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The Life of John Fletcher: Chapter 10 - His Character


      1. Although it be the method of almost all writers, (Mr. Wesley's Life of Fletcher,) to place the character of the person whose life they write at the conclusion of their work, there seems to be a particular reason for pursuing a different plan with respect to Mr. Fletcher. God gave such an uncommon display of his power and goodness, in behalf of his highly favored servant, at his death, that it seems quite proper the account of that last scene should close the history of him, and that no thing should follow it. I shall, therefore, here insert the best account I can collect of the character of this great and good man. But as we have scarce any light from himself, there is a peculiar difficulty in the way. "He was on all occasions," as Mr. Wesley has justly observed, "very uncommonly reserved in speaking of himself, whether in writing or conversation. He hardly ever said any thing concerning himself, unless it slipped from him unawares. And, among the great number of papers which he has left, there is scarce a page (except that single account of his conversion to God) relative either to his own inward experience, or the transactions of his life. So that the most of the information we have is gathered up, either from short hints scattered up and down in his letters, from what he had occasionally dropped among his friends, or from what one and another remembered concerning him."

      2. From the imperfect account, however, which has already been given of him, any discerning person may, with very little difficulty, extract his character. In general it is easy to perceive that a more excellent man has not appeared in the Church for some ages. It is true, in several ages, and in several countries, many men have excelled in particular virtues and graces. But who can point out, in any age or nation, one that so highly excelled in all?. One that was enabled, in so large a measure, to put on the whole armor of God? Yea, so to put on Christ as to perfect holiness in the fear of God?

      3. It is evident, as Mr. Gilpin relates, (Portrait, page 42,) that his life might, with the greatest propriety, be termed "a life of faith." Through the whole of his Christian pilgrimage, he walked by faith, not by sight. By faith he embraced the truths of the Gospel, when they were first proposed to him in plainness and simplicity; not barely admitting, but relying upon them with an entire confidence. By faith he relinquished the world, while it presented him with many flattering prospects, choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. By faith he endured the displeasure of his friends, and patiently suffered their contradiction, esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of the world, and having respect unto the recompense of reward. By faith he engaged himself in the Christian warfare, unmoved either by its difficulties or its dangers; and by faith he endured to the end, as seeing Him who is invisible. Though his faith was always increasing, yet, during his Christian profession, there never was a time in which he was regarded as a man weak, or wavering in the faith of the Gospel. On the contrary, he seems to have borne a strong resemblance to those two extraordinary characters whose faith, upon their very first application to Christ, not only procured his approbation, but appeared to excite his astonishment.

      4. His faith was frequently put to the severest tests; but, after being tried to the uttermost, it remained unshaken. He regarded the promises of God as the firm supports of this grace, nor was he ever seen to stagger at any of those promises through unbelief. If the promise was great and important; if its full accomplishment was even doubted by his most esteemed fellow laborers; yet this holy man continued strong in faith, giving glory to God; being fully persuaded that what He had promised he was able also to perform. By this mighty grace he engaged in the most difficult duties, and saw many mountainous obstacles removed from his path. By this he was enabled to bear the heat and burden of the day; and by this, notwithstanding all the discouragements that could be thrown in his way, he went on from conquering to conquer.

      5. "The nature of his faith was evidenced by the works it produced. He stood not as a cumberer of the ground in his Master's vineyard; but, like a tree planted by the waterside, he brought forth his fruit in due season. He stood as an humble representation of that tree of life which grows by the river of paradise; for in his fruit there was a wonderful variety, and every successive season was with him a season of spiritual plenty. He not only bore that delicate kind of fruit which requires the sunshine of prosperity; but produced, with equal luxuriance, those hardier graces which can only be matured by the rigors of adversity.

      6. "It is the privilege of every Christian to be united to Christ: that as he and the Father are one, so his disciples may be one with their adorable Master. This privilege, in its lowest sense, is inconceivably estimable in the Church of Christ; but by this eminent servant of God it was enjoyed in a more than ordinary degree. His union with the blessed Jesus, answerable to the greatness of his faith, was intimate and constant. He experienced the fulfillment of that condescending promise, If any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me: he obeyed the summons and received the promised visitant; and from that time his heart became the dwelling place of Christ. There he experienced the teachings of uncreated wisdom, and held ineffable communion with the Author and Finisher of faith, imbibing abundantly the spirit of his Divine Instructor, and sitting under his shadow with great delight. By this sacred intercourse, continued from day to day, his union with Christ became so entire, that he was at length enabled to adopt the expressive declaration of the great apostle,I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me

      7. "The strictness of this union was evinced by his whole disposition and carriage. The mind that was in Christ was discovered also in him. He denied himself, he took up his cross, and trod in the footsteps of his Master. He cheerfully submitted to the yoke of Jesus, and was effectually taught by his example to be meek and lowly in heart. He breathed the language of universal benevolence, and copied the character of his Lord with so great exactness that all men took knowledge of him that he had been with Jesus. Fellowship with Christ is, with the generality of Christians, a state of much uncertainty, and subject to many changes; but, by this holy man, it was well nigh uninterruptedly enjoyed, through all the different stages of the spiritual life. It was his consolation in the season of adversity, and his glory in the day of rejoicing; it sustained him in the hour of temptation, and afforded him peace in the midst of trouble. At home or abroad, he still was sitting with Christ Jesus in heavenly places. In sickness or health, he daily conferred with this Physician of inestimable value. In honor or dishonor, he still was dignified with the favor of this everlasting King. In short, the whole circle of his Christian friends are ready to testify that neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor life, nor death were able to separate this faithful pastor from the love of Christ; for whom he suffered the loss of all things, and by whose gracious presence that loss was abundantly overpaid."

