The Life of John Fletcher: Chapter 8 - Of His Marriage
1. Although the great apostle has ranked the forbidding to marry among the doctrines of devils, and has expressly declared, Marriage is honourable to all men, and the bed undefiled; yet a kind of prejudice hangs on the minds of many, even of those that love God, inclining them to disapprove of the marriage of persons eminent in religion. Yea, many are of opinion that it is not consistent with high degrees of holiness: and that when any who have deep experience in the things of God marry, they are in some measure fallen from grace. Hence many were surprised that so eminent a Christian as Mr. Fletcher should take this step. And they could hardly help thinking that he had lost some degree of his excellent piety, and that he was not so unreservedly devoted to God as he had been some time before.
In order to satisfy every reasonable person that he had not sustained any loss at all; that his entire self-devotion was in nowise impaired either before or at the time of his marriage, the most convincing way, as Mr. Wesley has observed, will be to give as particular an account as possible of the steps which led to this union; and of what occurred at the time when it took place. This I shall do, first, in the words of the Rev. Mr. Gilpin1 and then in those of one who was well acquainted with them both, and, in particular, was in habits of great intimacy with the pious and amiable person who was the object of Mr. Fletcher's choice.
2. "The attention of ministers," says Mr. Gilpin, "in choosing such companions as may not hinder their success in the ministry, is of so great importance, that in some countries the conduct of a pastor's wife, as well as that of the pastor himself, is supposed either to edify or mislead the flock. Nay, the minister himself is frequently condemned for the faults of his wife thus, in the Protestant Churches of Hungary, they degrade a pastor whose wife indulges herself in cards, dancing, or any other public amusement, which bespeaks the gaiety of a lover of the world, rather than the gravity of a Christian matron. This severity springs from the supposition that the woman, having promised obedience to her husband, can do nothing but what he either directs or approves. Hence, they conclude, that example having a greater influence than precept, the wife of a minister, if she be inclined to the world, will preach worldly compliance with more success by her conduct, than her husband can preach the renunciation of the world by the most solemn discourses. And the incredulity of the stumbled flock will always be the consequence of that unhappy inconsistency which is observable between the serious instructions of a well disposed minister, and the trifling conduct of a woman with whom he is so intimately connected. Nor are there wanting apostolic ordinances sufficient to support the exercise of this severe discipline:-- Even so must their wives be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things. Let the bishop or deacon be one that ruleth well his own house, having his children, and every part of his family, in subjection with all gravity: for if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the Church of God? I Tim. iii, 4, 5,11.
3. "Early in life Mr. Fletcher was introduced to the company of Miss Bosanquet, a lady of distinguished piety, and one who had been exposed to peculiar sufferings in the cause of godliness. From the very first acquaintance of these two excellent persons, they were deeply sensible of each other's worth, and felt the secret influence of a mutual attraction. But, notwithstanding the peculiar regard they entertained for each other, no intimate intercourse subsisted between them for many years after this period. Both were called to an extraordinary course of spiritual exercises; but by the providence of God they were appointed to labour in different stations. While he was exhausting his strength in the service of his flock, she was no less honorably employed in applying an ample fortune to the relief of the friendless; collecting together, and supporting under her own roof, an extensive family, composed of the afflicted, the indigent, and the helpless, but chiefly consisting of orphan children. To these occupations they devoted the prime of their days; and during more than twenty years' unwearied attention to these sacred employments no regular correspondence was maintained between them. They knew, however, and rejoiced in each other's labours: but, while every succeeding report tended to increase their mutual regard, they greatly endeavored to turn the whole stream of their affections toward heavenly things, joyfully sacrificing every inferior consideration to the interest of the Church and the glory of their common Master.
"It was not till his last return from Switzerland, after his unexpected recovery from a dangerous illness, that Mr. Fletcher renewed his personal acquaintance with Miss Bosanquet, who received him as a friend restored from the grave. They had each of them studiously followed the leadings of Providence in their appointed stations; and, at this time, a combination of extraordinary circumstances led them into those habits of intimacy which daily increased their deep-rooted attachment to each other. There existed on either side a variety of motives to their immediate union, and not a single reason of any weight for their continued separation. Every seeming impediment was suddenly removed out of the way, and all things wonderfully conspired to accelerate that entire connection between them which promised a large addition to their mutual comfort. At length, with the fullest persuasion that they acted under the Divine influence, they received each other at the altar, in the most solemn and affecting manner, as from the immediate hand of God, and in the presence of a multitude of friends, who rejoiced to see so much solid piety and worth united by art indissoluble tie."
