John William Fletcher (1729-1785) was a contemporary of John Wesley, a key interpreter of Wesleyan (or Arminian) theology in the 18th century, and one of Methodism's first great theologians. Of French Hugenot stock, his given name was actually Jean Guillaume de la Flechere. Fletcher was renowned in the Britain of his day for his piety and generosity; when asked if he had any needs, he responded, "...I want nothing but more grace."1
Most of Fletcher's theological writings date from the period between 1770 and 1778, when there was great conflict between Wesley and the Methodists and British Calvinists. When Wesley's Calvinist opponents made the charge that Wesley had endorsed works righteousness, Fletcher demonstrated that this was not the case. Rather, Fletcher countered, Wesley's language was an attempt to attack antinomianism in the British Church. Fletcher's subsequent publication Checks to Antinomianism supported Wesley further; this was the first distinctively Wesleyan theological writing published by someone other than John or Charles Wesley.
Fletcher became the chief systematizer of Methodist theology. Addressing Wesley's position on the sovereignty of God as it relates to human freedom, Fletcher developed a particular historic perspective espousing a series of three dispensations (time periods) in which God worked uniquely in creation. (This is not to be confused with Dispensational theology, which was fashioned long after Fletcher's death.) Through these dispensations, God's sovereignty was revealed not in terms of ultimate power but in terms of an unfathomable love. Fletcher sought to emphasize human freedom while connecting it firmly with God's grace.
Fletcher's writings, while serious in nature, display a witty tone, almost satirical in nature. He typically spoke of God in terms of divine moral qualities rather than in terms of power or wrath. His themes were:
"1. Man is utterly dependent upon God's gift of salvation, which cannot be earned but only received; and
2. The Christian religion is of a personal and moral character involving ethical demands on man and implying both human ability and human responsibility."2
Fletcher himself summarized his theological position:
"The error of rigid Calvinists centers in the denial of that evangelical liberty, whereby all men, under various dispensations of grace, may without necessity choose life...And the error of rigid Arminians consists in not paying a cheerful homage to redeeming grace, for all the liberty and power which we have to choose life, and to work righteousness since the fall...To avoid these two extremes, we need only follow the Scripture-doctrine of free-will restored and assisted by free-grace."3
John Wesley had chosen Fletcher to lead the Methodist movement upon Wesley's passing, but Fletcher died prior to Wesley.
1: W.A. Sangster, "Called to Be Saints", Proceedings of the Ninth World Methodist Conference (Nashville: Methodist Publishing House, 1956), p. 363.
2: David Shipley, Methodist Arminianism in the Theology of John Fletcher (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1942), p. 372.
3: John Fletcher, "On Predestination", Checks to Antinomianism (New York: J. Collard, 1837), pp. 333-334.
- Patrick Streiff. Reluctant Saint? A Theological Biography of Fletcher of Madeley. Trans. by G. W. S. Knowles. Peterborough: Epworth, 2001.
- Thomas A. Langford, Practical Divinity: Theology in the Wesleyan Tradition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1983), pp. 50-53. ISBN 0687333261.
- John A. Knight, John William Fletcher and the Early Methodist Tradition (Ph.D. diss., Vanderbilt University, 1966).
- David Shipley, Methodist Arminianism in the Theology of John Fletcher (Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1942).
- A biography by Margaret Allen, Fletcher of Madeley, 1905, e-text by Project Gutenberg