      8. Next to his faith, and the union and communion which he had with Christ thereby, we may notice his patience and fortitude under the various trials whereby his faith and other graces were exercised. "Thou, Oh God, hast tried us like as silver is tried, has been the language," observes Mr. Gilpin, "of the faithful in every period of the Church: for whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. Of that chastisement, whereof all the children of the kingdom are partakers, Mr. Fletcher was not without a painful share. He had fellowship with Christ in his sufferings, and could bear ample testimony to the fatherly corrections of that righteous God whose fire is in Sion, and his furnace in Jerusalem. His trials were of various kinds, frequently repeated; many times of long continuance; and on some occasions peculiarly severe. But from whatever quarter his trials arose, whether he suffered through bodily infirmity and pain, from the infidelity of false brethren, or from the despitefulness of open enemies, he suffered as a man unreservedly devoted to the will of God, regard in neither ease nor health, the consolations of social intercourse, nor the estimation of the world, but so far as they tended to promote either the welfare of his brethren, or the glory of their common Lord.

      9. "Three things were especially observable in his conduct, with respect to trials in general.

      "First. He was careful never to plunge himself into difficulties through inadvertence and precipitation. Conscious that his path was encompassed with innumerable dangers and snares, he proceeded in his course with the utmost wariness and circumspection, deliberating on the tendency of every expression, and weighing the probable consequences of every step. Without swerving to the one hand by intemperate zeal, or to the other by worldly compliance, he steadily persevered in the path of duty, endeavoring to have always a conscience void of offence toward God and toward men.

      "Secondly. Wherever he saw a trial awaiting him, in the order of Providence, how terrific an aspect soever it might wear, he went on to meet it without the least indication of despondency or fear. He esteemed no difficulty too great to be surmounted, no cross too heavy to be endured, nor any enemy too strong to be opposed, in the way of God's appointment. Here he considered himself as under the immediate protection of the Almighty, and knowing in whom he believed, he committed the keeping of his soul to him in well doing, as unto a faithful Creator.

      "Thirdly. He entered into the conflict under a lively impression of the truth of that apostolic declaration Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life. This sentiment sustained him in the day of trouble, and produced in him a degree of fortitude proportioned to the severity of the trial. He could smile under the languors of disease and the violence of pain; he could hear, without emotion, the reproaches of malice, aid receive, without resentment, the shafts of ingratitude; counting itaall joy when he fell into divers temptations, and glorifying the Lord in the fiercest fires of affliction.

      10. "But while he discovered an astonishing degree of firmness under the sharpest trials, he was a perfect stranger to that stoical sullenness which steels the heart against the attacks of adversity. His fortitude was sustained, not by insensibility, but by patience and resignation. Through the most afflicting providential dispensations his attention was fixed upon that wondrous example of patient suffering which was exhibited in the High Priest of his profession: and if ever his sensibility constrained him to cry out, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; his resignation as constantly disposed him to add, nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done. Such was the conduct of Mr. Fletcher with respect to trials of every kind. He never created them through imprudence; he never avoided them through timidity; he never endured them, but with an uncommon share of fortitude and patience: and it may be added that he never experienced the removal of a trial without thankfully ascribing his support under it, and his deliverance from it, to the gracious interference of that invisible arm which is mighty to save.

      11. "With such dispositions, it is not difficult to conceive that, like Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, he held communion with the Son of God in the hottest furnace of affliction; so that, like Job, he came forth from the most grievous trials as gold purified in the fire. The friends he has left behind him can joyfully testify that he had learned the happy art of glorying even in tribulations, from a consciousness that tribulation worked patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope. Nay, they are farther prepared to testify that his hope was matured into the fullest assurance, when they recollect how he would frequently come forth from a state of keen distress, repeating the confidential exclamation of the great apostle: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors, through him that hath loved us."

      12. His devotion to the Lord Jesus was equal to his faith in him and his other graces. "Though this be strictly enjoined by the Church," as is justly observed by the author last quoted, (Portrait, page 65,)" it is rarely discernible in the conduct of her members. As the majority of Christians are satisfied with a superficial knowledge of the Redeemer, so their devotion to him is purely of a professional nature. Their attachment to Christ may dispose them to some few external marks of respect toward him, but is insufficient to produce in them any single act of genuine obedience or self-denial. They reverence his name while they reject his authority; and acknowledge him as a Saviour while they refuse to follow him as a guide. In all these respects it was totally otherwise with the man whose character is here faintly delineated. His devotion to Christ was sincere and unreserved, first as a private Christian, and afterward as a minister of the Gospel. As a private Christian, he was a strict and constant follower of the blessed Jesus, renouncing, for his sake, all the transient gratifications of time and sense. Whatever he had formerly admired and pursued, he voluntarily laid at the feet of his Lord. Those requisitions of Christ which are generally looked upon as strict in the extreme, he submitted to without a murmur; cutting off the right hand, plucking out the right eye, and casting away whatever might prove offensive to his spotless Master, with all the determination of a deep-rooted attachment. He cast aside every weight, he resisted every sin, and neglected nothing that might prove either the sincerity of his zeal, or the fervor of his love. He dedicated his time, his studies, his acquisitions, and his substance to the service of his Lord and desired to present him, at once, with his whole being, as a living sacrifice, expressive of his entire devotion.