4. The account given by Mrs. C. in a letter to Mr. Wesley is much more particular: and as she was an eye and ear witness of what she relates, I doubt not but it will fully satisfy all who seriously consider it, that his soul was at that time all alive, and wholly devoted to God. And this whole transaction may well be recommended to the imitation of all Christians who enter the holy state of matrimony.
"Rev. Sir, -- I think it my privilege, and have often found it a blessing, to comply with the request of my honoured father, which I now do also in great love to my valuable and much esteemed friends, Mr. and Mrs. Fletcher. I will therefore endeavour, with the assistance of my gracious Lord, to recollect and acquaint you with some particulars of the life and character of these truly devoted servants of God, with whose intimate acquaintance I have been favoured for near thirty years. But, indeed, I feel my great insufficiency to relate what might be said with the strictest truth of these worthies.
My acquaintance with Mrs. Fletcher began when she was about seventeen years of age. She had from her early childhood been strongly drawn to seek the Crucified, and was now athirst for a clean heart, and longed to have a right spirit renewed within her. Nor did her desire to love God with all her heart lessen, but increase, her love to her neigbour: as I, the most unworthy, am well able to testify, to whom she has been a tried friend, even to the present hour.
"To give you a clear view of this, I need only transcribe part of a letter which she wrote to me, May 23, 1757:-
"My Dearest Friend, -- The Lord has been indeed merciful, above all that we can ask or think. I found a greater blessing the last time I was with you than ever. I am more enabled to pray, and earnestly to seek after holiness. But what most stirs me up is, I seem to hear the Lord calling upon me, Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out thence: touch not the unclean thing: be ye clean that bear the vessels of the Lord. For some time these words have been much in my mind with both pleasure and profit. But within this day or two the Lord has more clearly shown me the way wherein I ought to walk. He seems to call me out to more activity, so that I am ready to cry out, "What wouldst thou have me to do!" Then I consider, Can I do any more for the souls or bodies of the poor about me? But this does not seem to be the thing. What I am now led to wish for is, with both soul and body to serve those who are in Christ. And as soon as the Lord has prepared me for his work, and set me at liberty, my firm resolution is, by the grace of God, to be wholly given up to the Church. I plainly see I have no more to do with the world than to allow myself the necessaries of life. And though it has pleased God that I have no need to work for my living, yet surely that is no reason my hand should be idle. I would be like those described, 1 Tim. v, 10, To bring up children, to lodge strangers, to be ready to do the meanest offices for the saints: to relieve the afflicted, to visit the fatherless and widows, and diligently to follow every good work. Oh pray for me that the Lord may shorten his work in me, and quickly make an end of sin! Oh that he would say to my soul, Thou art all fair, my love! There is no spot in thee. Oh when shall I be wholly given up, both body and soul, to Him who gave himself for me!'
"I admired the spirit of this letter; but little expected to see these good desires brought so fully into practice as they were a few years after. And this may suffice as a clear proof that God fulfils the desires of them that fear him; yea, and shows unto them the path wherein he would have them to walk. That her light given before was not delusive is plain; as it is well known how many years she has brought up children, lodged strangers, relieved the afflicted, and diligently followed every good work.
"With regard to the dear saint that is now swallowed up in his beloved employment, praise and adoration, it is eight or nine and twenty years since I was first favored with his heavenly conversation, in company with Mr. Walsh, and a few other friends, most of whom are now in the world of spirits. At these seasons how frequently did we feel The overwhelming power of saving grace?'
How frequently were we silenced thereby, while tears of love our souls overflowed! It sweetly affects my soul, while I recollect the humility, fervor of spirit, and strength of faith with which dear Mr. Fletcher so often poured out his soul before the great Three One, at whose feet we have lain in holy shame and Divine silence, till it seemed earth was turned to heaven! With what delight does my soul recall those precious moments! Yet a little while, and we shall all magnify his name together.
"This heavenly minded servant of the Lord resembled his Master, likewise, in his love to precious souls. I heard him preach his first sermon at West-street chapel. I think his text was, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. His spirit appeared in his whole attitude and action, though he could not well find words in the English language to express himself: but he supplied that defect, by offering up prayers, tears, and sighs abundantly. Nearly about this time, he saw Miss Bosanquet, and began his acquaintance with her. But although they had a particular esteem for each other, yet they had no correspondence for above twenty years. It was not till the yearly conference drew near in July 1781, that he paid her a visit at her own house near Leeds. They had much conversation together, and contracted an intimate acquaintance. After a few days, Miss Bosanquet, asked your (Mr. Wesley's) advice, concerning Mr. Fletcher's proposal. You approved it entirely, being persuaded it would be much to the glory of God."
