by.' 'Methodist, madam,' said he, 'pray what is that?' She replied, 'Why, the Methodists are a people that do nothing but pray: they are praying all day and all night.' 'Are they?' said he, 'then by the help of God, I will find them out if they be above ground.' He did find them out not long after, and was admitted into the society. And from this time, whenever he was in town, he met in Mr. Richard Edwards' class. This he found so profitable to his soul, that he lost no opportunity of meeting. And he retained a peculiar regard for Mr. Edwards till the day of his death."