      13. "As a minister of the Gospel, his devotion to Christ was expressed, if possible, in a still more absolute manner. He entered more universally into his service, and manifested a greater degree of zeal for the honor of his name. He imitated his perfections in a more unlimited sense, and interested himself more deeply in the extension of his kingdom upon earth. His renunciation of the world became more complete, and his self-denial more strict. He acted with greater resolution, and suffered with greater firmness in the cause of Christianity. His devotion to Christ was now carried to a higher pitch than most Christians are willing to believe attainable in the present life. He had no interest to serve, no inclination to gratify, nor any connection to maintain, but such as was entirely conformable to the nature of his union with the holy Jesus. Wherever he came, he breathed the spirit of devotion, and wherever he was familiarly known, the purity, the fervor, the resolution, and the constancy of that devotion were universally apparent. He daily felt and acted in conformity to the powerful obligations by which he was bound to the Captain of his salvation. His vows of inviolable affection and fidelity were solemnly renewed, as occasion offered, both in public and in private: and it was wonderful to observe, through all the vicissitudes of his Christian warfare, how perfect a harmony was maintained between his inclinations and his engagements, his habits and his profession. It would be very easy to expatiate largely under this head, though very difficult to give a description, in any tolerable degree, adequate to the subject. Instead of presenting the reader with several pages upon the point now before us, it shall suffice to say that this venerable man's entire devotion to Jesus Christ, as a minister of the Gospel, was variously expressed, " in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in labors, in watchings, in fastings, by pureness, by knowledge, by long suffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned, by the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report."

      14. Another particular in his character, touched upon by Mr. Gilpin, (Portrait, page 252,) is his perfect disinterestedness. "Upon his discovering," says he, " the goodly pearl of evangelical truth, Mr. Fletcher, like the merchant in the Gospel, immediately bartered his all for the possession of so invaluable a gem. Till then he had been engaged in pursuits of a worldly nature: but, from that time, he sought after no other treasure than the unsearchable riches of grace, nor desired any inheritance except that which is reserved for the saints in everlasting light. Through every period of his religious life he appeared as a pilgrim and stranger in the world, unallured by its smiles, unmoved by its frowns, and uninterested in its changes. His affections were wholly fixed upon things above; and while thousands and ten thousands were contending around him for the advantages and honors of the present life, he desired to pass unnoticed through its idle hurry, without being entangled in its concerns, or encumbered with its gifts. It was with him, as with a person engaged in a race, which must be attended with immense gain or irreparable loss, -- he kept his eye immovably fixed upon the goal; and whatever gilded trifles were thrown in his way, he resolutely trampled on them all, uninterruptedly pressing toward the mark for the prize of his high calling in Christ Jesus. His mind was never distracted with a multiplicity of objects, nor did he ever mingle temporal expectations with eternal hopes. Considering one thing only as absolutely necessary to his happiness, while he pursued the substance, he rejected the shadow; and while he contended for an incorruptible crown, he had no ambition to appear in the fading garlands of earthly glory. Possessed of that faith which overcometh the world, he beheld it with the feelings of his tempted Master: anxious for its good, but despising its yoke; prepared to labor in its service, but resolute to reject its rewards; deaf to its promises, blind to its prospects, and dead to its enjoyments.

      15. "He received, indeed, a part of his maintenance from the altar at which he served: but so scanty was the income produced by his parish, that it scarcely sufficed, in some years, for the liberallity of his contributions toward the relief of the poor. Yet so perfectly satisfied was he with his inconsiderable appointments at Madeley, that he desired nothing more than to conclude both his labors and his life in that favorite village. Had he been disposed to improve every favorable opportunity of advancing his temporal interests, he might have succeeded beyond many who were anxiously plotting and contriving the means of their future promotion in the world. But as a proof of his superiority to every allurement of this nature, he peremptorily refused, once and again, the offer of additional preferment. And, as a farther testimony of his perfect disinterestedness, after having so far destroyed his health by the excess of hisalabors, that he was obliged to retire for a season from his charge, he solemnly determined, in case of continued weakness, to give up together the profits and duties of his ministerial station."

      The reader will recollect the anecdote respecting his disinterestedness when in Dublin. But the disposition here described was not confined to pecuniary matters. It was exemplified through his whole conduct, which manifested, upon all occasions, that he acted under the entire influence of that disinterested charity which seeketh not her own.

      16. And as he regarded not his own temporal interest, so neither did he seek his own honor. "Among all the candidates for human praise," proceeds Mr. Gilpin, (Portrait, page 153,) "there is none more conspicuous than the man who exhibits his pretensions to applause from the pulpit. Dishonorable as it is to the cause of Christianity, the place from which humility and self-denial were formerly recommended to the world, is frequently employed, by modern divines, as a stage for the ostentatious display of their superior parts and accomplishments. Preferring the praise of men before the honor that cometh from God, multitudes of pastors are more solicitous to be ranked with profound theologists, elegant scholars, and masters of elocution, than to be numbered among the zealous and unaffected preachers of the everlasting Gospel. They court the applause of the world by seeking after such qualifications as will naturally recommend them to its favor; while they secure themselves from its reproaches by carefully avoiding whatever might tend to degrade them in its estimation. In short, they are abundantly more solicitous for the advancement of their own reputation than for the honor of their Master, or the increase of his kingdom.

      17. "Between pastors of this description and Mr. Fletcher, the most distant resemblance was not to be discovered. The favor of God was his ultimate aim through life; and, for the possession of so invaluable a privilege, he was content to forego the riches, the friendship, and even the good opinion of the world. Despising the common pursuits of men, he aspired after that true greatness which never yet excited the envy of the might, or the emulation of the ambitious. Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, in such things he was daily and diligently occupied; not that the report of his virtues might raise his reputation among men, but rather that he might become an example to the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in spirit, in purity. Though few men have ever had so just a claim as himself to universal approbation, yet no man ever appeared so perfectly deaf to the siren voice of admiration and praise. He permitted nothing to be related in his presence that apparently tended to his advantage. He could heal his actions censured, his opinions condemned, and his character traduced, with an astonishing degree of silent composure. But if at any time his virtues or abilities were mentioned with the least appearance of respect, he would instantly put a stop to the conversation with an air of severity which he seldom assumed upon any other occasion. On matters of this nature he resolutely refused to hear the voice of the charmer, with whatever discretion and delicacy the subject might be attempted. He counted himself no better than an unprofitable servant: and, as such, it was an invariable rule with him, in every company, to take the lowest seat; which he occupied, not as a man who was conscious that his merits entitled him to a more honorable place, but rather as one who considered himself unworthy of the favor of God, or the notice of man.