About the middle of September Mr. Fletcher returned to Madeley, where he continued till the end of October, when he again visited Yorkshire, intending immediately after his marriage to set out with his spouse to his beloved parish. For he seemed to think every hour a day while he was detained from his dear people. But unavoidable hindrances occurring, their mutual friend, the Rev. Mr. Cross, was so kind as to supply Madeley, while Mr. Fletcher took care of Mr. Cross' parish in his absence.
"His general conversation," proceeds Mrs. C., "while at Cross Hall was praising God, and speaking of the love of our dear Redeemer. He took opportunities likewise of speaking to every one in the family concerning the state of their souls, and giving them, from time to time, such directions as were suitable thereto. At other times he met us all together, and gave us proper exhortations and directions. Our daily meals were as a sacrament; when he drank to any one it was, 'heavenly health,' or 'the cup of salvation.' At or after the meal, he generally began, or called us to begin that verse,
'Still, Oh my soul, prolong The never-ceasing song!
Christ my theme, my hope, my joy! His be all my happy days!
Praise my every hour employ: Every breath be spent in praise!'
After dinner he often sung several verses of primitive Christianity: particularly that, -
Oh that my Lord would count me meet To wash his dear disciples' feet!'
Sometimes he read many of those verses with tears streaming down his face. Thus did he walk with God, filled with the spirit of his beloved Lord: confirming his love to all the family, and caring both for their spiritual and temporal concerns.
"My soul was much afflicted, when he asked each of us, in a sweet, humble manner, 'Can you give me your friend?' To think of parting was indeed grievous to us all. Yet we did not dare to withhold her from him: as we all believed the union was of God, and would be to their present and eternal benefit. The first sermon which he preached in Leeds, on the Sunday morning before the conference, will never be forgotten by any that heard it, who desire to be perfected in love. He preached in many places while in Yorkshire, and to numerous congregations. I have heard of many who were blessed thereby: some convinced of sin, others comforted. And whenever he either preached or conversed, the comforts of the Holy Ghost were multiplied.
"Monday, November 12th, was the day appointed for the outward uniting of those whose hearts were before united by the Holy Spirit. On the morning of this day, several friends met together on this solemn occasion: who can all with me truly say, 'I have been at one Christian wedding.' Jesus was invited, and truly he was at our Cana. We reached Cross Hall before family prayers: Mr. Fletcher was dressed in his canonicals: and after giving out one of Mr. Wesley's marriage hymns, he read the seventh, eighth, and ninth verses of the nineteenth chapter of Revelation; and spoke from them in such a manner as greatly tended to spiritualize the solemnities of the day. He said, 'We invite you to our wedding: but the Holy Ghost here invites you to the marriage of the Lamb. The bride, the Lamb's wife, has made herself ready. This bride consists of the whole Church triumphant and militant united together. Ye may all be the bride, and Jesus will condescend to be the Bridegroom. Make yourselves ready by being filled with the Spirit.' He was very solemn in prayer, and said, 'Lord, thou knowest we would not take this step if we had not eternity in view, and if we were not as willing to be carried into the churchyard, as to go into the church.' At breakfast he reminded us, 'The postillions are now ready to carry us to the church, in order to see our nuptials solemnized; but death will soon be here, to transport us to the marriage of the Lamb.'
"On the way to the church, (Batley church, which was near two miles off,) he spoke much of the mystery which is couched under marriage, namely, the union between Christ and his Church. 'The first Adam,' said he, 'received his wife from his side; our heavenly Adam purchased his bride by a fountain opened in his pierced side.' They were married in the face of the congregation; the doors were opened, and every one came in that would. We then returned home, and spent a considerable time in singing and prayer. We were near twenty of us. I then presented Mrs. Fletcher with some wedding hymns. She looked them over, and gave them to Mr. Fletcher. He read the scripture at the top, namely, Husbands, love your wives: and added, as Christ loved the Church. Then turning to us, he said, 'My God, what a task! Help me, my friends, by your prayers to fulfil it as Christ loved the Church! He laid aside his glory for her! He submitted to be born into our world; to be clothed with a human body, subject to all our sinless infirmities. He endured shame, contempt, pain, yea, death itself, for his Church! Oh my God, none is able to fulfil this task without thine almighty aid. Help me, Oh my God! Pray for me, Oh my friends!'