      18. "As an ambassador of Jesus Christ, he sought not his own honor, but the honor of him that sent him. Neither exalted by the grace he had received, nor elated with his success in the ministry, he still opened his commission in every place, in the lowly manner of the great apostle: Unto me who am less than the least of all saints is this grace given, that I should preach the unsearchable riches of Christ. He counted nothing either upon his attainments or his talents. Instead of endeavoring to make a pompous display of his excellences, he studiously concealed them from the notice of the world: and whether he was engaged in planting with Paul, or in watering with Apollos, he sought to turn every eye from the person of the laborer to the presence of that God who alone can give the increase. Far from courting the applause of a world in which his Lord had been publicly despised and rejected, he was sincerely disposed to drink of the cup, and to be baptized with the baptism of his Master.

      19. "Instead of toiling for the triumphs of vain glory, he inured himself to bear the reproach of the cross: and instead of soliciting the smiles of the world, he prepared himself to endure the contradiction of sinners. Fully persuaded that it is enough for the disciple that he be as his Master, he sought after an entire conformity to the mind and character of his Lord. Though formed to preside, he voluntarily took upon himself the form of a servant, and submitted to the lowest offices of condescension and charity. Though capable, as a preacher, of fixing the attention, and raising the admiration of the multitude, he absolutely renounced all pretensions to regard, and modestly made himself of no reputation. As a proof that he was not ambitious, either of the uppermost seats in synagogues, or of honorable salutations in places of public resort, he labored for the Church in a state of comparative retirement and obscurity: manifestly evidencing to all around him that he came not to be ministered unto, but to minister. In this uninvited situation of his choice he spent the laborious days of a useful life, as unknown, yet well known; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. Thus, by a patient continuance in well doing, he sought for glory, honor, and immortality, unnoticed by the ambitious and the vain, but eminently conspicuous among those whose praise is not of men, but of God."

      20. Nearly related to his disregard of, and deadness to the praise of men, was his humility. "This," continues Mr. Gilpin, (Portrait, page 128,) "is at once the groundwork and perfection of Christianity. Where this holy temper increases in the soul, there every grace is proportionately carried toward a state of maturity; but wherever this is wanting, there, sooner or later, every appearance of grace must wither and die: God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Examples of deep humility are uncommon, even in the Church of Christ but among the rarest examples of this kind, Mr. Fletcher must be allowed a distinguished place. From his natural disposition, perhaps no man had ever greater opposition to struggle against in his progress to humility; but as few professors of religion were ever known to resist their natural propensities with so determined a resolution, few ever gained so complete a victory over themselves as Mr. Fletcher. Lowliness of mind was considered, by the generality of his friends, as the most distinguished trait in the character of this great man; and it may be truly asserted that no person ever conversed with him, either at home or abroad, without being struck with the genuine meekness and simplicity of his whole carriage. This admirable disposition, which is lovely in the lowest of its possessors, was peculiarly striking in him, in whom it shone forth amid an uncommon variety of accomplishments, and attended with a train of excellent graces.

      21. "Wherever he appeared, he was seen, according to the advice of St. Peter, completely clothed in humility: and though there was something singular in this truly Christian garb, yet its unaffected comeliness was universally acknowledged and admired. Many who think it necessary to appear before God in a state of humiliation, come forth from their closets, and walk into the world, with an air of conscious superiority: as though it were possible, at the same time, to walk humbly before God, and haughtily in the presence of their fellow creatures. But the man whose character I attempt to describe, was perfectly consistent with himself. Such as he appeared before God in his private acts of devotion, such he appeared before men in every part of social and public life. He aspired not after high things, but condescended to men of low estate. His family and connections, his attainments in science and in grace, with whatever else might be considered as tending to his advantage, he regarded as matters of trivial estimation: while, in the lowliness of his heart, he adopted the language of the great apostle: God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world. In honor he preferred all men before himself, and never appeared so perfectly satisfied with his station as when his humble employments bespoke him the servant of all. So unlimited was his condescension in this respect, that he esteemed no occupation too low or degrading, by which he might benefit his neighbor, or by which he might testify respect either to God or man.

      22. "I cannot forbear relating here a little circumstance, which may perhaps appear trifling to some, but which uncommonly affected me at the time it happened. Mr. Fletcher was called out to attend the sick. In the meantime a funeral was announced; and I was happy to embrace an opportunity of affording the least assistance to this venerable man, in the course of his extensive labors. While I was engaged in reading the office on that occasion, Mr. Fletcher, who had heard at a distance the call of the bells, hastily entered the church; and as he passed up the aisle, observing that a young lad was officiating in the absence of the clerk, he instantly took his place, and went through the whole of the service with a degree of humility and composure that cannot be expressed. He afterward assured me that while he beheld me kindly performing the duty of an absent minister, he could not observe the place of an inferior servant of the church improperly filled up, without attempting to supply it himself with a greater degree of decorum and reverence.