"He next read, Wives, submit yourselves unto you own husbands. Mrs. Fletcher added, As unto the Lord. 'Well, my dear,' returned Mr. Fletcher, 'only in the Lord. And if ever I wish you to do any thing otherwise, resist me with all your might.' From dinner, which was a spiritual meal, as well as a natural one, until tea time, our time was spent chiefly in fervent prayer or singing. After singing the covenant hymn, Mr. Fletcher went to Mrs. Fletcher, and said to her, 'Well, my dearest friend, will you join with me in joining ourselves in a perpetual covenant to the Lord? Will you, with me, serve him in his members? Will you help to bring souls to the blessed Redeemer? And in every possible way this day lay yourself under the strongest ties you can, to help me to glorify my gracious Lord?' She answered like one that well knew where her strength lay, 'May my God help me so to do!'
"In the evening Mr. Valton preached in the hall from those most suitable words, What shall I render unto the Lord for all his benefits? I will take the cup of salvation, and call upon the name of the Lord. His words did not fall to the ground: many were greatly refreshed. After preaching there was a sweet contest among us; every one thought, I in particular, owe the greatest debt of praise; till we jointly agreed to sing,
I'll praise my Maker while I've breath, And when my voice is lost in death, Praise shall employ my nobler powers: My days of praise shall never be past, While life, or thought, or being last, Or immortality endures.
"On the Wednesday following, the select society met: and it was a precious season. Among other things Mr. Fletcher said, 'Some of you perhaps may be a little surprised at the step my dearest friend and I have taken. But I assure you it was the result of much prayer and mature deliberation. Five and twenty years ago, when I first saw my dear wife, I thought if I ever married she should be the person. But she was too rich for me to think of. So I banished every thought of the kind. For many years after I had a distaste to a married life, thinking it impossible to be as much devoted to God in a married, as in a single life. But this objection was removed by reading, Enoch begat sons and daughters. And Enoch walked with God, and was not: for God took him. I then saw if Enoch, at the head of a family, might walk with God, and be fit for translation; our souls, under the Gospel dispensation, might attain the highest degree of holiness in a similar state, if too great an attachment, leading the soul from God, rather than to him, did not take place, instead of that which should be a mean of increasing its union with Jesus. Yet still many obstacles stood in my way: but at length they were all removed. Every mountain became a plain, and we are both well assured that the step we have taken has the full approbation of God.'
"But to repeat all the precious sayings of this servant of God would require many volumes: for his mouth was always opened with wisdom, tending to minister grace to the hearers. My earnest prayer is, that the spirit of faith and love and heavenly wisdom may rest upon you also, and guide you in all your extensive labors till they are swallowed up in eternal rest. I remain, Rev. sir, your unworthy child and servant, S. C."
5. An extract from one or two of his letters written to some intimate friends soon after his marriage will manifest still farther both the state of his mind on this occasion, and the just scriptural views he had of the new relation into which he had entered. December 26th, 1781, he writes from Cross Hall, the former residence of Mrs. Fletcher, as follows, to the Hon. Mrs. C.:
"My Very Dear Friend, -- The kind part you take in my happiness demands my warmest thanks; and I beg you will accept them, multiplied by those which my dear partner presents to you. Yes, my dear friend, I am married in my old age, and have a new opportunity of considering a great mystery, in the most perfect type of our Lord's mystical union with his Church. I have now a new call to pray for a fullness of Christ's holy, gentle, meek, loving Spirit, that I may love my wife as he loved his spouse, the Church. But the emblem is greatly deficient: the Lamb is worthy of his spouse, and more than worthy; whereas I must acknowledge myself unworthy of the yokefellow whom Heaven has reserved for me. She is a person after my own heart and I make no doubt we shall increase the number of the happy marriages in the Church militant. Indeed, they are not so many but it may be worth a Christian's while to add one more to the number. God declared it was not good that man, a social being, should live alone. and therefore he gave him a help meet for him: for the same reason our Lord sent forth his disciples two and two. Had I searched the three kingdoms, I could not have found one brother willing to share, gratis, my weal, wo, and labors; and complaisant enough to unite his fortunes to mine; but God has found me a partner, a sister, a wife, to use St. Paul's language, who is not afraid to face with me the colliers and bargemen of my parish until death part us.
"Buried together in our country village, we shall help one another to trim our lamps, and wait, as I trust you do continually, for the coming of the heavenly Bridegroom. Well, for us the heavenly child is born, to us a double son is given, and with him the double kingdom of grace and glory. Oh my dear friend, let us press into, and meet in both of these kingdoms. Our Surety and Saviour is the way and the door into them; and, blessed be free grace, the way is free as the king's highway, and the door open like the arms of Jesus crucified.