      23. "I shall here insert another anecdote to the same purpose. While Mr. Fletcher continued tutor to the young men at Tern hall, he usually attended the ministry of the Rev. Mr. Cartwright, pastor of a neighboring church, a man of whose piety and zeal he made frequent and honorable mention. It was the custom of this gentleman frequently to catechize in public the children of his parish. And on one of these occasions he requested that no person of maturer age, who stood in need of instruction, would esteem it a disgrace to appear in the number of the catechumens. When no one had condescension enough to occupy so mean a station, Mr. Fletcher left his seat, and with an air of unaffected modesty took his place among the children; giving a public proof, by the depth of his humility, that he was in an advanced state of preparation for the highest degrees of exaltation."

      24. It was owing to his humility that he was ever ready to acknowledge and repair his errors, if at any time he was betrayed into any thing that could bear that name, which certainly was very seldom. "It is true," as Mr. Gilpin has remarked, (Portrait, page 163,)" had he ever sat down to a sketch of his own life, an undertaking to which he was repeatedly urged by a multitude of his friends, it is most probable the world would then have been presented with a large detail of those defects which were scarcely apparent to any eye but his own. It Is not meant to be insinuated here that Mr. Fletcher was entirely free from those infirmities by which, in different degrees, the most exalted characters have been tinctured. But it may be safely affirmed that those few imperfections were so outnumbered and obscured by his uncommon excellences, that they could not long detain the eye even of malice itself. The only defect in his character which ever fixed the attention, even of those who may be suspected to have passed by his merits without the regard they deserved, was a certain warmth in his temper which has appeared upon a variety of occasions. But with respect to this acknowledged warmth, it must be allowed by all, that it was at no time discoverable in him, except when he was called forth to act, either as a lover of truth or a reprover of sin. In these two characters, indeed, he constantly appeared with a degree of zeal which gave offence to many; but which was entirely consistent with his high reputation for meekness and charity. He was not ashamed, however, openly to confess and bewail this apparent defect; and if ever it betrayed him into a mistake, he discovered the utmost solicitude till he could make some suitable reparation. I shall content myself with presenting the reader with two instances of his conduct in this particular.

      25. "In one period of his life he considered himself obliged to wield the controversial pen. As the dispute was of importance, so it was of long continuance, and maintained on all sides with a considerable degree of warmth. In the course of the controversy it was objected against our author that he managed the debate with an acrimonious severity, which was equally ill adapted both to the nature of his cause, and the characters of his opponents. Though this charge might have been retorted upon some of his antagonists with tenfold force, yet he frankly admitted it on their part, and stood self-abased amid the loudest plaudits of his friends. Before the dispute was completely terminated, his declining state of health obliged him to quit the kingdom with very little hope of ever visiting it again. But he found it impossible to do this, without giving an intimation to his opponents that he desired nothing so much as an opportunity of embracing them before his departure, that, all doctrinal difference apart, he might testify his sincere regret on account of having given them the least displeasure, and receive from them some condescending assurance of reconciliation and good will. Those of his antagonists who had generosity sufficient to accept his invitation were equally affected and refreshed by the solemn interview that succeeded. And some of them, who before that time had no personal acquaintance with him, expressed the highest satisfaction at being introduced to the company of one whose air and countenance bespoke him fitted rather for the society of angels than the conversation of men.

      26. "A second instance of the manner in which he acknowledged and repaired his mistakes, is as follows:While he was one day interring a corpse, he was suddenly interrupted in his duty by a voice of execration and blasphemy. Instantly, with a look of holy indignation, he turned to that part of the multitude whence the voice appeared to proceed; and singling out, as he supposed, the guilty person, he publicly rebuked her in terms as severe as the nature of the offence demanded. After the service was concluded, he received information that his rebuke had been improperly directed when he immediately recalled the people, who were then dispersing from the grave; and pointing to the person whom he had unwittingly injured, he expressed the utmost concern at having confounded the innocent with the guilty, and declared that as his error was public, so he desired publicly to solicit the pardon of the offended party.

      "These may serve as sufficient proofs of the candid and condescending manner in which Mr. Fletcher was accustomed to acknowledge and repair those unintentional errors which neither his wisdom nor piety could wholly prevent."

      27. The same spirit of humility which made Mr. Fletcher so ready to acknowledge his own errors, induced him to throw the mantle of tender forbearance and forgiving love over those of others, especially of such as he had reason to believe, notwithstanding their defects, were truly pious, and to discern and esteem the image of their heavenly Father in them."His fellowship (Portrait, page 125) with these was intimate and unreserved. He salutes them as the children of God, and honored them as heirs of an eternal inheritance. These were the companions of his choice, both in public and in private: with these he took sweet and solemn counsel, and with these he rejoiced to worship in the house of God. Whether they were poor or rich, illiterate or learned, bond or free, he considered them as fellow partakers of the same grace, and received them without partiality, as the redeemed of the Lord. He constantly watched over them for good, and eagerly embraced every opportunity of rendering them acceptable service. He bore their burdens, he distributed to their necessities, he covered their defects, and healed their divisions.

      28. "Esteeming all the children of God as members one of another, his catholic spirit disdained those unnatural partitions by which different parties of Christians have endeavoured to separate themselves from each other. Sincere worshippers, of every denomination, he regarded as fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God: desiring no greater honor than to be counted as their brother, and commanded as their servant.

      "The following are his own expressions:-- 'God forbid that I should exclude from my brotherly affection, and occasional assistance, any true minister of Christ, because he casts the Gospel net among the Presbyterians, the Independents, the Quakers, or the Baptists! If they will not wish me good luck in the name of the Lord, I will do it to them. They may excommunicate me if their prejudices prompt them to it; they may build up a wall of partition between themselves and me; but in the strength of my God, whose love is as boundless as his immensity, I will leap over the wall.'

      29. "Extraordinary as these declarations may appear, they are not to be considered as the professions of an affected generosity, but as the sincere expressions of a heart overflowing with brotherly love. For fully persuaded that a house divided against itself cannot stand, Mr. Fletcher was anxious to maintain a state of uninterrupted peace and unanimity in the household of God. As a fellow citizen with the saints, he considered himself essentially interested in the weal or wo of his brethren, and was constantly observed, either mingling his tears with those who wept, or triumphing in the joy of such as rejoiced before God. Hence, he could not behold, as an unconcerned spectator, the distress to which the Church was exposed in his day, and the dissensions by which it was torn in pieces; but rather as a true disciple of that gracious Redeemer who loved the Church, and gave himself for it. He was engaged, indeed, in those great debates which disturbed the tranquillity of the religious world for so long a season; and during those sharp contests he appeared, it is true, in the very flout of the battle. To all who knew him, however, it was sufficiently evident that he entered not into the conflict with any design either to signalize himself, or to establish the reputation of a party; but rather to confirm and build up the Church in her most holy faith. Zeal for God constrained him, upon this occasion, to take up a cross which he regarded as almost insupportable; and when he came forth from the retirement he loved, in the character of a public disputant, he came forth with the language of the evangelical prophet in his mouth: for Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake will I not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth. His attacks were constantly directed, not against the leaders of any particular sect, but against the errors of every sect: and in carrying on these attacks he manifested a degree of impartiality and candour which few have ever discovered in similar circumstances. While he cautiously exposed the apparent mistakes of his opponents, he put his own religious opinions to a fiery trial; and whatever was unable to stand the severest test he considered as no better than vanity and dross. Like the Apostle Paul, he could do nothing knowingly against the truth, but for the truth: and, on whatever side this was discoverable, he saluted it with all that respect and veneration which effectual distinguished him as a lover of truth.

      30. Through the whole contest he treated his opponents with much deference and regard, cordially acknowledging them as brethren in Christ, and constantly mentioning them as persons whose piety and zeal could scarcely be paralleled.. He ardently desired to embrace them as his companions in the kingdom and patience of their common Master; and as a standing proof of his pacific disposition toward them, one of the last pieces [13] he published in the controversy was entitled, The Reconciliation a work in which he urged the strongest motives to charity and concord, endeavoring, by every possible mean, to prevail with the professing part of the world to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. The following passage, selected from that work, will sufficiently evince his utter detestation of party spirit and divisions in the Christian Church:-" Come with me, my Calvinian and Arminian brethren, to the temple of peace, where the Lord's banner over you will be love, and his mercy will comfort you on every side. If there be, therefore, any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels of mercies, fulfil ye the joy of all who wish Zion's prosperity: be like minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind, submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. He is my record how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ; in whom there is neither Greek nor Jew, bond nor free, neither Calvinist nor Arminian, but Christ is all in all. My heart is enlarged; for a recompense in the same, be ye also enlarged, and grant me my humble, perhaps my dying request: reject not my plea for peace. If it be not strong, it is earnest; for (considering my bodily weakness) I write at the hazard of my life; animamque in vulnere pono."

      "Such was the catholic spirit discovered by this great man in the warmest of his religions contentions such was the forbearance and affection which he constantly exercised toward' the most zealous of his opposers; and such was his anxious concern, that every inferior name might be lost in that exalted Name, by which alone the world can be saved, saying, in the language of his Master, Whosoever shall do the will of ny Father that is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister, and mother."

      31. In the meantime, however, he was far from betraying what he knew to be the truth, or from manifesting any backwardness to stand forth in its defence. "Truth," says our author, (Portrait, page 220,) although she has many professed admirers, yet seldom finds a steady follower, and still less frequently a resolute defender. Without a solid understanding, an upright heart, and an unconquerable resolution, no man is properly qualified to maintain the rights of truth. He that is void of understanding will never discover the worth of truth: he that is destitute of an upright heart will feel but little attachment to truth, notwithstanding all her worth; while he that is of an irresolute temper will rather desert her standard than suffer in her cause. Balaam was eminently distinguished by a spirit of discernment, but was destitute of an upright heart: Peter was possessed of an upright heart, but betrayed, on a memorable occasion, the want of an undaunted spirit: Saul, the Pharisee, though remarkable for his uprightness and resolution, was miserably defective with respect to spiritual discernment; while Paul, the apostle, uniting in his character these several qualifications, became a zealous and steady defender of truth." It would be difficult to say in which of these three qualifications Mr. Fletcher principally excelled; so happily proportioned was his sincerity to his discernment, and the firmness of his resolution to the uprightness of his heart! Thus remarkably furnished for the service of truth, he engaged himself in her cause with an extraordinary degree of activity and zeal, earnestly desiring to see the uttermost parts of the earth illuminated with her beams, and the inhabitants of every country submitting to her authority. Wherever he came, he exalted her honors, and bore testimony to her matchless worth, making mention of her ways as ways of pleasantness, and recommending her paths as paths of peace.

      32. "Whenever he saw spiritual truth triumphant, he rejoiced at the sight as one that findeth real spoil: when he beheld her despised and rejected, he cheerfully shared her disgrace, and suffered in her cause. If her excellences were at any time obscured by the misconceptions of the ignorant, he endeavoured to dissipate that obscurity, and exhibit her to the world in all her native lustre. If he saw her assaulted, he voluntarily exposed himself to danger in her defence: and whether the attack was made by mistaken friends, or inveterate enemies, he opposed it as man wholly proof against the undue influence of prejudice or interest, resentment or respect. In all his struggles for truth, he contended with confidence, but without obstinacy; with zeal, but not with bitterness; in meekness instructing those that opposed themselves, if God, peradventure, might give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth. If the error he discovered was merely of a circumstantial nature, he pursued it with less severity; but if it was a fundamental error, he opposed it with a holy vehemence, giving it no quarter, till it was allowed, by the candid and impartial, to be absolutely untenable: in the meantime, making it abundantly manifest, by his modest and courteous deportment, that he contended not for the acquisition of victory, but for the exaltation of truth.