January 1st, 1782, he adds:-- "I live, blessed be God, to devote myself again to his blessed service in this world, or in the next, and to wish my dear friends all the blessings of a year of jubilee. Whatever this year bring forth, may it bring us the fullest measures of salvation attainable on earth, and the most complete preparation for heaven. I have a solemn call to gird my loins and keep my lamp burning. Strangely restored to health and strength, considering my years, by the good nursing of my dear partner, I ventured to preach of late as often as I did formerly, and after having read prayers and preached twice on Christmas day, &c., I did last Sunday what I had never done, -- I continued doing duty from ten till past four in the afternoon, owing to christenings, churchings, and the sacrament, which I administered to a church full of people: so that I was obliged to go from the communion table to begin the evening service, and then to visit some sick. This has brought back upon me one of my old dangerous symptoms, so that I had flattered myself in vain to do the whole duty of my own parish. My dear wife is nursing me with the tenderest care, gives me up to God with the greatest resignation, and helps me to rejoice, that life and death, health and sickness, work all for our good, and are all ours, as blessed instruments to forward us in our journey to heaven. We intend to set out for Madeley to-morrow. The prospect of a winter's journey is not sweet; but the prospect of meeting you and your dear sister, and Lady Mary, and all our other companions in tribulation in heaven, is delightful. The Lord prepare and fit us for that glorious meeting! Your most obliged and affectionate servant, " J. F."
6. The next day they left Cross Hall as they proposed and set out on their journey to Madeley; on which occasion the friend, who gives the above account of their marriage, observes:-- "January 2, 1782, we had a very solemn parting. But in the midst of all the sorrow which we felt, was a sweet assurance that we should meet again, not only in this world, but
'Where death shall all be done away, And bodies part no more.'
This brings to my mind a sentence which he wrote to us a little before his death. 'Time is short. It remains that we die daily. Stand fast in Christ, the resurrection and the life. That we may have a happy meeting is the wish and prayer of your affectionate friends, 'John And Mary Fletcher.'"
After their arrival at Madeley, he writes to Lady Mary Fitzgerald as follows:-" I thank you, my lady, for your kind congratulations on my marriage. The Lord has indeed blessed me with a partner after my own heart, dead to the world, and wanting, as well as myself, to be filled with all the life of God. She joins me in dutiful thanks to your ladyship for your obliging remembrance of her in your kind letter, and will help me to welcome you to the little hermitage we spoke of last year in London, if your ladyship's health or taste should call you to retire awhile from the hurry of the town." And about a year after, in a letter to Mr. Charles Wesley, his words are: -- 'I thank you for your hint about exemplifying the love of Christ and his Church. I hope we do. I was afraid at first to say much of the matter; for new married people do not, at first, know each other; but having now lived fourteen months in my new state, I can tell you, Providence has reserved a prize for me, and that my wife is far better to me than the Church to Christ; so that if the parallel fail, it will be on my side."
"From this period," to use Mr. Gilpin's words, "Mr. Fletcher considered himself as possessed of the last possible addition to his earthly happiness, never mentioning this memorable event, but with expressions of extraordinary gratitude and devotion to the God of all his mercies. And from this time, to the other parts of his character must be added that of an attentive and an affectionate husband, which he maintained with a becoming mixture of dignity and sweetness to the day of his death. By her Christian conversation, her devotional habits, and her spiritual experience, Mrs. Fletcher was peculiarly suited to a state of the most entire and intimate fellowship with this eminent servant of God. 8he was of equal standing with him in the school of Christ, and of the same uncommon growth in grace: she had drunk of the same spirit, was actuated by the same zeal, and prepared in every respect to accompany him in the Christian race. By her discretion and prudence she bore the whole weight of his domestic cares; while, by the natural activity of her mind, and her deep acquaintance with Divine things, she seconded his ministerial labors with astonishing success. Like Zacharias and Elizabeth, these extraordinary persons were both eminently righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. In their separate stations they had long been distinguished as lights in dark places but after uniting their rays, they shone with redoubled luster, putting to silence the ignorance of foolish men, and dissipating the prejudices which many had entertained against the truths of the Gospel.
"For the space of almost four years, these Christian yoke fellows continued to enjoy, without interruption, all the inexpressible felicities of the most complete union; a union which appeared to promote, at once, their own particular happiness, and the interests of the people among whom they jointly labored."