      33. "His ardent attachment to Divine truth would not permit him to hear, in silence, the least insinuation that might be thrown out to the disadvantage of Christianity. And in some companies he thought it necessary to call upon the avowed despisers of revelation either to establish or retract the charges they had exhibited against the religion of Jesus. In England he very rarely mixed with persons of an irreligious conversation; but in his passage through other countries he was frequently obliged to associate with men of a character altogether opposite to his own. In Italy, France, and Holland, he has taken his seat, with a steady composure, among Deists, Socinians, and Freethinkers; and after vainly endeavoring, in the politest manner, to introduce a conversation respecting Divine truth, has been often constrained to signify his desire of exchanging an argument with any gentleman in company, on the subject of natural religion. As these offers were always made in the most graceful terms, they were frequently accepted in a becoming manner, when a conversation has usually taken place, sufficiently interesting to excite the curiosity and engage the attention of every person present. Upon every occasion of this nature he appeared perfectly dispassionate and recollected, discovering an accurate acquaintance with every part of his subject, and never failing to foil his strongest antagonists upon their own ground. And in the close of every such debate, he was careful to recapitulate the principal arguments which had been advanced by either party in the course of the contest; ascribing the victory he had obtained to the irresistible power of truth, and enumerating the special advantages of revealed over natural religion."

      34. We have noticed Mr. Fletcher's affection for the children of God: we must now observe that while he loved them with a pure heart fervently in proportion as he conceived they severally exhibited the excellences and perfections of their Creator he looked upon every individual of the human race with emotions of benevolence and charity. For in all he discovered some traces of the image of the Deity, although defaced and obscured, which merited attention even in ruins. "His love was free and unconfined, uninterrupted by prejudice, and unmixed by suspicion. (Portrait, page 121.) He had a place in his large and generous heart for persons of every description. He considered himself as related to the inhabitants of every nation, and connected with the members of every Church: appearing, in every sense, as a citizen of the world, honouring the whole human race as the offspring of God, and encircling them all with the arms of brotherly affection, however distinguished from one another by situation or endowments, opinions or habits. he never left his beloved retirement, which was rendered sacred by converse with the highest object of his affections, unless he was called abroad upon errands of kindness and mercy. And whenever he came forth into the world, he looked upon all around with an air of benignity and a glow of affection, which strongly marked him as a follower of that God who is loving unto every man, and whose mercy is over all his works.

      "Instead of inquiring, with the lawyer in the Gospel, Who is my neighbor? he acted like the good Samaritan, treating even the stranger and the outcast, as he journeyed through life, with the kindness of a neighbor, the sympathy of a friend, and the tenderness of a brother. While self-love may be likened to a stagnant lake, the charity of this self-renouncing pastor may be fitly compared to a copious river, which, after enriching a multitude of towns, villages, and hamlets, and after fertilizing a thousand fields, loses itself in the bosom of the ocean, from whence it sprung. And here it may be properly observed that this noble current was sufficiently deep to sustain any burden, and sufficiently rapid to force itself a passage through every obstruction.

      "His love was without dissimulation, no in word, neither in tongue, but in deed, and in truth. It was larger than his largest professions, and appeared, on different occasions, in a vast variety of forms; in condescension, in compassion, in hospitality, in forbearance, in kindness, and in liberality. By these benevolent dispositions, together with those affectionate labors in which he was constantly employed, he gave the most convincing proofs that he was rooted and grounded in that universal love which is the fulfilling of the whole law."

      35. "The source of all these graces, which shone so conspicuous in him, was his piety. "But this (Portrait, page 35) was of too exalted a nature to admit of any adequate description. They who saw him only at a distance revered him as a man of God; while they who enjoyed a nearer acquaintance with him were held in a state of constant admiration at his attainments in the Divine life. He appeared to enjoy an uninterrupted fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. Every day was with him a day of solemn self dedication, and every hour an hour of praise or prayer. Naturally formed for pre-eminence, no common degrees of grace were sufficient to satisfy his unbounded desires. He towered above the generality of Christians, earnestly desiring the best gifts, and anxious to walk in the most excellent way. While others are content to taste the living stream, he traced that stream to its source, and lived at the fountain head of blessedness. He was familiar with invisible objects, and constantly walked as in the presence of God. To those who were much conversant with him, he appeared as an inhabitant of a better world; so perfectly dead was he to the enjoyments of the present life, and so wholly detached from its anxious cares! Wherever he was called by the providence of God, he was acknowledged as a burning and shining light. The common lights of Christians were eclipsed before him; and even his spiritual friends could never stand in his presence without being overwhelmed with a consciousness of their own inferiority and unprofitableness While they have seen him rising, as it were, upon the wings of an eagle, they have been confounded at their inability to pursue his flight; and while he has given way to the emotions of his fervent love, they have blushed at their own ingratitude and lukewarmness. The candle of the Lord eminently shone upon his head, and the secret of God was upon his tabernacle. When he went out through the city, or took his seat in the company of the righteous, he was saluted with unusual reverence, and received as an angel of God. The young men saw him and hid themselves, and the aged arose and stood up. Even those who were honored as princes among the people of God, refrained talking, and laid their hand upon their mouth. When the ear heard him, then it blessed him; and when the eye saw him, it gave witness to him.

      36. "His character was free from those inconsistencies which are too generally observable among the professors of Christianity. Whether he sat in the house, or whether he walked by the way; in his hours of retirement, and in his public labors; he was constantly actuated by the same spirit. When he spoke, his conversation was in heaven: and the hearts of his intimate friends still burn within them on every recollection of the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth. When he was silent, his very air and countenance bespoke an angelic mind, absorbed in the contemplation of God. When he was engaged in the ordinary actions of life, he performed them with such a becoming seriousness, that they assumed a striking and important appearance. In all the changing circumstances of life, he looked and acted like a man whose treasure was laid up in heaven. There his affections were immovably fixed, and thitherward he was continually tending with all the powers of his soul: he spoke of it as the subject of his constant meditation, and looked to it as travellers to their appointed home. At times, when the pious breathings of his soul were too forcible to be repressed, he would break forth into expressions of adoration among his spiritual associates, and cry out, while tears of joy were bursting from his eyes, My God! My Saviour! Thou art mine! A wretch unworthy of thy notice! Yet thou hast visited me with thy mercy, and honored me with thy favor! I adore thine unfathomable love! Ye who have tasted of his grace, assist me to magnify his name. He was an instrument always in tune: and none can tell, but those who have heard, how sweetly it would answer to the touch of him that strung it. He was an instrument of uncommon compass, and wondrously adapted to every occasion. Every breath that swept over the chords of this living lyre drew from it some according sound: if from man, it produced strains of affection and sympathy; if from God, it called forth higher sounds of gratitude and devotion. His piety suffered no event to pass by unimproved. Every object led him into the presence of God, and every occurrence gave rise to a train of serious reflections."

      37. "One thing more, particularly noticed by the reverend author of these excellent traits of our pious friend's character, is the perseverance of his piety, zeal, and diligence to the end of his life. "It is no unusual thing," he observes, (Portrait, page 327,) "to behold the professors of Christianity divested, at a maturer age, of that burning love and that irresistible zeal by which they were peculiarly distinguished in early life. Of the many thousands who have, in every age, begun the sacred race with an apparent determination to obtain the prize, the greater part, either wearied with the inconveniences of the way, or deluded by the suggestions of the world, if they have not altogether forsaken the path of life, have proceeded in it with so much irresolution and weakness, that at the conclusion of their course it has remained a matter of much uncertainty, whether they have reached or fallen short of the mark of their high calling. With Mr. Fletcher it was wholly the reverse. The resolution that at first engaged him to enter upon the Christian course appeared, not only without any diminution, but with increasing vigour, through the several stages of his rapid progress. He outran the most zealous of his companions, he overtook many who were steadily persevering in the path of life, and appeared at the head of those who were pressing after the highest attainable state of sanctity and grace. From the commencement to the conclusion of his pilgrimage, there was never once perceived in him the least imaginable tendency to a loitering or lukewarm disposition: if he was not every moment actually upon the stretch after spiritual improvement, he was observed, at least with "his loins girded, his shoes on his feet, and his staff in his hand" The fervor of his spirit was a silent, but sharp reproof to the negligent and unfaithful: and so perfectly averse was he to every species of trifling, that no man of a light or indolent spirit could possibly associate with him for any length of time

      38. "As he approached the end of his course, the graces he had kept in continual exercise for so long a season became more illustrious and powerful: his faith was more assured, his hope more lively, his charity more abundant, his humility more profound, and his resignation more complete. Planted at an early age in the house of the Lord, he flourished in the courts of our God through all the remaining years of his life, growing up like a palm tree, and spreading abroad like a cedar in Lebanon: and if the fruit that he brought forth in his age was not more plenteous than that which he had produced in former years, ('which was surely impossible,) yet it was more happily matured, and more equally distributed among his luxuriant branches. To those who were intimately conversant with him at this season he appeared as a scholar of the highest attainments in the school of Christ; or rather, as a regenerate spirit in his latest state of preparation for the kingdom of God: and this extraordinary eminence in grace was discoverable in him, not from any high external professions of sanctity, but from that meekness of wisdom, that purity of conversation, and that lowliness of mind, by which his whole carriage was uniformly distinguished.

      39. "For some years before his decease, he expressed a continual desire that his labors and his life might be terminated together: and with respect to his resigned prayer in this matter, the assertion of the psalmist was strikingly verified, "The Lord will fulfil the desire of them that fear him." His zeal for the glory of God appeared with undiminished fervor, and his diligence in filling up the duties of his vocation continued with unabating vigor till within a few days of his removal into Abraham's bosom. Instead of outliving his zeal and diligence in the best of causes, it may truly be said that he fell an honorable martyr to his indefatigable exertions in the service of the Church: since it was from the beds of the diseased and the dying that he brought away with him the infectious distemper which put so unexpected a period to his labors. But even after the symptoms of this distemper had appeared sufficiently alarming to awaken the apprehensions of his friends, they were unable either to damp his zeal, or to control his activity: his declining sun was to set, not in obscurity and confusion, but with that mild and steady luster which might betoken something of its future glory."

Back to John Fletcher index.

See Also:
   Chapter 1 - Of His Parentage and Youth
   Chapter 2 - Account of His Conversion
   Chapter 3 - Conversion & Orders
   Chapter 4 - Faithfulness in Ministry
   Chapter 5 - Excursions & Visits
   Chapter 6 - Decline of Health
   Chapter 7 - Leaving Newington
   Chapter 8 - Of His Marriage
   Chapter 9 - From His Marriage Till the Beginning of His Last Illness
   Chapter 10 - His Character
   Chapter 11 - His Character By Mrs. Fletcher and Others
   Chapter 12 - His Death


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